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Fee scales and small projects just don't mix

We need a new way to make architecture pay, says Christine Murray

The key to running any size practice is working out how to make architecture pay a decent, liveable wage. In terms of calculating fees, I know a number of architects who still consult the outdated RIBA fee scales, sending them out to clients to corroborate their fee proposals.

But preliminary findings of the ACA’s quest for a new fee scale, revealed in the AJ this week, should give these architects pause for thought, especially if they work on small projects. The research shows how woefully inaccurate the RIBA fee scales were even when they were current, especially when compared to the actual amount of hours worked on projects of less than £250,000. The ACA findings also reveal that refurbishment projects involve less or the same amount of work as new build projects, which tallies with the results of our AJ100 fee survey last year.

The findings, based on hours worked per project at an hourly rate of £60, not only quantify why practices struggle to survive on jobs of less than £250,000, but also question the use of percentage fees. According to Alfred Munkenbeck of Munkenbeck and Partners, who completed the research, projects that have a value of less than £50,000 would require a total fee of more than 60 per cent to make financial sense.

Do the maths and the ACA research reveals what most architects intuitively know: a £100,000 house extension demands the same amount of hourly work as a £50,000 one. The traditional curve of the RIBA fee scale is not steep enough. So why do architects persist in using the fee scale model at all?

The answer? Some architects don’t. Pascale Scheurer believes that the architect’s fee should be completely decoupled from the total build cost. ‘Otherwise, we are seen as profiting when construction costs rise,’ she says.

Instead, Scheurer’s practice sets out a programme that outlines exactly how many drawings (three per work stage), meetings, hours and design iterations are included in the proposed fee.
Scheurer says, ‘The client is then crystal clear that if they dither, change their mind or ask for extra meetings, they pay extra fees. They know exactly where their money is going and why, and understand that if the scope, budget or programme changes, the fee will change accordingly.’

It will likely take a bit of effort to create a fee proposal that works for your practice, but if it’s a small job, leave percentages out of it and concentrate on the service you will provide. Lawyers, doctors and carpenters do not charge percentage fees. A detailed quote that describes exactly what you will do, and what costs extra, is harder to argue with.

Put a decent price tag on your itemised work, not a percentage. It’s the only way clients will understand that, when it comes to architectural services, you get what you pay for.

The only advantage to the RIBA fee scale was as an independent benchmark. As Fiona Scott of Gort Scott says, ‘There is nothing out there to back us up while justifying our position on fees.’

The ACA’s fee survey, when complete, could do the same, but they need more data. I urge you to visit and help.

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