Why? Here’s why… (part III: taking care of business)

The last part of the answers to my “Why?” includes major financial, entrepreneurial and marketing issues.

We have left philosophical argument and got down to business.


Justin Istenes

Architects are “professional” service providers. Compare architects to other, more “financially” successful service providers like lawyers and doctors and what do you see as differences? All the three professions provide custom individual service. Every legal issue has it’s variations and doctors still see patients one at a time. Both professions are extremely organized with support staffs that keep the doctors and lawyers focused on work that is the most effective use of their time. Both professions have very strong lobbing organizations that work hard to protect the interests and the turf of their members.

Architects usually are terrible business people. We are not taught to be good business people and when we have the sense to hire a god business manager, we typically frustrate that person.

We give away services and we undercut our competition to get work.

We then get spread so thin that we can’t afford to have a support staff in place that allows us to use our time effectively.

This leads to substandard service which then disappoints our clients. How often have you heard about how bad the previous architect was then when it comes time to talk about fee you hear how the previous architect was cheaper than you are and you need to adjust your number to be in line with the last guy.

This leads to building owners looking for other avenues to get their architectural services. Contractors, Construction Managers and even Engineers provide alternatives to Owners by providing the services that you note in your article and hiring an architect to handle the design of the building on a design-build basis and cutting our fees. Try going to a notary to handle your lawsuit or a pharmacist to get x-ray and cast your broken leg. While the AIA has done some good work on our behalf, they simply do not have the resources to fight for the legislation that would be really required for us to be compensated the way we should be for the vast knowledge and many services we provide. The resource that they need is money for lobbing and awareness campaigns. They do not have it because we do not have it to give based upon what we make.

I honestly believe that is we were able to transition to a fee system based upon billing for hours spent versus fixed or percentage based fees, we would be in better shape.

Most Owners have no incentive to make us use our time effectively. This would allow us to be more efficient and responsive to the pressing needs of their projects and would enhance the quality of service provided.

I believe that under this system, design fees would likely go down and architects profits would go up.

John Allsopp

Wow – the temperature is hot in here!

… but there is a whole lot of truth in what Albert has written (in the blog post). I am very interested to see what point no.3 becomes because it sounds like it might be in the ballpark of what I am most focussed on – our responsibility to ourselves – and our education. Interestingly enough what Katy mentioned above hits the nail on the head – regarding our typical arch education. I went to a ‘renowned’ architecture school but there was no big push there to prepare you to be an ENTREPRENEUR nor how to put a building together. Ironically I learned both by working directly with the people who we have lost so much to – in-house with a developer and on a construction site. Those periods were measured in months but I learned WAY more than I did in my years of architectural ‘education’. Just as important I frequently saw architects ‘from the other side’ and believe me, many times it was not a pretty sight.

We have become our own worst enemies. Whatever the external problems, our internal issues as a profession are now our no.1 priority. We can and should command greater respect for what we do – but like much of the rest of society we have become over-obsessed with celebrity and so many of our architecture schools spit out a load of blob-makers and promote the kind of mentality of fake celebrity that you get with reality tv … so on day one they are useless, and in an economic environment like this they are scr3wed.

Bring on no.3 and let’s keep up the conversation.

Kevin Gould

We all realize that’s it a “dog eat dog” environment out there but the same rules have, and always will apply. People do business with those who they like, know, and trust. The architectural business has changed and evolved much like the medical business. General MD’s have their limitations. That’s why there’s specialists in every part of the medical industry. It’s difficult to be all things to all people, so it’s very important to understand your strengths and weaknesses as a design professional. As a sales professional I work with architects on a frequent basis. The most successful firms have come to realize that they cannot be all things to all people. These firms rely heavily upon their vendor resources to bridge their gap, and have focused on certain niche areas where they can be profitable, efficient, and separate themselves from other design professionals in their market area. There’s very few profitable new construction projects in my market so we’ve had to identify those areas where we can maximize our talents and profitability. This takes a lot of patience, stamina, and commitment but it can be accomplished. It’s important to look at things for what they are, but most important to visualize things for what they can be. Good luck to all.

