Tag Archives: consulting

Mental health and the road to leadership

Do we have to accept that “long hours are just part of the job”? Is it possible to succeed in architecture and design without working excessive overtime?

For the first time in Australia, a top law firm has recently been reported to Worksafe for overworking employees, “A source said KWM graduates were subjected to grueling conditions, with some employees choosing to sleep at the firm’s Melbourne office rather than return home. Day and night shifts were allocated so work could continue around the clock.” This probably sounds familiar to a lot of architects and designers – except we might be thinking “They got to sleep though?” and “so if there were shifts…that means individuals were not working round the clock”.  Whilst law is renowned for its long hours, architecture is frequently worse – and far more poorly paid.  Even if we haven’t worked all night lately ourselves, we all know practices where it is common place.  It will be interesting to see the outcomes of this case and what impact it might have on architecture as well as law.  There is no doubt that the long hours culture of architecture takes its toll on many individuals in different ways.

Around the same time as I came across this article, I attended two separate events on the same day – Sustainability Live and a WIDAC networking event.  Through a session “Mental Health in the Building Industry” the topic of the long hours culture of architecture was part of the discussion.  Mental health is an issue that the NSW Architects Registration Board is currently focusing on – and Registrar Tim Horton was part of the panel.  The NSW ARB is concerned about the mental health of architects and commissioning further research to learn more about this important topic.  However it does seem that their focus is on the risk of sole practitioners suffering mental health issues and the resultant risk to the public, than necessarily on the impacts of those working within practice and subject to long hours and bullying cultures.  We have to remember that the job of the Boards is primarily consumer protection rather than protection of the architects – that’s where the AIA and ACA need to be involved.

Personally I do believe that part of the prevalence of sole practitioners and small practices is due to the desire of many mid career architects to escape the hours and bullying and to gain control over their own lives, and not just their own designs.  But the problem we have is that often the long hours have been so well trained into us, and  then you add the pressure of small business, and many architects still can’t get away.  I’m not sure if its funny or scary that some of the young architects I spoke to after the session (and since) had thought the previous session on “Modern Slavery” was going to be about Australian architectural practices and their working cultures…

That evening I attended my first WIDAC (Women in Design and Construction) event – and I was very impressed.  Outstanding speakers and well organised – I’ve already joined! The topic for the evening was “The Road to Leadership” and there were three speakers, an architectural director, a partner in a law firm and a HR executive (the selection of which somewhat seems to match the topics of this post!) Alex Wessling, Sara Haslinger LLB MPP and Kate Evans shared their fantastic and individual stories of their own roads to leadership.  One of the things that all three had in common, and I think probably underpins many successful people, but perhaps even more particularly women, is that while working long hours can sometime seem to contribute to success, working long hours usually lead to problems in your life (be they mental, physical or both) and that ultimately this is not a sustainable path to continue along. The other common lesson is that the path to leadership is windy even if at an outside glance it might not always seem to be so.

My own story also has these threads in common. Initial career success stalled with the combination of a slowdown (GFC) and a psychopathic boss. Years of overwork – sometimes due to deadlines and those around me, and sometimes due to the pressure I placed on myself – combined with the pressure of workplace bullying eventually lead to repetitive strain injury and chronic pain.   Physio, personal trainers, acupuncture, feldenkrais and a dozen different medical specialists and surgery didn’t solve it – for the first few years it got worse.  Starting with my left shoulder, then my right arm, both wrists, my neck, both hands.  Imagine the fear of not being able to use your hands.  To the point where I almost couldn’t work at all.  Then in the middle of all of that I was made redundant from the job that caused it.  All of this defines my story from this point on.  Almost 10 years later, I still have chronic pain in my neck but I am much recovered and can now manage and live with the pain and its impacts on my mental health.

Part of the way I have improved my health is to work part time.  People assume I work part time because I have a small child.  While this is partially true – I dropped my hours to part time after she was born – I’ve found its really helped my health, and I know I certainly can’t work more than 40 hours a week.  I can’t take a job in a practice that might expect me to work excessive overtime.  My symptoms would flare up and it’s just not worth it.  This is one reason why I am passionate about hours and working culture – I don’t want to see more people face these kinds of problems – and the more time we spend crunching over computers the more common it is becoming.  Already almost every architect and designer I know has some kind of neck, back, shoulder or arm pain that flares up from time to time.

At the same time, I have been determined not to let my injuries or my working hours define my role or opportunities within design practice.  Whilst it has meant that I am careful about choosing where and with whom I work (unfortunately for me not always clear at the interview stage), my commitment to my own work life balance or integration has had a positive side effect.  Bullies usually also seem to inhabit the long hours cultures in higher proportions…coincidence?

Now I am lucky enough to work at Custance Associates, a boutique practice where I have a senior client facing role and input to the practice direction, with directors who are supportive and who actually care about the staff who work for them – a team who are a friendly and incredibly talented bunch.  I work flexibly from Tuesday to Friday working at 70% of full time, with some of that time being from home.  Occasionally I work some extra hours to meet deadlines, but its pretty rare.  Nor do my team work overtime regularly.  I have time for my blog, being a part of the BILT ANZ committee, to exercise (which is actually essential for my pain), occasionally to meditate and always to spend with my family.  I am happy.  I think this is something we sometimes forget is even possible in our industry.

So many people I know have continued working in unhealthy environments on the premise that everywhere else is the same.  Maybe a lot of practices are – but not everywhere.  Take the time to define what you want and expect – and then demand that – and if where you are can’t provide it, you can probably find somewhere else that can.  Maybe not so quickly and easily as just any job, but I believe for most of us, it is possible.  If more staff expect that a reasonable work life balance and working hours is possible, and that bullying is unacceptable, then companies will be forced to change – both in architecture and law.  Do you want things to change? Do you believe cultural change is possible? Will you be part of the problem or part of the solution?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image via unsplash

Is regulation the answer to fee MADness?

