A couple of weeks ago, I referred to Philip Johnson's observations on the architect's need first and foremost to secure work (AJ, 14.4.05).
I'm sure he also acknowledged that winning commissions is pointless if you fail to secure sufficient fees: miscalculate remuneration and the rest of the job will be a struggle that will sorely test your invention and ambition.
The profession has acknowledged its difficulty in identifying the value it brings to projects, and consequently to claim proportionate reward. There are too many stories of the decline of the architect - a once awesome figure now cast in the role of disenchanted draughtsman, or so legend has it. Doubtless, these reflections are not unique to our profession; assemble interested professionals and sorry tales will circulate. However, the celebration of an inability to claim reward marks a self-fulfilling prophecy. Financial failure, at least relative to our professional peers, has become the architect's birthright, or perhaps their burden for staking out the moral high ground.
The alternative view is that our profession, having once enjoyed fixed fees and the patronage of the government, is learning to cope with a new operational context. It is not that long since most architects worked in, or were commissioned by, local authorities.
We are coming to terms with the loss of a client base and the abolition of fixed fees. The final step would be to dissociate the word 'commercial' from the characters in Oliver Marriott's The Property Boom and realise that to be 'commercial' is neither a pejorative description, nor is it solely about the design of speculative offices.
We might then realise that our 'problems' are not to do with a poor attitude to employment, careers or that term of the moment, 'work-life balance'. These are just manifestations of the main problem brought about by insufficient fees. To do things properly and to reward people properly requires money: you can only pursue qualityof-life initiatives if you have adequate funds. This is not beyond us; we are skilled at persuading clients it is worth investing in materials of quality and value, and to take a longer-term view. Next, we have to apply the same logic to fee discussions. Good clients are not inevitably surprised by significant fee levels; it helps them value what we do, and, after all, they all have solicitors. Bad clients are not worth the inevitable losses.
Architects are necessarily optimists who try to push things on, so whatever fees we achieve, we undoubtedly have the ability to expend resource beyond the amount available. When we won the open international competition for Walsall Bus Station, the project was the major reward, but we were also delighted that the fee was 10 times that of any single previous one. We thought we could not possibly spend it all: but, come completion, we had, and half as much again. It was a salutary lesson and one that we still struggle to fully acknowledge: plan your resource, record how you deviate and recoup extras when, if and as appropriate.
I was reminded of this when bedding in new jobs and agreeing fees and resource. Yes, we wanted the jobs because they offered new architectural opportunities, but I had to hide my enthusiasm and (implied) willingness to cut our fee. I was reminded of what I should say by one of my partners, who was watching The Hound of the Baskervilles. The wealthy client speculated: 'Please will you take the case on, Mr Holmes. I think you will find our proposed fee more than handsome.' To which Holmes replied: 'My professional charges are on a fixed scale. I do not vary them unless I remit them altogether.' Fixed fees or not, we can still learn much from Conan Doyle's hero.