Cutting to the Bone: How fee cutting is destroying architectural practice

The architecture awards in my city is normally a time for celebration. As it should be. Many architects in my town live for it. This is not unlike my friends in advertising, who are also obsessed with awards but the difference is if you are in advertising you get to go to Cannes for the ceremony. In advertising you get an actual Lion. Architects in Australia get to go to their local state chapter awards or maybe if they are lucky to the nationals in Canberra. If you win you get a framed certificate.

I now no longer go to the AIA awards I think I was banned after my last visit there.  Of course the ban was self imposed after I knocked the the tiny but sticky dessert wine glasses off a waiters tray to see them spin in the air in slow motion and land on the toupee of a distinguished middle aged contract admin architect. Another year in the early 90s I remember booing at some of the award winners and one year, as chair of a jury, I was told if my jury didn’t give a particular building the award I might as well pack my bags and leave town. Another year I passed out at the after party and woke up in the president’s kitchen with my hands clutching someone else’s framed award. That’s probably about as close as I will ever get to an award. All of the architect awards functions I have been to in my city have now blurred in my memory into one large ceremony of alcohol, glittering prizes (always badly framed) and bad cut-price function centre food.

Social media was on fire after the recent  Victorian chapter awards because the President of the institute reportedly admonished every one for fee cutting and not arguing for the value of design. If that is what she said then she is right. Ranked just below the scourge of gender inequality in the industry the other great scourge of our profession is fee cutting. it doesn’t matter if you are in Australia or elsewhere iI think it is a global phenomena.

Fee cutting is the scourge of architects no matter where they practice as it devalues design as a service in every respect. This year in my practice class we asked students to develop fee proposals using the Association of Consulting Architects Australia Time Cost Calculation Guide. The software helps people understand the relationship between office overheads and variable rates in relation to the hours needed to be spent on each phase of a particular project.

With another colleague I am currently researching the degree to which architects choose to specialise in practice. Linked to this is how much architects charge for their knowledge and expertise. Our early results indicate that for design services most architects will charge a either a fixed fee (30% of respondents) or a fixed fee with added charge out rates if circumstances change (38% of respondents).  As most architects will know good design takes large amounts of time. Particularly in the early stages of a project.

This above statistics beg the following question: if design is the central skill that architects offer then why is it predominantly charged for with fixed fees? A fixed fee might get you the job and give your client some kind of “certainty” as to what you will charge. But if the fee is low you will always inevitably end up spending more hours than you allowed for if you care about the design. If that is the case you might as well pay your client to get them to let you do the job for them. This may be why 41% of our respondents felt that partial services were unsustainable. They were more optimistic about the profitability of specialist services. But if you are stuck in the low fee vortex you will never develop those new services.

If a firm is in the spiral of fee competition, fee cutting and fixed fees you will never get the resources to undertake good design. It’s no good just cutting the fees, or offering a fixed fee, just to get the job. Of course most developers don’t really know what good design is and will exploit price competition in the market for architectural services to get the design cheaply. The talk around my city is you can get a fully designed high rise apartment building with planning permits for around 120k. Not bad for developer constructing a building with 200 apartments with a sale value of 60M.

Many  small firms dream of going upstream in the knowledge stakes and adopting a management consulting style model. They dream of clients paying a premium for their architectural knowledge and expertise is indeed a dream unless firms charge more for design. With the rise of digital practice and workflows, the disintermediation of architectural services, (try explaining what design development is to a client), the loss of contract admin to project managers and the outsourcing of documentation all architects have left is design. The problem is low fees undervalue design and ensure crap outcomes all round. It also means firms are stuck in a vortex of reacting from crisis to crisis; from low fee job to low fee job and never getting above water. If fees are low firms will never have the time or be able to invest in the R&D and the innovation they need to undertake to go upstream. Eventually these firms, and perhaps architectural services as we know it, will disappear.

So what is the solution to this downward spiral? How do small firms, which are most of the profession, get out of the vortex?

Firstly, a change in the professions  broad culture is needed. The old stereotypes really need to fall away. The myth surrounding the dichotomy between innate “designers” and “business” types in the profession is sickening. It annoys me that because I teach practice at MSD and have and MBA I am typecast as a kind of business “man” architect rather than being seen as having a stake in design or architectural theory. You can just see me in the chinois and the boating shoes playing golf with my gentleman stockbroker mates. I think these old stereotypes are perpetuated by the appalling gender constructs within the profession. As architects we all need to know about the mechanics of business strategy and competition.

As one eminent colleague said to me when I started teaching practice, “Just stand in front of them at the first lecture and tell them it’s all bout the fucking money.” In some ways it is all about the money. But, the troglodytes would argue that such a sentiment cheapens design. That is not the case as it is really about about valuing design services and arguing the case for their worth.

The best architects I have worked for have been good designers and highly skilled negotiators. A winning combination. We need to mentor our young architects so they gain negotiation skills. Yet negotiation and financial skills are not really a big part of the national architectural competency standards last time I looked. Its all about doing the traditional things and there is nothing about management, finance or negotiation. The competency standards are a sop to those who think architects need to be technical experts rather than a profession focused on generating design knowledge. The balance is all wrong.

Small firms, indeed all firms, also need to conduct formal R&D. R&D into simply doing a bit of design and calling it research. It should not be an adhoc activity. Nor is it about having a chat, and throwing around a few ideas, with a few friends down at the pub. Firm’s need to invest in formal R&D programs if they really want to develop their design skills and go upstream. R&D and innovation is the way for architects to compete with their competitors. There needs to be more institutional infrastructures from the AIA and other bodies to enable this. Architects need support to understand IP and commercialisation pathways. Unitised Building is a great model of how formal R&D can lead to a successful commercialisation pathway for an architect.

Firms need to charge more for design services. Fixed fees or even fixed fees with hourly rates for variations should be abandoned for the design phase or for partial design services. If all firms charged a percentage fee for design or an hourly rate for design the profession would be better off. Firms need to argue to clients that design is labour intensive and until it is undertaken it is hard to know how long it will take. Firms need to argue for its importance in the early stages of the project. If clients go elsewhere so be it. But they will eventually figure it out: You get what you pay for. I inform my students that they are better off going down to their local single origin, filtered coffee, wified, barista heaven with there sketch book than take on a project for low fees. Why do a job for such a low fee that you end up doing it at a loss. Effectively paying the client to do it. You are better off just buying the coffee.

As a profession we need to out the fee cutters and the informal price-cutting cartels. The culture of the profession needs to avoid the schizoid tendency when it comes to design fees. On the one hand architects exalt design and glorify the designers. On the other hand firms are viciously cutting their fees behind the scenes to get that elusive job next job. This schizophrenia will eventually destroy the profession as we know it. Fee cutting and price competition has already destroyed the middle sized firms and the small firms will be next unless all architects change this. This is architecture’s last stand.

This is the last blog for the month. Thank you to all those who read it and have sent me comments (good and bad). I am leaving the periphery and off to the northern hemisphere sunshine in my gentleman architect chinois, panama and boating shoes. So in July watch out for a few Kerouac road trip style blogs from the so called centres of architectural excellence and culture.  

Surviving the Design Studio: Why architects and archi-students should go non-digital cold turkey.

In between moving house and writing the conference paper I was able to attend attend a few end of semester pinups at my architecture school. Afterwards of course the tutors and critics sat around in the local pub and get about the current state of play. We mused about one very prominent and recently built facade in the city and how it may, or may not have been, developed via the computer. Inevitably the discussion turned to the insidious grip that the computer and digital design has on architecture students and even architects.

We were however, or at least it seemed to me, to be in agreement that the computer’s influence on modern day architecture students was often, although not always, potentially negative. An understanding of orthographic design, iterative process, and the ability to research design issues via different media are all essential skills for the architecture student.

Too often architecture students rush into digital design and then never return. Too often as a design teacher I am faced with students who are lost to me. Lost in the computer, they seem to have no interest in learning about architecture and its relationship to the real world. They are certain that the computer itself will solve all problems.  I think the computer software vendors have a lot to answer for.

Architectural education is a continuous process. Architects learn from one project to the next and the then the next. Each time lessons are learnt and the knowledge gleaned from the encounter with one project or situation is then banked in the mind for later use. But this continuity also extends into our lives as architects. Perhaps it sounds trite, but architecture is a spatial medium, and as architects we encounter this medium in our everyday lives.

