Explaining incremental tasks

There are three traditional methods by which an architect can charge fees to her client: the percentage fee, lump sum fee, and hourly rates. Inspired by the lean startup strategy, there’s a fourth method that’s emerging amongst younger practices: incremental tasks.

This is the last in a series of five articles that will assess the benefits and disadvantages of the four fee methods. It will analyse each from the points of view of both the architect and the client, and ask how well they tie an architect’s income to the value of her labour.

An archive of the series can be accessed here.

Architecture; Architecture fee types; Fees; Money; Gold

Incremental tasks

Overview

The architectural fee is split into a series of discrete tasks, each charged as a miniature lump sum fee. The intention of this method is to break a project down into very small components, with a single deliverable for each.

The tasks might include things like building a physical model of the design, or preparing a town planning report, or writing a construction specification. Typically, the tasks will require a unique combination of time and expertise to complete, so are likely to be charged at different rates. Across an entire project, there would easily be as many as 50 tasks that require anything from a couple of hours to a couple of dozen.

Transparency

At the beginning of the project, the architect presents her client with the list of tasks required of full architectural services. Each task is accompanied by its own price tag. Some might be essential e.g. a sketch design floor plan, others might be optional e.g. a physical model. Like ticking the boxes on a room service breakfast menu, the client is then empowered to select which tasks she wants her architect to perform.

There is an inherent transparency to this process, as it demystifies an otherwise long and complex architectural process. However, the elegance of the room service menu works because there are only a dozen items and a handful of choices to make. An architectural services menu will have many more of both, which carries the risk of bamboozling the client with too many choices. It’s important therefore for the architect to provide clear explanations of each task, and the implications of not ticking certain boxes.

Fairness

The essential benefit of the incremental tasks method is that the architect gets paid for every task she completes and only the tasks she completes. If the client decides partway into the process that she does in fact want a model to show her family, then she already knows how much extra it will cost her and is probably comfortable in paying the asking price.

On the surface, it seems that this is the perfect way to calculate an architect’s fee.

Dig a little deeper, and it becomes clear that like the lump sum fee, incremental tasks aren’t easily able to adapt to changes in design scope. If the brief at the outset of a project is for a modest 150sqm house, but this expands to 200sqm during the sketch design phase, the time required of subsequent tasks is likely to be higher than first anticipated. This introduces the hassle, likely compromises and possible conflict associated with fee renegotiation.

Not having used this method across a full project before, I’d welcome any reader feedback on this issue. Fixing it would make this method substantially more appealing.

Design

The incremental tasks method is one championed by architectural consultancy firm, Blue Turtle Consulting. I attended a seminar of theirs four years ago, an experience I blogged about here. Their argument is that a client presented with fee options is one more likely to value the services she is provided, and more willing to pay for extra services when required.

I don’t have a problem with this position at all, indeed I applaud it. However, there are many parts of architectural services that aren’t negotiable. Offering any of these up as options for a client to not tick risks the architect either delivering a subpar service or surrendering control over the results of her own design process. It seems simple enough to remove a fittings and fixtures schedule from the architect’s responsibilities, but what if the she can’t stand the fittings selected by her client?

Combined with the limitations of the method in adapting to changes in scope, I don’t believe it is well suited to high quality design outcomes.

Ease

By breaking a project that takes many hundreds of hours over many months down into small chunks, it becomes much easier for the architect to calculate how much time is required for each. She still needs to be careful not to shoot too high or too low with her assumptions, as this will either lose her the commission, or win her the commission but cost her dearly. However, the risk of the former is reduced at least as the client is able to deselect as many increments as she likes to bring the fee in line with her expectations.

Suits

Given the greater responsibility placed on the client in determining the services her architect is to perform, incremental tasks best suit projects where the client has worked with her architect before. This might be a developer who works regularly with a single architect to deliver many small (or large) speculative projects, or even a private client with experience in the industry.

Service or product

The incremental tasks method is strongly tied to the service offered by the architect, though this is mitigated by the calculations she is required to perform at the outset to determine how much each task will cost. A fittings and fixtures schedule for a $5m mansion will be substantially larger than one for a $500,000 renovation, thus will be charged at different rates.

Advantages

  • It’s fair. The architect is paid for the tasks she performs, no more and no less. This established a clear relationship between the work done by the architect and her fee.
  • It’s empowering (for both client and architect). The client is able to choose which tasks her architect will perform and which she won’t. Likewise, the architect has a mechanism in place to request more money when required: “Yes, I can design that extra piece of joinery for you, that will cost you an extra increment of $2,000. Are you okay with this?”

Disadvantages

  • It’s fragile. Like the lump sum fee, changes in scope that affect already agreed-upon future tasks are hard to renegotiate.
  • It’s inflexible. With the tasks required of the architect set in stone from the outset of the project, she is disincentivised to decide on a whim to change her process or build that model after all. Doing so would undermine the very basis of her fee structure.
  • It’s risky (for the design). With ample opportunity for the client to save a few dollars here and there, the architect risks not having a say in something that might actually end up having a strong influence on the quality of the design outcome.

 


Image source:

  1. Incremental tasks, author’s own image.
Posted in Architecture practice | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Explaining hourly rates

There are three traditional methods by which an architect can charge fees to her client: the percentage fee, lump sum fee, and hourly rates. Inspired by the lean startup strategy, there’s a fourth method that’s emerging amongst younger practices: incremental tasks.

This is the 4th in a series of five articles that will assess the benefits and disadvantages of the four fee methods. It will analyse each from the points of view of both the architect and the client, and ask how well they tie an architect’s income to the value of her labour.

An archive of the series can be accessed here.

Architecture; Architecture fee types; Fees; Money; Gold

Hourly rates

Overview
The architectural fee is based on hourly charge-out rates. In its purest form this method is entirely open-ended, much like a cost-plus building contract. The client pays the architect for however many hours she works.

Alternatively, the fee may be capped for each stage. I have to confess that this variation has never made sense to me: the client receives the dual benefits of a fixed fee cap plus the possible upside of reduced fees, while the architect enjoys neither the certainty of a fixed fee, nor the risk-free security of hourly rates.

