Sunday, October 24, 2010

What would you pay an Architect?

When I decided to pursue Architecture as a career, I really didn't know much about it. I did not grow up hearing about Le Corbusier nor did I spend summers travelling to Architectural monuments across the country. In fact, the only thing I truly knew about Architects was that Mike Brady was an Architect and he had a cool house in California with a kickin' home office. Truth be told, that was enough for me. I always liked the idea of living in a great space and being my own boss. I also liked the reaction I received when I told people my intentions. As George Costanza will tell you, people always seem to be impressed when you say you are an Architect. As far as the general public is concerned, they hold Architects in similar regard as doctors or lawyers (for better or worse). And like doctors or lawyers, most people can only imagine having to consult an Architect as a matter of necessity.

Now those of you who have read my blog know that the reality of the Architecture profession is much different than the perception. Most graduates spend years working at or around minimum wages and the only way to move up the pay ladder at a regular pace is to change jobs frequently. Each day working as an Architect is spent trying to justify your fees to clients and also trying to collect monies owed. When additional costs arise (usually due to field conditions or client changes) many clients are quick to try and assess penalties to our fees as though everything were our fault. And those of you who read my blog also know that we Architects have allowed this to happen as our society has moved to a value driven business model of convenience. We now find ourselves competing against big box home improvement stores and companies who leverage global workforces. To put it mildly, things are getting harder.

Three years ago, I made a decision to ditch the profession of Architecture for development. I sold my practice, started a development company and started building modern houses. The development business gives me the best of both worlds. I get to Design whatever I want to build and I get to sell a product that is tangible instead of a service that is intangible. I don't have to compete with other Architects on a dollar per hour basis and I can pretty much make my own schedule. Of course, I knew it was bound to happen that eventually people would start calling me about Design work. Originally, my thought was just to turn down Design work as I never found it to be as rewarding as development. But recently, the projects being offered my way have started to get more interesting and offer a greater sense of creative control. So the question now becomes what is Architecture in this post-recession economy? Are there firms out there just taking work at rock bottom prices just to keep the lights on? Do people still see Architects as valuable when facing a real estate market that won't likely recover for at least a decade? How important is green design in any new project? Would you hire an Architect to help you figure this stuff out and if so, what would you pay an Architect?

All of these questions reflect conversations that I have been having with other Architects. Some say that the recession has forced the weak companies out of business. Others say that the real estate collapse has created new opportunities for Architects to work with builders to re-engineer their product lines to meet 21st Century demands. For my part, I can only say that the Global Economy has added new challenges and opportunities to everyone's business. Clients of mine want to buy furniture from China (because it's cheaper) have renderings done in Southeast Asia (because it's cheaper) and want to use the internet for video conferencing instead of meeting in person (because it's cheaper). Surviving in business today means cutting costs and being efficient in order to make money on slimmer profit margins. It's only a matter of time before the entire profession of Architecture gets absorbed into the Construction industry similar to how big box stores chain stores are now putting supermarkets in all their stores. One stop shopping for convenience and because the big box stores will make it more attractive from a price perspective. They can afford to lose a little money on groceries and make it up on clothing or sporting goods. Architecture will be like Whole Foods: a niche resource for a very small part of the population who can afford it.

It is likely that I will start doing Design work again and that I will get some great opportunities. But I will tell you that that my approach to the work will be radically different. I will negotiate for more control and better terms while delivering greater value. If I can show a client how I can save them money, I will be able to better justify my own fees. I think this is what it will take to survive in Architecture, if we can survive at all.