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Friday01 August 2014

Dear Matthew: "I barely make the minimum wage"

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BD’s agony uncle steers you round the pitfalls of income generation

Q: I am a sole practitioner, and after completing my tax return I see I barely make the minimum wage. It’s madness — I am established, with a steady flow of jobs, but they are all house extensions, with tiny fees.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, but am fed up of giving away my hard-earned knowledge for so little. The jobs always take up more time than they should. How do I make a decent living?

Matthew Turner

A: Your sense of injustice cuts to the heart of the issue facing many architects today: your skills just aren’t worth much in the eyes of others. Blame TV makeover shows, starchitects, developers, whatever. But rather than give in to the blame game, you are in a great position to think laterally, and adapt.

Firstly, look on the bright side. In uncertain times, being small is probably much safer than being big. Your specialism in modest residential projects gives you a good customer base: the army of people out there with cheap mortgages and steady employment, who are keeping a low profile as they do comparatively well.

The business model for many architects is not a profitable one. You need to cast a cold eye over what services you offer, and how you offer them. I suggest you look at two things in particular: identifying efficiencies with your time, and diversifying sources of income.

I know many architects might switch off on reading that last sentence, and dismiss the language of business. Given a choice, perfecting a design wins over perfecting a business plan. But this is where we need to change.

A couple of years ago, while in Ikea, I came across an architect friend who does your kind of work. She was with her client, helping them order their kitchen. She looked sheepish, then later complained she hated the place, but she was there because she didn’t want the clients to deviate from the items they had agreed. To me, this didn’t seem a good use of time. That kitchen wasn’t going to make or break her reputation. Her insistence on controlling her client’s aesthetic decisions was costing her income.

I am not saying she should fleece her clients, but seen through the lens of income generation, she was missing out on two standard earning opportunities: being a personal shopper, and charging a mark up. The construction process has many opportunities for income apart from design fees.

We all know the architect’s fee charged for small projects has limits. Extracting more from multiple private clients isn’t easy, but with a back list of completed projects, you are in a better position than many to carry out proper market research on ways to leverage other income. How about starting with your past clients — what do they value? What would they pay for?

Be entrepreneurial, and who knows, you may work out your clients need a service for relocation during construction works, or matchmaking with subcontractors, and these needs could easily lead to viable business models.

Yes, we hope the RIBA will fight the profession’s cause effectively, but I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting. Your pressing need is to develop a profitable business by identifying new markets beyond design services. It is perfectly possible, although you may have to swallow some architectural pride.

Architect Matthew Turner of buildingonarchitecture.com has worked at a range of offices as well as being a client adviser, project manager and competition juror

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