In another variation, the architect charges her fees in the form of a monthly retainer. She receives a fixed sum for each month irrespective of how few or many hours she works, but is guaranteed this sum for as long as the project continues.

Transparency
The hourly rates method is simple to explain, though its very nature makes it difficult to quantify a total fee. Capping the hours is one way to introduce an upper limit to the fee, and therefore provide greater certainty for the client.

Like the lump sum fee, it is essential that a clear scope of works be defined. In this case however, the onus is on the architect to provide ongoing reassurance to the client that the hours spent are all necessary. Regular updates via timesheet summaries are the best way to keep the client informed. Where there are client-requested changes in scope, these are easily accommodated by simply adding the extra hours to the total.

Fairness
Undertaking a project using the uncapped hourly rates method seems like it would be any architect’s dream come true: licence to use as many hours as she needs on a project, and be paid for each and every one of them.

Having had some experience with cost-plus building contracts before, I know however that this dream is not as shiny as it first seems. Every hour is likely to be scrutinised, counted and even questioned. This can imbue a project with a subtle undercurrent of distrust between architect and client. The latter is hardly going to suggest that more hours be spent on a task after all. By leaving the fee unfixed, it inserts itself as a topic of possible controversy for the duration of the project. Instead of discussing design, the architect and client find themselves arguing about process: how long a task will take, even why it needs to be done at all.

Design
In contrast to the pressure to use fewer hours, I wonder whether a blank cheque wouldn’t introduce a simultaneous element of laziness in the architect’s habits? With no theoretical limit to her fee, the architect is less likely to work efficiently, and less likely to produce good design. This will hurt the architect’s business in the long run: becoming dependent on an unlimited fee for one project can ruin the other, regular ones.

Ease
One of the key benefits of the hourly rates method is not needing to quantify the length of time required of a project at its outset. There is likewise no need to account for possible changes in scope, as these will just be added to the tally. The challenge is really distilled down to picking the right hourly rates, though using the general rule of thumb of 1 : 1 : 1 for wages : overheads : profit is a safe approach.

Suits
The hourly rates method is best suited for small design projects, where there is a low risk of a substantial time blowout, or for fragments of larger design projects, where the work required of the architect is for some reason unquantifiable. An example of the latter is the town planning process, whose unpredictable nature makes it perfect for hourly rates.

Service of product
The hourly rates fee has no relationship at all to the size, cost or complexity of the building being designed. While a highly detailed $1m house and a large though rudimentary $1m carpark might earn the same fee using the percentage method, the hours required would be markedly different for each.

Advantages

  • It’s risk free (for the architect). Charging by the hour means no unpaid work ever, and hence entirely risk free labour.
  • It’s easy. There’s no need for the architect to budget her time in advance. She simply does her work, then charges for it.

Disadvantages

  • It’s risky (for the client). Unless some form of hourly cap is established, the client carries all the risk for time and cost blowouts. Except for small or hard-to-quantify projects, I would argue this also makes it very unlikely a client will agree to this fee method in the first place.
  • It’s controversial. Leaving the fees open-ended makes them more likely to be a subject of ongoing discussion between client and architect, and hence possible argument.

This article has been published in conjunction with ArchiTeam.


Image source:

  1. Hourly rates, author’s own image.
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Explaining the lump sum fee

There are three traditional methods by which an architect can charge fees to her client: the percentage fee, lump sum fee, and hourly rates. Inspired by the lean startup strategy, there’s a fourth method that’s emerging amongst younger practices: incremental tasks.

This is the 3rd in a series of five articles that will assess the benefits and disadvantages of the four fee methods. It will analyse each from the points of view of both the architect and the client, and ask how well they tie an architect’s income to the value of her labour.

An archive of the series can be accessed here.

Architecture; Architecture fee types; Fees; Money; Gold

Lump sum fee

Overview
The architectural fee is offered to the client as a fixed sum of money that covers the architect’s full services. It typically allows for minor variations to the project scope, for example less than +/- 10%, however any major variations trigger a renegotiation.

The methods used by the architect behind the scenes to calculate the lump sum fee are varied, from counting the number of hours or drawings required, to speculating on what the market will pay. As these assessments are often difficult to make accurately, it is common to use the percentage method as the basis for the fixed fee calculation.

Transparency
Like the percentage fee, the lump sum provides one all-encompassing number for the architect’s services. However, this number is a dollar figure rather than a percentage: it tells the client exactly how much her architect will cost from beginning to end. From the outset, this provides the client with great transparency.

An important caveat however is the requirement for a well-defined project scope. The lump sum fee is fixed only so long as the scope also remains fixed. Since it is the client’s responsibility to determine this, it is essential she does so thoroughly. The question of transparency therefore shifts from how much the architect will charge, to what she’ll actually be doing. Grey areas are best avoided: since there’s no wiggle room in the fee, the architect needs to explain very clearly to her client what that fee buys her.

Fairness
On projects where the scope of services remains unchanged, the lump sum method is perfectly fair. However, the nature of architectural projects is inherently uncertain. They’re likely to change in big ways and small, across every stage of their development. This is where the fixed lump sum becomes less attractive.

While it’s true that the lump sum fee can be renegotiated if needs be, this is easier said than done. I see two reasons why: first, it requires goodwill from both architect and client – if either feel’s she’s not receiving a fair deal there’s no hope for a successful negotiation. Even where the architect has a good relationship with her client, asking for more money can be a prickly topic. And second, negotiation implies compromise. As my barrister brother once told me, the very definition of negotiation means reaching a deal where neither party walks away happy. I experienced this on one of the few projects where my client insisted I provide a fixed lump sum fee. During detail design, the project scope ballooned by around 30%, but the subsequent renegotiation only saw me receive an extra 10% in fees.

So at both the macro and micro scales, the lump sum fee proves fragile. It works so long as the scope remains unchanged, but falls apart very quickly otherwise.

Design
Like the percentage fee, the lump sum method is an holistic financial model. This allows the architect to choose where she wants to spend more time and where less. The key consideration is whether the project as a whole is profitable.