The journeys we fleetingly conduct, the places we inhabit and bodies that we encounter are all a part of our continuous education as architects. Too often the allure of the computer limits our understanding of these other encounters.

So I would suggest the best thing any architecture student or architect is to have a few free digital days, weeks or even a life between projects. Yes, I think it is a great idea to go non-digital cold turkey. At the end of it the next time you do a new project, which will inevitably mean using the computer, you will feel be more capable and have a different insight into the design process.

So next time you are between projects go non-digital cold turkey and try and see what happens. The following exercises and rituals should help. The are designed to help you get over the fever of going cold turkey.


Yes its not a bad idea to look at things. Yes, actual things in the world. This is what going non-digital is all about. Architects are constantly observing and assessing the everyday environment that  surrounds them. In a way there is really no need to go and visit the latest building or luxury product produced by your local version of the star architect. Houses, streets, details roads, objects and urban patterns. Record what you see and interests you in a note book or a sketch book. Study on particular thing: street lighting, doors, kerbs, drainage grates, or windows. You could also observe different materials like concrete, brick, steel or paint and render. Of course, you can cheat a bit and take photos with your phone and start a new Instagram account based around a particular element or issue.

If you get really desperate you can always go to a gallery and sit in front of some art. Sit in front of a Rothko; or maybe even a building buildings or a landscape.


Size is everything. Measure you house. How big is a chair or a table. How much room is need to clear a path of circulation through a space. How high are your kitchen benches? Its all too easy to pull things out of a digital library and plaster them all over your drawings. But do you really know what it is those things represent.

Going non-digital means observing things to consider how high or how big they are. Its always good to carry a tape measure in your bag to help.

Imagine how big something is. a place or a building or a door, and tray and quantify this. Then go and measure it in reality and see if you are right. This exercise or ritual will help you explain to your clients the size of things when they don’t quite understand how big thing will be.

Different scales

Going non-digital means measuring things or considering the relative size of things in the real world. This way of seeing inevitably leads to a consideration of scale. Consider juxtapositions in scale. In some senses the architectural world that we inhabit is comprised of elements thrown together at different scales. Architects, if they choose, are able to nest and embed different scales within the one project. Arguably every project is a series of nested scales.

The tiniest renovation or detail fragment can evoke the monumental.


Vist a view buildings and consider how the are viewed and how viewpoints are either controlled by the architect or taken advantage of in their urban setting.

View points and scenography have always been big in architecture. For some post Tschumi architects viewing architecture via the viewpoint, based on the architect as an individual observer, might suggest a dated and static approach to signification. Contrary to those design methods reliant on conceptual abstraction, field theory and overdetermined diagrams, I think the viewpoint is still a valid compositional consideration. Ask Brunelleschi (except he is dead). Even Zaha Hadid’s (also dead) riffs on Suprematism rely on the view and the viewpoint.

Going non-digital means asking yourself does this building reveal more as I engage with it from different viewpoints? The facade of the building (that shall remain nameless), I was talking to my fellow jurors about, looked terrible to me from its Southern perspective. Coming up in the tram, it looked like a ham fisted commercial office building with coloured glazing : yet from another more oblique viewpoint, travelling in my car, from the Easter approach it looked great. I could almost imagine that this was the viewpoint from which the architects actually designed the building.

I guess what I am suggesting is that, as architects we should practice a kind of architectural mindfulness; its great to live in the digital world but maybe its also better to understand how the real world is. Going non-digital means taking back architecture before it becomes just another gap filler amongst the virtual banner ads.





Beyond the Australian Dream: Australia’s future housing and the failure of the political classes.

Last week I presented a paper at a great conference at Swinburne University in Melbourne. Future Housing Global Issues and Regional Problems Conference. Its was organised under the auspices of MPS. For me the conference reinforced the view that housing design, housing research and housing policy is a critical issue in the context of Australian policy debates. It reinforced for me that architects and urban designers are at the forefront of this issue and that it requires policy responses that are not left to the property markets.

