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Architects feel the loss of RIBA fee survey chart


Britain’s leading architects have railed against RIBA’s decision to abandoned fee survey graphs from the official publication A Client’s Guide to Engaging an Architect, with David Chipperfield describing it as a ‘policy against quality’

‘This decision erodes the authority and status of architects. It is completely shocking that the RIBA should be even thinking about this,’ says the London-based architect. British fees are so low according to Chipperfield (pictured) that it is impossible to deliver quality architecture within expected timescales.

‘In Europe, architects have much more protection and have to spend less time fighting for their right to do a good job,’ adds the architect, whose Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach, Germany, secured the Stirling Prize for his practice in 2007.

‘For the last 25 years, my office has lived on the edge of financial viability – if I was a doctor or in any other profession, this would not be the case.’ 

Fee survey graphs, which indicate the percentage of the total cost of a project that an architect could charge for their fee, were mandatory under the RIBA’s code of practice but have since had their authority whittled down. They were rebranded as ‘recommended guidelines’ in the wake of a ruling in 1977 by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and more recently presented as ‘representations’ of independent fee survey information.

The RIBA attempted to scrap fee scales in 2004 but had to back down after pressure from its membership, however it has now sounded the final death knell for the graphs. The institute wants resource-led fee bidding, based on architects’ own calculations and accumulated knowledge, to replace the use of fee charts across the board.

The RIBA hopes the influence of ‘competitive market forces’ will mould architecture into a stronger profession, long term. ‘People need to face the fact that architectural practice is changing. Everybody is in a free market economy and you have to negotiate your fees no matter what,’ says Jane Duncan, vice president practice of RIBA.

Chipperfield says free competition will make fees lower but the quality of work would undoubtedly suffer. ‘I understand the principle that fee competition is good but that means there is no other competition. What about competition over quality or intellectual competition?’

Other leading architects also fear the worse. Eric Parry, who has twice been runner-up in the Stirling Prize, says the recommended fee survey graphs were sensible and allowed architects to charge the fee that allowed them to do a decent job.

‘It is surprising how often a resource-led fee bid equals more or less the guidelines, but without them it will be each person for themselves and clients will use this to erode the most important thing they should be paying for: time for design’.

Meanwhile Jo Wright, managing partner of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS) complained that rival firms often bid for incredibly low fees, leading FCBS to abandon project bids on the basis that it would be impossible to deliver quality for the kind of fees on offer.

‘The less discerning and less educated clients will view dropping percentage fee survey graphs as the opening of a free-for-all. They will seek rock bottom fees and that won’t do the profession any good,’ says Wright. ‘It will result in the diminution of the built environment and all architects will be blamed for that.’

Practices such as FCBS can, as the RIBA wants, already calculate a resource-led fee bid. Wright says the practice has adopted a monitoring process which keeps ‘careful tabs month-by-month’ on its expenditure, allowing the practice to benchmark its own fees.

But smaller practices may lack the ability or know-how to adapt to a market competitive fee system. Vince Nacey of construction industry research association Mirza & Nacey Research says: ‘I’m not sure that there are actually that many tools available that can be used by architects as an alternative to fee survey graphs.’

Maxwell Hutchinson, former president of the RIBA and a director at Archial, agrees. He makes the point that the vast majority of British practices are small and unlikely to successfully manage resource-based fee bidding. Yet he remains pragmatic about the graph’s demise. ‘Removing fees survey graphs is neither here nor there, because they will always be there in people’s minds as the RIBA indicative fees and I expect people will continue to refer
to them as that.

‘But it does seem to be a strange time to be taking them out, when fees levels are already so low.’


Vox pops

Daniel Rosbottom, DRDH

‘The RIBA is correct in getting architects thinking. But is it necessary to get rid of the graph? I can’t see a strong reason to not provide some element of guidance – given that it is accurate and up to date.’

Ben Derbyshire, HTA

‘To abandon the [graph] in the depths of a recession seems very odd timing.  You can see why many architects feel as though they are being abandoned by their institute just when their need is greatest.’

Sean Griffiths, FAT

‘The industry is more tuned in to the resource-based approach and I think you can use that to your advantage. A survey of what people are charging as hourly rates is more useful than this crude chart.’

The RIBA’s response: Adrian Dobson, director of practice at the RIBA, defends the decision to remove the graph

‘It was the severity of the recession and the return of aggressive fee discounting which prompted us to re-visit the use of the fee survey data. Fee scales were sometimes already too low to enable practices to adequately resource projects – particularly on small projects and refurbishment works.

‘Also, percentage fee scales gave little opportunity for architects to demonstrate where they were adding value, or to take account of variations such as location and scope of service, or demonstrate the relationship of fees to the availability of resources for a project.’ 

 ‘Whilst some architects may continue to use normative percentage fees, the RIBA advises that fees need to be mapped closely to scope of service and complexity of project.’

‘The RIBA is working to support the profession in these difficult times through initiatives such as business-focused continuing professional development and the Recession Survival Toolkit. A new good practice guide on fee management is soon to be published [as well].

‘[To help architects] the RIBA’s Business Benchmarking service is available free to all chartered practices and enables them to measure the financial performance of their practice, including profit levels, hourly rates and fee arrangements.’ 

The Client’s Guide to Engaging an Architect – which does not feature fee survey graphs – is now available from the RIBA.


Readers' comments (4)

  • Griffiths is right - the graph was very crude anyway and if that's what you're basing your business income on rather than thinking about your costs and processes, you're immediatley in trouble. Removing it should start architects thinking about what it actually costs to do the work they need to do which in my experience they are terrible at. This has to be a good thing in a world where cost is so important to clients. Maybe it will force them to look at how they can become more efficient at the things that matter to clients (time and money).
    It has nothing to do with quality as Chipperfield says - irrelevant argument. The reason that architects' fees are so low is because there are too many architects for the few jobs available, because they are too willing to work for free and because what they offer to the capitalist world at large (design) is basically not desired or wanted other than as trophies for the mega rich or branding for big business.

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  • All your comments are from so-called "design led" practices. It would be interesting to hear from, say, BDP (given their recent rise in profits during these harsh times). I bet *they* don't rely on an outdated chart to make their millions.

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  • A resource led approach to determining fees may be a reasonable alternative but meaningless if you've not previously delivered the kind of project that you are tendering for and, therefore, have no basis on which to gauge your fee.
    This will only reinforce the narrow-minded approach we have to procuring projects in the UK where you have to evidence that you built such-and-such a building type of exactly the same value at least three time before. Further discriminating against SMEs and practices getting a foothold in new sectors. Where is the alternative RIBA guidance that can help us determine a resource led approach? I've registered for the RIBA’s Business Benchmarking service but received nothing.

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  • The fee graph is a safety net to judge your own fee proposal (which is always lower) against. Architects already recognise it as such - it protects both the architect and the client from dangerously low fees which could jeopardise the project.

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