Architecture and Interior Design is a business, isn’t it?

Time is Money by Tax Credits, on Flickr

My last post on what makes a great workplace client generated some discussion on one of the linkedin groups about if both clients and designers understanding that design is a business. Whilst no one studies interior design or architecture intending to get rich, I think we all like to get paid at least enough to reasonably live on (and for me – buy shoes) without having to work a second job on the weekends to fund our design work. However for us to get paid (and keep our jobs) then the firms we work for have to make money. Meaning our clients have to pay for our time. Pretty simple really. Time = money. So where is the problem? Why do our clients not always appreciate this? Is it because so many interior designers an architects don’t seem to get it themselves?My observations and thoughts on this topic is that there are a number of issues behind this problem. The first is that so many architects and interior designers are passionate about what they do. They have chosen to work in this field because they believe architecture and design makes the world a better place and they love creating. As I said, not for the money. So because you are doing something you love and that can completely engross you, you are prepared to stay up all night when you at uni, and possibly when you are at work too. You are certainly prepared to give away some of your own time when you feel this way, and especially when there is a knotty design problem or detail that you just have to perfect before those documents are issued for construction.

The problems arise if this attitude becomes the standard for how we work. The first problem is that employers may expect us to work these kinds of hours all the time. As profession we have demonstrated that we are prepared to give away our time to our employers for free, so in some cases the fee models have come to depend on this – more on this later.

The second problem is that some architects and designers come to believe that design takes however long as it takes and seem to be incapable of working within any fee structure. Whilst in some ways it appears these architects and designers do not understand or place any monetary value on their time, I believe that it is probably more accurate to describe these designers as believing good design is above money, so valuable it can’t be considered in such a coarse wordly way. This can begin to place architecture and design in the sphere of art, rather than as part of the practical and functional world of which it must be a part if it is to be a business, and if it not to be relegated to a luxury item for the wealthy.

I believe it is these attitudes that have contributed to the way that clients view design services. Why would our clients value our services if we don’t? If our architecture and interior design teams don’t see and approach their work as a business, then perhaps it is no surprise our clients don’t either. I recently came across an interesting article discussing how interior design as a profession is judged by outsiders based upon the terminology we use.

Many large institutional or corporate clients deal with a number of architecture and design firms, and the attitudes of some architects and interior designers influences the attitudes of the clients to the industry as a whole. I have had one client representative question why I would limit the number of user consultation meetings on a small project to 3 or 4, he asked, “but what if it takes 20?” I asked the client if they would want me to charge them for 20 if only 3 were required. He seemed most perplexed – even though this was a full time property client with years of experience – that I needed to charge for our services based upon the time we spent.

Historically architects and designers are also not good at asking for more money, in the form of variations. Our clients expect to pay for contractor variations, but not for design variations. Part of this is because architectural services are so much harder to define, our scope is much more open ended than a contractors lump sum tender scope. However even when we try to define our services it can be hard to manage the process of developing a brief and a design. I would frequently limit the number of design options to be provided – but do have to admit to usually doing a few extras just to be sure I had done sufficient exploration if the design to satisfy myself of the robustness of the solutions I presented. One client put their project on hold after this concept options stage and then questioned my bill (again a client with industry knowledge and understanding of the design process). They felt that because they had not made a decision on a preferred concept they should not pay in full for the concept stage. I then went through our fee proposal scope and what services we had promised to provide during concept stage, and asked the client had we provided each one. They agreed we had done everything we said we would, including providing 4 options that meet their brief (our proposal had offered 3 options so in fact we had over serviced them!) So I asked, why should we not be paid because you have found that your brief might not be what you want? The initial concepts had identified that the client would have to reduce spatial allocations somewhere or rent additional space and provided for various possibilities of how this could be achieved, which made the decision making more complex than the client had expected. We got paid.

You generally don’t expect to see a doctor for a free assessment of your problem, but we frequently spend significant time and money on proposals and tenders, even if we are not providing free design services, these documents are usually expected to provide an individual approach and analysis of the clients needs before we are even guaranteed a single dollar in fees. Whilst many clients take into account a wide range of issues in choosing their architect or designer, and not just fees, frequently the fee structure is a heavily weighted part of this decision. This process is a significant waste of our industry productivity and another indicator of how poorly our clients value our time and resources.

It is these kinds of client attitudes that then lead to the downward pressure on our fee structures which leads to lower qualities of service and design – and this is not good for either our clients or our industry. The lower fees then lead firms to a point where staff have to work additional hours for free to deliver the projects. In the eight years I have been involved in preparing fee proposals, fees in some of the sectors I work in have halved. Salaries and rent has not halved, and whilst tools like BIM can increase our efficiency, they have not halved our workload. Firms have reduced fees during the tough financial items of the last few years, in efforts to maintain sufficient workload to keep staff employed. The problem is that now they are down so low, do we really think they will go up again? So many clients have now come to expect fees so low that the client representatives know that they are ridiculously unsustainable and will either result in poor service or firms going under (or both). But there is often pressure within the client organisation not to spend any more than last project. Unfortunately the only likely thing to change is is if projects go significantly wrong that clients see the value in paying more for design. As long as architects and interior designers are prepared to work for free…of course we ensure this doesn’t happen.

For all architecture and interior design firms to remain viable business and our industry to exist, all architecture and design staff need to contribute to the perception in our industry and beyond that what we do is a valuable service and worth paying for. And of course we need to make sure that we provide a level of service and design to justify this. Architecture and interior design is a business – do you think so? How do we balance the artistic and creative side of what we do with making money? How do we educate our clients and the public to value and understand the services we provide? How do we manage the design process and its very nature of change in order to satisfy our clients, produce great design and still make money?

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