You can’t sell an idea


Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.[1] Thomas Edison said this in an era when inventions of the mechanical, electrical and medical varieties were constantly rewriting the script of modern life. Anyone can have an idea, he suggested, indeed good ideas are floating around all the time and all over the place. But success, and the genius that achieves it, lie in the months and years of effort to execute the idea, to turn it from fantasy to reality.

This is more true today than it has ever been before: the world is a small place now and the hurdles to creating something are at an all time low. Success, however, is as elusive as ever. Pop quiz: have you ever heard of PicPlz? How about Everpix or Color? No? Well, they have two things in common: 1) they are photo sharing apps for smartphone and web, and 2) they have all been discontinued.[2] Despite positive critical reviews and millions in seed funding, none made the cut. In contrast, Instagram is the archetype of success. It currently has around 150 million users worldwide and sold itself to Facebook in 2012 for AU$1.1b.[3]

This is as clear evidence of Edison’s insight as we have ever seen. The essential idea of Instagram is the same as its failed competitors, so cannot possibly be the reason for its success. The recipe of its genius instead involves ingredients outside the core idea, things like its functionality and style, the timing of its release and the networking of its founders.[4] In other words, the 99% for Instagram was about making sure the idea worked well and looked good, then executing it at the right time and knowing the right people to turn it viral. Luck, too, may have been a factor, though we believe you create your own luck… Build it and they will come.

How does this relate to the practice of architecture?

Comparing architecture to the volatile, manic depressive and massively lucrative world of software development may seem a bit of a long bow to draw. But dig a bit deeper and we discover that all creative fields are underpinned by the same influences. The methods may vary, but the parameters of commercial success exist independently of scale and industry.

The analogy of Schrödinger’s architects


A family wants to build their dream home. They are wealthy and passionate about architecture, and they want a house designed by one of Melbourne’s most recognised and highly awarded residential architects. They interview John Wardle, Sean Godsell and Kerstin Thompson. But they can’t choose between them, they love their work equally. So they commission all three to design their home.

Each design is unique and wonderful. Wardle’s is an exquisitely folded volume, its timber and zinc surfaces sliding over one another, its details impeccable. Godsell’s is an unapologetic masterpiece, a perforated, operable steel skin filtering the light to bold interiors. Thompson’s is considered and subtle, hugging the landscape, concrete and glass revealed in their natural beauty. The family retreats into a closed room to contemplate the three projects and make their decision.

Outside the room, the architecture community awaits the announcement. Which design will be successful? Much like Schrödinger’s unfortunate cat, at this moment, any of the three is equally likely to be chosen, and any of the three is equally likely to result in a magnificent building. The moment drags on.[5]

Considered in the broader context of Australian architectural production, does the outcome matter? We’re sure the family would live long and fulfilling lives in the Schrödinger house no matter its architect, but it would be less notable for its individuality than its position in an enduring body of work. The residential projects of Wardle, Godsell and Thompson are excellent, very different, but excellent. But if we and the family are unable to differentiate between them based on merit, what separates them?

The answer of course is the 99%: communication, style, persuasiveness, amicability, networking. In any competitive environment, the armature surrounding the architectural idea makes the difference. We thrive or perish depending on our relationships, how we present ourselves, our past experience, our enthusiasm, our fees. This armature influences how desirable we are to potential clients, the prestige of our commissions, our profitability, our success.

What can we learn?

The architecture profession dedicates considerable time to the 1%. We go to design lectures, read design journals, attend design conferences. We love our work and we love talking about it. Our ideas have great cultural value, they have the power to affect positive change in the built environment, but they aren’t going to make any of us Instagram. If success relies so heavily on the other 99% of our efforts, why aren’t we doing more to improve them?

Getting better at the hard work of executing our ideas, carving built reality from visionary fantasy, would benefit us all. The world of ideas is still welcome to operate within this framework, we suggest it would even benefit from such solid footings, but the 99% deserves more airtime. Imagine: we attend a design lecture and learn about the inspirational work of the speaker. But we leave with more than a sense of awe, we leave knowing the strategies the architect used to explore her ideas, the methods she used to convince her clients of their merit, the experimentation she did on site to resolve them. Simon Knott touched on the importance of this issue on The Architects preceding an interview with Indian architect, Bimal Patel.[6] He said,

“Coming up with good ideas is a small fragment of what architects actually do… Getting them built is the real challenge. Advocacy skills and your ability to fight to the death for an idea are critical. People working in really good design practices understand there’s a real doggedness to pursuing things to the end. Whether it’s a cupboard handle or a hinge or a screw fixing, it’s an attitude that flows right through the project.”