Unlike the percentage fee, the lump sum offers very little wiggle room. With pressure to steer clear from a fee renegotiation, the architect is disincentivised to arrive at a design solution that requires extra work. It does not support the inherent exploration required of good design, and is likely to lead to expedient (i.e. poor) design outcomes.

Ease
Picking the right fixed fee to charge a client is difficult. The architect is caught between opposing forces: on the one hand, she wants to win the job, and thus make her fee as tight as possible; but on the other, she also wants to plan for the inevitable changes in scope, and thus make her fee as generous as possible. Somehow, she has to magically pick the perfect middle ground.

As someone fundamentally allergic to gambling, this is not a bet I’m comfortable in making.

Suits
The lump sum method is best suited to projects where changes of scope are less likely. This might be because good design is not desired (e.g. a factory), or because the project typology is extremely well defined or regulated (e.g. a school). It is particularly well suited to developer clients, who traditionally aren’t interested in thorough design exploration, and are less willing to shoulder the risk of an unfixed architectural fee.

Service or product
The lump sum fee straddles the middle ground between service and product. On the one hand, it’s derived from the project scope, but on the other it’s immune to the project cost uncertainty that comes from market-exposed construction pricing.

In summary:

Advantage

  • It’s safe (for the client). The lump sum fee provides the client with a fixed, quantifiable cost from the beginning of the project. As long as she keeps the project scope unvaried, she knows exactly how much she needs to pay her architect.

Disadvantages

  • It’s risky (for the architect). It requires the architect to cover herself for possible design variations, while simultaneously targeting her fee to win the project. Winning the project might simply mean she gambled too low, exposing her to considerable unpaid work.
  • It’s expedient. The fixed nature of the lump sum fee discourages the exploration and iteration that results in good design. Getting to a solution on the first pass is more important than getting to the right solution.
  • It’s fragile. As the source of scope changes is often hard to identify, charging extra fees for extra work can be fraught with tension. Even when a change clearly originates from the client, this doesn’t necessarily mean the client will be happy to pay extra. It works fine until suddenly it doesn’t.

Image source:

  1. Lump sum fee, author’s own image.
Posted in Architecture practice | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Explaining the percentage fee

There are three traditional methods by which an architect can charge fees to her client: the percentage fee, lump sum fee, and hourly rates. Inspired by the lean startup strategy, there’s a fourth method that’s emerging amongst younger practices: incremental tasks.

This is the 2nd in a series of five articles that will assess the benefits and disadvantages of the four fee methods. It will analyse each from the points of view of both the architect and the client, and ask how well they tie an architect’s income to the value of her labour.

An archive of the series can be accessed here.

Architecture; Architecture fee types; Fees; Money; Gold

Percentage fee

Overview
The architectural fee is calculated as a percentage of the cost of construction works. A large project generally requires more work than a small project, hence attracts a larger fee. It benefits from an economy of scale however, so the percentage itself is smaller than for a small project.

To illustrate:

  • A $1m project might attract a 10% fee, which equates to $100,000
  • A $1.5m project might attract an 8% fee, which equates to $120,000[1]

A further defining characteristic of the percentage fee method is that it automatically adjusts during a project if the construction budget changes. If the budget goes up, so does the fee, and vice versa.

Transparency
The percentage fee needs some explanation at the beginning of the client / architect relationship, however it’s simplicity makes this a relatively easy task. By keeping the client updated with fee summaries at each invoice, it is also possible to maintain transparency throughout the project. This is especially helpful whenever there’s a change in project scope: the percentage fee automatically updates to reflect the new budget, so should be communicated to the client.

From the client’s perspective, the main disadvantage of the percentage fee is its inherently unfixed nature. At the start of the project, there’s no real way of knowing for sure what the architect’s fee will total by the end.

Fairness
With its inbuilt ability to adjust to changes in scope, the percentage fee is at the macro scale a fair representation of the amount of work required of the architect. This helps the client too: as it’s ultimately up to her to determine the scope of the construction works, she is empowered with some control over the architect’s fee.

At a micro scale, the percentage method makes it hard for the architect to protect her fee base. In other words, small changes to the work required of her are often done without charging the client. It seems petty to ask for an extra hour of fees in the context of a couple of years of design services, but over the course of a project these small favours can add up.

As discussed in the opening article of this series, the most significant shortcoming of the percentage method is its susceptibility to fluctuations in the construction market. It exposes the architect’s fee to the unpredictable outcome of the tender process. This can mean she suddenly loses a portion of her fee, though more often than not it will be the client who must pay extra.

Design
Like the architectural design process itself, the percentage fee is an holistic financial model. It covers the architect’s services with a single, all-encompassing fee, thus giving the architect room to manage the process as she sees fit. If she wants to spend more time picking light fittings and less time building sketch design models, she’s free to do so. Any given part might be more or less profitable than another, but this is not as important as regarding the fee as a whole.

Ease
Without the Australian Institute of Architect‘s fee scales, it can be difficult working out how to pick the right percentage. This is particularly relevant for younger architects. Indeed, I can vividly remember a Process at Loop session a couple of years ago that descended into a mob-like protest when recent graduates vented their frustration at the profession-wide lack of guidance.

That said, I believe the percentage fee provides a younger architect with an easy, one-stop solution to determining her fee. She can use it get her practice underway, and work out the details of the actual tasks involved later. The percentage fee becomes easier to manage with experience.

Suits
The percentage fee method is best suited to traditional architectural projects with a decent construction budget, say $300,000 or higher. It is particularly appropriate for projects whose scope is poorly defined at the outset, but whose architect and client are interested in a good design outcome. This might be a renovation to a house or a restaurant fitout, where the design process is an evolving dialogue from start to finish.

Service or product
The percentage fee is fundamentally tied to the product i.e. the building. This means the architect represents herself as the facilitator or guardian of that building: she succeeds or fails based on its outcome.

In summary:

Advantages

  • It’s elegant. The percentage fee provides the client with a simple, all-encompassing number, there’s no need to keep track of the hundreds of tasks covered by the fee. This advantage applies also to a young architect without years of experience behind her. She is able to use the percentage fee method as a one-stop solution for determining her fee.
  • It’s flexible. It automatically adjusts as a project budget (and therefore scope) changes. This can be done without exposing the client / architect relationship to the tension of renegotiation.

