Follow your gut

The 22nd instalment in a series of lessons learned over the years. What do I know now that I didn’t then? What wisdom would I impart to my younger self, given the opportunity?

22. Follow your gut

trust your gutArtwork courtesy of Eak Design

In the most basic terms, every decision you make in your professional life distils down to the distinction between saying yes and saying no. Accepting a job offer; accepting a commission from a new client; accepting the cheapest tender price: these are all examples of saying yes, and will likely be the most common type of decision you make. Saying yes is easy to do.

Saying no usually comes attached to tricky strings that make doing so much harder: turning down a job offer means having to find another; declining a potential commission means saying no to income; refusing the cheapest tender price means spending more of your client’s money or losing time while you re-tender.

Worse, a road left untravelled will never reveal its secrets to you, will never let you know whether saying no was the right decision to make. Following your gut is a courageous course of action. It relies on a deep sense of trust in yourself, wisdom gathered over years of experience, and the preparedness to act on your predictions of the future.

But if your gut sends you uncomfortable warning bells, listen to it. Perhaps it will save you from working for a practice that treats you poorly; from taking on a client who doesn’t share the same values as you do; from a builder who cuts corners to recover an incorrectly cheap tenders price.

Follow your gut.

Sharing is better than hoarding

paradigm hillParadigm Hill, Merricks

What is it?

An idea as yet largely untested within the architecture profession, but well practiced in other industries. One such industry is winemaking, no better exemplified than by the Mornington Peninsula region in southern Victoria.

Comprising a large number of very small wineries run by ex-city professionals who have relocated to the country to live their dream, the Peninsula combines the best of farming pragmatism and business intelligence. Its winemakers have made the decision to run small vineyards for reasons of quality of life rather than financial opportunism, investing a great deal of work for generally modest returns. They are passionate about wine and are actively engaged in their local community.

If this sounds uncannily analogous to the architecture profession, you aren’t mistaken. Like winemakers, we too are generally interested in quality of life over commercial gains, passionate about our product and engaged in our local community.

A big difference between winemakers and architects however is the willingness of the former to collaborate. Not only do they attend conferences and workshops together, they dine together and sample fine wines on a regular basis together. They taste-test one another’s wines in barrel, co-package their wines to sell at shows, share winery equipment and share knowledge.

Architects may talk about projects and design ideas, but we do not talk about business. Client relationships, fees, office processes and marketing are all closely hoarded secrets.

eldridge estate
Eldridge Estate, Red Hill. Photo by Andrew Kopp

What do we think?

The wine industry’s collaborative approach reflects a simple but powerful business philosophy: sharing does not hurt my competitiveness, it improves our competitiveness.

Maybe once upon a time when there were only two winemakers in the village and it was either us or them, hoarding made commercial sense. But today, winemaking, as with architecture as with almost any other product or service, has gone global. By sharing resources and knowledge instead of hoarding them, winemakers recognise that they are not competing against their neighbours, they are collaborating with their neighbours so that they may compete against the rest of the world.

This involves constant peer review of one another’s wines, wine tasting days to improve palate memory, workshops on new processes, literature research into new technologies, collaborative testing of alternative production methods and a preparedness to share the subsequent knowledge with one another.

The cornerstone of this collaborative approach is not competitiveness on price but on quality. This is an important distinction, because almost every industry that exists is focussed on price: on sending manufacturing offshore so it costs less, on automating processes so they cost less, on outsourcing so it costs less. The small Mornington Peninsula winemakers know they can never compete against the likes of De Bortoli or Yalumba, two of the biggest volume producers in Australia, so they don’t. Instead of driving price down, they use collaborative strategies to drive quality up.

Quality does have its cost implications: careful canopy management, hand picked fruit, French oak barrels and long maturation periods are all expensive. Fortunately however, it also carries the ability to charge more per bottle. Wine enthusiasts understand the concept of the boutique wine and are prepared to pay for quality when they taste it.

staindl wines
Staindl Wines, Red Hill South

What should we learn?

The architecture profession has been fighting a losing battle on many fronts for decades. We have been stripped (or stripped ourselves) of a whole pantheon of specialist disciplines. We are increasingly marginalised by volume builders, design and construct services, and building designers. We continue to be faced with a general public that sees little value in good design. Competition between architects is higher than it has ever been before and there are ongoing reports of layoffs across every practice size.

