Building a relationship with a client through a ‘free’ capacity study is a targeted and effective form of marketing, writes Oliver Lowrie



Source: Ackroyd Lowrie

Oliver Lowrie

As someone who runs a small practice, I must start by saying that I am as alarmed and concerned about the erosion of architects’ fees as anyone.

Which leads on to my next point. I wrote a slightly controversial post on LinkedIn recently saying that architects should give away work for free. To be very clear, I was advocating for doing initial capacity studies for developer clients to allow them to assess the high level viability of a site.

‘Why would you give away this valued service for free?’ came the predictable comments in response to my post. My reply to them is that this ‘free’ service is actually a ‘monkey’s fist’. This is an expression taken from the nautical world to describe the knot tied to a string that sailors throw to the dock worker when mooring a large ship. The dock worker catches the knot, pulls in the string, which is attached to a rope, which leads to a chain. And once you pull the chain, you land the vessel.

We don’t see capacity studies as ‘free’ work, more as effective marketing - they are a chance for us to impress a new client with our knowledge, our speed of service, and even more importantly - our design solutions. In an era where the internet makes it very easy to spend marketing budget in all sorts of untargeted ways, this strategy seems to be well aimed. Moreover, once we have done the initial work, our position of leverage is increased when it comes to fee negotiations.

And this is not the only ‘free’ service available in our product ecosystem. We run a breakfast club for developers to gain insights from policymakers and politicians, and we offer a podcast where we interview key figures from the industry. These all sit within our marketing budget, and the aim is that they are all strings, ropes and chains that pull clients towards us and lead towards our core service for which we seek to charge fees that pay for the entire system.

A monkey's knot

A monkey’s fist

I was challenged by one of the comments on LinkedIn to look at other sectors that properly value their time, but even a quick glance outside of architecture demonstrates that many other industries employ the monkey’s fist approach. From Spotify’s Freemium service, where you can access a basic service for free to Google’s ‘free’ search engine that provides rich data to sell to advertisers, there are many examples of businesses using the idea of product ecosystems to move clients through a funnel towards core services.

Rather than being part of the race to the bottom, we believe that this early engagement allows us to engineer win-wins with our clients that allow better outcomes for both parties. Once we have worked together to develop the brief, set up the design team, and agree a programme, we can negotiate fees with a client who is better informed about the upcoming process.

Does this occasionally result in wasting time and not being appointed? Of course it does. But where it’s successful, it can lead to long term relationships with developers that we aspire to work with.

It is by working for free that smaller architects are able to get the chance to even get in front of larger clients

What is worrying me is the trend I have recently seen where clients are telling me that architects are working ‘on spec’ all the way up to pre-application or even planning, with fees only paid out after a successful application. This really is the case of the big boys using their deep pockets to muscle out smaller practices who can’t afford to underwrite this type of risk.

Prevalent in the comments on my post were those predicting that these initial capacity studies will soon be done by AI. Whilst I think that in a context as complex as London, with its nuanced planning system, and need for analysis of existing urban grain, we are still some years off this being a usable option for developers, I do think we will end up there. And that is a great risk for smaller architects.

Why? Because it is by working for free that smaller architects are able to get the chance to even get in front of larger clients. If these clients are able to do their own capacity studies in-house using AI, they may choose to simply work with their existing stable of architects once the robots crunch the numbers.

But when it comes to the problem of resources in the industry being given away for free, these quick capacity studies are not the major time sink. A few hours of time spent on a sketch scheme is dwarfed by the many wasted weeks I recently spent applying for an open invitation to tender for a public sector project, that was cancelled after many multidisciplinary teams had already spent hundreds of hours on bids.

If I could advocate the RIBA do anything to address the erosion of fees in the profession, it would be to give public sector clients more knowledge about best practices in tendering to avoid wasting time, and also to provide information (not fee scales, but advice) to clients in the public and private sector about appropriate fee levels to expect to pay on different types of projects.

In the meantime, if you are a developer in need of a capacity study, please contact me, and we will turn it round in 48 hours!

>> Also read: How did architecture become such a poorly paid profession and what can we do about it?