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Opinion: Why can’t we see it clearly?

January 20 2011

Opinion: Why can’t we see it clearly?
Architect Stephen Miles is not a happy man. Fed up with sitting idly by whilst a maelstrom of redundancies, fear and whispering wreak their havoc on the profession Miles has dusted off his soapbox  to speak out against inertia and malpractice. Imploring architects to wrest back the initiative Miles urges the introduction of open and transparent feeing – or witness the collapse of the architectural profession...

It is becoming ever more obvious that the architectural profession is Scotland is still a proverbial mile from beginning to recover from the current economic shift. On an almost daily basis, stories of possible redundancies, reduced working weeks and constant fears about jobs and the future are whispered from all corners.

It is becoming largely evident that the professional bodies of which we all swear allegiance have neither the intention nor ability to lead from the top – so to speak. Within the general architectural community, this wholesale depreciation of our industry, driven by ever spiraling low fees, low demand and extreme competition is met merely with apathy and compressed frustration.

As architects we were trained to view each other in competition, we were taught that in order to survive we must outshine our peers; that we must sell ourselves and sell our product with rigor, confidence and class. However what we were never told was that this would be rendered completely and utterly obsolete as soon as clients realised that by offering up clandestine closed envelope fee bidding they could pit us against each other in a battle in which ‘the house always wins’.  It is this ability to promote a bidding war that will – if left to continue- will systematically erode the financial and economic ability of architectural practices to resource work, to employ talented individuals, and will eventually lead to the complete collapse of the profession. Melodramatic statement perhaps – but none the less founded in fact.  At current fee levels which are now dipping dramatically below 3% for many publicly procured developments, our industry may take a decade to recover.

What can we do?

When the Fee scale was abolished it was due to European legislation for competition – we could not legally set minimum fees. However I believe the only hope we have, is to completely change how we are viewed as competitors. To do so means we must move to open and transparent feeing. Architects must begin to stand against the competitive feeing process, and instead practice openly with fees for services being thrust into the public domain. We must be our own regulators, and in being open and transparent, not only with our own services but with competitive bids, practices whom are adopting tactics would very quickly be ‘outed’ to the wider profession. In order for this to be successful, some practices would have to be vanguard and take a leap of faith. Those who are confident in the quality of their own work should relish the opportunity. Practices would be able to justify and demonstrate where these fee percentages were derived from, and hopefully we would be able to begin to educate those whom we work alongside in the construction industry as to just exactly how much work we as architects must do for the paltry sums which we are remunerated.

If we were able to adopt this approach, we would be able to begin to at the very least repair some of the damage of the last 3 years. Stop fees going any lower, and begin to protect our own industry and future.
Who takes the first step? We all must, surely?

It is clear. Transparency is the key.