One response to this gloomy outlook would be to squeeze ourselves even tighter: shed ever more responsibilities until we are left with only the profitable parts. This would be a bad idea. Like the inexorable diminishment in mobile phone quality that has taken place over the past 10 years, we would reshape ourselves as little more than a disposable commodity that can be used or not used at will.

The alternative response would be to learn from the winemakers: let’s drive quality up via collaboration. Let’s collectively offer a better service to our clients so that we may re-stake our claim of expertise within the built environment. Let’s collaborate like we have never collaborated before.

Let’s talk about how we attract clients: what we say to them in the first meeting; how we assemble a fee proposal; how we manage them once we have them. Let’s talk about project management: how we balance our fees; how we track profitability; which tasks demand large amounts of effort and which don’t; how we manage our time. Let’s talk about office management: how we ensure quality control; how we communicate with our staff; how we gather knowledge; what plans we have for future growth. Let’s talk about marketing: what strategies we employ; how we use social media; how best to get published; which are the best avenues to attract new commissions.

Above all, let’s talk about what works for us, what doesn’t and how we’ve changed our practices in light of these experiences.

We’ll start the ball rolling:

A number of years ago, we had a particularly difficult builder on a residential project. In addition to being hopeless with paperwork, incapable of communication and utterly lacking in attention to detail, he took 18 months to complete a 9 month build. After the project was finally finished, we looked at how much time we spent on it during construction and calculated that we could have earned more per hour flipping burgers at McDonalds.

We took two valuable lessons away from this unpleasant experience:

  1. Never agree to staged payments to your builder, in other words payments only at the completion of significant construction milestones like framing, lock-up and finishing. Even a meticulous builder will struggle to manage cashflow during the many months between milestones, making him more likely to seek out other small projects to help with his income. This will further retard progress on your project and make him more likely to cut corners to save time and money. Even though monthly progress payments require more paperwork from both builder and architect, the builder will be paid on a regular basis, work on site will progress more smoothly and you will have less work to do in the long run.
  2. Ensure you have a clause in the agreement with your client that stipulates an hourly charge for work performed beyond the approved date for completion of construction. Couple this with the inclusion of your time charge in the liquidated and ascertained damages clause in the building contract, together with the firm encouragement of your client to apply these damages. If a builder is running overtime through no-one’s fault but his own, then it is grossly unfair that your client foot extra costs, but it is also grossly unfair that you do extra work for free.

If we all share our strategies for dealing with experiences like these, we will be able to anticipate their occurrence and prevent them from happening. This goes for research and knowledge collection in general. Do we all really need to have the same bad experience with a particular builder/ supplier / consultant / material to know not to use him / her / it again?

We need to learn that collaboration is a highly successful mechanism to improve quality, which quite aside from being valuable in and of itself, is a highly successful business model. In a globalised environment where everyone is doing similar things to everyone else, how well we do those things becomes exponentially more important. Collaboration, quality and a globalised market go together like jam and cream on scones.

You might argue that there is a contrast in scale between the winemaking industry and architectural profession, that while one person is likely to purchase many wines from many different producers, one person is not generally likely to commission many architects. We would ask that you consider this: only 6% or so of residential projects involve an architect. All we need to do is grow that number to 10 or 12% and we’ll collectively have more work than we can handle. We are not competing with one another, we are competing with the rest of the construction industry.

Easier said than done of course, relying as it does on the education of a disinterested public in the value of good architecture. However, unless we want to further diminish the scope of our profession, it remains the most promising strategy to protect our future. As demonstrated by the wine industry, the good news is that we won’t be the first ones to pursue a path of quality over price. To paraphase another bastion of quality, the great Walt Disney, while we don’t know if the general public is interested in paying good money for architecture, we are damned sure they won’t pay good money for bad architecture.

And it all begins when we stop hoarding and start sharing.

Dear readers, we welcome discussion of your own experiences and lessons in the comments section below.

From my sketchbook: Litchfield National Park

litchfield national park
20090804.1313
20090805.1005

Water pools in water holes above Tolmer Falls, flows down waterfalls along Walker Creek, splashes into the pool at the base of Florence Falls. It is always agitated, bubbling and swirling and rushing. impossible to capture in still ink. I try anyway. Drawing the water is a study in contrasts – hot and cool, still and flowing, silent and noisy.

The days are hot during the dry season at Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory and, with the exception of the water, it is lazy and peaceful. Perfect conditions for drawing the natural environment.

Trevor Liddell at Duchess of Spotswood

trevor liddell

Who is he?

