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Published 21 December 2012 05:36, Updated 21 December 2012 14:25
My Architect believes it can drum up business by freeing clients from the need to commit to a full-service offer. Pictured in one of the company’s concept designs. Image: supplied
Robert Harwood doesn’t like his firm to be called the Ryanair of architecture, but he agrees that his itemised model of service has similarities with the Dublin-based budget airline.
“I wouldn’t like to say we’re giving something cheap and nasty,” says Harwood, founder of My Architect. “It’s like saying: ‘As other industries have found ways of itemising the service, so people know what they’re paying for’. That’s a good analogy.”
Harwood founded My Architect in Sydney in 2009 after returning from eight years in London. The firm charges an upfront fee for an initial on-site consultation after which an architect will give the client sketches and a guide how to proceed.
If the client wants the architect to do more, such as taking a plan through the planning process, it will cost more. If they want the architect to oversee construction of the design, it will cost more again.
The tactic is a change from the tradition in residential work of charging fees based on the overall construction cost. It can lead to a limited level of engagement with clients – as many as four-fifths of jobs My Architect has done have gone no further than the initial consultation.
Harwood says no more than 15 out of a total of 300 projects have been full-service jobs. The new model will, he hopes, expand overall demand for architectural services.
“Five per cent of projects involve architects on a residential level,” he says. “I think there’s another 5 per cent or 10 per cent who would use architects if they felt they could access these services in a better way. There’s potential for a larger segment of the market.”
The firm itself is growing. My Architect has five architects in Sydney and Melbourne, all contractors who have their own practices as well, and Harwood wants to take another three or four onto his books next year. My Architect takes the bookings, does the invoicing and oversees quality.
“The architect is then concentrating on architectural delivery,” he says.
This idea has limits, however. While the transparency that comes from clear, up-front fees can be good for both client and architect, many practitioners may steer clear of it.
“A lot of architects would have some difficulty going to that model,” says Rob Puksand, a founding partner of national firm Gray Puksand Architects. “Every brief is different, every project is different. Projects are not all the same, they need to have flexibility to vary the rate depending on the constraints of the project.”
Still, Puksand agrees with Harwood that open and defined fees could increase overall demand for architecture services.
“If more and more people are using architecture at the front end, it would be good for the industry,” Puksand says. “In the current market, where architecture services like documentation are looking like being shipped overseas as a means of cost-cutting in business, design is what architects are going to focus on, rather than management of building projects. It’s really heading the profession down a course it wants to go anyway.”
So far, about half of My Architect’s work has come from Melbourne, with a third in Sydney. The low-cost model is also drawing business in regional towns where, Harwood says, the local market is “a bit not in touch with contemporary design”. Regional Victorian and NSW towns make up about a quarter of business overall.
The firm is now expanding into commercial work. The low-cost model allows building owners and managers to consult directly with an architect on proposed designs or ahead of renovating needs, without having to engage the services of a tenants’ representative, as is often the case, he says.
“I would be hopeful for us to be getting a job a week in Melbourne and Sydney. If we can get four, five jobs a month, seeing clients, that’d be a great start.”