Reasons why Architectural Services can’t be Free

How should architects and other professionals respond when they are faced with requests for free services? What are the reasons why architectural services can’t be free? Is it professional to just turn down a client simply because he can’t afford your fees?

What is the effect of free services on consulting firms?

I may not have all the answers to these questions but free and negotiated services are becoming common among practicing architects.

From my interactions with clients, which I wrote about in my article “ 5 steps to charging professional fees“.  I observed that there is a rising expectation that architectural services shouldn’t cost much and sometimes should even be offered free of charge. It’s difficult to say ‘NO’ to certain clients, especially loyal ones and relatives. And it isn’t nice when their sincere request for services and your demand for money truncates the relationship you have built with them.

Truly, the relationship is pivotal in business and its handling is sensitive because improper handling could cause you to lose business or friendship.

How should architects cope with this?

Whether you realize it or not an architectural practice is a business venture that succumbs to the unpredictability of business.

An architectural firm in its simplest form (read “3 ways to reinvent your architectural firm“) needs some basic items to operate.

A laptop with the relevant software; source of electricity, a desk and a chair; internet and an online presence; a few books whether hard or soft copies. Also, a printer or a means to print finished works; sketch papers, pencils, erasers, pens and accommodation to operate from.

After acquiring all these basic items the firm is ready to kick off. The least an architect can do from this stage onward is to ensure that at every time he maintains the basic items required to run his office. Therefore he will need to routinely service his laptop to prevent it from breaking down.

Update his architectural software, renew his electricity bill or fuel his generating set. As well as renewing his internet bill, buying printer inks or setting money aside for printing at printing centers. Restock his pile of sketch paper, pencils etc and renew his house /office rent depending on where he operates from.

With this, it is clear that there is no way you can run an architectural firm without money. Even when we assume that in trying to be generous we have deliberately not placed any value on the time spent designing –

“Therefore when the full value required to carry out architectural services are documented it becomes very clear that architectural services can not be free. In reality, somebody is paying for it, its either the client or the architect.”

In this quote above, Architects have to always keep this in mind when dealing with requests for free services.

What should the architect do?

So as a way to start, every architect contemplating offering free services should decide on what minimum amount is required to run his firm per project.  So that when he chooses to offer free services he can easily calculate how much he has lost per project. Also quickly check if he will be able to foot or recoup the losses.

If he can then he can proceed with the free service. Nevertheless, if he can’t or the free service will adversely affect his office’s financial position then it is only wise to explain these to your client.

How do you convince your clients that you can’t offer free services?

The solution is never to be in a hurry when discussing and negotiating and always be ready to talk, talk and talk, and explain yourself until the client understands.

Every young architect needs to explain to clients why he has to pay. He may not know. You could decide out of discretion to offer a discount. This is good for your relationship with him but it should never go less than your minimum cost per project.

When it does then you have to nicely turn down the project or at least if you accept to carry out the project, you understand your loss. After you have both agreed you will be paid and how much, you will need to receive payments upfront. This is to forestall a situation where you finish the work and full payment isn’t forthcoming.

Also, architects and other professionals should ensure that the quality of their design outputs is high and consistent. This is so that clients are satisfied with what they have paid for.

As a form of corporate social responsibility or even personal contribution to friends, family and society, pro-bono works are encouraged in architecture. However, that decision has to be taken voluntarily by the architect. It’s also advisable that when you offer free architectural services you should inform the client of the value of the architectural services if he was to pay for them.

So that in his subsequent relationship with other architects, he would appreciate architectural services.

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