Is reintroducing fee scales and further regulation the solution to fee slashing and ‘the race for the bottom’ among architects?  Is this really feasible in a world of increasing globalisation and diversification of service providers?  If not, what other options are there?

Recently I read this article by Shaun Carter, immediate past president of the NSW Chapter of the Institute of Architects and a principal architect at Carter Williamson Architects.  Its really great to see Shaun speaking out on the issues of fees – and what he describes as the ‘existential crisis’ of fee madness – the ‘mutually assured destruction’ of architecture as a profession.

Immediately after reading the article, I felt compelled to join the conversation and comment – and then realised I had the beginning of another article on fees forming in my mind.  Fees are a topic I have frequently written about over the five years I have been writing this blog (from The art(or is that science) of architecture fees to talking about fees and BIMonomics and more recently Architecture and Design Fees: Why Hours), and so Shaun’s article was of great interest to me.  Essentially he proposes that the solution is regulation across three platforms – minimum fees (essentially a return to fee scales), government as a model client and limiting architecture graduates.

Is regulation, restrictive trade practices or collective bargaining the right answer? While I used to think that maybe regulation could be a solution, I wonder how does regulation in NSW (or in any other Australian state) solve a problem which is national, but also potentially global? How can you regulate at the edges of architecture – for example in fields where architects and interior designers compete? Do we really believe we can regulate if your competition is Google or Amazon? (Right now in the USA I think its the other way around…Amazon are practically setting the regulations with the offers that came in from cities determined to win Amazon 2 HQ!)  So personally I don’t think regulation, in particular fee scales is the answer.

However that doesn’t mean there is not a place for advocacy and education – both of architects and of clients. I agree with Shaun that “Clients don’t recognize that their service is cut-priced, but have the same expectations as a good, fee-paying client.”  Fees have dropped so far, that many clients including project managers, would have no idea of the real cost of the work they are bidding, only ‘market rates’.  Many clients have no idea of the amount of hours that go into designing and documenting a building or a fitout – I’ve had more than one project manager assume that my job is done after concept design “don’t you just hand it over to the engineers then?”

I’d love to see both the Board of Architects and the AIA take leading roles on the issue of cut priced fees and client education, alongside of other organisations working in the design of buildings – the ACA, the DIA, Consult Australia, Engineers Australia and more. This isn’t just an issue for architects but for all design professionals.

One of the “frequent offenders”clients guilty of this is our own government – at all levels across a wide variety of agencies and institutions. Cut throat fee bidding in government work where price is the only criteria has been a problem for years. Back in 2014 I published this piece on one architect who tried to take a stand against this practice, after uncovering one government agency who admitted they would have to accept a tender of zero if  pre-qualified firm chose to submit it.  (I also commented on this as ‘madness but without the great acronym!)

Maybe if you don’t work in the government sector, you believe that the fact these firms have been in business for long enough, with enough of a reputation and standing to be pre-qualified for government work, that they wouldn’t engage in such foolish business tactics. But when the work is low (or even often when it’s not), it’s such common practice as to be the norm. And then it’s paid for by the staff (even by the principals and directors) working long hours for free or by compromising the quality of documentation – thereby driving up construction costs and waste.  As mentioned in Shaun’s article, there is no way that low fees don’t equate to lowered quality of service. Even if a company is spending the same hours on the project – if many of those hours are unpaid overtime the quality of the work is lower. (There is so much evidence that working 50 or more hours a week compromises the quality of your work).

Shaun’s call for Government to lead the way as a model client is a fantastic idea (and while we are at it, perhaps some model client contracts from Government where risk is fairly distributed and copyright ownership retained?) I agree that if our government at all levels takes the lead in demonstrating the value of good design and the better outcomes that could be achieved, it is more likely more private companies would follow. Whilst I’ll admit, initially this is regulation, I’d perceive it more as leadership by Government, rather than purely a regulative measure.

Leadership needs education.  Everyone who designs needs to be part of educating our clients, but advocacy by the AIA or the boards around Australia could help make a difference. Not just for today’s clients, but by educating tomorrows clients to appreciate design. In Scandinavia, design education starts in primary school and an appreciation of design is a part of the culture. More recently, Australians too are coming to appreciate design, you see this in the quality of our newer cafes, restaurants and shopping centres and in our obsession with home renovation reality TV. But “clients need to understand that design excellence costs money” (and takes time). This is where the home renovation shows do professionals no favours.  Where are the shows about architects or interior designers? Other than Grand Designs, notably absent.

For too long design has been undervalued in Australia, and this is because we need real evidence to back up and underpin this education.  Evidence that will prove to everyone – clients, project managers, even builders and the architects/designers themselves that design really does add value.  To do this we need more research, research like the new RASP project, that sets out to prove the value of design through the question “Do architect designed renovations improve capital gains in the Melbourne residential property market?” Whilst this research relates purely to architects and residential design, there are so many possibilities for commercial, institutional and other sectors to benefit from similar projects. The retail sector already knows it, and has long invested in research to understand how design drives consumer behavior, and the payoff is clear and direct. In other sectors the questions and the payoff is not so straightforward. The problem is that individual clients or practices can’t afford to fund this research. At the University of Sydney around 100 workplaces have participated in the BOSSA project for post occupancy evaluations – how much more extensive would this dataset be if we have if every government workplace had a post occupancy evaluation? Again,this is another area where the Government could play a leading part. Why isn’t the CSIRO involved in this kind of research?  Improving the design of our workplaces could be a key means of improving our national productivity.