With the strength of Wardle, Godsell and Thompson’s design ideas being equal, the Schrödinger house would get built by the architect most capable of relating to the client, the one most persuasive, most seductive and most passionate. But no one teaches these lessons in school, and no one talks about them in the profession.

Don’t get us wrong, we love ideas. They’re what we fall asleep thinking about, and the reason we get up to go into work in the morning. But we need to loosen our collective grip on them, they’re holding us back from seeing the bigger picture. We need to take a leaf out of Mr. Edison’s book: ideas are all well and good, but genius is in being prepared to do whatever it takes to turn them into reality.


[1] Thomas Edison; spoken statement circa 1903; published in Harper’s Monthly, September 1932.
[2] For an obituary of PicPlz, see this article on TechCrunch. For Everpix, see this article on The Verge. For Color, see this article on Mashable.
[3] Eric Jackson; What would Instagram be worth today if it IPO’ed?; Forbes; New York; September 2013
[4] For other commentary on the success of Instagram, see Why is Instagram so popular? on TechHive and Why Instagram is so popular: quality, audience and constraints on TechCrunch.
[5] Schrödinger’s Cat is the famous thought experiment devised by Austrian physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, in 1935. It illustrates superposition and entanglement, two of the fundamental questions of quantum physics. This short video explains the paradox.
[6] Simon Knott and Rory Hyde, co-presenters; Show 368: Interview with Bimal Patel; The Architects; May 2013; 6.05 – 7.00min.

Image sources:

  1. Money. Author’s own image.
  2. Erwin Schrödinger, Top Yaps. Copyright Arun Thakur, modified by author.

The iron triangle

triangle and pyramid

What is it?

A familiar project management tool, in its simplest guise represented by a triangle with scopecost and time at each of its vertices. On design projects, the triangle is actually a triangular pyramid, with quality added at the fourth vertex. The iron pyramid’s principle is that on any project it is only possible to achieve three of these four goals: a project may be good, big and quick, but not cheap; or it may be cheap, quick and good, but not big.

good big and quick

The architect‘s priorities are scope and quality, the two potentially interchangeable depending on the project and the client. This is embodied in our values, charged as we are with the responsibility to provide design solutions for our clients’ briefs. It is embodied in the documents we produce: our drawings, models and specifications all describe the scope and quality of a design. It is embodied in the building contracts we administer, where our role first and foremost is to ensure builders are faithful to our documents.

This is not to say that the architect is neglectful of cost. Our projects live and die by the limitations of our clients’ budgets. To act responsibly, in accordance with The Architects Act and in keeping with good business sense, we must respect the economic realities of our projects. It is a matter of self-interest also: only when our projects are built and our clients satisfied do we stand the chance of winning future commissions.

Time, admittedly, is the architect’s lowest priority. The unique conditions of each of our projects demand prototypical responses, the production of which cannot be achieved quickly. Making architecture is like investing all the research and development that goes into designing a new car, but then building it only once. Ultimately, we are content to dedicate the time necessary to achieve a good design outcome.

the architectThe architect’s priorities

What do we think?

We unfortunately live in a country and era where scope and quality are the priorities of neither the construction industry in which we operate, nor many of the clients that commission our services.[1] The evolution of Australia’s $100b construction industry may be beyond the control of the architecture profession, but we only have ourselves to blame for our atrophying role in its largest projects.

During the financial boom of the 1980s, the architecture profession made a significant tactical error. With too much work to handle, we began refusing to work on the building phase of projects. At a crucial time in the history of construction, just as private speculative development came to dominate the industry, we shunned the construction site for the drawing board.[2] Inevitably, a new occupation materialised to fill the hole left by our snobbery. More than happy to slum it with the builders, the project manager quickly developed sufficient construction fluency to replace us on site.

The importance of the architecture profession has since steadily receded while that of the project manager has exploded. Salaries are hardly the only measure of success, but they do reveal a great deal about perceived value. The My Career summary of average construction industry wages in Australia reveals that the average annual salary for architects is $82,000, while for the project manager it is $134,000. The minimum and maximum indices tell the same story: $40,000 and $200,000 for architects; $60,000 and $250,000 for the project manager.

Today’s architecture profession is shaped as strongly by this shift as any other. The project manager not only earns more than we do, he is usually given the role of running the projects on which we work, and is empowered to decide which of our contributions are included and which are rejected. He has not only replaced us on site, he is the conduit to the most important person on a project, the client, guiding her very agenda.

Why has the project manager been so successful?

The project manager‘s raison d’être is to prioritise cost. Given the speculative nature of the majority of his projects, by prioritising cost he is by definition also prioritising timeScope comes third and quality a distant fourth. This order of priorities frames every decision he makes, from selecting construction systems that permit faster erection times, to details that permit off-site assembly, to design solutions that maximise gross floor area.

