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Let's keep it ethical as we try to win work

Rory Olcayto
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With architects’ fees on the rise, the way we win work provides a basic building block for sound ethical practice

News that architects’ fees increased sharply this year will be welcomed by the profession, especially as some of the detail is just as encouraging as the bigger picture. For example, average fees in the private housing sector are up ‘significantly’ and average hourly rates are higher across most staff categories, with a stunning 20 per cent rise in the rates charged by sole practitioners.

None of this though will be of any comfort to Malcolm Fraser who, shortly after his multi-award-winning practice went belly up, blamed a ‘competitive fee context’ for its demise. ‘We never managed to get the larger jobs that could sustain those high-profile jobs despite strenuous efforts,’ he said, adding: ‘We also worked proactively on putting numerous [feasibility] projects together ourselves, but despite many, many attempts they didn’t turn into live projects for us.’ So while the data paints a broadly positive picture, there will always be contrary evidence worth taking into account.

We are not seeing some of the suicidal bids that were being made during the recession

John McManus, chairman of Britain’s second biggest architecture practice, BDP, offers a typically reasonable perspective. Yes, he says, for BDP ‘there has been a definite shift into healthier fee ranges’. But McManus adds that because BDP ‘never really discovered the rock bottom of the market because we refused to bid at certain levels’, judging the full extent of the rise is tricky. Linking this with the fact that the Fees Bureau report is strongly influenced by the private housing sector, which is driven in the main by London-based development, McManus says that fee increases elsewhere in the UK are not in line with the capital - as Fraser will no doubt attest.

McManus makes one other equally important point. He says, thankfully, that ‘we are not seeing some of the suicidal bids that were being made during the recession’. Good. Yet anecdotally we are hearing otherwise, and that it is design-led firms that are guilty of this. Admittedly such rumours come from disgruntled architects who lost out to housing specialists ‘buying’ jobs. Perhaps this is a reflection of the extremes that design-focused firms must go to simply to maintain a market presence (even if it is unsustainable).

But given the recent debate the AJ has instigated with the profession around its societal obligations, it has as much to do with ethics as it has to do with business. The value you attribute to your own work and the service you offer clients, and what you are prepared to do in order to win work, is central in defining how you engage with the world, and provides a basic building block for sound ethical practice.

So while the AJ is happy to report the good news on fees, we will also continue to listen to your stories about how you are approaching the task of winning work. Hopefully not by undercutting your peers. 

Small world, big problems

Congratulations to Shumi Bose, Jack Self and Finn Williams, the team selected to represent Britain at Alejandro Aravena’s Venice Biennale next year. The Chilean director’s theme for the exhibition is ‘Reporting From The Front’, and last month he told the AJ he would focus on showing ‘what it is like to improve the quality of life while working on the margins, under tough circumstances, facing pressing challenges’.

Bose, Self and Williams, working within this theme, have alighted upon a compelling idea: a project they have dubbed Home Economics, which addresses the family home - what the trio calls the ‘frontline of British architecture’. It sounds great, especially if they can provide interesting responses to the questions they are asking, such as ‘can the house ever escape its economic status as an asset?’ and ‘should our homes still be considered private spaces?’

It’s also second time lucky for Williams, who missed out on selection in 2014 (after serving on the selection panel in 2012), and a welcome return to Bose, who was an assistant curator on David Chipperfield’s 2012 Common Ground team. Small world!

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