Stephen Miles –


#1 Posted by FW on 21 Jan 2011 at 07:30 AM
How else would companies like Keppie, Anderson Bell+C , ASL, Cooper Cromer get work? They've also got mortgages to pay. Get real!
#2 Posted by jt on 21 Jan 2011 at 15:00 PM
No wonder he's not happy, someone's snapped him looking like a twat.
#3 Posted by NC on 21 Jan 2011 at 15:45 PM
ah 'jt' you gave me the Friday afternoon laugh I needed :) ...shame the picture has been changed now.
#4 Posted by GB on 21 Jan 2011 at 15:55 PM
pic was not clever.
However he makes some good points, lots of people seem unhappy and there isnt much people can do about it. Where are the RIAS/RIBA? Seems like now would be a good time for them to crawl out of their edinbugh/london plush pads and maybe try and make a contribution to the people who are paying hard earned money - and get nothing in return.
#5 Posted by am on 22 Jan 2011 at 01:12 AM
The man makes some very good points. At least he has the bottle to say out loud what most of us are happy just to mutter about under our breath. Low fee bidding affects everyone in the profession and it should really be debated more. GB is right. The silence is deafening from RIAS/RIBA. Amongst other things, low fees equal low pay and sweatshop conditions for our young professionals.
#6 Posted by EA on 22 Jan 2011 at 10:22 AM
This is the critical issue for the future of the profession but I don't think that "outing" will make any dififference for the reasons outlined by FW. Having just lost a major commission to one of the practices that FW mentions, who were miles behind us and most others on quality, I think it's going to need a lot more than peer embarrassment. Mandatory/minimum fee scales will never happen. The root of the problem is public procurement. This is where the RIAS, A+DS etc need to make the stand.
#7 Posted by S.t on 22 Jan 2011 at 16:25 PM
Some very good points, and i agree that well done for speaking out. I however also agree with EA, the whole public procurement system is fundamentally flawed, and competitive fees is only one of the problems. Albeit a very damaging one. However, if we cannot even stir some decent anger within the architecture community just now - when things are so obviously bad- i dont know if we ever will.
#8 Posted by dirige on 22 Jan 2011 at 18:39 PM
Minimum fee scales may result in architects being undercut by guys like these:
#9 Posted by Km on 22 Jan 2011 at 23:21 PM
The RIBA abd RIAS offers no benefit that i am aware of on any basis. The above comments are very relevant coupled with the RIBA/RIAS complete and utter inability to protect the 'stage of work plan' means that architects are doing detailed design e.g. Sepa applications at feasibility stage nontheless. A radical rethink. They are here not only to promote design but also as a voice for their members. Their silence is very disappointing indeed.
#10 Posted by bn on 23 Jan 2011 at 11:15 AM
The RIBA Practice Committee says this about fee's

‘[We] hope to encourage architects to calculate their fees on a resource-based, time-charge or value-added basis as appropriate, in line with the approach of other construction consultants.'

A resources based approach sounds fine except that it is very often difficult to assess what exactly is required at the outset of a project for what is essentially a non-existent design, indeed, the 'unknown' part is what people engage architects to do, they bring that 'added value'.

The RIBA / RIAS / AD+S could do so much more to help architectural firms price accurately for projects, taking the dark arts (and errors) out of it.

Clear resourcing based on genuine hourly rates where the practitioner knows what their profit margin is is sadly missing from the architects repertoire, RIBA/RIAS would do well to stop printing pointless plastic membership cards and employ a software engineer to produce a professional costing software that would help bring commonality to the pricing methodology employed by architects. This wouldn't breach competition laws but would allow clients to clearly compare rates, resources and added value services.

That methodology could be adopted across the professional bodies and with public procurement bodies who by default get the other benefits of PI, CPD Competence and professional membership form bidders.

The question often also isn't just about the cost of the service either, it's about the value attributed to it. That is in the client's domain to decide but it's in RIBA / RIAS / AD+S's remit to promote. The problem has come from their sole promotion of PI, doing CPD and being a member as the key characteristics that differentiate architects form technologists or a 'fat man' that picks up a copy of autocad.

That's just not good enough, the RIBA / RIAS / AD+S need to embark on a full-scale professional rebadging of the profession, supporting diversification of services within lower cost practice services, more relevant and innovative CPD, encouraging & supporting more practice based research and getting the message across that the value architects bring to projects can be quantitive as well as qualitative.

