Last week's column on ‘Wright and Wrong’ elicited more responses than any previous column, which is gratifying. It is evident that many readers are jobbing architects on single homes (not starchitects).

My story of frustrations with the process of domestic design and building resonated strongly with many. The decline in value for single residential designers seems to be a malaise gripping architecture, often centred around gripes about clients.

Like most architects I started on single residential design (even doing an alts + adds for my mum), but I grew deeply disenchanted with the process, hence my non-too-subtle use of the word ‘wrong’.  I was fortunate to move to larger projects (lots of affordable apartments, boarding houses and civic buildings, largely for the not-for-profit sector). After that experience my studio moved back to single residential, but in a very targeted way.

So, when some readers took me to task for identifying problems, but not solutions, I decided to set out some ideas this week and next, with the caveat that these ideas are drawn from the commercial architectural world and may not apply for everyone in residential architecture. This week I’m looking a different way to start the process, bearing in mind the difficulty of amateur clients. Next week will be on the other end of the process: architects as project managers to get a building built.

Single house clients

Firstly, what to do about most single house clients and their poor understanding of architecture, and their reluctance to pay decent fees? I think the best way is to start the process with a ‘feasibility study’, and here’s why.

Australians are poorly educated about design generally, and our national designs in particular – a problem our sister column Plus.One seeks to redress on Fridays. That ignorance promotes a belief in DIY, nowhere more evident than homeowners doing their own house designs, often with programs downloaded from the web. But they are so ill-informed about the whole process of building and renovating that they see no use for an architect, either for design or to manage the project.

This ignorance has three sources: they worship every Sunday at the ‘Church of Bunnings’, becoming more emboldened in their DIY self-belief, further reinforced by the various locally made TV programs that emphasise DIY and hide the designers (to save money), and then it’s off to display homes “to pick up a few tips”. ‘Homeworld’ is a uniquely Australian Sunday family outing.

It’s a very Aussie thing, this DIY design. Even our Kiwi cousins across the ditch use architects to design houses and alts + adds at twice the rate we do in Australia.

There is little publicly-available information for potential clients on the role and value of architects in domestic design, further exacerbated by the (R)AIA that lauds stupendously expensive houses in its awards, but when insolvency loomed for the Institute it shut down Archicentre, the one avenue for the average punter to find out about architects and house design.

End result: unlike NZ, the UK or US we have no wide tradition of clients commissioning architects for houses. Not put too fine word on it, how do we address the poor quality of most clients? We could mount a publicity campaign, but I think a better approach is individual: offer a potential client a service that is valuable to them about their project; and at the same time is educative about the architectural and building process. That’s a feasibility study, aka a ‘feaso’.

Start with a ‘feaso’

Starting a project is hard: gaining the trust of a client to venture down that long road, not knowing if you and they are compatible, if the brief is workable and the budget is sensible. It’s hard to know how to start and what to charge. Some clients take advantage of this awkwardness by asking for a scheme up front, and some fools fall into the trap and offer a design for free in order to win a job.

A better approach is to offer a potential client a ‘value proposition’ of ‘tangible deliverables’, to use the current weasel words of management-speak. In short, offer them a report that does three things: it provides some information that is useful about the project; it sets out the entire process (and therefore the work to come); and it’s chargeable.

A feasibility study draws heavily on the idea of the ‘triple bottom line’, in short: the design brief and site (environmental), the design and building process (social) and the costs (financial). It will allow the client to understand the magnitude of the project they are embarking on and to put any future contract on a better footing.

Firstly, to address the design issue an architect will need to prepare a ‘return brief’ - a useful concept from bigger projects that clarifies what is needed, and what is wanted. This is arduous but crucial work, involving detailed discussions with a client, particularly to get rid of the architect’s preconceptions and agenda that I was so critical of last week. In this process the client is really heard, and feels they are heard.

The first part of a feaso also entails doing a site analysis, including drawings (and commissioning a survey if there isn’t one), and site measuring if there is an existing house to be kept in whole or part. And an analysis of Council regulations. All of which is valuable to a client (even if they don’t appreciate it yet), and therefore it’s tangible and billable.

Based on those analyses the key to the whole study is an indicative design, one that’s gives sufficient information for the next two parts of the feaso, without being a detailed design. Surprisingly many clients love these ‘ideation’ sketches even if they don’t know the term: to have enough information to base a costing on, without being locking into a fixed design. That’s an intellectual skill worth having. And billing.

The second part of the feaso is an outline of the process so that the client can understand what happens after the feasibility study. A chance to set out all the steps (viz. next week) and to allocate your costs – the more it is broken down, the better. Essentially it is a detailed future contract, to see if the client is either on your wavelength (great) or not (great to say goodbye).

The third part is vital: a budget (not a costing) for the entire project: construction, consultants (incl. architects, engineers and planners), council fees, finance, contingency. As I said last week, architects are notorious for not managing budgets very well, so here is a chance to set a realistic budget, by breaking it into parts and stages, without detailing an exact design. It sets parameters for further design, a topic for discussion but not a binding constraint.

The budget calculations need to be based on verifiable data: either area rates in building cost guides (e.g. Cordells or Rawlinsons), or rates from recent completed projects or advice from a builder. Then add all the consultant and council costs learnt from recent projects. Architects need to demonstrate they are in command of realistic costs as a key to building confidence with a client for the rest of the project.

A budget, set out in full, in a feasibility study, has an important outcome: it confirms (or denies) the project’s viability, which can prevent a waste of time obtaining a DA only to find the budget is unrealistic, or to have problems with ‘cost-overruns’ later in the process. Again, it is green light (good) or red light (even better, saving later grief).

Feaso Fees

A feasibility study should have a good fee, one that represents both the information gathered (hourly rates) and the creativity in the indicative design (artistic or intellectual value). And once a fee is established for a feaso, it should be fixed, irrespective of the site or the brief or the budget.

It takes the same time to address a brief for alterations and additions as it does a new house, sometimes longer measuring up and addressing an existing house. A client meeting takes the same time whether the project is for a $500k or $5m. A pre-DA or attendance at council requires the same time, no matter how big or small the project. As does waiting while other matters are being discussed and presenting to council takes the same amount of time irrespective of the project.

Architects earn their money based on their time and intellectual talent and should not be backward in charging for both, as a fixed fee. The fees should not be based on a percentage of the ultimate value of the building, the latter being a process that should be left to real estate agents.

Next week we will delve into ways to ‘project manage’ the remaining part of the process, after the feaso outlined here has been successful.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected].