We architects have an unfair reputation not just for being bad at business but for actively despising it.
Trouble is, we need business skills to work as architects, more so than ever with the trends currently disrupting our industry. I think it’s time to reconcile this paradox and realise our worth.
Trained to disdain profit
The unappetising truth is that architects are not trained to run businesses. Worse than that, it seems that our schooling actively inculcates a disdain for profit-making. Money is somehow a dirty word. And since the lifeblood of business is making more money than you spend, this is an awkward philosophical clash.
Schools of architecture proselytise the idea of the architect as a force for social good, a hero artist in the quest for a better world. The buildings we design have an enduring impact. They have the power to affect the mood and fortunes of communities – and even whole nations. We are told we can heal humanity, and are taught to wield that power with the zeal of true believers.
This idealism is the sword and shield we take into our working lives to fight for quality. It is the source of our added value and justification of our professional status.
All well and good. But it blinds us to commercial realities. It denies the transactional basis of our work, the fact that we do things for a client first and society second. Most damaging of all, perhaps, it confuses equitable profit-making with immoral profiteering.
To set up in practice in the UK is to accept the precepts of capitalism, some incarnations of which, many argue, can damage the social good. Straight away, that conflicts with our world view. To say that all architects suffer ethical dilemmas because of this is a gross generalisation and over-simplification. However, we do appear to be troubled by it.
When we believe that the hand that feeds us forces moral compromise, we behave inconsistently. We do work for free, take our eye off cashflow, distrust or ignore our clients’ needs, and are satisfied with merely breaking even, all of which jeopardise our continued livelihoods and ability to design the way we want.
While merely an employee, embodying this stereotype is unhelpful but relatively harmless. But carry it through into the boss role and it becomes a significant headache.
The overwhelming majority of architects operate in small or medium-sized enterprises, most of them micro-businesses. With roughly 6,000 architectural firms out there (about half of which are RIBA chartered practices) but only 37,000 registered architects, a large proportion – 1 in 6, perhaps – are in the boss role at any given moment. During the course of careers that tempt you to set up in practice, many more will take the role on. In short, the moral discomfort has the potential to affect most of us.
Spiral of bad – not paying attention
Whatever our philosophical or political antipathy to profit, the truth is that there’s no architecting without it. Achieving a profit is no mean feat – practice is a tough, competitive business. But it is the spark that sustains our professional life.
Without paying adequate attention to making profit, you’re paralysed, forced to play it safe or cut corners simply to stay afloat. And when you operate at a loss, you risk having to make trusted colleagues redundant or sink into a well of debt. Stress, ill-health and impacts on your dependents – wife, husband, children – can follow. There’s nothing clever or noble about it.
Spiral of good – equitable profit
With equitable profit, you can develop, take risks, invest for continuous improvement and follow your instincts whole-heartedly to benefit society. You can pay your staff, meet your liabilities and even weather the odd storm. It eases your worries and allows you the space to flourish creatively. Far from the caricature of rapacious profiteering, profit-making is an ordinary social good.
When the profession as a whole is facing new challenges from many quarters – digital tech, novel procurement practices, machines – we need to have the resources, agility and savvy to respond and prosper.
And that means reassessing our relationship with money. It means welcoming profit with open arms. In every sense, it means realising our worth.
At the end of 2015 I was appointed RIBA Ambassador for Business Skills. By setting out the arguments, supplying the evidence and starting the conversation, I want to win hearts and minds over to better business practice.
I intend to speak at events, run a social media campaign, enable collaborations and unify existing RIBA resources, building a movement to switch on the profession’s business-savvy gene.
But I can’t do it alone. I need your help. I want to hear your stories, your insights, and your tips.
Let’s realise our worth together. Please get in touch now.
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