I'll get off my soapbox now.
#11 Posted by GM-AD on 24 Jan 2011 at 11:03 AM
I suppose this is based on your years of experience dealing with fee proposals and fee negotiation? ....... wait a minute! When did you qualify sonny?
Stephen miles
#12 Posted by Stephen miles on 24 Jan 2011 at 11:38 AM
I do love the air of condescension in your comment. More directed at me rather than my views, which seems a little pointless - especially given your anonymity. In reality you dont really know me, despite what you may believe. Nonetheless....
Perhaps my naivety on the issue may actually be what makes my point more relevant. I am not so concerned about what was done historically, for the business model adopted by the industry in the past is catastrophically failing. Only a fool would argue otherwise. I suspect that most practices will not be using previous models for fee-ing, as they are no longer in any way practical. Perhaps if you read some of the more intelligent comments above, you would realise my point was about engaging with professional bodies to try and better the future for everyone in the construction industry and within architectural practices. I was hoping to start some meaningful debate on how the 'inexperienced fee negotiators' such as myself- (and the thousand other out there) - might continue to practice in the future. This current economic change will be long affecting to the industry, and shall most likely be the defining part of countless young students, and young architects careers. With many now turning away from the profession as it offers little in the way of security. More worrying, is the complete lack of enthusiasm from more "experienced" members of the community such as yourself.
#13 Posted by csarch on 24 Jan 2011 at 13:01 PM
stephen - it's hard to argue that someone should pay for your professionalism and expertise at the same time as saying you need help to work out how much time and cost it should take to deliver it. Such a basic lack of business skills doesn't engender trust in a client that you'll be there to take care of thier business...
...and in terms of RIAS/RIBA arguing for the value of an architect's service - first they'd have to admit that many have provided a poor service in the past taking fees for schemes that shouldn't pass a 2nd year crit and therefore probably arn't worth employing - difficult to do when you're paid to protect their interests....
Stephen miles
#14 Posted by Stephen miles on 24 Jan 2011 at 15:20 PM
CSarch - Your missing my point slightly.
I think most architects are aware exactly how much resource and cost it takes to deliver a project - however, as work demand decreases and competition increases, how do practices keep their profit margins and resource the works properly when fees are dipping so low? I think that saying there are poor architects out there - is a different topic altogether. I am not saying the RIAS/RIBA should be telling architects 'how to fee against jobs' - I simply think much more must be done to stop fees getting so low that it becomes virtually impossible to do a job professionally. If not the professional body - whom would you suggest should lead the profession? I suspect more "schemes that shouldn't pass a 2nd year " as you put it are actually the consequence of low fees, and poorly resourced projects than bad architects. And at the end of the day people are losing their jobs......
#15 Posted by csarch on 24 Jan 2011 at 16:09 PM
Can't work out if it's naivity, thinking that architects would design better if only they got paid better, or plain cynicism.... In my experience there's very little corrolation between the skills applied and the fees paid; with good guys producing some wonderful results on very modest fees and some gravy trainers getting good fees for churning out the same old rubbish. Clearly this is unfair, but does the fee paid really effect the skill with which you hold your pen? Though it might well impact thinking time and the seniority of the staff that can be dedicated to the project, does it really excuse basic incompetancies such as the failure to consider the site context in the site layout? Sadly there's too many out their who either can't, or can't be bothered to, draw a line with any intelligence or sensitivity... either way they're undermining the 'value' we're asking the professional bodies to promote to clients.

It's too easy to say we'd all do better if only we were paid more, but the extent of trash we put up during the boom times doesn't support that arguement. Clients have had their fill paying good money for a poor service so are happy with fees being reduced. Until we own up that all architects are not created equal, faffing about with fixing fees will always look like the same old protectionism and naval gazing - just the sort of thing that allows those two fat men to use 'not being Architects' as an attractive USP and consequently increases the likelihood of good architects loosing thier jobs.
#16 Posted by Bossman on 24 Jan 2011 at 16:42 PM
Get back to work
#17 Posted by Csarch on 24 Jan 2011 at 20:41 PM
Stephen, #13 in response to bn's call in #10 rather than the body article...
#18 Posted by bn on 25 Jan 2011 at 15:12 PM

The RIAS/RIBA are the professional bodies that already prescribe our appointments, so why not prescribe feeing methodologies too - it would bring commonality & openness to the process and allow clients to simply compare between competing practices where each practice identifies it's time, rates & resources in a way that encourages fair and open comparison.

Effectively, a client would not only get a very clear fee proposal but would also be seeing how each practice intends to resource the project and the added value services that they are including in a simple and effective way.

Practices would be entirely free to decide their rates, resources & added value skills but each project would clearly have the hours, experience and resources put against it rather than the archaic 'percentage fee or 'lump sum'.

This solution would appear to define the prospective qualitative aspect of the service to be provided. It would also provide a level playing field for different sized practices.

Good for fair competition and good for transparency.

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