What if the problem isn’t low fees?

Low fees are not the problem for architects, they're the symptom. So what might the problem be?

Architects will often declaim that they’re not paid enough for their services. With solutions ranging from stopping the race to the bottom, to reintroducing appropriate fee scales, even lobbying government to be a model client and recompensing architects adequately for their services. All laudable, but unlikely to stick if they’re not a solution to the problem.

By treating symptoms in isolation we might find new issues arise by not addressing the underlying cause (or problem). To come up with effective solutions it’s better to identify and understand the problem first. Through understanding a problem effective solutions might then be identified. Solutions that might not work first go, it may take hard work, experiments and attempts including an iterative process to deliver the necessary change. The goal is to develop a solution delivering a diminution of one of more symptoms of the problem.

I’m not likely to identify a problem that all architects will agree upon but I think it’s worth noting some of the underlying problems architects face in architectural practice. I do so with the view to begin debate and conversation. It might be necessary to dig deeper. Ultimately, the problem must be agreed upon before starting to design effective solutions. These may not be the problem, or problems, they’re a place to start.

Trust & Sharing. As I’ve previously written, “Trust grows in an environment where information is shared and everyone understands the situation.” (Trust and the Architecture Profession). I’m curious as to whether architects share enough. Do they do enough to develop the understanding to engender trust in the profession. As I speculate in the article there may be many areas in which architects erode trust, rather than build it. Might a deficit of trust be one of the problems facing the architecture profession?

Business and forté. Is the role and work of an architect clearly understood? We could include architects in this concern, sometimes architects sell their work purely on their design ability, yet architects do so much more. I’ve previously written, Why it’s important to consider what is an architect’s job. If this is not understood well enough, it’s clearly a problem.

Communication. What is it that architects communicate to the public and potential clients? This includes but also goes beyond a communication of their business and forté. Do architects communicate enough about the built environment in a way that identifies the context in which they work and tells a story that is bigger than them? This is communication in a way that engages and connects at an emotional level. Communication is intrinsic to all that architects do. It’s a problem if architects fail to effectively communicate.

Values. Does what potential clients value align with what architects value and deliver? People pay for what they value. The functional and material value of a set of Sebel Integra plastic chairs is objectively no different to a set of Panton Classic plastic chairs – indeed it might be argued that the function of the Integra chairs is superior. Yet people are willing to pay ten times the amount for the Pantons because of the value they associate with them. People will willing to pay for something they value and conversely they are not willing to pay for something they don’t. They key to building a relationship with your potential clients is to identify what they value and seek to align yourself with their values. Aligning them with what you value may come later. Is there a problem of a misalignment of values?

Leadership. It’s fair to say that any organisation facing problems may well have a leadership problem. This may be through a lack of leadership, adequate leadership or bad leadership.

Assumptions and the way we’ve always done it. There’s potentially a lot in this and I only want to focus in on one idea – “the way we do it”. There’s a tradition to architectural practice, yet the landscape in which architects practice has changed substantially over the last 30 years. Changes including to the role of the architect, the scope of the services, the roles and responsibilities of others involved in the delivery of a building, the complexities of building and so on. Failing to question, challenge and address the way it’s always been done is a problem.

No doubt there are many more problems the profession faces in relation to fees and many other aspects of practice. I’m curious what other architects think. It’s why I started “Talking crap about architectural practice and how we might make it better…“. Interested to hear other voices and opinions. Everyone is welcome to join us, please sign up (at the bottom of the page) for news & updates if you’re interested.

Have I got it wrong? Are fees more than a symptom? What other problems have I missed? What do I need to rethink? Always happy to hear from people, I’ve disabled the Comments but feel free to email me.

Photo by Matheus Natan on Pexels [edited]

Hi! I’m Michael

I’m an architect and coach. I help architects rethink their practice and support them as they uncover better ways to work. I’ve worked in architecture for over 25 years, and I ran my own practice for 14 years. I understand architectural practice from the inside out. Fun Fact: my NSW architect’s registration is #10 007 and I have a license to skill.

I believe improving practice takes asking hard questions and deep listening.

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