Would you like value with that?

Value within architecture can be a difficult topic to nail down.  Like many things in our profession this general notion can be applied to everything from our role within the larger marketplace to the merits of a project within its community.  An interesting conversation has been developing over the past few weeks on the AIA KnowledgeNet centered on the many facets concerning the question of value in architecture.  Much has focused on how architect’s can expand their role in the greater marketplace.  Some question our ability to adequately communicate our “added value” to our clients, worse yet the public at large.  Having started a career in the midst of the “great recession”, I have very direct experience with diminishing scopes, piecemeal agreements, and competition from forces outside architecture.  I can’t help but ask myself, how can we increase the level of “value” architecture can provide, both to the health of our firms as well as in our clients’ minds?

The construction industry accounts for roughly 8-10% of US GDP, and with the majority of new construction being that of single family homes most of our built environment never has an architect involved at all.  This is an untapped market for our profession, and given the current state of commercial construction, one that we must find a way into.  Simply working for the uber-rich is not going to bring our profession back to its previous position of influence and compensation.  For sure not every home out there warrants full architectural services, but what about programming a small addition for that family who has outgrown their current space, but can’t sell and are looking to remodel?

But how do you convince a smaller potential client to bring you in when they have preconceived notions that an architect only “complicates the project” or “adds cost”?  How do you identify (enough) potential clients when this vast sector of work is rarely announced via RFP?  If I knew the answers to these questions I would probably have a much healthier bank account.  I do find it frustrating that the general public can name three or four personal injury law firms, but probably couldn’t tick off a single architecture firm in town.  Surely communication is key, and we must do a better job getting the word out.

Let’s expand our services!  Programming, CMa, CMgc, sustainability consulting, master planning, industrial design, graphic design…why not!?  Let’s take on more risk, forgo design fees for equity positions (but then how do we pay ourselves?…hmmm), rethink how and when we bill for our services.  We have to start thinking like our clients.  What issues cause them heartburn?  Why do they balk at paying us 8% when they happily pay an agent 9%?  I’m sure it has to do with where the paychecks come from (personal bank account versus sale profits?) but I can’t prove it.

One thing is for sure, we need to evolve our profession.  We need to tap into previously neglected markets and consider commission opportunities that a few years ago we may have considered “outside our specialty”.  We need to broaden our understanding of a project’s life, from due diligence to financing to sales, so that we might rekindle serious growth within our profession.  There is value in what we do, but maybe the time has come due for us to collectively ask ourselves what that value can be.  Not only in our own terms, but in the terms of our clients, those great and small alike.

4 thoughts on “Would you like value with that?

  1. That’s a big question that you’re asking.

    The truth is, there is a huge gradation of people from those who do not care about design to those who care too much (if that’s possible). You certainly have to accept that a large majority of people won’t ever use an architect but there is a pool of people who can be tipped into using an architect if you can communicate what you bring to the project.

    The other issue is that you do actually have to bring value to the project. While a large number of architects are fantastic, some of them aren’t any better than a drafting service. We owe it to our clients and the other people in the industry to elevate what we are doing and not just in terms of design. Architects need to stay technically competent and not leave a large chunk of the thought to builders and engineers.

    As we all know architects aren’t typically great at business, but a big part of that is not being good at selling. If you want to improve yourself, work on selling the value of your services to anyone who will listen. Keep communicating it through this blog and social marketing, talk to people at parties and just keep sharing the value and backing up the real value.

    Being an architect is rewarding but its also a fantastic opportunity.

    • I absolutely agree that communication is only the first step, but actually bringing value to the table is the current crux of our profession.

      Most people seem to think the most value we bring is a set of pretty drawings that the GC will ultimately ignore 90% of. Almost nobody I speak to has ever heard that an architect is supposed to ensure the public “health, safety, and welfare”, or that we can be uniquely positioned to manage the lifecyle of a project, or that we can assist in financing the soft costs for projects, etc. Are we just glorified drafting services? I don’t think any of us are comfortable with that notion…but can we intelligently communicate that we are not to the public at large? So far I don’t think we have done a great job.

      I do have to personally congratulate you on some of the things you have chosen to accomplish at your firm. The incorporation of numerous disciplines, the use of digital media to get your word out, and the general use of information tailored to how a client approaches architectural services, is a great inspiration. Thanks and keep up the good work for our profession, I think it is a great help to us all!

  2. Pingback: Anonymous

  3. Great thoughts on this discussion:
    point of note:
    – Broadening their definition of “architect” and offering clients a vastly expanded array of services
    -Recognizing knowledge capturing and sharing as a firm’s most valuable asset
    -Negotiating value-based fees coupled with more risk sharing
    -Developing and closely monitoring metrics for design quality, client service and profitability

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