While good design does cost money, our professions need to also take responsibility for productivity and efficiency. While we might have BIM capable software, there is so much wasted human capital and time in most architecture practices. Our actual fees might be a lot lower if we invested more in technology and training. The whole of the construction industry is guilty of not investing in software, training or automation. Is this because of a lack of education at leadership level, a lack of understanding of how technology can benefit us or is it fear of change, a distrust of technology and of individually being left behind? Or are we now in a vicious cycle of low fees, with nothing to invest? Whatever the root cause, our industry will be left behind if we don’t invest in technology. I’ve written in the past about the coming wave of automation, (Will a Robot take my Job? and Is Disruptive Innovation Possible in the Construction Industry and more recently, I’m a designer and I job share with an AI) – if you didn’t know, it’s already here.  If you have not started to think about how you can automate routine parts of your practice you will be left behind. When our fees are so low already, how can we afford not to automate where practical? Why should we be calculating the space for fire stairs or toilets when a computer can do this so much more efficiently that we can.

We don’t just need to educate clients, but we also need to train young architects and designers more in business – and even more so, in innovation and entrepreneurship. Architects might not feel that traditional business and accounting is their thing – but innovative ways to develop new business could be more appealing.  Especially if we continue to train architects in such numbers – we need to train them to expect to be other things than a traditional architect, because there will not be nearly enough jobs.  Maybe we don’t need to limit the number of graduates, but to value architectural training as the background to many other avenues of design thinking.  If the next generation are nimble and accept change, and learn how to keep learning throughout their careers – maybe they will take their valuable design thinking into broader roles. I am constantly surprised at how architecture and interior design are creative professions but so many practitioners are so resistant to change (how many architecture practices do you know who have implemented activity based working…)

We can’t just expect the universities to teach business awareness though. For too long in too many practices, fees and charge out rates have been too secret – something that graduates are not expected or even often allowed to know about. Everyone at all levels should understand the fee budget and how their work contributes – just like when a client doesn’t tell us their budget, how can you expect someone to understand how their time contributes to the job cost if you never shares any information with them?

Finally, we need to think about how we charge. The world has moved on from dollars per hour. The ability to make money is no longer linked to human capital. This is the major lesson for all professions where we have historically charged by the hour. So I think we need to be thinking about value based fees, and about not fee scales. I’ve never worked in a time of fee scales, but I can’t see how fee scales in a time of globalisation and diversification are going to protect our jobs and fees. Fee scales won’t stop Amazon or WeWork from taking over the traditional roles of architects.

So what is a value based fee? The value of your work, the value of your ideas.  I’ve written in a lot more detail previously on this topic in the article Architecture and Design Fees: Why Hours.  If we start to think and talk about fees in terms of our value, and the value of our work – can we continue to justify cut throat fees in our own minds?  Aren’t we devaluing our own work that way?  Of course when clients don’t value our work and our profession doesn’t value our work – we have a problem. So thats why proving our value to others is also a key part of the solution.

I agree with Shaun – three things need to change – although my three are different:

  1. We need to value ourselves;
  2. We need to invest in the future; and
  3. Our clients and those who occupy our buildings & spaces need to value us
 Maybe I’ll add number four – we need to envision a future where being an architect or an interior  designer doesn’t always mean working in a traditional practice alongside only other architects and design professionals. Whilst Bjarke Ingels is a talented designer, BIG is a successful mutlinational firm because the CEO, Sheela Maini Søgaard comes from business not architecture. A lot of architects I know would be quite scared by that notion.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits:

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

I’m a designer and I job share with an AI

Thomas Edison is credited with the phrase Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” and I believe there is no field where this applies more than architecture and design. So often people assume that interior design is such a fun, creative job – that it’s all about drawing, colours and furniture, something like being paid to colour in and shop – when today being a designer is just as much about people management, psychology, project management, documentation, checking codes and standards and managing contracts.  It’s also often about a culture that expects long hours and being always available to the job. “It’s not work when you are passionate about it?” is common. But what if instead we could all work less hours and job share with our computers?

This is my latest article, which you can continue reading on Workplace Insight.  Workplace Insight is one of my favourite blogs and I was really excited to be asked to write this piece for them.

If yu enjoyed the article, you might enjoy attending BILT.  BILT ANZ will run in Brisbane this year from 24-26 May and will have sessions across a whole spectrum of technologies for architects, designers, engineers, contractors, estimators, quantity surveyors, project managers, building and asset owners and managers.  Buildings Infrastructure Lifecyle  supported by Technology – with over 100 classes to chose from over three days, if you work across these fields BILT has classes for you.  Its not all about technology either, with classes in leadership, change management and strategy, BILT supports the fact that a wide range of skills are need to understand, implement and deliver projects in this complex and technology driven world we now work in.

Personally, I will be presenting a class “Inside Out: Implementing Revit for Interior Design Teams” in Session 1.3.  I’d love to see you there!

You can register and find the full schedule at our website.  (Disclaimer: In one of my other roles I am the BILT ANZ Communications & Marketing Manager) If you are not in ANZ, you will also find BILT in Aisa, North America and Europe.

Ceilidh Higgins

Is your work flexible, agile or autonomous? (and what is the difference anyway)


What does flexible mean to you? Is it the hours you work? Or the place? Is activity based working the same as flexible working? And what does agile working really mean?