Disadvantages

  • It can be unpredictable. The percentage fee method puts an architect at the whim of market forces well outside her control. If a builder on the tender list happens to be desperate for work and deliberately undercooks his tender just to keep his staff busy, then the architect’s fee is likewise diminished.
  • It’s conflicted. To be more precise, it provides room for an unscrupulous architect to extract unethical profits.[2] The percentage fee might incentivise the wrong architect to inflate the cost of the building so her fee is likewise inflated.
  • It’s too elegant. By presenting the fee as a straight-forward, all-encompassing number, it’s very difficult to vary it by small amounts. A little bit of extra work here and there tends to be done despite not having been budgeted for. In short, the architect ends up doing lots of work for free.

Footnotes:

  1. Disclaimer: these percentage rates are not recommendations, only examples.
  2. It goes against my values as both a professional and a human being to ever consider doing this, however as it’s a possibility that was recently raised by a potential client, I’ve included it for the sake of completeness.

Image source:

  1. Percentage fee, author’s own image.
Posted in Architecture practice | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Explaining the architectural fee

Architecture; Architecture fee types; Fees; Money; Gold

According to the standard client and architect agreement published by the Australian Institute of Architects, there are three traditional methods by which an architect can charge fees to her client:

  • Percentage fee
  • Lump sum fee
  • Hourly rates[1]

There’s a fourth method that’s emerging amongst younger practices, inspired by the lean startup strategy and the practice of web-based design platforms like Elto:

  • Incremental tasks

The percentage fee is the most common method used by architects, however it’s rare in other professions. Potential clients are often unfamiliar with it, and almost guaranteed to ask for an explanation of its logic. Some also question its implied conflict of interest, where the architect is incentivised to inflate the client’s budget to in turn inflate her own fee.

Despite these hurdles, the percentage fee is my preferred method and the one we generally use at Mihaly Slocombe. This preference can be traced back to our university studies, where various architecture practice lecturers recommended its fairness and transparency. They dismissed the conflict of interest issue, pointing out that most service providers face the same challenge, be they dentists or lawyers or mechanics. Many years ago, the Australian Institute of Architects also published a percentage fee scale, further cementing it as the architect’s fee method of choice.[2]

When we started our practice, the percentage fee was in essence the default method, and it has continued that way since. My interest in exploring this subject now stems from an issue that I believe is only just entering mainstream discourse. An architect is a service provider, not a builder, yet her profitability is tied to the buildings she instructs others to make. Shouldn’t her fees be instead tied to the work she does?

The percentage fee is predicated on the idea of a direct correlation between the cost of a building and the amount of work it requires to design and document. But the very nature of the construction market assigns inconsistent costs to buildings. Factors well outside the architect’s control – things like a builder’s need for work, or how thoroughly he understands her documents – can influence how much it costs to build. These factors don’t affect the amount of work required of the architect, but they do affect her profitability. The quantity surveyor I use across all of our projects, Geoffrey Moyle, has reflected on more than one occasion that this arrangement is madness.

The issue runs even deeper however. As I discussed in my review of the recent Australian Institute of Architects national conference, the future of the architecture profession is unclear. Thomas Fisher suggested in his keynote address that the scope of an architect’s services is becoming increasingly untethered from the built environment. Is the administrative structure that surrounds and facilitates the percentage fee method not then hindering architects to exploit this transition? Is there a better way to link an architect’s remuneration to the broader value of her services?

I’m intrigued therefore to assess the benefits and disadvantages of the four fee methods. Notwithstanding my general use of percentage fees, I’m not convinced of its universal suitability. Certainly, I don’t believe there’s a single correct solution for all architects. Some methods will suit particular architects / clients / projects better than others.

Continuing on Monday next week, this series of five articles will aim to provide clarity on each fee method. I will analyse them from the points of view of both the architect and the client, and ask how well they tie an architect’s income to the value of her labour.

An archive of the series can be accessed here.

This article has been published in conjunction with ArchiTeam.


Footnotes:

  1. A copy of the client and architect agreement can be downloaded here. Membership with the Australian Institute of Architects is required to access this page.
  2. The Competition and Consumer Act 2010 prohibits mandatory fee scales. Source: The legal status of fee scales; Acumen; Australian Institute of Architects; last edited January 2012. There has long been talk of the fee scale re-entering general circulation, though there’s been no definitive action as far as I’m aware. The original is still persona-non-gratis, but I may know a guy who knows a guy who might have a copy. Send me an email and I can possibly put you in contact, for historic interest only of course.

Image source:

  1. Architectural fee types, author’s own image.
Posted in Architecture practice | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

How Soon Is Now?

Adelaide; Aerial; City; River

The Australian Institute of Architects‘ annual national conference, How Soon Is Now?,  was held last month in Adelaide. Creatively directed by Cameron Bruhn, Sam Spurr and Ben Hewett, it explored the “agency of architecture to make real changes in the world.”[1] The directors identified the expansive conversation of last year’s conference, Risk, as a precursor, and proposed to “empower architects to actively participate in the massive transformations occurring to our cities, societies and the sustainability of our planet.”[2]

Around 1,100 delegates attended this year, almost all of whom arrived from interstate. The usual crowd of familiar Melbourne faces made the city feel like home, with the Pink Moon Saloon by Sans-Arc Studio (of recent Architecture Australia fame) frequented well into each night. I was also fortunate to meet some of the local contingent, and be taken out for drinks and late night yum cha. It was an energising reintroduction to a city I haven’t visited for years, and like the Making conference in 2014, a reminder that good Australian architecture, food and culture extend well beyond the parochial borders of Melbourne and Sydney.

How Soon Is Now? developed many patterns of its recent predecessors.[3] Once again, there was a clear delineation between Australian and international speakers, with the former confined predominantly to roles of commentary or criticism. Indeed, none of the keynote speakers were both Australian and working in Australia.[4] And true to Bruhn, Spurr and Hewett’s focus on agency, a sizeable number of speakers weren’t architects at all, but allied professionals engaging with the built environment through non-traditional models.

