Ship’s log Monday 30th September 13

No article today, although I am hoping to do some more on the arts and crafts houses all around us. The fact is, this is a rush week. The 1925 house is on site and the contractor needs information and there are building control conditions to discharge. An enquiry I thought I had lost has come back to me and I have an instruction to make a cautious start on a small extension. Just to explain: a job or a project is work for a client that has an agreed fee and a known brief.

An enquiry is an approach from a client that does not have an agreed fee and usually no agreed brief. What makes an enquiry into a project is the acceptance of a fee proposal, showing the project brief and the fee.

The brief, at it’s simplest, is a description of the client’s needs. For example, they may need a bigger kitchen, a family room or another bedroom. Without a brief it is pretty hard for me to deliver something useful that I can send an invoice for.

There is usually some work involved with an enquiry but the mission from my perspective is to determine what the brief might be and to propose a fee, even if it is just for a feasibility study to see what the possibilities might be. Some enquiries come to me where the client knows exactly what they want – others are looking for ideas. What I definitely want to avoid is getting into a situation where I find myself working on a scheme where there are no good ideas. A good example would be where the spatial solution will never get planning permission, or where the size or location of the property would make investment in it unprofitable. Another example is where the client does not know what they want – there is no brief. So it is very worthwhile for me to take a little time at the beginning to have a good look at the site and to try to talk to the client about the ideas. Sometimes the answers are readily apparent – a straightforward project that shows clear benefits. Sometimes the client might be better moving on. It also happens that the client has ideas that are good, but there are identifiable risks – planning restrictions and costs being the main ones. In these cases the risk is both mine and the client’s. Although it is her money, I definitely don’t want to be in the situation that we have chased a project down the road and come back with no viable solutions.

So that is a little bit about the brief, now that hard part – the money. What a wonderful world it must be for architects that don’t need money. Working endless hours on competitions, preparing great visuals, picking projects for their ethical or artistic value, whether build-able or not. Not so great for the client however, as they wait around for the drawings, or worse, go ahead with ambitious projects that might not work out for them the way they intended. Maybe you have seen some of these buildings. They are usually large and sometimes brightly coloured.

When I talk to a client about money, of course I am trying to win the work when the project looks good. But for some reason it is quite hard to explain to the client what the costs are and to get the fee right. In particular I need to be able to determine how much work I think the project will need – drawings, meetings, reports, letters, e-mails, permissions – and how long it will take me. But when preparing the fee there are two risks facing me – that I might take on the job and run a loss or that I might price to high and lose the work. So it is in construction. The contractors who tender for my clients face the same risks and it is good for the client to know that the prices are keen, but also to understand that the fee bids are made on an equal basis. I recently lost a job to a very low bidder but I do wonder what work the client was being offered in terms of service. In my fees I show the fees for the stages – outline design, planning, construction information including regulatory approval and tender and contract administration. Perhaps in future I will show two total sums – one for the full service, one for “planning and regs”. Professionally speaking I think that the client needs to understand the value of looking at the options at feasibility, having a proper tender process and a recognised construction contract supervised by an architect. I have the impression that it is very hard for my clients to understand this – they look at the bottom line and if it is above a certain figure, they just won’t. If the project is simple and the client has a builder on board from the start, maybe there is a way for me to protect the client’s interest and offer a shorter route to delivering the project. If the client then comes to the view that I can help them further then that might be the right solution, if they find a happy partnership with a trusted builder, then that’s good too.

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