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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

When the beast gets hungry

Continued from Feeding the beast

Our financial forecasting has proved to be a great tool to keep the Mihaly Slocombe beast satiated year-round. By starting with the money, we can prioritise projects and tasks to help us reach our earnings target each month. We can work out who’s going to work on what, how long it should take and when it needs to be finished.

At least, that’s the theory.

Mapping our monthly earnings against our forecasts back to August last year reveals two key insights. The first is positive: over time, our forecasting is (remarkably) constant, while our earnings are trending upwards. The second is less so: despite the general health of this financial picture, there’s enormous variation in both our forecasts and earnings from month to month. Generalised order, but localised chaos.

Line graph; Finances; Income; Business; Small business

Each black dot represents a monthly forecast, ranging upwards from $0 along the bottom. The solid black line is the trend line.

Line graph; Finances; Income; Business; Small business

Here, each black dot represents our monthly earnings, again ranging upwards from $0 along the bottom. The dashed black line is the forecast trend line from the last graph, and the solid black line is the earnings trend line.

Why is our income so chaotic?

Achieving a predictable and consistent flow of income requires a consistent flow of project work getting done. Unfortunately (and here’s the hitch), this is easier said than done. There are a number of causes that lead to scarce billable work hours, but in my experience there are only two really significant ones:

  • We spend too much time on a project. This stretches our fee thinly across more hours, as well as consumes time that could be spent on other (paying) projects.
  • A project goes into hibernation.

I’ve discovered that the efficiency issue is one that naturally improves over time, mostly I think because people get better at the things they do repeatedly. As our studio has gotten older, we’ve become more confident in our detailing, more familiar with our documentation systems, and better able to access shortcuts from past projects. Over the life of the project, there are lots of little ways that we can be more productive. Enough small time savings add up.

The hibernation issue is unfortunately not one that naturally improves over time. When our projects pause, which they all eventually do, the beast gets hungry.

There are many, many reasons a project pauses: town planning periods drag on; clients take longer than expected to approve a design proposal; a consultant from whom we need drawings is busy on other projects; the tendering period draws out beyond its schedule. A hibernating project might kick off again after months or days, but either way the downtime needs to be managed.

When I used to work at other practices and this happened to one of my projects, it was never a problem. My boss would replace the hibernating project with other work and I’d get back to it. Simple, right? Well, the most important thing no-one told me when we started our architecture practice is that when we’re the boss, replacing the hibernating projects is our responsibility.

It turns out that doing this is really hard. Transitioning momentum away from one project onto another means slow periods on both as the first slows down and the other speeds up. Managing workflow means stopping what I’m doing so I can coordinate the new activities of others. And while it would be nice to maintain a long pipeline of work to fill these gaps, in practice this just pisses off the waiting clients. So client expectations need to be managed too.

While poor productivity is the main cause of income dilation (that is, when we charge a bit less on a project in a month than we forecast), hibernating projects are the main factor in introducing localised chaos to our financial management process. The evidence of this is revealed when I analyse the earnings at a micro level on any given project.

Digging back through our timesheets and invoicing, I tracked the evolving finances of one our projects currently under construction.

Bubble graph; Finances; Income; Business; Small business

The black outline dots represent the fee invoiced in a month. The grey dots represent the number of hours worked in a month. The larger the dot, the larger the invoice / number of hours.

There are some fascinating insights here:

We began work very slowly on this project. It took us a good 8 months before we even started invoicing regularly.

The clustering of intense work periods is fairly typical for our workflow. We gather speed during each project stage, with an inevitable crescendo prior to delivery. You can see the big chunks of work at the ends of key project phases, with the biggest during documentation.

Also typical are the steadier hours during construction. You can see this in the second half of this year, once the project got on site.

Hours worked and invoicing are linked. Lots of hours are associated with more substantial invoicing. Likewise, fewer hours means sparser invoicing.

This project experienced two major periods of hibernation, from May – August 2013 and from March – September 2014. It is rare for us to experience such lengthy pauses and actually have the project restart. I’m pleased we’ve managed to proceed so far down the path with this one.

What can I learn?

Prior to taking on our current short-range forecasting approach, we did have a rudimentary form of time programming in place. The programming wasn’t linked to invoicing, and it was an annual exercise: two qualities that with the wisdom of hindsight I now see made it a tremendous waste of energy. In a consulting business like ours, time and money are two halves of the same coin. There’s no point looking at one without the other. And it’s simply impossible to know for certain what we’ll be working on a year from now.

