Camden Town Rockabilly after work pint. Discussing with my former colleagues at Sheppard Robson how to secure higher fees and better recognition for our profession.
Why do architects’ salaries double when working for a contractor? Why is the architect’s fee seen as an expensive ornament to very tangible construction cost? Why does almost every client see our work as risk mitigation and not value adding?
Well, look no further to find an answer. It’s all our fault.
We are two generations behind the market.
I am an architect and I believe in the cultural, economic and social value added by good architects. Not quite sure about environmental value, I would rather call it damage reduction (the arguments would quickly escalates to birth control so better leave it to another post). I am an architect and I believe in good architecture. I started my degree studies at the beginning of this century and I was taught in different universities in Europe about the cultural value architecture delivers to society. My lecturers were on average 20 to 40 years older than me. Their understanding of architecture’s role in society was deeply grounded in post war re construction. I was taught to admire the large-scale complexity of urban planning and the detail elegance of architectural masterpieces.
Since the beginning of my studies, architecture faculties around Europe have been giving birth to thousands of young socially driven, culturally cultivated helplessly optimistic little archi minions to save the world with good design. No one has ever bothered to point out to me or to the rest of my university colleagues that the specific market demand, which had bought the post war urban planning and architecture, had in the meanwhile disappeared or indeed contracted into well tucked-away niches. No one highlighted the fact that public spending had shrunk to ridiculous levels and that the publicly funded social project from the ’50s and ’70s had turned into asset sale management in the ’80s and ’90s. No one seemed to realise that the segment of market specifically willing to invest in the cultural value of architecture had almost completely vanished. When I came out of university, all I could see on magazines was ArchiStars. Of the Modernist holistic approach to social, economic and cultural value, which many of us had chosen as life mission, the market had picked up just the glossy marketing cover of stylised branding to increase sales by product line extension.
‘How much is a Gehry per square foot? Quite expensive. What about Rem? Mmmh too much. Maybe Zaha? I might get the Gehry actually…’
At least fashionable clients out there such as large charities, cultural institutions and private foundations had the budget to procure proper design by ArchiStars but the rest of the profession was left with covering up maximised ROI with Shueco cladding.
There is nothing wrong with all the above. It is simply history or at least my simplified version of history. But it is what it is.
What is wrong is for our profession not to realise how deeply the market has changed and expected to be rewarded on the greater cultural value added by our design whilst the majority of our clients are interested in the net lettable area or the number of bedrooms. To avoid a life long frustration, it would seem logical for the architects to change their mission or to look for different clients.
There are two models for innovating our profession and increase our fees.
The first model is to work ONLY for clients who understand the cultural value we create. Rich clients. People who invest in art and, either because they have studied or because they want to show off with friends who have studied, are keen investing in good architecture. The rest of construction? Leave it to the contractors.Design&Build(&Manage) or Build-to-Rent are safe procurement methods which minimise risk and can deliver fairly good products at reasonable price. Architect go back to serve ONLY the rich. Architectural faculties cap their new student numbers from thousands to hundreds and the student fees rocket up even more. Basically to jump back 150 years.
Re(de)fine your market value.
Developers are not evil witches. They just do their job. If their business model is engineered around financial parameters they will deliver against those parameters. The rest of the supply chain will also deliver against the same parameters. Make another parameter count, say health and safety, and things change. For instance, no one dies on site. Nice.
I am not looking forward to dragging my profession back to Downtown Abbey years and I am not ready to give up on the social mission of my job. Equally, it sucks to know that a package manager of a middle size contractor earns more than a passionate architect working for a design firm. The only viable way to make the market aware of our value is to introduce a wider set of quantifiable parameters. Richard Saxon CBE and Constructing Excellence have been working on value for the last thirty years but the industry have not yet turned because the right tools were not available. Until now.
How do we measure the social added value of design and construction? With data, quite possibly. But even when we get the right data, how do we compare different buildings, in different parts of the country? With open data, actually.
The amount of data produced by the built environment is simply too great for any single consultancy firm to harness the whole of it. And the data is too fast for any single index to capture the complexity of its picture. The only way is to join the open government and open culture movements and make our sector an open knowledge industry. Architects need to lead on this because they are the ones who are losing the most in not having their added value quantified.
Can you imagine an industry where evidence is available to everyone to relate design quality with decrease in crime, increase in local economy, improvement in children’s education, happiness of families and the protection of biodiversity?
By embracing open data, we can.
Want to increase your fee. Get the RIBA to define an open source app to define the social value of architectural design. Then release the app freely to all Local Authorities in the UK and ask each one to set their own minimum benchmark. Define a single open source national repository of built environment data: the ONS? BRE? Then run hackathons, engage with schools, get everyone to understand the interrelation between things. Everything is connected. Let’s see how and let’s understand how far the influence of good design goes. Once you demonstrate that, link your planning application to the open source national social value index. And then get your fee increase.
I decided to run for Council Election because one day, while I was showing our latest app to Jane Duncan she asked me to try. So I tried. I am glad I did because it gave me an excuse to share with an ever-increasing number of people what I am passionate about. The feedback so far has been just amazing.
…I would have said all this to my former colleagues at Sheppard Robson during our rockabilly after work pint, but we started talking about Amy Winehouse and drinking J&T…
If you want to increase architects’ fee and embrace the potential of open data, vote www.anto4riba.com @RIBA #elections.