These days companies are frequently talking about offering flexible and agile working conditions or environments but what that means in reality can vary widely between different organisations.  If you google “flexible work” in Australia you will find the top links are to the government Fair Work Australia website. Fair Work defines flexible work as “Examples of flexible working arrangements include changes to: hours of work (eg. changes to start and finish times), patterns of work (eg. split shifts or job sharing),locations of work (eg. working from home).” However, one of the key items of note in Fair Works requirements for defining and flexible working arrangements is that everything is documented and approved – essentially it is a contractual definition of flexible.  Definitions from government bodies in the UK and USA are similar.  Is this what you thought flexible working was? I only discovered this definition when I was returning to work part time after maternity leave and I found it very surprising – for years I thought I’d had flexible working arrangements but it hadn’t been this. This contractual or legal definition of ‘flexible work’ does not allow the flexibility of varying hours day to day or with little notice.  It’s not about trust or performance based outcomes, it’s still about watching and clocking the hours.  I was used to travelling, working from home if I had a tradesman coming (or needed to write a submission), taking time off if I worked a weekend or even just arriving at a different time because I chose to fit a yoga class in before work. I would have thought for many people having to contractually defining flexible is almost the opposite – it wouldn’t meet the needs of many people looking for more flexibility in the workplace – such as the ability to attend children’s school events or to care for a sick child while still working. So if flexible isn’t what I thought it was – what is the right terminology to clearly define this way of working, based upon trust and the ability to change the plan? Could this be activity based working (ABW) or agile working?

While ABW is a way of working, it is a way of working which has been very much linked to physical environments.  Often the term agile working is also used to define these types of working environments. But what is the difference between agile working and activity based working?

ABW is based upon the premise that staff choose where to work in order to best perform the task required.  The choice may be in a variety of work settings within the workplace, or somewhere else all together. It’s is generally acknowledged that for ABW to be successful, a different style of management with a higher level of trust is required. If a supportive management culture exists this would therefore seem to lend itself to people also chosing the time at which the work is performed?  But the definition of activity based working is also dependant upon the premise that staff don’t have an allocated desk. So what kind of work is it if you do have an allocated desk but you can choose when and where to work?

I recently started researching agile working and what this term really means, and discovered that agile working is a lot bigger than just a way of working or an environment.  Agile working begins with how you run your business “you allow the established routines within your business to quickly and seamlessly adapt to the quickly changing marketplace.” While agile working does involve the flexibility of time and place, it is also about the flexibility of management, structures and the ability for an organisation to respond and transform itself. (You notice this articl doesn’t use the government/contractual definition of flexibility but the more commonly accepted notion).

It’s also important to understand that agile working is not the same as agile development – it’s not about the post it notes.  Agile development is a project management methodology developed in software development in the 1990’s which in recent years has become very popular across various sectors.  One of the most popular methods is known as Scrum.  Scrum is best known for the daily scrum and scrum task board of post it notes. (Kanban is also similar).  One of the limitations of Scrum is that is works less well for teams whose members are geographically dispersed or part-time – whereas agile working should not be limited by this. Paul Allsop of the Agile Organisation defines “Agile working [as] bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task. It is working within guidelines (of the task) but without boundaries (of how you achieve it).” 

In this article, John Eary discusses he differences between flexible and agile working, and the concept of work-life integration. Work life integration allows staff to choose when and where to work to suit their personal lives, and as long as performance outcomes are achieved.  John notes that “Managing this trade-off is a challenge for employers and employees. For employees the trade-off for more flexibility in working time is accepting greater responsibility in meeting work commitments. For employers the trade-off for staff becoming more responsible and responsive is adopting a relaxed attitude to their staff’ working practices, particularly to when staff choose to work. ”

To me, this says that agile working is really about giving everyone autonomy to chose how, when and where they work. Numerous studies have been published to verify that autonomy is one of the single biggest predictors of workplace satisfaction. Whether it is control of your place and time of work or of your environment, autonomy helps both attract and retain the best and brightest staff. And according to Gensler, autonomy also increases your chances of innovation.

While everyone these days claims to offer flexibility, how many organsisations are truly offering autonomy? When we ask for flexiblity should we be asking for autonomy instead?

Ceilidh Higgins

PS. I’m currently looking for a new role as a lead/senior workplace designer – in an organisation that offers flexibility (3 days per week) and autonomy.  Get in touch with me via the links at the bottom of the about page you are hiring! (no recruiters please)

Architecture and Design Fees: Why hours?

money by fedee P, on FlickrWhy is it, that in an age where the value of a company is no longer based on assets or staff numbers, but on ideas – that architects still charge by the hour?

Once upon a time, the value of a company and the number of staff it employed had some correlation, but today this is no longer the case. In 1979, GM employed 853,000 people and had a turnover of $66 billion, today Google turns over a similar amount but with only 60,000 people.  The stories for Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and many other companies are the same.  Making money is no longer tethered to staff and hours.

In architecture, interior design and engineering however, hourly rates are still the norm. “When they choose to strike out on their own, architects tend to follow the outdated model of trading hours for dollars. One of the consequences of this mindset is the fact that clients continue to perceive architectural services as a cost rather than a value.” (Quote from Architizer) Even if, as is commonly the case, a lump sum fee is being generated, this is usually based upon hourly charge out rates of staff multiplied by a guess (educated or otherwise) as to how many hours a task will take. (I’ve written about traditional fee methods previously here) Clients commonly expect a detailed breakdown of the number of hours allocated to each staff member across different project phases. Why are we charging this way when it both limits our ability to increase profit as well as our flexibility in how we deliver services? If I can reduce my hours either by the selection of staff or by automating part of the process, shouldn’t I as the business owner be able to chose if I pass this saving onto my customers (clients) or if I achieve a higher margin? Why is is that clients seem to think that architects and designers are trying to rip them off with higher margins.  Architectural margins are  very low, and in some sectors fees have effectively shrunk over the last 15 years.  We need to make money where we can in order to stay in business.

Obviously at some point there is a minimum fee a company with employees has to charge in order to pay costs, overheads and salaries – although perhaps salaries also need not reflect hours. If architects don’t charge by the hour, what could the alternatives be?

