I Love My Work But I Don’t Think I’m Being Paid Fairly

There’s something inherently satisfying about squeezing a decent brush from a tube of toothpaste you originally thought to be empty. As it turns out, squeezing or ‘generating efficiencies’, as one might call it if they worked in a management consultancy, is the bedrock of economic growth and something our society places great value on.

With our world becoming increasingly competitive and the pursuit of greater value intensifying, almost every industry is feeling the squeeze. Architecture is no different. Fees are tight and getting tighter, while design programmes are short and getting shorter.

For a client, the design process is an obvious target for squeezing because it represents a period of significant cash flow pain. Design and construction costs are due upfront, while the completed project and the benefits it brings can be two or more years away. It’s human nature therefore, to want to lessen the pain, to minimise the cost and get to the reward quicker. Hire purchase is, after all, infinitely more popular than lay-by.

So architecture is ripe for the squeezing, and as it turns out, so are architects. If you ask an architect to do it cheaper and faster, they’ll find a way. They’ll work nights and weekends for free if they have to, because in general, they love what they do. But here’s the kicker, while it’s pretty easy to spot a half-finished hamburger, a rushed design project isn’t so obvious. It might look the same on the surface, but we’d be foolish to think that three months’ worth of work can be reduced into one without compromise somewhere. All too often that compromise is the deep analysis and understanding required to not just produce a building, but to solve a problem, to enable the organization to do things it couldn’t before.

There is no shortage of research that shows with favourable conditions architects can do wonderful things. They can make learning environments that improve education outcomes, workplaces that enhance well-being and hospitals that speed up patient recovery time. A great architect, like a great lawyer or a great accountant is a valuable asset to an organization. Yet we continue to squeeze the design process. We continue to prioritize efficiency in the process over effectiveness of the outcome. Put another way, why do we attempt to shorten design programmes by two weeks when that might deprive people of a new idea that could make a difference for the next 50 years?

I think the answers lie in the words ‘might and could’. The design process is not a science and outcomes are far from predictable. This creates a problem for the risk-adverse corporate, or publicly funded organization because justifying investment in things that ‘might’ generate a return is hard to do, even more so when the risk is unquantifiable and the return immeasurable.

To address the situation I think the profession of architecture needs to rethink the way it charges for design services. Currently fees are charged on a lump sum basis and typically based on cost – either as a percentage of the construction budget or a multiple of estimated time and hourly rates.

This means clients are not only forced to pay for something before they receive the benefit of it, but also have to assume the risk the building doesn’t achieve the metrics the business case was based on. At the same time, it’s a raw deal for architects because most contracts include liability for six or more years after practical completion if something goes really wrong, but make no provision for increased remuneration if the project goes really right.

A long time ago Fredrick Winslow Taylor revolutionized management theory by challenging the notion that bricklayers ought to be paid not for merely showing up, but rather for how many bricks they laid. I suggest that architects be paid, at least in part, not for simply designing a building, but for creating financially quantifiable benefits for their clients.

Under this concept, an architect and client would enter into a contract with a lower (or no) initial lump-sum fee and a set of clearly defined KPIs which would trigger bonuses proportionate to the impact their attainment has on the client’s bottom line.

It might be an exaggeration to say that Spotify and its emulators saved the music industry by rethinking the way people pay for music, but not by much. By changing the way architects charge for design, I profoundly believe we can reduce risk for clients, provide an opportunity for architects to get paid what they’re worth and promote the kind of built environment quality that comes from long-term thinking.

If 75% of the world’s population really is going to live in cities by 2030, I think that last point alone means we owe it to ourselves and to future generations to try, because as anyone who’s had to clean out their grandparents home knows, inheriting junk is painful.