28th Street Apartments; Adaptive reuse; Mixed use; Los Angeles

28th Street Apartments by Koning Eizenberg, Los Angeles

In focussing on agency and change, How Soon Is Now? paid real tribute to the themes of risk and reward covered last year. There are similarities with Alejandro Aravena’s Venice Biennale too, which has just kicked off and runs until November. All three events demonstrate a keen interest in the social, political and economic contexts of architectural practice.[5]

Hewett neatly summarised the directors’ very broad agenda in their opening address, promising that the conference would ask “how architecture is dealing with tomorrow’s problems today.” The two days that followed revealed a diverse interpretation of what these problems might be. Climate change, population growth, overcrowding, refugees, transport, gender inequality and the widening gap between rich and poor all put in appearances.

To curate this diversity, the conference was split into two days of distinctly different ambitions. Day 1 examined what’s happening now, while Day 2 speculated on what happens next: the present then the future; evidence then strategy. The conference title, derived from The Smiths’ powerful 1985 rock ballad, shed further light on the directors’ intentions. It imbued the discussion with a sense of urgency, even panic.

When you say it’s gonna happen now
Well, when exactly do you mean?
See I’ve already waited too long
And all my hope is gone[6]

How soon is now? Never soon enough.

Safari Roof House; Kevin Low; Small Projects; Malaysia; Courtyard

Safari Roof House by Kevin Low, Kuala Lumpur

The prevalence of non-architect speakers, together with panel discussions at regular intervals, had what I imagine was an intended side-effect: the glossy image was firmly sidelined in favour of critical conversation. Indeed, barely a handful of actual buildings were presented across both daysThis focus away from built form was not received universally well by the delegates, one of whom bailed on the conference entirely and spent Day 2 touring a local wine region instead. The more I reflect on the experience however, the more I realise that Bruhn, Spurr and Hewett crafted a remarkably well choreographed event of two acts. Evidence and strategy; present and future; context and closure. Too many pretty pictures would have distracted from the central themes, and neither day made sense without the other.

Day 1 – Evidence
Keynote speakers
Nasrine Seraji, France
Vicente Guallart, Spain
Sadie Morgan, England
Jeffrey Schumaker, United States of America
Julie Eizenberg, United States of America
Amica Dall, England
David Sanderson, New South Wales
Panellists
John Wardle, Victoria
Greg Mackie, South Australia
Andrew Beer, South Australia
Sharon Mackay, South Australia
Abbie Galvin, New South Wales
Gabrielle Kelly, South Australia
Nick Tridente, South Australia
Maree Grenfell, Victoria
Sandra Kaji-O’Grady, Queensland
Charles Rice, New South Wales

Day 2 – Strategy
Keynote speakers
Astrid Klein, Japan
Urtzi Grau and Cristina Goberna Pesudo, Australia
Kevin Low, Malaysia
Thomas Fisher, United States of America
Panellists
Angelique Edmonds, South Australia
Ken Maher, South Australia
Tim Williams, New South Wales
Matt Davis, South Australia
Karl Winda Telfer, South Australia
Timothy Hill, Queensland
Kerstin Thompson, Victoria

To further explore the above, the conference program can be downloaded here.

Adventure playground; London; Playground

Glamis Adventure Playground, London

Day 1 – Evidence

As an exercise in context, Day 1 cast an unexpectedly depressing light on the shortsighted decision-making that plagues Australia. Guallart, Morgan and Shumaker were particularly brutal. Each shared insight into exemplar major infrastructure projects happening elsewhere, unhappy reminders of the positive outcomes achievable when city planning is divorced from politics.

The UK is investing in a high speed rail link that will eventually connect its entire southern half, and has placed Morgan in a central role to ensure that good design is at the heart of its implementation. She observed that the massive size of the project and the billions of pounds that will be spent on it don’t obviate the need for good design. Big things still need to bring small moments of joy to the everyday. Barcelona meanwhile is currently demolishing an elevated highway that runs through the centre of the city, one built only 25 years ago. Despite this emerging as a trend amongst some cities eager to undo the damage done by the car-obsessed 20th Century, to even suggest such a thing here is unimaginable.

These examples of foreign ingenuity were simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking. It’s all Melbourne can do to get a new metro built, whether or not its design is any good is barely part of the conversation.

Every theme that emerged seemed only to hold up an unflattering light to its local counterpart. Eizenberg presented a glimpse into her studio’s extensive portfolio of social housing projects, anchoring her discussion in broader ideals of social benefit and civic duty, “We’re not saints, we’re just income blind. It doesn’t matter how much money someone has, we believe they still deserve a house.” In Los Angeles, only 20% of the housing stock can be afforded by people on the median wage. I imagine a similar statistic would hold for Melbourne and Sydney, where housing is treated as a commodity not essential infrastructure.

From the panel discussion I attended after lunch, Culture and Development, I was interested to hear Beer discuss the idea of disintermediation, or the erasure of the middle-man. It’s a role already under substantial threat in many markets, will architecture be next? He asked casually who will become the Amazon of architecture, as though this manifestation lies somewhere in the future, though alarmingly I suggest it’s already happening.

Across Day 1, the speakers championed architecture beyond or even without form, a fundamental idea that to me was at the very centre of the entire conference. Morgan discussed the politics of good design outcomes; Eizenberg proposed that design should begin from social function; Dall peeled back the skin of form entirely; and Sanderson urged architects to think beyond the naïve form-making that dominates most disaster relief housing.

There was great value in much of this content, though it was hard to find hopefulness in it. Dall and her fellow Assemble Studios director, Giles Smith, in some ways encapsulated this despair with their highly critical assessment of the carefully designed Granary Square in London, and contrasting enthusiasm for the evolved or undesigned chaos of Glamis Adventure Playground. I couldn’t help but feel that architects are no longer in a position to be champions of the built environment, doomed instead to faff about at the edges while the real business of our cities gets done elsewhere.

I trudged out of the conference centre feeling pretty glum.

