Unethical 'designers' and irresponsible clients make up-front fees the way to go
'Please let me know if you would like some funds on account.'
So concluded a letter of appointment last week from a new client. I was tempted to request £2500, just as a solicitor would! But old habits die hard, and we decided to carry on our normal practice of trusting the integrity and decency of our clients by billing at intervals in arrears.
But the events of recent weeks have yet again illustrated the folly of such a policy as the following story reveals:
A commission late last year for alterations and extensions to a four- storey Victorian town house had been complicated by the requirement for a fast-track programme of urgent repairs. This we had arranged, letting a contract which was, to the credit of the builder, completed on time.
But for no apparent reason the client refused to pay our invoice, or the balance of money due to the builder. Our letters and phone calls unanswered, we are now taking legal action for fee recovery. All very irritating and very much an incentive to insist on payment in advance, especially for such relatively small sums.
But of course we all know the difficulty. 'Up-front' payments are normally nigh on impossible to negotiate for any job, small or large. Some other architect is always willing to give credit, if not substantially discounted fees, and honour between professionals is at a pretty low ebb, with some offices seemingly ever on the look-out to 'poach' work.
What a surprise, then, to receive a courteous letter from Mr Lipinski who wrote: '... I wish to notify you that I have been approached by 'Mr Z' (our dishonest client!) to organise further repairs and alterations ... I should be most grateful if you would ... confirm that your appointment has been terminated. This will enable me to decide whether or not I can accept the commission.'
On the strength of the 'low-down' that I gave, I understand that Mr Lipinski has decided to save himself a lot of trouble by avoiding a very disreputable client. If more architects acted like Lipinski Pates, our profession would surely gain much greater respect from the many dishonest clients who mess architects around so badly.
Concurrent with these events we learned that another client - this time an Oxfordshire school - had actually passed our drawings on to a firm of 'architectural designers' who had offered some kind of cut-price deal to replace us. No matter that appointment terms had been agreed with us, and that we had completed a substantial package of work which is currently the subject of a grant application, and no matter that we have so far not been paid, pending dfee project approval. This, by the way, is not about competition or the quality of our performance; it's about unethical business behaviour and irresponsible clients.
None of Lipinski Pates' courtesy with this brazen outfit: no notification to us, no respect for copyright. They had cheekily added their title block to our drawings and proceeded on behalf of a client who should have known better than to allow this muddle to arise. However, with the threat of proceedings against unpaid fees and breach of copyright, we seem to be back on track - but it has been an unpleasant interlude.
Sadly, there is probably little that architects can do to protect themselves against such bad practice from hack 'design' companies but we would certainly all do well to treat our own fellow professionals in the manner exemplified by Lipinski Pates.
Indeed obligations already exist under Paragraphs 3.4 and 3.8 of the riba Code of Conduct which bar us from attempting 'to oust another architect from an engagement' and oblige us to notify a fellow architect before supplanting him. However, the recently published new arb Code of Conduct is conspicuously silent on such matters, despite their inclusion in the draft code which underwent consultation: I suppose that arb has concluded that such courtesy amounts to 'cronyism' over which even the most disreputable consumer's interests should prevail.