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.

  • Having been in the profession for 30+years, I have seen this commodity pricing too often and for too long. I cannot believe that architects cannot organize themselves, as a profession, to price their work according to value adding for projects. Even the REIQ can get a structured fee scale, and then add extras. Why can't architects. I commend Ms Playford's article and sincerely hope that architects can read this for the intent that is required in the profession.

  • Yes, Susan is right! Our learned tertiary institutions must include some business subjects in architectural courses. Not just introductory economics and accounting, but human resource management, psychology, etc. I abandoned practice of the profession after 30 years (even though I gained a Business Diploma after graduating as an Architect), the main reason was the declining value within the profession of the key skills Architects learn – design. Too many architects are prepared to throw the concept and the design into a competition to win a project, in the lottery to earn their pittances from producing construction drawings. Better to charge a value based feed for design and let the (quite sophisticated) drafting industry carry the rest of the load.

  • What a timely article Susan and while I sit on the communication side of this industry, I think you've highlighted something that could be used across the board. At tertiary level, business management is key rather than only the theory and practical components of the industry. With growing competition and an industry second-guessing value, it it a slippery slope to service commodity as you've suggested.

  • Susan, makes a wistful case. I presented to an industry forum representing designers, quantity surveyors, project managers, contractors and sub-contractors a few weeks ago. I made the case that the construction industry is changing and that Australian construction costs were at least 20% too high. Architects among the group lamented that clients need to pay for good design. That's true, but there needs to be more. Designers in my view need to realise that it is their inability to deliver single point accountability for the completeness of design as a whole i.e. fully coordinated amongst the disciplines, fit for tender and fit for construction. With tools such as BIM one would expect this is a reasonable expectation. But alas contracts get let with the contractor having to price unresolved design and the post contract award of the designers progressively revealing the balance. And that's the tip of the iceberg. Designers dislike the use of existing client design inputs such as template designs for schools or project homes. They want a bespoke role every time. And this is before Architects get their head around Design For Manufacture and Assembly. Better watch Meriton at North Sydney

  • Design is the core skill of architects, and the 'design dividend' is real and important, but the real reason clients don't value architects is their inability to speak "development", lack of understanding of money and budgets, woeful management of time, ignorance of how buildings are actually built and put together, and the consequent inability to detail the building and produce accurate working drawings. We have abrogated much of our role to project mangers because of our inability to organize a chook raffle in a country pub……add all of that to the rampant fee cutting from firms large and small and I despair of our profession.

Bizprac (expire May 30 2018)