Our forecasting now stretches only two months into the future, with the second month much sketchier than the first. Also, we never count on a project to continue predictably past any major milestone. The worst offenders are budget reviews: at these, we assume a project will die until told otherwise.

But despite our best efforts, at least once a year all of our projects go into hibernation simultaneously. This year, it happened in February and lasted a couple of weeks. By chance, we saw it coming, but even then it was tricky to stay busy. We used the time to sort out a backlog of administration work, and update our samples library. Previously, we’ve entered design competitions. Regardless, the things we find to fill our time are not project-related, so we have nothing to invoice.

Small or large, I reckon every architecture practice has to deal with this issue from time to time.

We try and minimise the trouble by keeping our forecasting tight, staggering our projects, and assuming we’ll have soft months. The tight forecasts improve our chances of being accurate with our predictions (though as the top two graphs show, this is far from a guarantee). The staggered projects reduce the likelihood that two projects will go into hibernation at the same time for the same reason. And by assuming we’ll have soft months, hopefully we can build up enough of a cash buffer to keep the beast fed.


Images

  1. Forecasts; author’s own image
  2. Earnings; author’s own image
  3. Project fees; author’s own image

The mystery of marketing

Marketing is a constant source of intrigue for the architecture profession. We don’t understand it very well, so regard it with reverential awe. Marketing, we think, is the magic lamp that will make us rich. So we talk about it all the time, we ask our colleagues in hushed whispers for the secrets of their success, we even pay good money to gain insight into its hidden truths.

I’m under no illusions about my mastery of this dark art. But after all the lectures, seminars, forums and blogs I’ve attended or read, I at least understand why there’s so much fuss:

The outcome of good marketing
=
More clients

In other words, we get more clients because more of the right people come knocking on our studio doors. And by right people, I mean people who want what we do and have the money to spend on our services. The marketing industry has a term for these wonderful people. It calls them qualified prospects.

The job of marketing then is to elevate prospects from the more generic group of suspects, that is, anyone thinking of engaging an architect.

According to Winston Marsh, whose annual seminar sessions on marketing I’ve attended, the conversion of suspects to prospects is best achieved by letting the buying public know what we do. This is more than having a website and a business card, it’s about targeting the right suspects.

So how do we know if we’re targeting the right suspects?

Well, to quote Michael Bloomberg, “In God we trust, everyone else bring data.” So earlier this year, I started tracking our project leads. I picked through our old emails and pulled out key information for every prospect who has ever called, emailed or walked through our door. It was a revealing exercise, telling me for instance that after 5 years of practice this has happened 79 times.[1] And it was surprisingly easy to do. All I logged was four simple pieces of data:

  1. When each prospect made contact
  2. How she found out about us
  3. Whether we submitted a fee proposal
  4. Whether we won the commission

Since the aim of this exercise was to be systematic in understanding how prospects discover us, I established a list of ten categories that would group them according to the various marketing exercises we undertake (or others undertake on our behalf):

  • She reads this blog
  • She is a family or friend
  • She used the AIA’s Find an Architect service
  • She discovered us via online media
  • She is a past client
  • She visited a past project
  • She discovered us via printed media
  • She discovered us via television media
  • She came across our website
  • She discovered us via word of mouth

I filled in a simple spreadsheet (remember, with just four bits of information recorded against each lead) and amazingly rich information began to pour out of it. I now know which marketing exercises generate the most number of enquiries; which sources are the best at converting into commissions; and how these numbers change from year to year.

What follows is a summary of my findings, and a bit of a guide to help other young architects gain the same insights about your practices as I have ours:

Suspect to prospect

As I’ve noted previously, a colleague of ours relates the story of Peter Maddison, director of Maddison Architects, who disappears whenever the practice grows a bit quiet. He schedules lunch after lunch after lunch, catching up with old friends and acquaintances. He asks what they’re doing and what’s happening in their lives. In so doing, he implicitly reminds them that he’s open for business. Weeks or months later, when that restaurant site is purchased or new office space leased, his lunches pay off.

Our strategy is less boozy and, I have to confess, less targeted. We go for the scattergun approach: more is more. We put ourselves and our work in as many places as possible: on our website, this blog, Twitter, Instagram, FacebookPinterestHouzz and Find an Architect. We employ marketing campaigns for individual projects in printed and online media. We remind our friends and family that we’re architects, and encourage past clients to evangelise on our behalf. We even initiated an unsolicited urban renewal project for our street, and met with all our neighbours to promote it.