OE House; Fake Industries Architectural Agonism; Aixopluc; Spain

OE House by Fake Industries Architectural Agonism and Aixopluc, Tarragona

Day 2 – Strategy

Mercifully, the morning session of Day 2 was a refreshing antidote. Klein opened with a burst of cheerful pragmatism, calling her lecture “More than architecture” and discussing opportunities for value creation in what were otherwise pretty unremarkable commissions.[7] Grau and Pesudo followed with a handful of relentlessly conceptual projects, including some insightful discussion of their shortlisted Helsinki Guggenheim competition entry. I was particularly taken by Pesudo’s characterisation of the Finnish sauna as one of the most sophisticated civic institutions of our era: a group of naked, sweating strangers beat each other with branches in the dark, and reach consensus on the sauna’s ideal ambient temperature.[8]

Low closed out the morning session with a repeat of his superb Australian lecture tour in 2013, an act of laziness that at first made me question his inclusion in the conference program. Surrounded on all sides by architects with eyes firmly focussed on the future, Low’s work is sublime but anachronistic. He spoke of the sacred and the profane, of embracing imperfect construction, of subtlety, nuance and richness in the built form. He is the embodiment of the 20th Century architect, the sole-practitioner, the master craftsman. I felt he would have been perfectly at home amongst the speakers at Making, but what on earth was he doing at How Soon is Now?

Three important things, as I discovered.

First, he was the typist sitting in a room full of computer scientists. At times grumpy, he pushed and prodded and complained. It was fun to watch his panel discussion, Advocating Futures, and I’m pretty sure he deliberately provoked Pesudo with a scathing critique of the value of contemporary architecture. He was an important addition to the discussion, not so his nostalgic position might triumph, but to provide a critical lens through which to examine the alternatives.

Second, he offered the most sensible target for architectural advocacy I’ve ever encountered. In a brief respite during the Advocating Futures panel, where Hewett facilitated Twitter questions from the audience, I asked the panellists how and where they thought advocacy should be directed. Low said simply, “Education”. In a world changing under our feet, with scarce resources to impact public opinion, and architects regressing in our capacity to contribute to the city, how better to prepare for the future? By teaching architecture students how to be something other (and more) than an architect. The right word in the ears of the thousands of architecture students who graduate each year might yield our profession’s Steve Jobs, Larry Page or Elon Musk.

And third, Low’s entire lecture revolved around the opposition of form versus content. He argued that the best architecture derives from content, from narrative, and eschews the glossiness of perfect form. It was a familiar position that resonated with much of the discussion on Day 1, but took the important step of explaining why the profession’s obsession with starchitecture, formalism and the consumption of the glossy image are impoverishing the built environment.

I interpreted the narrative-driven craft of Low’s work as a metaphor for the need to develop a similarly narrative-driven commitment to the entire profession’s output. We need to reign in our adulation of the newest chunk of self-indulgent formalism and establish new territory as essential agents in the development of cities, economies and culture.

The two panels I attended on Day 2, Transforming Populations and Advocating Futures, further explored these themes. In particular, Guallart lamented that “Architecture is suffering because it has more to do with fashion than with building the city. The Bilbao model hurts the built environment – governments now think that they just need to deliver an icon, no further discussion needed.” From many angles and in many discussions, both days criticised the shallowness of form and praised the delivery of content.

Leaf Chapel; Klein Dytham; Japan; Weddings

Leaf Chapel by Klein Dytham, Tokyo

Agency and the future

During afternoon tea on Day 2, energised by the Advocating Futures panel, a few colleagues and I enjoyed a vigorous discussion on the subject of the future. We spoke about the traditional role of the architect, and pushing beyond its boundaries. Rory Hyde’s excellent book on the subject, Future Practice, got a mention. We discussed computer coding, and its role in the frontier of new economies, in disrupting seemingly unshakeable markets from books to taxis to holidays. We touched on the sophisticated problem solving performed by architects and its relevance in activities beyond the making of buildings. And we discussed education – if the scope of the traditional architect is diminishing, and there are as yet unformulated roles ripe for our involvement, how should the universities prepare graduates today for the opportunities of tomorrow?

It was an exciting conversation, feverish even. It gathered together all the many threads covered in the preceding two days and narrowed my focus to a single question: what is the architect of tomorrow?

A moment later, I was sitting down for the final keynote of the conference. Thomas Fisher took to the stage, and in a truly cosmic reflection of our casual conversation, set out to answer this very question. “There are a lot of opportunities for architects to continue to design buildings. But there are many, many more non-physical systems that would benefit from an architect’s design attention. We could all have more work than we could ever address in our lifetimes.”

He argued strongly for an expansion of the role of the architect, speculating we could become, “Public intellectuals, provocateurs, visualisers, unsolicited strategic thinkers, generalists, holistic thinkers, strategists, pragmatic futurists.” As part of the making of buildings, we might proactively shift our services to the savings side of the spreadsheet, servicing “the economic structures that surround and facilitate architecture.” And beyond buildings, we might engage with the sharing economy, actively designing for initiatives like AirBnB that make more intensive use of a city’s scarce spatial resources.

It was a much-needed conclusion to a conference that had just spent two days ripping apart the value of architectural activity.

Adelaide Convention Centre; How Soon Is Now?; Australian Institute of Architects; Conference

So despite the rocky start to How Soon Is Now?, I’m glad I hung around for the punchline. I enjoy attending the conference each year for a number of reasons. It’s an opportunity to take a step away from the minutiae of life as a practicing architect. I catch up with people I don’t see all that often and chat avidly about architecture with them. I learn some things, and get inspired to do some others. Low’s contribution to the conference might have crystallised the parameters of the debate on form versus content, but it was Fisher who made the most interesting suggestions on how to act on this acknowledgement.

Heading home after any good architecture event, I struggle with the concept of inspiration. What do I do with the things I learn? How can I internalise and act on them, make use of the event beyond the silo of its own neat calendar slot in my life?

Last year, Risk compelled me to take on more risks in my business. After five years of running Mihaly Slocombe from our spare bedroom, we finally moved into a proper office that now doubles as a profit-making coworking environment. Well, almost profit-making, it’s early days yet. Still, the key ingredient was to exploit our skills as architects in crafting a working environment for others, a small yet successful instance of speculative agency.