Any approach to infrastructure policy, cities policy and urban sustainability must address housing design, housing policy and housing issues. Sadly, for numerous reasons policy makers, developers, contractors and the political classes housing policy has arguably been a casualty of neoliberal policy that in effect ignores the needs of different demographic strata and groups in Australian society. As the Grattan Institute pointed out in its 2013 report Renovating Housing Policy housing policy in Australia is in need of “renovating” (full marks for the pun) as well as a number of prior reports including The Housing We Choose, Getting The Housing We Want and a report called Productive Cities. 

Housing or cities have not really been a central feature of Australia’s current election campaign. The taxation arrangements around negative gearing have had a bit of a run. The real estate agents have squawked a bit. But generally the politically classes and the media don’t really see it. Its ok for the investment bankers, lawyers and union apparatchiks to talk about smart infrastructure, and so called smart cities, and city sustainability but it is housing that is the key policy element in all of these efforts. Yes, the Coalition will invest up to $100 million in a Smart Cities Policy renewable energy and energy efficient technologies in cities, if re-elected. But, the policy lacks real vision and looks like it is specifically targeted at Western Sydney with a whole lot of give aways like “better lighting, it could include better traffic management, it could include better water management,” I wonder why that is? So much for the rest of us. Why not devote the money to R&D in alternative housing financing, ownership, typologies and housing design. Why not fund ARC research that explores urban densification that isn’t simply about building apartments being developed developers who contribute to political parties. What about regional housing issues?

In contrast a recent Australian Senate Committee published a report on affordable housing in May 2015. The report containing over 200 submissions from different stakeholders in Australia’s housing sector.

The Senate report concluded that concluded that:housing affordability was also exacerbated by policy fragmentation. The report concluded that Australia’s housing system needed to be considered as a interlinked system which had both public private and the numerous local, state and federal jurisdictions. Policy was needed to give “coherence to the numerous local, state and national incentives and schemes intended to contribute to the provision of affordable housing.”

Organised by the Centre of Design Innovation at Swinburne University, and under the Auspices of MPS, the conference covered a number of diverse topics. A survey of the topics presented at the conference indicates the degree to which housing is a complex issue that requires more than property marketing, think-tanking and political spin. It is a policy area that requires alternative propositions through design research and experiment.

The conference covered the full gamut of this area of research and for me it underscored that housing policy cannot be boiled down to any singular catch cry. For example academics at the conference presented papers and research on affordable housing and issues in other cities and countries such as Iran, Sweden, the UK, South Korea, Mumbai and Vietnam. Researchers presented who examined alternative housing typologies in Australian cities as well as work regarding remote, rural and regional housing. Indigenous housing got a guernsey; as well as research into Australian social housing, rental affordability, housing finance and Australia’s urban poor; there were also papers on ageing, disability and housing design.

One intriguing paper investigated the notion of neighbour hoods and neighbouring patterns in Australian cities. Not a topic that is often discussed in the context of housing policy. Mostly, these days all the talk of neighbourhoods is in the glossy marketing materials. One of the more innovative papers, based on a MSD design studio explored proposals for the redevelopment of the Prahran housing estate. This paper reminded me that design research is an essential component in terms of housing policy and housing futures. Call me cynical, but the lawyer trained political apparatchiks and marketing minded developers really don’t care that much about design or design research.

Yet, architecture schools and architects themselves have been at the forefront, for the many years if not decades, by producing and proposing alternative typologies to the housing question. Architects are well placed to understand the interdependencies and intricacies of housing. Yet, as a profession and within the graduate studios of architecture school this work has had little impact on Australian policy debates. It has been largely for no avail and mostly ignored. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a politician  talk about the “Australian Dream” we would all be extremely wealthy. But for some reason Australia seems to be stuck in a limited number of market driven approaches to the housing question. The Australian dream of universal and egalitarian home ownership has gone now. It has slipped away. To keep talking about this dream only masks the stratified, and as I muse increasingly extreme, demographics that is the real nature of Australian society.

As many architects already know housing brings together interdisciplinary perspectives across economics, finance, planning, architecture and urban design. Creating new knowledge across this area requires a bottom up approach involving both community participation, nuanced data analytics and concerted design research. Meanwhile, the global marketing machine that spins a lifestyle of, minimalist danish modern designer homeware bright breakfast morning margarine advertisement living, just rolls along.

