Adjust to consumers’ idea of value

by rheselbarth@solagroup.com

If you’ve read the article “The architecture meltdown” on Salon.com recently, you may have experienced, as I did, a moment of intense introspection about whether our chosen profession of in the world of architecture has really become as obsolete as the author suggests.

 

I choose to view things more optimistically, with light on the horizon for those of us who have committed our careers and expertise to residential architecture. We may have to make some adjustments to exist in the new reality, but consumer interest in well-designed, functional and affordable homes hasn’t gone anywhere. In fact, it has surged. Perhaps we just need to change our perspective.

 

As a professional group, residential architects spend an incredible amount of energy on blogs, debating the issue of architects versus home designers and who’s better suited for the task. But at the end of the day, these discussions reflect the plea of the starving architect and fundamentally address how, and how much, we are charging for our services.

 

I don’t presume to have a solution for this century-old dilemma, but one premise seems certain. Those architects who have stronger credentials and greater talent will be able to garner healthier fees. This has been in place for a long time and will probably continue to be that way.

 

It remains true that only a very small percentage of architects are designing for the upper one percent of the population, charging fees based on a percentage of construction and mostly doing well at it. The question then, as I see it, is this: How can the rest of the residential design community find a better way to sell their talents and trade, and be properly compensated?

 

As you know, I’m a big proponent of the design/build equation. I have found, like the rest of my colleagues, that even some of the upper echelon clients are diffident about paying architectural fees as a percentage of construction cost, although the same client may not even question paying real estate commissions of a similar range.

 

What works in my own practice is to charge a competitive rate for the design services and then subsidize the shortfall with part of my fees as a home builder. I am essentially allocating some of my construction fees toward providing additional architectural services, in-house.

 

Much of this additional architectural work, including design development, site visits, shop drawing review, submittals review and approvals, etc., is done by our company during construction, much the same as an architect would provide with project administration. It’s unfortunate that compensation to architects for this level of project administration is no longer the standard, and many architects have abandoned this level of participation as owners feel they are saving this expense.

 

This money is being expended, however. The fees not paid to the architect are being piecemealed between the builder and the interior designer, who have absorbed these areas of responsibility along with much of the architectural decision-making during construction. I propose that the results are not the same as when this work is done by the original architect.

 

It’s going to be a challenge to turn the custom home building system around to embrace the architect once again. Architects need to persuade the builders, owners and interiors designers that good design ultimately is what garners positive reviews and enhances the overall success of a project.

 

Apart from winning over the building and interior design industries, architects must be willing to get their hands dirty, and learn more about the construction process and the cost of construction to best serve their clients and projects. Professional collaboration among the architect, builder and interior designer is the essence of successful projects, and I suggest that it holds strong promise in reactivating the architect’s role and professional practice.

 

This is just one step. I’m sure there are many others. For instance, there are good initiatives at the grassroots level with groups such as AIA CRAN (Custom Residential Architects Network) that are beginning to create networking programs on a national level for residential practitioners to improve the odds in this tough market.

 

While the Salon.com article is a sad commentary on our profession, we architects know it’s not an exaggeration. One silver lining in all that gloom is the consumers’ desire for well-designed, cost-effective homes at all price levels. Architects are the best-suited professionally to achieve this; we just need to find a way to garner proper compensation for the players in the industry.

 

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