The project manager is successful because he understands and responds to the zeitgeist of the construction industry. Scope and quality are luxuries: even beyond the speculative apartment market, financial control and risk minimisation are regularly the starting conditions of any project. Todd Reisz in Rory Hyde’s deeply engaging book, Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture, observed how entire cities within the Middle-East are being planned and executed not by architects, nor even project managers, but by bankers.[3]

Within our downturned economic climate, the people and organisations commissioning new buildings are more cautious than they have ever been. The elements of a building considered essential have contracted, with design quality relegated to image-making artifice. In a world where everyone borrows to build, cost and time are king, and the project manager is the guardian of both.

the project managerThe project manager’s priorities

What can we learn?

Since at least the time when we were at University (and really, since the collapse of the great Modernist experiment), the architecture profession has been in a state of crisis. It is arguably remarkable that we’ve survived so many decades on the brink of doom, but it would be naïve to ignore the signs of peril around us. Our fees and salaries are increasingly insufficient; we are forced to share a shrinking slice of the construction pie; we are overlooked by government, media and the public; and most crazy of all, we value our work more than the people who use it. By and large, the world survives without architects.

The zeitgeist, it is not surprising to discover, has moved on without us. The great innovators of the era, the shapers of our daily environments, the future visionaries, are no longer architects. We live in an era where the city-builders are the moneymen. Design might be tentatively re-entering the social conscious in Australia, but more often than not, it is within the project manager’s order of priorities. With housing becoming an “investment opportunity rather than a basic human right”, where are the architects?[4] What are we doing to impose our values on this trend?

Well, we do make buildings. Our design output is our most significant contribution to the fabric of the city. It is certainly our best opportunity to demonstrate best practice, shape current trends and create new ones. But take a look around: fantastic buildings are being built every year, in every country on the planet, yet they have little effect on the pecking order on site, on the decisions that get made in boardrooms, on the importance of architecture in the public’s eye. The crisis of architecture does not originate in what we do, but in how we do it.

We are talking about architecture practice here: the skills we develop; the frameworks of our businesses; the relationships we nurture; the services we offer and the way we charge for them. If we are to take one lesson from the success of the project manager it should be that we need to learn how to become indispensable. One does not self-prescribe medicine or self-represent at a court hearing. Doctors and lawyers are indispensable, why aren’t architects?

The solution will begin with good design, and with the unique world view offered by our profession. If the construction industry and general public aren’t interested in good design, we must try to change their minds instead of sulking about it. It is estimated that around 95% of all new houses in Australia never pass under the eyes of an architect. It’s not hard to see why: volume builders build at less than half the rate per square metre of architect-designed houses.[5] By thumbing our noses at the great unwashed, we are hastening our own extinction. If we don’t like the zeitgeist, if we don’t like novated contracts, if fringe suburbs of soulless McMansions make us ill, if cities designed by the profit imperative is not to our liking, we can’t wait for someone else to fix it. We need do it ourselves.

We have spoken before about what an architect is and what we can do to arrest the inexorable slide towards architectural poverty, but to become indispensable we need to think way outside the box. We need to take our heads out of our architecture journals, our pilgrimages to Falling Water, our awards processes. We need to do things differently. We need to lobby government or even better, run for government. We need to push better design into the speculative markets or even better, finance the speculative markets ourselves. We need to expand what we do, relearn how to build or learn how to code. The architect of the 20th Century is dying, it’s about time we start defining the architect of the 21st.

venn diagram


[1] This is true primarily of larger building projects e.g. multi-residential, office and tower typologies. The elements of architectural activity most immune tend to be the smallest e.g. residential and hospitality typologies, or the most unique e.g. places of worship and public buildings.
[2] Paul Pholeros, a Sydney-based architect in practice for 30+ years, discussed the erosion of the architect’s responsibilities during Community and Architecture, the keynote address of Melbourne Architecture Annual 2012.
[3] Todd Reisz in Rory Hyde; Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture; Routledge and Taylor & Francis; New York; 2012; pp. 148 – 165
[4] Oliver Wainwright; Guardian Cities: Welcome to our urban past, present and future; The Guardian; London; 2012
[5] The average cost of an architect-designed house is $4,970 per square metre. BMT Quantity Surveyors estimate that the cost of the average home is around $1,700 per square metre.

Image sources:

  1. Iron triangle and iron pyramid. Author’s own image.
  2. Big good and quick, and cheap quick and good. Author’s own image.
  3. The architects’ priorities. Author’s own image.
  4. The project manager’s priorities. Author’s own image.
  5. How would you like your architecture? Colin Harman. Copyright Colin Harman.