Charging by  the deliverable

In some senses we already charge by deliverable – the lump sum fee essentially considers the building to be the deliverable. While it’s important we don’t lose sight of this fact, the truth is that not every building requires the same amount of work. A great article on this topic is the story of 3 bike sheds by Dimase Architects  which clearly explains that architectural services are not just about building types or construction budgets but about desired outcomes.

Outside if the residential sector, it is also very common for client organisations to dictate deliverables, meeting schedules, required reviews and documentation standards. Frequently these requirements have very little to do with delivery of the building, but are to meet the client’s managers or user group expectations. Sometimes they come with extensive time and cost impacts. How do we charge for a video walk through? The hours in producing the video itself might be very low, but should the cost of software licenses necessarily be considered an office overhead if only used on some projects? Maybe only 1 or 2 people in the office are capable of this work. Should the fee structure for this work take these factors into account?  This leads to the idea of value based fees.

Value based fees

How valuable is your service to your client?  This is a concept I find really interesting, the idea that you change a client based upon the value they place on your services or even the value you create for them. A residential complex is the most obvious example, if you can design to fit in an extra apartment, the developer client makes additional profit, so why should the architect not benefit from this via some kind of bonus? Some would suggest that the architect might compromise design quality at the expense of profit, but I’d say if you are working for a developer – you probably already feel like you are doing this but not getting paid anything for it. In some ways this would be align the architects and the developers interests better.  Most architects would still value good design and their own names and developers would realise that at the point when the architect said no more apartments would fit, they really had reached the sensible limit.

I can see how this kind of fee structure could apply to many kinds of development – car parks, childcare centres or nett lettable area of office buildings. The challenge would be how to apply value to the more difficult to measure or immeasurables like productivity in an office or the positives such as mental wellbeing coming out of good quality design.

I can also see the potential that this fee structure could perhaps backfire – some clients would only want to pay based upon achieving targets or would impose fee penalties for not meeting targets.  But possibly they are the types of clients who already try to get free work or push fees down that we would all rather not work for anyway!

Architect as developer

If you search the Internet for blogs about architect entrepreneurs, the architect as developer is the most common model. Instead of working for the developers, why not become one yourself? So far, the examples I have seen generally relate to small to medium scale residential developments or small commercial premises (you can find lots of examples at Archipreneur). It’s certainly true that the profit margins are higher in development than architecture, although the risks are obviously greater too. However, this model will only ever work for certain project types.

A similar model that has recently emerged is architect as one investor rather than as developer.  This model seems to be emerging in non-traditional development sectors such as The Commons in Melbourne or SWARM in the UK. What both these two initiatives have in common, is the idea of quality development for the good of the community.  Again, this is a potentially higher risk model than traditional architectural practice, but could allow architects interested in working on projects with a social conscience a lot more scope for both work and potential income.  Again, this model won’t apply to projects where there is no development to invest in (eg an educational facility or a client workspace).

Creating proprietary products

Architects often create designs as part of their commissions, they may work with suppliers for one off custom elements to be incorporated into the project.  Very few architects get paid for this.  Apparently Renzo Piano does.  He was involved in developing a new glass louvre system developed for Aurora Place in Sydney and now he gets paid when the product is used on other projects.

So what about our salaries?

One of the things that any model of fees has to take into account is how we pay ourselves and our staff. If our project fees are no longer based upon hourly rates, should the way architects are employed and paid also change? The idea of the gig based economy, where freelancers sign up for a set fee to a specific project (similar to a movie production) is often mentioned in the context of architecture and the economy of the future more generally. Whilst I can see that this could work for larger projects where architects may be involved for 2 years or more, would it be as well suited to smaller projects which may only run for a few months and frequently don’t require full time involvement? Perhaps this is only my current bias or perception, as the idea of piecemeal freelance work continues to grow more common for projects and tasks both large and small, and as technology and co-working allow different options for working together maybe this will be feasible. If we do move towards this model, payment structures would need change, likely increasing to assume that people don’t always have a forty hour work week. An industry structured this way could be a good or bad thing – potentially better work-life balance through time off between projects but potentially more stress about where the next job is coming from.

Maybe our employment structures don’t need to change all that much.  The idea of bonuses or profit sharing isn’t a common one in architecture and interior design but there is no reason this couldn’t be change very easily.

There are a lot of other ways that architects and designers are making money through non-traditional structures, but many of these are quite limited in their applications or potential to earn – for example internet competitions, although the guy who runs the site probably does quite well from it.  But this takes us into non-traditional services, offering services for other architects and designers, which is becoming relatively common on the web (examples include ArchSmarter and EntreArchitect).

I’d like to think there will be a viable model for fees for designing buildings and interiors for other people and organisations, which recognises and pays for the value of design.  We have to remember that“Concept design is not a loss leader. It is our most precious commodity.”  Design is what our clients value us for, and its not something that can be calculated by the hour.

I’d love to hear from anyone working with non-traditional fee structures, or with other ideas about how architects and designers can structure their fees.  Has anyone worked on a value based fee project?  Or even a project which included a bonus for the architect?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits: “money” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by fedee P

Is design ever ‘finished’?

Finish it by Pedro Travassos, on FlickrOne of the greatest challenges of architecture and design is the fact that there never seems to be enough time.