A talented painter and drawer, about whom we have posted previously, Liddell has recently opened his first solo show at the Duchess of Spotswood. The show comprises a series of seven pencil sketches with a focus on Scandinavian landscapes and fragmented representations of the architecture of Richard Neutra.

The pieces explore the interpretive qualities of drawing, carrying built elements into abstract formations that extrapolate the geometries of Neutra’s architecture. Furthering his engagement with the traditions of architectural representation, all seven works float serenely in large expanses of white space, overcoming contrasting subjects to unify the series and highlight Liddell’s selective depictions of building and landscape.

What do we think?

Theory, technique and discussion aside, it is a pleasure to see such fine works of art crafted in pencil. In many ways, it is an under-appreciated medium that typically plays second fiddle to oil and acrylic. Unlike the layered construction of a painting, works in pencil are flat, demanding foresight and precision. This control combines with a charming fragility that in Liddell’s hands suggests both careful thought and freedom of expression.

Four of the pieces have already been sold, a triumph for a young artist exhibiting in an open space and, we hope, signs of significant future success.

The invisible profession

invisible man

We have observed with growing disquiet over recent years that architecture is fast becoming the invisible profession. Be it in the papers, on talkback radio or coming directly from parliament, rarely are the opinions of architects publicly sought on issues that affect the built environment.

Over and over again, builders, planners, real estate agents, plumbers and property developers are all consulted, yet strangely and infuriatingly architects are not. The most recent example of this worrying state of affairs arrived in the form of an announcement last week from the Victorian Planning Minister, Matthew Guy, concerning the future of the Architects Registration Board of Victoria.

The ARBV

According to a report in The Age last week, Guy is due to announce the abolition of the ARBV as part of wider reforms to the building certification process. Along with the Building Commission and Plumbing Industry Commission, it will be replaced by a newly formed Victorian Building Authority (VBA).

The purpose of these reforms is to create “a simpler and more transparent complaints and disciplinary process [in the building industry]” and “ensure the ad hoc approach to industry regulation over the past decade is brought to an end”. This comes after a “damning Auditor-General’s report found that 96% of 401 building permits it examined failed to meet basic standards”.

What is not at all clear is what this has to do with architects and the ARBV.

a fresh start for building industry regulation

As discussed in detail by Peter Johns on Butterpaper here and here, the report released by Guy’s office, A Fresh Start for Building Industry Regulation, discusses at great length the issues with the current regulatory framework (a framework that, as Johns wryly points out, was introduced by Guy’s Liberal Party predecessor, Jeff Kennett) and the negative findings of the Auditor-General. The report is 9 pages long and numbers over 3,000 words, yet architects are mentioned only twice, both in the same sentence:

The new VBA will integrate the functions of the Building Commission, Plumbing Industry Commission and the Architects Registration Board of Victoria to provide a single point of governance for building and plumbing practitioners and architects.

Guy claims that the primary goal of the reforms is to restructure the building surveyor’s role in issuing building permits, yet architects, who outnumber building surveyors in Victoria by more than twenty to one, have been casually and perhaps carelessly thrown into the mix.

What’s worse, the report states that,

Throughout December 2012, meetings will be held with key industry stakeholders including the Housing Industry Association, Master Builders Association Victoria, Australian Institute of Building Surveyors and the Property Council of Australia.

Why is the Australian Institute of Architects not included on this list? And why has Guy’s boss, Premier Ted Baillieu, an architect himself and a paid up member of the AIA, not made sure of it?

There is even alarming conjecture that this could lead to deregulation of the profession. Long a topic of nervous discussion, deregulation of architects has so far been staved off by the Architects Act, a piece of legislation introduced in 1991 and upheld by the ARBV. In addition to protecting the use of the term architect, and describing the minimum professional standards required of one, this legislation empowers the ARBV to manage the registration of architects, maintain a register of practitioners and field complaints.

For an institutional body that has been in continuous existence since 1923, a single line in a report seemingly about someone else is an ignominious way to go. As for the architectural profession itself, Guy’s inexplicable silence on the role we will have in his reforms cannot be positive. No matter which way we look at it, we are simply unable to see anything good coming from the ARBV’s dissolution.

Real estate

Other, perhaps less significant but certainly more persistent, evidence of the invisible profession can be traced to the allied world of real estate. Browsing the Domain section of The Age over the weekend, we came across three Marshall White auction notices for architect designed houses, none of which attributed authorship of the designs.

