It goes without saying that times are tough for everyone –including architects.  With few potential job opportunities out there in the residential arena, we’ve noticed some fierce competition amongst design professionals.  And along with fierce competition, we’ve also observed some dubious methods of obtaining work.  Don’t get us wrong, we relish competition – it’s healthy, it rewards being resourceful and hardworking.  A bit of good ol’ fashioned competition promotes firms who deliver on their promise to clients.  But, these methods tend to deceive homeowners and diminish the value of the design industry.  Using misleading tactics and being inauthentic with clients will produce consequences for all of us.

A rising tide raises all boats and we wrote today’s post in the spirit of forwarding the profession.  In so doing we thought it would be good to shed some light on a handful of these diminutive tactics that we’ve noticed –maybe you know of more…

1. Being overly optimistic about, misrepresenting, or just plain lying about costs.
This is a big one; it’s disrespectful to clients and can be unethical as a professional.  It can be a bit too convenient for an architect to suggest hopeful pricing to lock in a job, only to let the general contractor assign actual dollars to the project costs later.  The disparaging gap between an architect’s pricing and a general contractor’s pricing is an ongoing industry problem, and we’d assert, this stigma is even more crippling in tough times when clients are already having trouble finding the courage to engage in a design project.  Systems like design-build address it by holding the same group accountable for design, pricing and construction.  Tools like our construction cost cheat sheet are a good resource for pricing.

2. Low initial design fee with additional services added later.

While everybody is looking for a bargain right now, it’s important to make sure that all aspects of the design phase are included in the design fee agreement.  BUILD’s post on the process of architecture is a good primer on everything that’s involved.  For clients that have a strict budget and can make timely decisions a fixed design fee is a good way to establish expectations.  Clients who want the freedom of making changes throughout design, or want to play a larger role in the design process may want to look at an hourly fee in design.  Either way – nobody likes being hit with additional design services and change orders later.  Just like in #1., these sorts of stigmas create another barrier for clients on the architectural design fence.

3. Fictitious initial promises with the mindset of dealing with reality later
Architects need to have both feet on the ground.  Anybody can tell you how rosy the work is going to turn out in the beginning stages of a project.  Experienced architects who operate with integrity are more likely to bring up red flags, concerns and challenges from the get-go.  And as unappealing as this might be, the consequences of buying into a fictional vision are ten fold. Architects are just as much problem solvers as they are designers, and an architect who isn’t indentifying the problems probably isn’t going to be solving them later.

4. Giving away work
We’re totally into providing pro-bono services to folks and organizations who need a boost.  That’s not what this point is talking about.  Whether it’s through organized competitions or informally generating designs in hope of winning over a client, working for free diminishes the value of the design professional performing the desperate-appearing service and even worse, this diminishes the value of the architectural industry.  It allows architects to do dreamy work because there isn’t a dollar value associated with the product.  Charging for work creates value, accountability and establishes expectations.  It is even more important in tough times to maintain our (architect’s) creative value.

5. Guilting
This can occur when initial proposals are so comprehensive and time-consuming that the client feels guilty not hiring on the firm.  It’s simply not the correct reason to go into partnership with an architect.

6. The soft start
Typically used as a tactic while clients are talking to several architects, the firm begins initial schematic design prior to being formally hired.  The strategy can involve any or all of the tactics listed above, and before they know it, the clients are swept up in the design phase.  Soft starts break down the objective comparison of one firm to another.  A more direct system would be to engage (and pay) two or more firms a modest fee for a limited schematic design.  Such a study would allow a client to compare apples to apples. It would also most likely provide an even better final product and prove to be money and energy well-spent.

7. Rock Star architect gets job, junior architect does job

This strategy brings in the prominent, well published master-architect to woo the clients and close the deal only to have a sea of junior architects and interns in the back room doing the actual work.  There is of course a healthy balance between lead architects and assistant architects – just make sure that rock-star architect you’re paying the big bucks for is fully engaged.  The smaller the firm the more likely the architect you hire is the architect doing the work.

For more dialogue on the subject, Sam Lubell wrote a great piece for The Architects Newspaper.