From student projects onwards there never seems to be enough time to finish designing, detailing and documenting everything about a project.  Essentially, almost every building or fitout is a prototype and to detail every single junction, item or assembly might mean we would never actually finish.  Couple that with the fact that as detailed design and documentation progresses, we may need go back and modify or redesign different parts or elements to improve them or accommodate engineering or product details or the inevitable new client requirement, and at times it feels like design can be a never ending cycle.  Then even as construction takes place, the built reality doesn’t match the ideal, or the contractor has alternative suggestions for products or details.  The client then moves in and the way the space is actually used may differ from their original intentions, or their organisation may have changed over the time the project has taken to come to fruition.  Generally, there  comes a point where further modifications to the the project stop. Its often because of limits, of programs, fee budgets or client expectations –  But does this mean the design was actually finished – can it be and should it be?

To many engineers, it seems that architects and interior designers are notorious for changing their minds and never finishing design.  While it is true that many architects and interior designers are indecisive or looking to constantly keep improving the design at the cost of program (or engineering), it is also just as true that many of these ‘design changes’ are driven by technical or functional requirements.  If the mechanical engineer hasn’t advised the architect of sufficient space they require for plant at the concept stage, the structure may have to change to adjust.  If the client has decided they really need to keep their Comms room onsite instead of using a data centre, then the Comms Room is certainly going to be getting bigger with all the flow on effects to services and other parts of the building that may have.  Many clients and engineers don’t realise that even the smallest of decisions on audio visual or appliances can have flow on effects to the sizes of whole rooms and hence the whole building.  An example is that a corridor with no door in it could be 1m wide, add a door and you might have to increase the width to 1.6m for wheelchairs.  Obviously as architects and designers we try to build some tolerances into our designs from the beginning but extra space gets quickly eaten up.

In every project there has to be points where certain decisions are frozen, and will only change for a significant reason.  Usually we label these points as client sign offs or reviews.  Points at which the client agrees to the design.  The challenge though is always about what level of detail the client signing off.  Unsurprisingly many clients like to leave their changes and decisions as open as possible as late as possible. Its not only the architect or designer that wants to keep their options open.  Even with defined milestones, some clients can be quite difficult about what they believe they have agreed to, particularly if they want design changes and don’t want to pay for them.  Its easier to blame the architect than to concede the client organisation has changed its mind about how they want a space to function.  On one project, we proposed a combined reception and breakout space, initially the client stakeholder group really liked the idea and the images presented.  Some time after signing off on the schematic design and well into our detailed design process, we were informed that the client did not want to proceed with this space.  They wanted a traditional separate reception area, and questioned why we would ever have thought a combined space was suitable.  We found out later that they had decided to temporarily move a different user group into the fitout, and my guess is that the head of the new user group didn’t like the concept.  Thats their choice, but why should we be the ones paying to go back to the drawing board so to speak?

Even without any need for significant client changes during design and documentation, there comes a point where contractors have to price a design and be appointed, and critically construction has to commence.  In an ideal world, the design should not actually be complete before the contractor is selected.  Contractors, and particularly the sub-contractors who are actually doing the work, have their own ideas and suggestions about construction.  These ideas can be a real asset to cost and buildability, as they are the ones that have to actually make it happen.  However, it is rare on larger scale projects (in my experience anything bigger than a single dwelling) or anything put out to competitive tender that this happens in a meaningful way – even on supposed design and construct projects.  Changes and questions inevitably seem to be last minute and often ‘value management’ happens without the input of the designer. Often only the head contractor has been appointed when the design is being finalised, and later the sub-contractors have their own suggestions.

During construction design still continues.  If we detailed every tiny piece of every project then construction documents would be ridiculously complex and would really never end.  Shop drawings and site instructions resolve the finer detail of design.  This phase tends to become the only opportunity for sub-contractor input to design changes.  Whilst we all dream on zero RFIs and variations, is this really a feasible reality?  I’d say not within our current documentation and procurement systems.

When the day of practical completion arrives and the client moves in, many clients think the design process is well and truly done.  However the best clients realise that as you inhabit your spaces you will understand it and realise things you didn’t see during the design process.  Almost everyone can relate to this through their own homes.  Did the furniture you thought of before you moved in suit the spaces in the way you pictured?  It’s the reason why many architects like to camp on a site, or live in their own unrenovated or under furnished homes before they make all the final design decisions.  Its a great idea for clients to save some of their design contingency to continue to work with their architect or designer in the months after they move in to undertake those additional little projects that can make that space just right.  Even with the best design and planning, organisational, technology and other forms of change mean that design should never be static – a building should never be considered finished ‘forever’.  Maybe the built elements are complete, but the lightweight furniture type elements will always need to change over time.

So I believe the answer is no – design is never ‘finished’.  But that shouldn’t mean that we avoid decisions or sign offs, whether by the designer or the client.  If we don’t say stop here and allow the team to move on, then the building will never be built.  In his book, Linchin, Seth Godin talks about the concept of ‘shipping’ which he defines as getting a project completed and out the door.  It is better to have something that is not perfect out there in the world than to have nothing at all.  To me, this is the ‘finished’ that we need to realise as architects and designers, otherwise we could still be working at 2am every day.  To quote Seth Godin “If you want to produce things on time and on budget, all you have to do is work until you run out of time or run out of money. Then ship.” Maybe its not quite that easy, but apparently the more we try the easier it gets.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits: “Finish it” (CC BY 2.0) by  Pedro Travassos 

Where to From Here: Embracing technological change

la libertad tiene un precio. by ... marta ... maduixaaaa, on FlickrIs architecture on the verge of the greatest change in centuries? Ceilidh Higgins looks to the future and predicts disruption of epic proportions. This is part of the ACA’s Where to From Here series, which invites reflections on the recent ACA – SA State of the Profession research.

The architectural profession could be sitting on the brink of the largest shift in how we practice since the Middle Ages and the time of the master builder. Alternatively, we could become totally irrelevant to anything except the boutique house. The scary thing is that much of our profession seems totally unaware this seismic shift could soon occur.

