How much will an Architects Fee set you back and what do you get for your money?
Architects love to complain about their income. When times were good, we imagined ourselves hard done by in comparison to other professions. These days, when every trade and profession is suffering, we are no longer the solo performer but just another voice in the choir, despairing at reducing fees and vanishing jobs. The older Architects whom I know personally, get all misty eyed when they talk about a supposed golden age of never ending commissions and high fees. The times they refer to are the post-war decades leading up to the 1980's. During this time, they tell me that Architects (and other professionals) best fee earner was the Mandatory Fee-Scale.
These are lists, drawn up by professional bodies, that describe how much each member of that body must charge for a given type of job. For example, all dentists agreeing to charge £50 to remove a tooth, no dentist is allowed to charge any more or any less. This gives the consumer cost certainty, you know how much you will be charged and you know every dentist will charge the same, so you go to the dentist you prefer the most (or dislike the least). The same was true for Architects, we all agreed to charge the same rate for the same work, there was no competition.
Many Architects blame Margaret Thatcher for abolishing mandatory fee scales but in fact it began in 1977, before she came into power, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission started the process, not the Tories. The Office of Fair Trading stuck the boot in around 1986, ruling that Mandatory Fee Scales were anti-competitive. But even before that, in 1982, the RIBA changed the Mandatory Fee Scales to Recommended Fee Scales. It was around this time that the Architecture profession began what economists call, a race to the bottom. We began undercutting each other to win work. Whereas before, a consumer chose an Architect based only on their reputation and the quality of their work, now they can choose based on the cost of the service as well. Only in many cases they don't, they choose based on the cost of the service and nothing else.
Since the early 80's there has been a constant chorus of complaint from architects, that ever dwindling fees leads to poorer buildings and more dis-satisfied clients. This in turn, they say, has lead to Architects losing their financial and social status. According to these disgruntled designers, the solution is to re-introduce Mandatory Fee Scales. Of course this is illegal under UK and EU law, it's a dead end. For a profession famed for its creativity, this approach shows a remarkable lack of lateral thinking.
So what can we do to improve our income while also giving the consumer the benefit of choice?
I suggest that each practise should clearly publish their Architects Fees for standard items of work. Whether its the hourly rate charged for each member of staff or the fee for each type of service. This will give the public a clear idea of how much they will be charged and it will let others within the profession know where their fees fit in relation to other Architects. At present, the main way for an Architect to gauge how much to charge is to consult the Mirza and Nacey fees guides. This publication surveys Architects across the UK and publishes the going rate for most main types of work; residential, commercial, education, healthcare etc. It lists the fees charged on sliding scale with the construction costs, the more expensive the build the bigger the architects fee. The main report for this year costs £195. It tends to be bought by Architects and is not something the average consumer will purchase.
I publish my fees on my website, I state my Hourly Rate and I also offer fixed price fees. I've had a mixed reaction to doing this, mixed in that clients love it and most other Architects are resistant. Discussing fees is still something of a taboo among the profession and how much each firm charges for its work is, In my experience, a closely guarded secret, even from their own staff. The current state of affairs does not fully protect the consumer, as it was supposed to. The ordinary consumer does not have easy and convenient access to fee information and, In my experience again, most ordinary people have a greatly inflated idea of the fees charged by a typical architect. Many of my clients are surprised and delighted at the level of service they receive, relative to the fees I charge.
If every Architects practise published their fees we would see a number of benefits:
1. More enquiries from ordinary people who would otherwise avoid Architects because they mistakenly believe we charge huge sums.
2. Less variety in the amounts being charged by Architects. If everyone within the profession knows how much their competitors are charging, there will be fewer practises charging very high or very low fees. The spread of fees will narrow.
3.Architects charging higher than average fees will have to justify this to clients.
4.Architects charging lower than average fees will have to justify this to their staff and any creditors, such as their bank.
5.The consumer, whether they be home-owners or property developers will have a convenient and easy guide to how much they can expect to be charged. This should encourage them to look at other factors in choosing an Architect, factors such as quality of work.
6.If an Architect wishes to undercut the competition, they can do so by a smaller margin. At present, it appears those who engage in under-cutting do so by massive margins because, in part, they don't know how much their competition are charging.
7.Architect will still be free to offer discounts to valued clients, the profession will still comply with the law, as publishing fees does not make those fees mandatory.