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Architects must stop doing more for less

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If clients aren’t moaning about fees, architects are coming too cheap, writes Christine Murray

We reveal the results of the AJ client survey this week, as a surge of architects invade the chaos of the MIPIM property fair in Cannes to drum up patronage.

If the list of clients polled by the AJ is eclectic, from Asda to art dealer Kenny Schachter and Urban Splash to the Olympic Park Legacy Company, their responses to our inaugural What Clients Want survey are surprisingly consistent. Of the 50 clients, 43 said design quality was the most important factor in choosing an architect, while the least important factor was the size of practice.

The fact that size doesn’t matter will come as good news to start-up practices. As for the emphasis on design quality, there’s an inherent caveat here: for clients, good architecture is more about a building’s market value, than its artistic flair. ‘Value for money, when it comes to architects’ services, is design quality that cost effectively increases financial and social value,’ was one client’s succinct summary.

But the survey also contains a few sour notes. Nearly three-quarters (72 per cent) of clients claimed the standard of architectural services had grown worse or stayed the same in recent years, while 39 per cent said architects need to improve their financial and budget awareness.

You may have expected clients to call for lower fees, but in fact just two of the 50 said architects should charge less. ‘Quality is more important than cost,’ said one client – a typical response from those we surveyed. ‘We would never employ someone because they were cheap. You get what you pay for.’

Another reading of this, however, is that fees are now so low that clients are no longer complaining – a bad sign. This hypothesis tallies with the continued anecdotes we’ve heard of practices undercutting each other by as much as 90 per cent on a bid. As a result, cash-strapped architects are providing less of a quality service, because they are getting lower fees. A successful practice must decide how many people they can afford to put on the job based on the fee income. If you don’t run your practice this way, you are working for free or, worse yet, running at a loss.

There was evidence in the survey of other poor business practices that have emerged as a result of the recession. Asked what the profession could do better, one said: ‘Agree a fixed fee at the start without adding extra surprise fees later’. Another called for: ‘No hidden extras, with fixed-price fees agreed upfront’. This is another consequence of undercutting, when architects undersell themselves on a bid and are forced to recoup costs later. That kind of behaviour tarnishes the reputation of the whole profession.

Indeed, several clients pointed to a lack of business acumen, wishing architects would ‘think like a client’, ‘listen to the client’ and ‘stop thinking they know better than the client’. But thinking like a client means running your business like a client, and being able to argue that, for a proper service and a good design, you expect a decent fee. If clients genuinely want better service from architects, as many of these clients say they do, they will have to start paying for it. Architects must not be lured into giving clients more for less. The majority of clients in our survey say they value good design – make them put their money where their mouth is.

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