I really enjoyed writing this article for the ACA, it brings together a number of topics I have written about over the last few years.  To read the full article go to the ACA website here.  If you are interested in the ACA-SA State of the Profession research you can find a summary here.  I also recommend checking out the other articles in the series.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image credits:la libertad tiene un precio.” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by  … marta … maduixaaaa 

The early bird catches the worm? When to engage engineers

Breakfast by Ron Wooten, on FlickrWorking as a collaborative team with project managers, engineers and other consultants as well as the client is a topic I have written about or touched on in many of my previous posts.  Some of my earliest posts on this blog were about working together with engineers, starting with this post on Collaborating with Engineers.

Earlier this year, after coming across this post, sourcable.net asked me to comment on why engineers should be involved early in projects.  “I think early engagement with engineers allows you to explore a lot more possibilities and solutions and not be constrained so much”.  As well as discussing the benefits of early engagement of engineers, this article also discuss the barriers to doing so. To read the full article on sourceable.net click here.

And I should also mention – when I refer to sharing drawings…of course I also mean to include models! Really I should have said sharing design information, which is what really working as a collaborative team is about.

When do you engage with engineers?  What stops you doing so earlier? Do engineers want to be involved early, or would you rather wait until the architect has ‘finished designing’? (Now there is a topic for another day!) Do you see benefits to sharing more information across the consultant team?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits: “Breakfast” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by  Ron Wooten 

Could we all achieve more by working less?

Balancing lady by orangebrompton, on Flickr One of the reasons my blogging schedule is a little irregular from time to time is the fact I always want to enjoy writing this blog. Its also one of the reasons I take a break in January. To me, this is the meaning of work life balance – that you are enjoying what you are doing, its not just about the number of hours you spend at work, or doing things that are related to your work. Interestingly during the course of writing this post, I came across this article, which claims that work-life balance is impossible – but to me, describes what I would think of as work life balance – in particular filling your life with things you love.

I think for most of us who work in architecture and design, we do love many parts of what we do. But that doesn’t always equate to feeling that we have a happy balance between our work and other things we love – some of which may be related to, and extend our work, such as attending or presenting at conferences, research and writing or contributing to the industry as a whole – as well as all the other things that are important in our lives – family, friends, health and other interests.

For most people, even architects who love their jobs – we don’t love unrealistic working hours and deadlines. Mentally there is a big difference between a deadline that is a realistic and achievable goal which you have the time, energy and passion available to meet, and deadlines which are unachievable or require you to work an 80 hour week. Working late because you are caught up in solving a design problem can be enjoyable, working late and having to cancel other plans because someone else is having a crisis is not. I think for most people, it is particularly when we feel we have no control over our work and working hours, when someone else has created the deadline without your input, is when work and life start to feel out of balance and we feel stressed.

As many architects are, I’ve always had a tendency to words being a bit if a workaholic – I think you wouldn’t ever be able to finish the degree if you weren’t. Most of us do care so much about the quality of what we design and care about meeting our clients expectations that we are often prepared to put in additional hours, and not complain, still be happy and love our jobs. But in our industry, extra hours are because clients set unrealistic and unreasonable time frames for design and documentation. We often have the same amount of time to actually produce a design as they will then take to review it! Or we are working extra hours because ever decreasing and competitive fee structures rely on architectural and design staff to work extra hours for free. But is it really worth it for our clients or our firms?

Last week I read an article on how working more than 50 hours a week actually makes you less productive.

In my own experience I think this is true. As with many people, after an injury due to overwork and then later being made redundant and having some months off, my priorities around work have changed. Whilst it’s still important to me to deliver great projects and satisfy my clients,I am not willing to sacrifice my health or my whole life to do that. I also realise the value of taking time out of day to day work in order to be more inspired about work (see my previous post on finding inspiration).

So most if the time, I do now work less hours than I used to. Yes, there are still occasional times when you will find me in the office at 10pm or on a Sunday – but it’s no longer a regular occurance. I have realised that most of the time, I still get just as much done, if not more. Because I have time to sleep and excercise and I’m not stressed. Because I have time to read and blog, to go to conference and the like, I find new ideas and ways of thinking. When I go to work, my brain is switched in and I am getting work done more efficiently with less mistakes. This is an obvious benefit to the practice I work in, how much would our practices benefit from all their staff being at the top of their game rather than stressed and tired? Would it actually balance out the lower levels of overtime? And could our clients also benefit?

Clients often make the mistake in cutting short the design, and particularly the documentation process. Design takes time to consider and to mature – even if the first solutions might be close to the right answer, it almost always improves the design if time is spent considering, testing and discussing the design against the building requirements and functions. The opposite is also visible – I know in my fitouts – if you go to the spaces where the client rushed through last minute changes without allowing a full reexamination of the design as a whole, even people who are not designers themselves can usually tell there is something odd or comprimised about these spaces.

Short changing documentation is even more common – and with even more direct negative results to the client – straight to the hip pocket through RFIs and variations. Clients are often unwilling to understand that documentation is a process flow. There gets to a certain point where we can’t do it any faster no matter how many hours we spend on the job or how many staff we throw at it (also a bad idea when it comes to accuracy and consistency). There is a back and forth sharing of information and a review process between architects and designers, engineers, code compliance consultants and many others that makes up even a relatively small project today. Each person needs time to do their job and have it checked or errors inevitably occur. So clients next time you ask you design team why there have been so many variations, maybe you should think about how you cut back their delivery program.

Does the architectural and design industry need to rely on long hours? Is it helping you, your practice or your clients? Is it better to work smarter than to work harder? And what does work life balance mean to you? Is it becoming more important today that in the past?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits:
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  orangebrompton 

Is it value for money if your architect is free?

