Monday, August 16, 2010

If not money, then how about respect? A Designer's Tale

In the past few years, many Architects and Designers have seen their paychecks shrink. When asked, most people would say that this is probably due to the general economy and the recession. Three years ago, I might have said the same thing. Now I don't think that this is true. I believe the real culprit, the thing that we must overcome as a society is something far more devastating: Ignorance. Recently, I had a couple of exchanges with Clients that led me to believe this is more true than ever. Read on.

About three years ago, I was introduced to this guy who wanted to open a high end restaurant. Let's call him James. James was a seasoned Operator, which means he knew how to run the place. But he needed the money. James was looking for an investor and he was trying to assemble a team that would help sell the investor. I was placed on that team based on my experience as a Hospitality Designer and Architect. In addition to myself, James also had a notable chef, a marketing team, and a graphics and branding team. For two and a half years, James made his pitch to a variety of investors. No one wanted to commit. Finally after almost three years, James found a guy who was excited about the project. By now, the rest of the team had evaporated for one reason or another. I got a call from James and he said that he wanted me to meet with his investor to see if this bird would fly. At the meeting, I showed the investor my portfolio, I spoke about my credentials and I told him the process that we would implement in order to make the restaurant a reality. After he heard me describe everything soup to nuts, he looked at me and said that everything sounded great. He asked me to submit a proposal and we would go from there. Two days later, I submitted a very aggressive proposal, with a very competitive fee. Because I had been tracking the project so long, I wanted to make sure that I could get it, so I cut my usual fee by 20% to ensure my appointment to the team. About a week later, I got a call from James and he told me that the investor was overwhelmed by my fee. He then asked if I could cut my fee by an additional 50%. I said that I couldn't. I was then informed that the investor knew an Architect who could do it for the low fee. I told James that they should go with that guy, no hard feelings.

Story number two begins with a pair of Clients who want to renovate the interior of their house. They purchased a builder's home and after three years have found out that the layout does not work at all. When I met this Client I told them that a house was a machine for living in. That Client told me that his machine was broken. I made two visits to this Client and spent over 10 hours talking to them and writing proposals. When they got my detailed proposal (which described what we would need to do, room by room) I could see that they were 'overwhelmed' by the Design fee. I then proceeded to explain to them that their house was not designed by an Architect but was instead built by a builder. It is common knowledge that most homes are built by Builders who are unassisted by Architects. Most people would rather spend their money on builder upgrades than Design sensibility. That's just how it is. Now I am standing in front of a client who has a budget upwards of $50,000 to repair his broken machine but will not give me the go ahead to spend a few thousand in Design fees.

These are both very true stories. What is also true is that I have a five year Architectural Degree, 15 years of practical experience, have passed 10 different professional examinations, and am legally liable for every project that I touch. Unfortunately, most people do not place a value on these things. The value that they assign to your services is only comparable to their lowest price option. If you are printing letterpress business cards for $400 and someone can get overnight laser printed cards for $15, most people will want to pay $15. Our retail economy has taught people this very well. Don't look at the quality, look at the price. Practically every big store speaks to price in their slogans. "Save Money, Live Better". "Get More, Spend Less." "More Saving, More Doing".

And whether your competition is a Builder or a peer who wants to low ball you, I am asking you please not to compromise your quality as a Design Professional. These kinds of compromises are why we find ourselves in the mess we are today. Eventually you will find those clients who appreciate the value of your services and you can just say no to those clients that want you to cut corners. That's what I ended up doing with the restaurant. I told James, "Thanks, but no thanks." If I'm not going to be compensated fairly, then I demand to be respected, if only by myself.

2 comments:

  1. This has become an impossible business. Our liablities are spread 100 miles wide and our profit margin is about 1/16 inch deep... if there is any at all. With the internet, most people think they know design and architecture so they are not really welling to pay for the intangible.To average clients we are just some inconvenient miidle man.

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  2. Well said, XARCH. Sadly, I have to agree. What is happening in Architecture is the same thing that happened in banking. Less oversight allowing more people to take a part of the Architect's work. One can only hope that the profession can take back the built environment at some level.

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