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What's an architect worth?

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…only worth what a client is willing to pay, says Christine Murray

This week’s hot topic: what is an architect worth? In our exclusive interview, RIBA chief executive Harry Rich claims architects should never work for free, and that includes entering open competitions.

Fees are plummeting as architects undercut each other. And the practice of undercutting has even raised the controversial spectre of the RIBA fee scales, abolished in 1982, and fee survey graphs, abolished last year, with one architect commenting on our website that, without fee guidelines, ‘architects will continue to undercut each other, particularly when bidding for projects’.

So what is the set value of architecture? It would be so simple if we were in the business of teeth. In dentistry, a filling costs this much, a root canal that. But in architecture, teetering as it does between an art and a profession, the quality and difficulty of projects vary widely. The creation of an icon should not be charged at the same rate as the addition of a bathroom, and there are myriad ways to solve the problem of a new kitchen, a school retrofit, or the design of an art gallery.

The size of a practice may demand a certain percentage fee to cover overheads, but beyond that, it is difficult to pinpoint the cost of creative work. A good idea is invaluable, and also, without a client, worth nothing at all. This is where promoting the return of RIBA fee scales breaks down.

They may be useful as a guide for clients, but otherwise there is no one-fits-all fee in what is not a one-fits-all profession. Fee surveys are perhaps more useful, charting as they do the actual rates paid to architects, but charts and graphs aside, architecture is only worth what the client is willing to pay, and the days of protected fees are (sadly) over.

This is a free market and architects are free to undercut each other as they seek out work. But a race to the bottom is not advisable; it’s not good business and it’s not nice. Architects should stand by their bottom line. It may be a hard sell, but they can justify their fees to clients. As a profession and as artists, architects are both excellent value and invaluable.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Lawyers have the problem solved elegantly. They charge, in the main, by the hour for their services which level related to the proven value of the individual. The idea of charging on a percentage or fixed fee basis for the bulk of our work is commercially ludicrous. Only desperate fools take speculative risks on their fees. It is unprofessional (as well as commercial suicide) to offer services at levels below commercial viability. The definition of unprofessional conduct should include charging fees that are commercially unviable. Pehaps the RIBA could act as the provider of architects to all clients in the UK, therefore being a sngle source with the relevant commercial advantages. Difficult.

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