Under-valuing the core business of design is not the path to a sustainable industry. At the recent Victorian Architecture Awards, Chapter President Vanessa Bird beseeched architects to value themselves and their work, and to calculate fees accordingly. The future of the profession depends upon it.


Welcome to the 2016 Awards. With a room full of recognised leaders of the profession, rubbing shoulders with our future leaders, I would like to take the opportunity to reflect on a critical issue facing the future of the profession – remuneration, or fees.

When I opened the Awards exhibition two weeks ago I was struck by the exceptional quality of the work given the current fee climate. It is astonishing that while fees are driven down, architects continually find ways to do good work. We are resilient, but this is not limitless. Expectations for ever-higher levels of service for the same fee can’t continue.

Fee pressure is applied at both ends of the process. First, at the front end, there’s pressure to provide concept design for free; and second, at the delivery end, there’s pressure to do more for less.

I encourage you all to value your skills more highly. Put a decent value on your intellectual property, and don’t sell yourself short.

Why are we giving it away?

Architects will always need to compete for work, but cut-price design fees or no design fees sends the wrong value message. This doesn’t create a future for our up-and-coming practices – or acknowledge the value of design. Concept design is not a loss leader. It is our most precious commodity. The contributions you see here tonight are undeniably excellent and involve significant expertise, developed over time. How can we expect clients and the market to value our expertise if the message we give is that we don’t value it ourselves? Your intellectual property has value – in some cases, it’s worth millions of dollars in uplift to developers or real-estate agents, and in other cases, it changes people’s lives. You shouldn’t be giving this away for free.

We all start with a blank piece of paper and until we provide a creative solution on that piece of paper, the entire project team – consultants, advisors and managers – remain at a standstill. This is where our core value lies. Our intellectual property is our most important asset.

All businesses decide what they will and won’t give away to attract clients. However, if you give away your best content for nothing, what possible reason could anyone have to pay for content that is less valuable? If you offer up the farm, or what is truly your most valuable content for free, you are bound to get resistance – or disappointment – on the services you try to sell.

Of course, architects can do ‘pro bono’ work – but a profitable business structure is needed to support this. Value your work, and then make real donations through not-for-profit organisations, community groups, or Architects Without Frontiers, all of which contribute to society in special ways.

Doing more for less

Architects are doing more for less. And in this case, less is not more, it’s just less. The downward pressure on fees during the GFC created a market accustomed to higher delivery expectations. Business costs, such as insurance and software, have increased – while fees decline. This isn’t because there is a shortage of money in the industry. It just isn’t distributed our way. Tonight you see quality isn’t appearing to suffer – so externally the system seems fine. This is because architects are generous and do more than the fee allows – but under-pricing is not the way forward. For the sake of the future of the profession, change is required.

So why does this matter?

Inadequate fees mean we can’t pay our staff the wages they deserve. It’s then hard to attract and keep the best and brightest students. Architecture is complex and we need good young minds coming through, who are not having to worry about the prospect of poor wages or long hours of unpaid work. We need to be paid for the services we provide, so we can pay our staff properly.

How do we return the balance and recapture our value? And what is the Institute doing about it?

First, we need to take more control of project delivery. One piece of the Institute’s advocacy work is the push for mandatory registration of project managers to help claim back some of our traditional territory and lost ground. This process has begun. The opportunity for architects is to fulfil the registration requirements as project managers themselves, thereby instantly returning scope and lost fees. Or to project manage other architect’s projects professionally and knowledgeably and claim the appropriate fee.

Architects can and do find solutions to complex problems. We can change, we like change, we trade in it. This was proven in May when we voted for the governance changes in our Institute’s Constitution. Think about it – there hasn’t been a successful federal referendum for 40 years, so this demonstrates our ability to change by working together. This is fundamental to the concept of a true profession.

I encourage you all when calculating your costs and fees to think about our long-term viability. It is one thing to live for architecture – it is quite another to die for it.

Architecture is important. We are heading into an election where both major parties are proposing a Minister for Cities. The future of the city, housing and infrastructure are part of the core political debate. We have to advocate for an environment where design is valued. We have to start by giving greater monetary value to design ourselves.

Every year at the Awards we see Victorian architects making significant contributions to the city and its life, to our communities and to the advancement of our discipline. In 2016, we see an exceptionally high standard. You all find great solutions and do profoundly valuable work – don’t under-value it. I do warmly congratulate all the winners here tonight, as well as all those shortlisted for your fabulous contributions to the city.



I’d like to acknowledge the tremendous contribution Jon Clements has made during his four years as National and Chapter President in a period of renewal. Thank you to his partners at work and home who have carried the extra load during that time. Thanks to Graham Burrows, Dana Burrows, Tim Jackson, Jane Mackay and Lissa Clements.

The awards program doesn’t happen without a tremendous team effort. Thank you again to our sponsors and participating partners, including the University of Melbourne for hosting the Awards presentations; the Awards Committee, chaired by Amy Muir; and the team at the Australian Institute of Architects, including Alison Cleary and Lucy Spychal, Awards Co-ordinator. Thank you to the 43 jurors and jury chair Hamish Lyon. The peer review process and the site visits make these awards the most valued and this is the reason we’re all here tonight.

The winners of the Victorian Architecture awards can be found here.


Vanessa Bird, FRAIA, is the Australian Institute of Architects Victorian Chapter President and co-founder of Bird de la Coeur Architects. She is an experienced juror and is involved with course accreditation for the universities. Vanessa has won awards for group housing and housing for retirees, including the Victorian Coastal Award for Excellence, the State Government’s Highest Award.