Money by 401(K) 2013, on FlickrArchitecture and interior design fees are always something that you readers here at The Midnight Lunch seem to enjoy  – and recently I’ve been reading some great stuff about architectural fees written by other people which I thought worth talking about and sharing with you – and then you can share it with all of your friends.  (Also check  out previous The Midnight Lunch reader favourite The art (or is that science) of  architecture and interior design fees)

Whilst we may get together and grumble about fees amongst  colleagues and our friends working for competitors, how often is it that an architect speaks out more publicly about fees –  to both the client organisation and to the competing architectural community – not very often in my experience. The way architectural fees are going, maybe it is something we need to see more of if we are all to actually stay in business and earn a living.  Whilst many firms thought they could cost cut during bad times and raise the fees again later this has not been the reality.  I’d say fees now in 2014 are comparable to 2004 – and I know that nothing else is.

Recently, this wonderful email written by Stephen Malone of MCA Architects was forwarded onto me (and I thank Stephen for allowing me to share it with all of you).  I’ve removed the name of the client and some other identifying references related to them, but you will certainly get the idea.  I’ve also highlighted in bold a section which I think is particular of interest.

Thank you for the briefing  meeting  which I am  sure all attending  Architects found  helpful.

I  trust you do not mind  me  circulating the following to the other Architects in attendance.

I raised with you informally our  practice’s concern  about the  level of fees which consultants were being paid, in relation  to the client  requirements in the design of the projects being undertaken  by [the client].

It is entirely reasonable that the [client] requires projects which are well designed and documented , given the buildings are for public [use].

However , notwithstanding the  [client’s] desire to achieve high architectural standards it is accepting  fees which  are markedly below  normal commercial levels.

The following illustrates this.

The total Project on costs commercially for similar projects are about 14% – 16% related to  a  construction  cost of say $3,000,000 made up as follows:

All  consultants fees design and  documentation only (excluding  QS and  specialist consultants) approx 8%- 9%

Tendering  and Contract administration approx  4%- 5%

Project Management                                                     2% -3%

You indicated in a previous  discussion with me that a similar figure of about 15% was used by the  [client] .

 

However the Fees being  accepted for Design and Documentation  only, by  consultants are in the  order of 4% (viz  50% of normal  commercial practice)  and  sometimes in  our recent  experience even  less . This means Architects are prepared to design and document buildings for the  [client]  for about 2% of the  value of the works ( the architectural  component is about 50%  -60% of the  consultants fees).

This in normal commercial practice would hardly cover  the  cost of the considerable amount of work involved in obtaining a Development Approval!

This also means the [client’s]  residual percentage is  about 11% or  about twice normal  practice, so the client ends up paying the same amount for all on costs , but  does it get the quality ?

Given  the massive amount of [projects] which has  been, and is being undertaken by the [client]  there should be by now  quite a few awards and public recognition and appreciation. I respectfully suggest this has rarely occurred and at these level of Fees is unlikely to occur.

Consultants whilst wishing to create work of a high standard sooner  or later look at their time sheets and  press the off button on the  computer.

You  can only “buy’  work so often and Architects are particularly naive in this  respect. As a fellow Architect you would know the practice of architecture is commercially vulnerable , subject very much to supply and demand. In difficult times fees can absurdly low.

You indicated to me that if a consultant offered to undertake a commission for nothing , they may still be  engaged, as it is in the [client’s] interests  to obtain the  lowest fees available. However Governments and their agents have a long term social responsibility and  a superior outcome would be achieved if fees more in  line with normal practice were accepted.

This can be done, and our own  practice has a variety of clients (including institutions ) who  will not  accept bottom line fees.

They know from bad  experience what the outcome is likely to be.

We view the [client’s]  mandate as immensely important for the public [deleted] and will trust these concerns will receive appropriate consideration .

Sincerely

Stephen Malone

DIRECTOR

MCA  architects

 

Madness, isn’t it.  We are driving our own profession into decline, by the practice – which if we were selling goods – would be known as dumping, and in many jurisdictions would be illegal! (See a discussion of ‘dumping’ in the comments in this post on Entrepreneur Architect) But here in Australia, many government clients (at all levels) are positively encouraging it – to the detriment of those now and in the future that occupy the buildings and spaces procured this way.

So how can we encourage our clients that this process of selecting the cheapest will not result in value for money? We all have to educate them, and we all have to resist the urge to undercut our competitors.  For a great blog post explaining in simple terms why architects charge different levels of fees, check out this post from Di Mase Architects – perhaps this should be essential reading for all clients.

At the end of the day, we all need to also remember that fees = salaries.  Do you want to be working for free?  Recently spotted on Twitter – “It’s amazing how creative you can be when your have interns working for free” (Tweeted by the great parody account @RoyalAusINSArch).  This one is certainly pretty close to the truth in a lot of practices – but its not just the interns working for free.  If you look at the latest DIA salary survey, design salaries are at minimum wage levels or less, and I have seen UK surveys that have indicated architects salaries are static.

I applaud Stephen for his stand, and for communicating such a well considered email, as well as the fact that he sent it both to the client and to the other architects working with this client. Its interesting to me that back in the 70’s price fixing for architecture was removed as a consumer protection – but now we are in a situation where we as architects and designers seem to be needing protection from the consumers, and that the consumers seem to need protection from themselves – as Stephen points out, you don’t get great architecture for free.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits:

PS. Come and see me at RTC Melbourne where I am presenting “Get your Groupon” at 2.30pm on Saturday 31 May.  Soon after I’m off to the USA where my alter ego Stuart (the girl) BIMimion is presenting as part of BIMx at RTC Chicago.  Follow the BIMinions on twitter throughout both RTCs – @BIMinions.