How Soon Is Now? has left me with a similar itch.

I find myself eager to seek opportunities outside the traditional model of architecture practice. What can I do that will buffer our studio against the storm that’s approaching? How can we use our carefully honed skills in creative thinking, systems design and problem solving to benefit the world beyond our small collection of private clients?

We stand at an important moment in time, with the threat of great change in our profession, the built environment and even the planet looming in front of us. How Soon Is Now? captured this moment perfectly, imparting both desperation and hope.

In particular, the agency of architects is under threat. Our traditional model of practice is tied strongly to the old way of doing things, and continues to steadily diminish in its scope and opportunity. Global markets, the sharing economy, the internet of things, disintermediation are all poison pills for the profession, yet most of us continue to blithely practice in the way we always have. If the current generation of architects continues on our current path, will there even be a profession for the next?


Footnotes:

  1. Cameron Bruhn, Sam Spurr and Ben Hewett, creative directors; How Soon Is Now? overview; accessed May 2016.
  2. Ibid.
  3. A full list of my reviews and interviews from past conferences can be accessed here.
  4. Julie Eizenberg was born in Australia but practices in Los Angeles, David Sanderson from the University of New South Wales works in Australia but is American, and Urtzi Grau and Cristina Goberna Pesudo work in Australia but are Spanish.
  5. For some insightful reflections on the Biennale, see Jeremy Till; The architecture of good intentions; transcript of a talk given in Venice; May 2016.
  6. Steven Morissey; How Soon Is Now?; From the album Meat is Murder by The Smiths; 1985.
  7. I almost wrote value adding but couldn’t bring myself to use a phrase that has been so utterly disembowelled and shamelessly co-opted into developer double-speak.
  8. This in fact underpinned Grau and Pesudo’s Guggenheim proposal, a museum of atmospheres and interiors. Note that this project was completed in collaboration with Jorge López Conde, Carmen Blanco and Álvaro Carrillo.

Image sources:

  1. Adelaide by Andy Steven; image sourced from Skyscraper City.
  2. 28th Street Apartments by Koning Eizenberg; image sourced from Detail.
  3. Safari Roof House by Kevin Low of Small Projects; image sourced from Small Projects.
  4. Glamis Playground; image sourced from Play by Nature.
  5. OE House by Fake Industries Architectural Agonism and Aixopluc; image sourced from Dezeen.
  6. Leaf Chapel by Klein Dytham; image sourced from Klein Dytham.
  7. Adelaide Convention Centre theatre; author’s own image.
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Reform at the AIA

Dilbert; Change

In recent months, members of the Australian Institute of Architects have received a stream of emails addressing substantial changes underway within the organisation. The changes target the very heart of the Institute and systematically rethink the way it functions.

This is a subject I’ve discussed previously (see Why I’m a member of the AIA and A better AIA), so have followed the proposed changes with keen interest. For those of you who’ve missed the detail arriving in your inboxes, here’s a brief summary:

  • Long serving CEO of the Institute, David Parken, has announced his retirement.[1] His successor has also been appointed. Jennifer Cunich, previously of the Property Council of Australia, begins in the role next month.[2]
  • Architext has been closed and the Newcastle and NSW Country Division of the AIA has been reabsorbed into the NSW Chapter in Sydney.[3]
  • A governance review by authority and governance advocate, Henry Bosch AO, has resulted in a proposal to replace the Executive Committee with a Board of Directors.[4]

These are some big changes. To offer a sporting analogy, we have a new coach, a couple of expensive yet underperforming players have been scrapped, and – should the new Board be implemented – we’ll have a whole new way of making decisions about our footy team.

I think there are a few important questions that need to be asked: why is reform necessary? Are the proposed reforms the right reforms? And what happens next? For some of my more skeptical readers, you might even suggest that there’s a more fundamental question to be asked first: why is the AIA itself necessary?

Dilbert; Change

Why is the AIA necessary?

I tackled this question in detail in Why I’m a member of the AIA, but let me repackage my thoughts in an easy 4-step answer:

  1. Within the big building industry ocean, architects are the smallest of fish. Real estate agents, bankers, developers, planners, lawyers, engineers, project managers and builders all have far greater influence on the strategic planning of our cities than we do.
  2. The same goes for both political and public opinion. In the context of Australian life and culture, we are chronically undervalued.
  3. This context in fact forms part of a broader downwards slide. We are an historically important and influential profession rapidly losing ground to competing occupations.
  4. Halting or even reversing this slide is not something individual architects can do on their own. We need a peak professional body like the Australian Institute of Architects to transform our many tiny voices into a single, unified and much more powerful soapbox.

That is to say, we’re up shit creek and the AIA is our paddle.

Now, there are many organisations advocating on behalf of the architecture profession in Australia. There are the AAA, the ACA, Parlour, the Robin Boyd FoundationArchiTeam and many others. All are membership organisations seeking to further the AIA’s own purpose, that is “to improve our built environment by promoting quality, responsible, sustainable design.”[5]. All do good work, but none boast the history nor member saturation of the AIA. They’re the small forward crumbers to the AIA tall timber.

The AIA is necessary now more than ever. The architecture profession is already in a state of crisis, can you imagine how much worse off we’d be without our biggest collective organisation?

Dilbert; Change

Why is reform necessary?

The Institute has experienced successive years of alarming financial difficulty. Annual reports from 2012 to 2015 show negative cashflow from operations to the tune of $18,000,000.[6] While the majority of these losses are offset each year from other activities, over this same period the Institute saw real losses of around $3,000,000.[7]

In both the 2014 and 2015 annual reports, the independent auditor concluded her analysis by stating that the losses incurred “indicate the existence of a material uncertainty that may cast significant doubt about the ability of the company and the consolidated entity to continue as going concerns.”[8]

As a member, it is deeply unnerving for me to discover that the day to day activities of the Institute have been so financially unsustainable over such a long period. The auditor’s words really strike home: business as usual at the AIA may very possibly lead to bankruptcy.

Put simply, reform is an inevitable and essential ingredient in keeping the AIA afloat.

Dilbert; Change

Are the reforms the right reforms?

