Architects, like doctors and lawyers invest many years gaining their tertiary qualifications, and spend long hours devoted to their craft.
However unlike medicine and law, the architectural profession is seriously devaluing itself.
Architects in Australia, with a few exceptions, have been poor proponents of the value their training and insights can bring to projects. While we might understand ourselves the difference between good design and bad, our ability to explain that difference and our inability to value it properly is a recurring theme.
This is particularly so when we start to see heavy discounting on fees become a feature of the market; usually a sign of shrinking or limited opportunities. Competing on price is a race to the bottom strategy, which drags everyone down with it. What happens is that practices small and large then find themselves struggling to complete projects at the fees quoted, while their overheads and operating costs continue to rise.
Many firms fold or disappear in this sort of environment, reducing the supply of talent in the marketplace. With fewer left standing, competing on price becomes less widespread, and reasonable margins return, encouraging more market entrants, and then the cycle all begins again. But rather than sit back, complain and shake our heads, what’s a solution?
In my opinion, we need to start at the tertiary level by insisting that undergraduates devote a significant proportion of their training to some fundamentals of business management. Not everyone will excel in this, but some exposure to the basics of valuing time in a business that only has time to sell, would be beneficial. Other professional service firms such as accountants or lawyers understand this fundamental very clearly, but not architects.
We also need to learn to speak business as a language. Too often, we’re labelled as an expensive luxury or in derogatory terms like ‘colour palette pickers’ or the like. I believe this is because we’ve generally failed to articulate in business like terms how good design will deliver measureable commercial outcomes. Call this the design dividend if you like, but the bottom line is that good quality design, well thought through and intelligently applied, can save money in the short and long term, and deliver lasting benefits to clients, occupants, or others in ways that are measureable and provable. This has little to do with aesthetics: it is all to do with an improved business case and enhanced commercial performance.
We not only need to learn how to describe the value of good design in business terms that resonate with clients, we also need new tools to measure the extra dividend delivered by good quality design versus pedestrian design. With all of this should come an improved ability to value our time as designers, and an enhanced reputation in the marketplace – not because clients are simply asked to appreciate our value, but because we can prove our value equation.
Not all clients will see the design dividend and many will always chase lowest price services, but for those practices and professionals who understand what the value is that they’re bringing to the table, and who can articulate the commercial dividend from a superior design approach, it could mean a more stable industry operating on a more stable pricing platform.
At the end of the day, if as a profession we aren’t happy with how fee based competition sends us all in a downward spiral, it’s up to us to do something about it. We can either allow for our service to be valued like a commodity, or do something to ensure our service is valued as a profession.