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The fee/risk equation must change

Ben Derbyshire

Persuading clients of our exclusive value is the only route to a fairer deal

I campaigned for RIBA Presidency with the mantra #ChangeIsNecessary. During the campaign and my first nine months as president I’ve met RIBA members across the country who are changing how we train the next generation of architects, and seen how new technology is transforming how we all work. I’ve been struck by the huge appetite for change from both within our profession and those we work with. It’s been thrilling to see the passion and dedication of RIBA members and their commitment to making a real difference to the society we serve.

Alongside these uplifting conversations about the future, an equally important part of my job is addressing the frustrations and challenges faced by architects: Brexit, diversity, fees and procurement require urgent reform.

I see the role of RIBA president as both a champion for architects and architecture in the wider world and as a driver of change within our profession. That is certainly how I want to approach the issue of fees and procurement. My predecessor Stephen Hodder’s excellent work looking at how our clients see us doesn’t make for an easy read, but if we want to change the status quo, we all need to think about how we can win the battle for hearts, minds and higher fees. But this is not just about changing attitudes and behaviours in our clients – we also need to look at ourselves.

To win a place on the framework, bidders had to agree to waive 100% of their fees if planning permission was not granted

Late last year, a large housing association, Sanctuary Housing, came to market looking for architects to join a new framework. While housing associations can make excellent clients, this one was far from enlightened. To win a place on the framework, bidders had to agree to waive 100% of their fees if planning permission was not granted. The case raises a number of practical and ethical concerns. For a large firm, absorbing the costs of months of staff time would be painful, but this sort of risk would threaten the survival of a small company and its ability to meet obligations to staff and other clients. No business – let alone a charity with a healthy surplus and £500 million turnover – should be asking those who work for it to take such mammoth risks. 

The RIBA made a formal complaint to the government about these terms. Despite some warm words, the decision came down to whether they excluded small businesses. Unfortunately, the housing association was able to point out that 90 firms bid for the work – of whom 75 were prepared to accept the very real risk that they would not be paid – as proof of support for the policy. Of these 75, 68 were small and medium sized practices. The case was lost and the procurement has continued. 

I hope that those who win business from this framework are paid well for their work, but I worry that the demonstrable willingness of architects to work for free will be exploited by this client and others in the sector. 

What can we do? Fee scales and protection of function always come up in these discussions. I am unconvinced of their practical benefits and certain that their political and legal feasibility is close to zero. The answer must lie in making the case to clients that architects offer more than just good design – they bring long-term value for money in a way no other partner can. When we bid for work, are we sure the fees on offer are enough to enable us to safeguard the value of our service to current and future clients and maintain our professional obligation to resource projects sufficiently? If the answer is no then we as a profession must say no to exploitative behaviour by refusing to bid for work under such conditions. 

We will keep pursuing Sanctuary Housing to make the case for a new approach: the success of our campaign depends on architects saying enough is enough: we will be stronger in the long run if we take a stand today.



Doric Club drinks receptions

This year the RIBA Doric Club is hosting four drinks receptions in Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and London. These informal social events are for Members who are retired and/or over 65 and offer an opportunity to remain in contact with the Institute and come together with friends, former colleagues and contemporaries to celebrate the past, present and future of architecture. 

Book online here