Jon Clements, National President of the AIA, has been instrumental in orchestrating reform at the Institute. I’ve spoken informally with him on this question, and have been left with the lasting impression that national leadership is acutely aware of the crisis currently faced by the AIA, and is doing everything in its power to overcome it.

The closure of Architext and the Newcastle division are the most easily identifiable changes, but they’re not the most important. I suspect they’re merely the low hanging fruit that give weight to the new mantra of “a more focused strategic plan embracing three core pillars – membership, advocacy and education.”[9] The theory being that the AIA will progressively shed activities that fall outside these areas of operation, thus spreading their resources over a smaller area.

Much more important is the governance review undertaken by Henry Bosch. To understand what is being proposed, I suggested you head to the governance page of the Institute’s website, which summarises the changes and includes this neat infographic:

Australian Institute of Architects; National Council; Executive Committee; Board of Directors

Bosch’s review identified that the existing AIA leadership structure (on the left) is unwieldy, and impedes good governance practices. Currently, the National Council meets only three times a year. In these meetings, Councillors are expected to address and decide upon issues spanning policy, strategy, business and finance – an enormous agenda to slog through in just two days. The National Executive meets more regularly, but isn’t empowered to approve expenditure, meaning all decisions need to head back to the the next Council meeting for approval.

This governance pathway is tortuous, obstructs good information flow and regularly leaves local Chapters in the lurch while they wait for new initiatives to be approved.

Bosch advised that effective governance requires a smaller, more focussed board derived from National Council with independent directors to add specific expertise in areas like the law, accounting and marketing. Thus the AIA’s proposal (on the right) is to establish a Board of Directors that addresses business and finance, leaving National Council to focus on policy and strategy. Council will still meet only three times a year, but the Board will meet as often as every month. This division of duties learns from corporate structures to create a much more nimble and responsive leadership arrangement.

It’s important to recognise that this change in leadership structure will not automatically fix the AIA’s current financial crisis, nor is it intended to. Instead, it acknowledges that crises only occur when leadership is not successful in its role. Asking sixteen volunteer Councillors to meet once every four months, cover an enormous quantity of material each time, and then make effective decisions across many areas of AIA operations might work okay when it’s plain sailing, but is horribly ineffective when the seas get rocky.

A more nimble leadership will be better empowered to begin the process of rebuilding. Really, it is just the first in a series of important steps towards reform. With a new structure in place, the strategic plan for the AIA can also be updated, which in turn can flow via the new core pillars (membership, advocacy and education) into day-to-day activities. I’m not convinced the pillars actually exclude anything the Institute is doing now, but am happy for the reform process to play itself out. Ultimately, I’d like to see more aggressive tightening over the next couple of years, driven by a new strategic plan and a systematic appraisal of the cultural and financial benefits of all existing activities.

As I’ve stated before, I also think the AIA needs to focus on increasing its member saturation within the profession. Like any governing body, cutting expenditure is only one half of the equation, the other is to increase revenue. With only 45% of registered architects opting in as AIA members, there’s a huge pool of untapped financial support waiting to be leveraged from the other 55% of the community.[10]

Dilbert; Change

What happens next?

The governance review has already evolved beyond Bosch’s initial proposal. Feedback was sought from members last month, importantly resulting in a gender equity commitment from the AIA to mandate a minimum of three women and three men on the Board of eight directors.[11] As the leadership structure is established by the AIA constitution, a lengthy draft of the required amendments has also been produced and circulated.

The next step is to commit to the leadership reform.

This will happen on Friday the 13th of May in Melbourne, at the Institute’s 87th Annual General Meeting. As a vote on a change to the constitution requires a minimum of 75% of the vote to pass, there is currently a push across the country to contact members for their support. In Victoria, this happened via a special email from Victorian Chapter President, Vanessa Bird.

I strongly echo this push.

It goes without saying that the AIA needs to stay afloat financially if it’s to continue it’s work. The scary evidence revealed in recent annual reports proves in no uncertain terms that business as usual is unlikely to ensure this. Major reform will give the AIA a better chance of stemming the losses of recent years, and enable leadership to improve the Institute’s role as peak body for the architecture profession. Most significantly, I believe that the survival of our profession is inextricably tied to the survival of our peak body. If it sinks, so do we.

Please consider this article an entreaty to either vote for leadership reform in person at the AGM next month, or if you can’t attend, to support Item 6 of the AGM proxy form.


Footnotes:

  1. David Parken; media releaseFrom the CEO; December 2015.
  2. Media release, A new era as Australian Institute of Architects welcomes new CEO; April 2016.
  3. Greg Ridder, Interim CEO; CEO’s report; Australian Institute of Architects annual report 2015; page 6.
  4. Ibid. See Jon Clements, National President; National President’s report; page 4.
  5. About the Institute; Australian Institute of Architects website, About Us page; accessed April 2015.
  6. See net cash inflow (outflow) from operating activities line items quoted in finance summary sections of Australian Institute of Architects annual reports 2012 (page 8), 2013 (page 10), 2014 (page 11) and 2015 (page 11). The annual reports are accessible to the general public and available for download here.
  7. Ibid. See net increase (decrease) in cash and cash equivalents line items.
  8. Alexandra Spark; Independent auditor’s report to the members of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects; 2014 and 2015 AIA annual reports; page 41 and page 44 respectively.
  9. Jon Clements, National President; National President’s report; Australian Institute of Architects annual report 2015; page 4.
  10. Warwick Mihaly; Why I’m a member of the AIA; Panfilocastaldi; May 2015.
  11. Gender equity; Australian Institute of Architects website, Governance page; accessed April 2015.

Images:

  1. Dilbert comic strip, A successful transformation… Published 11th July 2010. This and subsequent Dilbert comics copyright Scott Adams.
  2. Dilbert comic strip, Don’t be afraid… Published 30th September 2010.
  3. Dilbert comic strip, You must learn… Published 13th December 2015.
  4. Dilbert comic strip, We must change… Published 13th December 1996.
  5. Proposed governance changes, copyright Australian Institute of Architects.
  6. Dilbert comic strip, If we are… Published 3rd August 1996.
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