Architecture and Income

It’s well known that architects are poorly paid. With a lengthy degree, followed by three or more years of apprenticeship and professional exams before they can even use the word architect, it seems crazy.

It’s not crazy, even if it is unfair.

I believe that people’s willingness to pay for a service has to do with their sense of criticality: the distance from a crisis. A simple analogy: most yachtsmen are resistant to the cost of a proper life-raft, when they see one in the chandler. No-one intends to have their boat sink, and it seems hard to justify the raft. But the same sailor, when dismasted and holed in the open sea, will happily pay almost any amount for helicopters and other rescue options. Similarly, if you need surgery, your first thought is not the cost, but the quality and experience of the surgeon. If you are up against the IRS, you want an experienced tax advisor, not just a cheap one.

So the challenge with architecture, is that most clients don’t see it as mission-critical. For that reason they are very cost-conscious on the building and design budgets. It’s difficult to be well paid for something that is seen as non-urgent, unless you can provide some other benefit. The “star” architects provide a brand benefit that clients see as additional value. Bjarke Ingels, Daniel Libeskind, Norman Foster, and Moshe Safdie (to name a few) offer that additional value. If you hire them, the building is likely to be newsworthy, to be published, to be recognized, and over the long haul to add value to your organization.

Architects therefore need to engage much more directly in the creation of long-term brand and reputation value for their clients, rather than simply doing a good (even great) job of satisfying the functional requirements.  We have to  be in the business of selling excitement, quality, differentiation, and creating buildings that put our clients on the map, literally and figuratively.

This is especially difficult with developer-led projects, which account for a lot of commercial and residential projects. But even there we can add more value by creating a differentiated experience that provides better rents and higher occupancy rates. Bjarke Ingels is the best current example of this.


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