Paradigm Hill, Merricks
What is it?
An idea as yet largely untested within the architecture profession, but well practiced in other industries. One such industry is winemaking, no better exemplified than by the Mornington Peninsula region in southern Victoria.
Comprising a large number of very small wineries run by ex-city professionals who have relocated to the country to live their dream, the Peninsula combines the best of farming pragmatism and business intelligence. Its winemakers have made the decision to run small vineyards for reasons of quality of life rather than financial opportunism, investing a great deal of work for generally modest returns. They are passionate about wine and are actively engaged in their local community.
If this sounds uncannily analogous to the architecture profession, you aren’t mistaken. Like winemakers, we too are generally interested in quality of life over commercial gains, passionate about our product and engaged in our local community.
A big difference between winemakers and architects however is the willingness of the former to collaborate. Not only do they attend conferences and workshops together, they dine together and sample fine wines on a regular basis together. They taste-test one another’s wines in barrel, co-package their wines to sell at shows, share winery equipment and share knowledge.
Architects may talk about projects and design ideas, but we do not talk about business. Client relationships, fees, office processes and marketing are all closely hoarded secrets.
What do we think?
The wine industry’s collaborative approach reflects a simple but powerful business philosophy: sharing does not hurt my competitiveness, it improves our competitiveness.
Maybe once upon a time when there were only two winemakers in the village and it was either us or them, hoarding made commercial sense. But today, winemaking, as with architecture as with almost any other product or service, has gone global. By sharing resources and knowledge instead of hoarding them, winemakers recognise that they are not competing against their neighbours, they are collaborating with their neighbours so that they may compete against the rest of the world.
This involves constant peer review of one another’s wines, wine tasting days to improve palate memory, workshops on new processes, literature research into new technologies, collaborative testing of alternative production methods and a preparedness to share the subsequent knowledge with one another.
The cornerstone of this collaborative approach is not competitiveness on price but on quality. This is an important distinction, because almost every industry that exists is focussed on price: on sending manufacturing offshore so it costs less, on automating processes so they cost less, on outsourcing so it costs less. The small Mornington Peninsula winemakers know they can never compete against the likes of De Bortoli or Yalumba, two of the biggest volume producers in Australia, so they don’t. Instead of driving price down, they use collaborative strategies to drive quality up.
Quality does have its cost implications: careful canopy management, hand picked fruit, French oak barrels and long maturation periods are all expensive. Fortunately however, it also carries the ability to charge more per bottle. Wine enthusiasts understand the concept of the boutique wine and are prepared to pay for quality when they taste it.
Staindl Wines, Red Hill South
What should we learn?
The architecture profession has been fighting a losing battle on many fronts for decades. We have been stripped (or stripped ourselves) of a whole pantheon of specialist disciplines. We are increasingly marginalised by volume builders, design and construct services, and building designers. We continue to be faced with a general public that sees little value in good design. Competition between architects is higher than it has ever been before and there are ongoing reports of layoffs across every practice size.
One response to this gloomy outlook would be to squeeze ourselves even tighter: shed ever more responsibilities until we are left with only the profitable parts. This would be a bad idea. Like the inexorable diminishment in mobile phone quality that has taken place over the past 10 years, we would reshape ourselves as little more than a disposable commodity that can be used or not used at will.
The alternative response would be to learn from the winemakers: let’s drive quality up via collaboration. Let’s collectively offer a better service to our clients so that we may re-stake our claim of expertise within the built environment. Let’s collaborate like we have never collaborated before.
Let’s talk about how we attract clients: what we say to them in the first meeting; how we assemble a fee proposal; how we manage them once we have them. Let’s talk about project management: how we balance our fees; how we track profitability; which tasks demand large amounts of effort and which don’t; how we manage our time. Let’s talk about office management: how we ensure quality control; how we communicate with our staff; how we gather knowledge; what plans we have for future growth. Let’s talk about marketing: what strategies we employ; how we use social media; how best to get published; which are the best avenues to attract new commissions.
Above all, let’s talk about what works for us, what doesn’t and how we’ve changed our practices in light of these experiences.
We’ll start the ball rolling:
A number of years ago, we had a particularly difficult builder on a residential project. In addition to being hopeless with paperwork, incapable of communication and utterly lacking in attention to detail, he took 18 months to complete a 9 month build. After the project was finally finished, we looked at how much time we spent on it during construction and calculated that we could have earned more per hour flipping burgers at McDonalds.
We took two valuable lessons away from this unpleasant experience:
- Never agree to staged payments to your builder, in other words payments only at the completion of significant construction milestones like framing, lock-up and finishing. Even a meticulous builder will struggle to manage cashflow during the many months between milestones, making him more likely to seek out other small projects to help with his income. This will further retard progress on your project and make him more likely to cut corners to save time and money. Even though monthly progress payments require more paperwork from both builder and architect, the builder will be paid on a regular basis, work on site will progress more smoothly and you will have less work to do in the long run.
- Ensure you have a clause in the agreement with your client that stipulates an hourly charge for work performed beyond the approved date for completion of construction. Couple this with the inclusion of your time charge in the liquidated and ascertained damages clause in the building contract, together with the firm encouragement of your client to apply these damages. If a builder is running overtime through no-one’s fault but his own, then it is grossly unfair that your client foot extra costs, but it is also grossly unfair that you do extra work for free.
If we all share our strategies for dealing with experiences like these, we will be able to anticipate their occurrence and prevent them from happening. This goes for research and knowledge collection in general. Do we all really need to have the same bad experience with a particular builder/ supplier / consultant / material to know not to use him / her / it again?
We need to learn that collaboration is a highly successful mechanism to improve quality, which quite aside from being valuable in and of itself, is a highly successful business model. In a globalised environment where everyone is doing similar things to everyone else, how well we do those things becomes exponentially more important. Collaboration, quality and a globalised market go together like jam and cream on scones.
You might argue that there is a contrast in scale between the winemaking industry and architectural profession, that while one person is likely to purchase many wines from many different producers, one person is not generally likely to commission many architects. We would ask that you consider this: only 6% or so of residential projects involve an architect. All we need to do is grow that number to 10 or 12% and we’ll collectively have more work than we can handle. We are not competing with one another, we are competing with the rest of the construction industry.
Easier said than done of course, relying as it does on the education of a disinterested public in the value of good architecture. However, unless we want to further diminish the scope of our profession, it remains the most promising strategy to protect our future. As demonstrated by the wine industry, the good news is that we won’t be the first ones to pursue a path of quality over price. To paraphase another bastion of quality, the great Walt Disney, while we don’t know if the general public is interested in paying good money for architecture, we are damned sure they won’t pay good money for bad architecture.
And it all begins when we stop hoarding and start sharing.
Dear readers, we welcome discussion of your own experiences and lessons in the comments section below.