Working practice: still jam tomorrow

Words:
Maria Smith

Are we looking at the wrong problem in our complaints about work done for free?

The received wisdom is that we architects don’t value ourselves, our time, our ideas, or each other. We give everything away for free and in the process undercut each other and cheapen our entire profession. On top of this, clients are exploitative, the industry is oversupplied with architects, and procurement is excessively bureaucratic. All this amounts to a grinding sense that architects are getting a terrible deal.

I’m sure there’s some truth in this. Where there’s smoke there’s fire. What do you think? If you had to guess, what percentage of time would you say we spend working for no fee? Twenty percent? Thirty? According to a recent RIBAJ survey, it’s more like seven percent. I was surprised.

We asked practices to tell us: on average, how much time does your practice spend on fee proposals, expressions of interest, PQQs? And: on average, how much time does your practice spend on competitions and early stage speculative work to get a job off the ground? We asked them to split their answers into time spent by fee-earning or technical staff, and time spent by non-fee-earning or support staff. We also asked for some background information on the age and size of the practice and which sectors they predominantly work in. We received only 28 responses, so we must be careful in our interpretation of the results, however these were from practices of a range of sizes (from single figures to over 100) and ages (founded from 1962 to 2014).

We learned that spending around 4-10% of the practice’s total resources on speculative work from fee proposals to open competitions, is normal. Most practices returned answers within this bracket though some practices reported spending less and some closer to 20%.

 

The notion that we should be minimising or even eliminating this ‘work for nothing’ could imprison us in other ways

We also asked: what do you think the amount of speculative work required says about the state of our industry? The answers here were largely unsurprising with many comments along the lines of ‘architects lack confidence in the monetary value of their work,’ ‘architects’ work is undervalued and taken for granted,’ and ‘architecture is cheap and not taken seriously’.

I think we can all relate to this sentiment, and unpaid work must clearly be a contributory factor, however I worry that the circa 7% of our resources that we spend on what is essentially business development is not the just recipient of this ire. I worry that the notion that we should be minimising or even eliminating this ‘work for nothing’ could imprison us in other ways.

Yes, we need to guard against powerful clients taking advantage, but perhaps it’s more important to reform how work is won and refine our business model to accommodate a realistic level of judicious business development. Many practices do this very well already, but there is also a definite and loud collective whinge that suggests that this sort of speculative work is at best a necessary evil that would ideally be stamped out; and at worst unethical.

What is it that we’re objecting to exactly? That fee proposals incite a race to the bottom? That expressions of interest are a thinly veiled hunt for the biggest name? That PQQs are a farcical form of political procrastination? That competitions and unpaid feasibility studies are exploitation? Or are we objecting to competition in general?

We need to be careful here. We all know the arguments. Competitions can offer new practices opportunities; can allow practices to branch out into new sectors; and can enable a gestation period for innovative ideas that would likely be shut down by fortnightly client meetings. These are things worth protecting. The problem then, is not with the level of speculative work, but with the nature of it. Perhaps partly because we’ve been so vociferously complaining about spending inordinate amounts of time working for free, it no longer brings these advantages.

This notion that an ethical competition is a two-stage process with an expression of interest based on previous work and a second phase with an honorarium is flawed. Unless fastidiously adjusted, this process still favours established practices with their recognisable names and gleamingly relevant track record, and the meagre honoraria are often wolves in sheep’s clothing as a few hundred pounds seems to disproportionately lift clients’ expectations; we end up doing a fiver’s worth of work for a quid instead of a quid’s worth for nothing.

These well-meaning gestures do not address the systematic problems. We do not need more apologetic competitions, we need a vigorous redressing of business development practices in architecture that nurture a sustainable, diverse, equitable profession. Otherwise, as the White Queen explains to Alice, ‘The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day.’

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