Sean Catherall

What if our definition of “architect” broadened to include people with an architectural education and background who don’t design buildings but use that architectural mindset and sensibility to plan cities, to manage construction projects, to design furniture, to create films, to teach, to run non-profit organizations, to write, to lobby or to legislate? That is adaptation without giving up; it is having the better that we deserve.

As for architects not getting the praise for the work that we may deserve: Not all architects suffer from this, but some certainly do, depending on the quality of our PR. And some prefer to remain in the background if it also means we don’t get the blame for the problems associated with the work. Of course, some of us get all the blame and none of the praise.

As a group, I believe architects do receive more respect from the general public than other professions receive. However, that attitude seldom translates into deferential treatment for the architect’s invoices or his opinions on the jobsite.

Christopher Naumann

If I can add to the discussion, I think it would be a lost opportunity to mention that one big reason traditional Architects haven’t gained ground is we are far too self-absorbed. We bleed Architecture at all costs, and have little time for family, friends, ties, or being true leaders in our communities or enage in an other industry beyond their own. Granted this is a large brush stroke, but a majority of traditional professionals are so wrapped up in their own worlds of survival, self-promotion, and “me-first” mentalities; or they are so engaged and obsessive about their work they rarely look at the big picture beyond their own professional circles.

To our credit, Architects volunteer often and many architects do provide services in kind for non-profits or charities. However, most Architects see service to their community as a requirement for professional status. Few see engagement in their communities as an opportunity to promote the value of the profession as a whole and engage in things not in their comfort zone. Most are using their charity time or volunteering to somehow build relationships for future client development for their own gain, and are losing tract of the importance to educate, promote and protect the profession in a broader way.

How many Architects really have taken their success to the next level for the betterment of the profession in broader sense? When “Starchitects” get their big break, how many use the opportunity to promote the profession? Many just publish a book or get a designer line of housewares or their own HGTV spot or secure tenure in academia for speaking engagements. How many of our upper level “professionals” are actually active in the broader economy or government. How many architects serve in congress?? How many Architects are actually out there doing things, rather than talking about the way things “should” be? Granted we have a few emerging voices of our profession, but the bulk of the profession is made up of self abosrbed entities that “eat their own”, conduct business as usual at all costs, and are too focused on “survival” rather than evolution of their industry.

Which really leads me to the crux of my comments. With a stalled economy, one where a constricted construction industry has many Architects on the sidelines, an opportunity exists for Architects to be engaged in other ways, to rebuild our presense and value in society. My own path has led me to lead a community developent non-profit. I still maintain my professional status as an Architect, yet I can now use my skillset and my passion for the profession to be engaged in a far different way, a more effective way. I can also use my new role to promote the value of architects beyond that of a stamp on a stack of paperwork that can be value engineered and marginalized. At the same time, I am learning how I can be valued in the bigger picture, and not as a tradtional practicioner with a narrow focus.

The profession is indeed poised for major change. We are sitting at the tipping point where the traditionalists don’t have much left of themselves to stay afloat. The Invisible Hand of the economy is now propelling idealists and inventive souls who are redefining our profession. It is my hope that this new enlightened generation will wish to engage the broader society and economy and how the profession of Architecture is indeed relevant when integrated into the broader society. It is my hope that these new professionals will give attention and respect to the profession which they are rooted in and use their successes to educate and promote our industry over their own self-absorbtion.


Well said Christopher. We all hope that it will happen.

I am thankful to all my colleagues for their intelligent comments (we can’t call it comments, those are really smart little essays, that every architect who’s concerned with the future of the profession must read).

As for my “Why III” – it is coming soon, people. Very soon. The sequels for such successful blockbusters are always coming. Everyone needs “to capitalize” on the previous success.

Just kidding, my “capitalization” is your comments. That’s the highest reward… Really. Thank you.


3 Responses to “Why? Here’s why… (part III: taking care of business)”
  1. A lot of interesting thoughts… I’m happy such discussion exists… Sometimes we cannot see ourselves from the outside….

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  1. […] “I honestly believe that is we were able to transition to a fee system based upon billing for hours spent versus fixed or percentage based fees, we would be in better shape.”  (here) […]

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