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Formally, clients need a design, planning permission, and a set of production drawings, but that is only half the story

Paul Finch’s Letter from London: What clients value is what they will pay for - or at least they should do, says Paul Finch

A discussion at the Lend Lease /AJ Awards event at the Royal Academy last week focused on what clients value about their architects. It fell to me to introduce the subject, which is more complicated than it first appears.

Normally in commercial life, if you value something you pay for it. The more you value it, the more you expect to pay, though the price may not move in direct proportion to the value.

These days, it is an unfortunate fact that clients of all descriptions expect to get inordinate amounts of design work carried out for nothing, not simply by architects who are likely to be appointed to do a job, but by teams of practices prepared to compete for no fee in the hope of getting a commission.

Sadly, both in good economic times and (more understandably) in bad, practices seem only too willing to make voluntary donations of their time and intellectual resources to clients who believe that they are in some way doing the architects a favour by inviting them to take part in selection processes which involved actual design work.If it seems, on the basis of architects’ behaviour, that the early stages of the process are so cheap to undertake that designers will do the work for nothing, then it is scarcely surprising that clients then start squeezing the percentage fee for the work as a whole.

Downward pressure on fees, particularly for certain forms of commercial work, is resulting in some practices buying jobs, in the sense that they are certain to make a loss, simply to keep the office ticking over.

Thus begins the downward spiral of low fees, therefore less time devoted to the job, therefore a drop in quality and service, therefore a perceived need to control the architect via project managers and others who have scant interest in quality of design, but an ideological commitment to linear delivery at possibly damaging speeds.

This is not what clients want. What they do value from architects is a combination of flair and rigour; design analysis and production delivery; a slow-cooked synthesis of site, programme, aesthetics and planning sensitivity; service to the client of the ‘frank friend’ variety; the ability to make the client think again about the project, the design or the outcome.

Formally, clients need a design, planning permission, and a set of production drawings, but that is only half the story.
We all know that the greatest value a designer offers is at the conceptual stage of the project; architecture is front-loaded but the fees tend to be back-ended, as though what the client is really paying for is the working details.

When even the RIBA’s own work stage definitions suggest that stage A is not generally charged for, we know there must be a problem. Imagine that you get into a taxi and tell the cabbie to set off and to drive around a bit; when you have decided exactly where you want to go you will instruct him that he can switch the meter on.

You can imagine the cabbie’s reaction.

Architects might think about responding in the same way when the next invitation arrives suggesting they might like to make yet another donation to a client with millions in the bank.

The real point is that clients value design brain power applied to their site and brief.

Architects give away the product of that brain power at their peril, both financially and professionally. Give it away too often, and it loses its value.

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