On face value, it appears that Marshall White has hoped the glamour of architecture will rub off on its properties, a tawdry and superficial agenda that has no need for actual architects, only their reputation. We contacted the agents for each of the three properties and asked three questions:

  1. Who is the architect of the advertised house?
  2. Why is his / her name not included in your advertising material?
  3. Are you aware that under the the moral rights section of the Copyright Act 1968, it is illegal to publish a representation of an artistic work, which includes works of architecture, without attributing that work to its author?

cruikshank street

The architect for 161 Cruikshank Street, Chan Architecture, is credited in online material but not printed media. According to the agent for the property, he is however extensively promoted during open for inspections. A limited word count was blamed for the absence of printed attribution, though curiously the advert appears within dedicated Marshall White space so is not subject to word limits. The agent was not aware of the Moral Rights Act, even suggesting that architects have no right to free publicity off vendors’ investment in advertising material. He also commented that while works by architects like Chan and SJB might be sought after, architects with poor public profiles are generally omitted from advertising material as they don’t assist sales.

bevan street

The architect for 22 Bevan Street is credited in neither digital nor printed media. The agent confessed to not knowing who the architect is, but did advise that the architect designed the house when it was originally built 30 years ago and was omitted from advertising material on vendor orders. He was not familiar with the Moral Rights Act nor had ever advised a vendor of his or her responsibilities under the Act. He did say that around three quarters of architect designed Marshall White properties are correctly credited and promised to find out the identity of the architect and get back to us.

lynch street

Finally, 8 Lynch Street is a curious case as its advertising material does not claim an architectural pedigree, only that it is an architect’s own home. Neither digital nor printed media credit the vendor for the design, if indeed he or she is its author. We tried to get in contact with the agent on a number of occasions, but failed to reach her. Perhaps more than the other two cases, this house exemplifies the attitude that the term architect bestows a perception of quality, but that unless the architect is already well known, identification is not deemed important enough for diligent inclusion as it generally holds little value for resale.

This small sample reveals a few issues of concern:

  • There is in fact an associated commercial value to architectural design, or at the very least a perception of quality that can attract potential purchasers
  • Attribution of architectural design is a hit and miss affair
  • Real estate agents are generally ignorant of their responsibilities under the moral rights section of the Copyright Act and do not communicate such to vendors
  • Real estate agents are dismissive of authorship attribution unless it serves their own commercial purposes

This laissez fair approach to attribution of authorship may be a small detail, particularly in light of bigger issues like the dissolution of the ARBV, however we believe it to be yet another piece in the larger puzzle of the invisible profession. In an increasingly design-savvy country, why does architecture continue to receive second rate public attention when compared to both designers from other disciplines and other professionals within the construction industry?

The Australian Institute of Architects

Before, dear reader, you accuse us of casting unwarranted blame on politicians and real estate agents, our most pressing question at the end of the above discussion is this: what are we, the architecture profession, doing about our own invisibility? More poignantly, what is our institutional representative doing about it? The AIA may be perfectly capable of helping architects talk to architects, but its lack of public advocacy is deeply unnerving.

Our invisibility persists largely because we let it. The AIA needs to make one of its Council members available to Jon Faine for an expert opinion every time Matthew Guy releases a new tranche of outer suburban land for development, re-writes the Victorian planning laws or decides to abolish our regulatory body. Its representatives should be quoted in every paper from the Financial Review to the Herald Sun on every built environment issue from housing quality to public transport. It needs to chase every real estate agent that fails to attribute design authorship. It needs to thrust itself into the public eye on issues that matter to the public: jury presentation days for the Architecture Awards are all well and good, but where is the AIA when McMansions in Greenvale are being discussed?

In short, what is the AIA doing to help architects talk to everyone else?

The answer, we fear, is not much.

But to internalise the blame one step further, the AIA is only so terrible at public advocacy because its members, ourselves included, do not demand it. Collectively, the architecture profession needs to take a long hard look at itself in the mirror. Are we interested in surviving? Are we interested in making a meaningful contribution to the lives of the vast majority of people who live, work and play in buildings devoid of design integrity? If so, we need to get much better at being less invisible. We need to disprove the general consensus that we are mere beautifiers of buildings.

Melbourne is heading fast towards a crisis point, with a rapidly increasing population unable to be accommodated in limited housing stock of generally low quality, with overwhelmed public infrastructure in the unaffordable inner suburbs and non-existent infrastructure in the vacuous outer suburbs. The architecture profession has the right paradigms, experience and skill sets to tackle many of these problems in a proactive and productive manner. While the State Government blithely continues to bloat the footprint of this great city, we need to shake off our shroud and get busy being more active on issues that matter.