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VANESSA BIRD, VICTORIAN CHAPTER PRESIDENT

President's  Message

Marking the 175th anniversary of the Supreme Court of Victoria, guest editor Mark Wilde is to be congratulated on this issue of Architect Victoria on law courts in Victoria, and for engaging in complex conversations on terrorism and domestic violence that he posits will directly inform future justice environments. Thank you to Mark and his contributors for exploring the role architects can contribute through considered design thought.

When I was opening the Awards Exhibition a few weeks ago I was struck by the exceptional quality of the work on the walls given the current fee climate. It is astonishing that while fees are driven down, architects continually find ways to do good work. We are resilient but this is not limitless. Expectations for ever higher levels of service for the same fee cannot continue. Fee pressure is applied at both the front end where there is pressure to provide concept design for free; and at the delivery end where there is pressure to do more for less.

I would encourage you all to value your skills more highly. Put a decent value on your intellectual property, and don’t sell yourself short.

 

Why are we Giving it Away?

Architects will always need to compete for work, but cutprice design fees or no design fees sends the wrong message. This doesn’t create a future for our up and coming practices, or acknowledge the value of design. Concept design is not a loss leader. It is our most precious commodity involving significant expertise, developed over time. How can we expect clients and the market to value our expertise if the message we are promoting is that we don’t value it ourselves? Your intellectual property has undeniable value – in some cases worth millions of dollars in uplift to developers, or real-estate agents, and in others cases it changes people’s lives. You should not be giving this away for free.

We all start with a blank piece of paper and until we provide a creative solution the entire project team, consultants, advisors and managers remain at a complete standstill. This is where our core value lies. Our intellectual property is our most important asset.

All businesses decide what they will and won’t give away to attract clients. However, if you give away your best content for nothing, what possible reason could anyone have to pay for content that is less valuable? If you offer your best content for free, you are bound to get resistance – or disappointment – on the services that you try to sell.

Architects can do ‘pro bono’ work – but a profitable business structure is needed to support this. Value your work, then make real donations through not-for profit organisations, community groups, or Architects Without Frontiers; all of which contribute to society in special ways.

 

Doing More for Less

The downward pressure on fees that occurred during the GFC created a market accustomed to higher delivery expectations. Business costs like insurance and software have increased while fees decline. This isn’t because there is a shortage of money in the industry. It just isn’t distributed our way. The quality of our work is not appearing to suffer (nearly 200 projects were entered into the 2016 Awards), so externally the system seems fine. This is because architects are generous and do more than the fee allows, but under-pricing is not the way forward. For the sake of the future of the profession, change is required. So why does this matter? Inadequate fees mean we cannot pay our staff the wages that they deserve. It is then hard to attract and keep the best and brightest students. Architecture is complex and we need good young minds coming through who don’t have to worry about poor wages or long hours of unpaid work. We need to be paid for the services we provide so that we can pay our staff properly.

So how do we return the balance and recapture our value? And what is the Institute doing about it?

Firstly, we need to take more control of project delivery. One piece of the Institute’s advocacy work is the push for mandatory registration of project managers to claim back some of our traditional territory. This process has begun. The opportunity for architects is to fulfil the registration requirements themselves, thereby instantly returning scope and lost fees. Or to project manage other architect’s projects professionally and knowledgably, and claim the appropriate fee.

Architects can and do find solutions to complex problems. We can change, we like change, we trade in it. This was proven in May when we voted for the governance changes in our Institute’s Constitution. There hasn’t been a successful national referendum for 40 years, so this demonstrates our ability to change by working together. This is fundamental to the concept of a true profession. I encourage you all when calculating your costs and fees to think about our longterm viability. It is one thing to live for architecture – it is quite another to die for it.

Architecture is important. Our current Prime Minister is interested in cities. The future of the city, housing, and infrastructure are all part of the core political debate. We have to advocate for an environment where design is valued. We have to start by giving greater monetary value to design ourselves.

 

VANESSA BIRD VICTORIAN CHAPTER PRESIDENT

This is an edited version of the President’s speech given at the 2016 Australian Institute of Architects, Victorian Architecture Awards. A longer version can be found on the Parlour website: archiparlour.org