But the data speaks volumes. I now know that online media generates the greatest percentage of prospects (25%), but we are extremely unsuccessful in converting them into clients (5%). In contrast, our family and friends represent the second greatest percentage of prospects (19%), and we are very successful in converting them into clients (73%). Printed media and our website, perhaps the two most traditional avenues for marketing, together represent only 2% of our prospects and 0% of our clients.

lead origins

For our young practice, it can feel it times like we’re just waiting for the phone to ring. This data puts our impatience into perspective, and makes me feel pretty good about things. Considering all ten categories, spread out over the last five years:

A prospect makes contact once every three and a half weeks.

Prospect to client

From a business-planning point of view, understanding the next step – what proportion of prospects convert to clients – is the most important insight to gain. This helps in an egocentric way to measure how successful we are at wooing our clients, but more pragmatically reveals how many projects we’re likely to win each year and, consequently, how much money we’re likely to make.

I can’t stress enough how important this is. Despite architects’ collective reputation as money-shy, the regularity of new projects coming through the door should underpin your entire financial management strategy. The key question really is: how much money do you want to earn? There’s some simple reverse-engineered math you can do here:

Salary you’d like to earn in a year = $100,000
Average fee for a project = $50,000
Average duration of a project = 2 years
Fee earned in a year from an average project = $25,000
Number of projects needed to earn salary = 4

My little spreadsheet gives us the hard numbers: we are asked to prepare fee proposals for 56% of the leads we receive, and 59% of our fee proposals convert into projects. Multiply these numbers together, and I find that 33% of our enquiries lead to commissions, or in other words:

For every new project we need the phone to ring three times.

lead conversion

If we multiply the regularity of our enquiries (once every three and a half weeks) together with our success rate in converting enquiries into projects (once every three enquiries), we discover another great bit of data:

We win a new project every ten and a half weeks.
Or
We win five new projects every year.

Growth

This is where the data starts to get really useful in terms of working out what to do next, how better to market ourselves. Back in 2010, pretty much no-one had ever heard of Mihaly Slocombe. Five years on, we’ve been published in various places and have won the odd award, so maybe we’re a little bit famous. A further five years from now, who knows where we’ll be or what we’ll be doing?

All of this means that the above information is dynamic. Some sources have grown since we started our practice, others have shrunk. Some have become better at converting enquiries into projects, others have become worse. My spreadsheet once again comes to the rescue, allowing us to track the overall growth year by year for all enquiries, for each prospect category, or for commissions relative to enquiries.

Project leads via online media is a telling example. From 2010 to 2012, we received zero leads from this source; in 2013, we received five; in 2014, fourteen; and so far this year, one. This growth has meant online media has become one of our most prominent lead generators. But conversions continue to be very poor: in 2013, the five leads converted to zero commissions; in 2014, fourteen to one; and so far this year, one to zero.

Happily, this is an isolated phenomenon for us. I think the poor conversion rate is due to the absence of trust inherent in a lead generated by online media, but this is perhaps a subject for another post.

overall growth

Overall, the picture is pretty good, very good in fact. While our successful conversion rate has always been more or less static (one in three), both our enquiries and our commissions are on an upwards trend:

More enquiries
= more commissions
= more projects each year
= more money

This means all sorts of things: maybe we need to think about taking on more staff; relocating our studio to a larger space; increasing our fees; upgrading our accounting system; engaging an office manager… All very good questions that only come about once we analyse our marketing position.

Yet despite the importance of this self-awareness, I imagine very few practices bother to gather this data.

If you’re anything like me, you won’t be satisfied with intuition or reactionary tactics to ensure your practice thrives. You’ll need to base your decisions on a rational understanding of the game state of your practice. This means collecting data and analysing it. It means ensuring you have everything from accurate timesheets, to productivity forecasts, and project by project financial analysis. Importantly, it means demystifying marketing, if not the elusive secrets to marketing success, then at the very least the dynamic impact it has on your practice.

Good luck.


Footnotes:

  1. While we officially founded our practice in 2010, we received commissions for four side projects prior (while still working elsewhere). These projects have been figured into our calculations.

Image sources:

  1. Lead origins, this and subsequent images courtesy of author.
  2. Lead conversion.
  3. Overall growth.