The Australian dream is of home ownership is now just another phantasm in the spectacle.

Surviving the Design Studio: Bridging the gap between architecture school and practice.

This is a blog for that curious class of humans known as the graduate of architecture or almost graduate. The architectural graduate is often not quite a student and not quite an actual architect. In some ways it is an unenviable position to be in especially if you are a graduate without a lot of experience in architectural offices. But, getting on the ideal job treadmill of putting together a portfolio and sending out a thousand over designed CVs via  your very own mass marketing campaign may not necessarily get you that job.

I write  as a person with considerable experience as an architecture student and graduate. I was an architecture student for so long that by the time I graduated the 70s had morphed into the 90s (by the time I registered it was the 2000s). Here are some tips, along with some hints for architectural employers, that will help you make the transition to practice regardless of where you are in the food chain.

1. Learning continues

Yes. It is wrong to think that an architecture school can teach everything a graduate should know. No-one should ever thing this.

I know this is going to sound harsh but you will not be made a design director or made an associate on the day after you graduate. There will still be a lot you will need to learn in terms of the mechanics of practice and design processes in different offices. Architecture as a discourse and as a field of knowledge is complex. What you have learnt in architecture school is an introduction to this discipline. You need to keep learning and thus I would suggest you do this by joining your local chapter of architects, networking and  getting started on any professional development courses that interest you.

Or, you could do what I did and do another degree. Architectural practice is about life long learning.

2. Get a range of experience

Following, on from the above its always a good idea to update your skills. Yes, I know you may have just spent a small fortune and made sacrifices or just partayed your way through architecture school without learning much. But if you are serious about bridging the gap you will need to upgrade your skills: constantly.

Just having  BIM skills and expertise in one bit of software and nothing else in terms of digital skills is not going to get you a job. If it does your employment mobility will be limited and you will be relegated to CAD monkey status. Learn a few programs and some coding well and you will be more versatile in what you can do in an office. Hopefully, you will have left architecture school with more than a few software programs under your belt.

But apart from software, there is also the great dilemma of the architecture student about to enter the employment market and this is what size and type of firm should you work for. Big firms have better conditions but you may get stuck documenting or worse still doing design development for the rest of your life. Small firms offer better experience but come with the hazards of less job security and practice volatility. Arguably in small firms you can learn more and be closer to the actual decision making processes in the firm.

I started in very small firms and had the dubious distinction of working for the best and the worst architects in my town.

3. Work on competitions

If you can’t get a job, or it is taking time, or it is the holidays then I suggest you work on competitions. Collaborate with your friends; do the competitions as if you might win them. You never know you might actually win something. At the least you might get published or pick up a few new design and decision making skills. You can also publish your competitions through social media.

4. Don’t work for people who treat you poorly

This is aka don’t work for a-hole’s rule. Don’t work for people, who underpay and overwork. Don’t accept someone else’s  managerial disorganisation, misogyny or fee cutting.  Make yourself aware and be aware of your rights. Support Parlour. Familiarise yourself with the Fair Work Act and the architect’s awards.

5. Be curious about the business

This is one of the most important things an architectural graduate can do. An employer is more likely to employ someone who is trying to understand, and has some insight, into how the business works. Architectural practice is one of the hardest things anyone can embark on. Competition is fierce and the lead times for getting a practice to a point of viability are long. What is your employers, or potential employers perspective? What is their strategy, what kind of practice are they, where do they get their client’s from? How do they market themselves and how do they make money?

6. Figure out the firm’s design processes

In approaching a firm or working in one ask yourself: Who does the designing and how is it actually done? Is it a collaborative effort or is it done by a single person? Is it simply driven by pragmatics, budgets and client concerns? Or does it have some kind of strategic intent? Do your employers, or potentials, actually design and if so what can you learn from them?

7. Visit the sites (virtual and real)

This is another way of doing your homework. Who has the best website and social media presence amongst the architects you like or are interested in working for? But you also get your head out of social media, or the spinning BIM model, and go and look at buildings in the flesh. Make your own assessments of them. Think about what you would have done if you designed the building.

8. Don’t send out CVS that are over designed

Don’t write your CV like a bad business plan. I have seen a lot of these. The logo is designed in 3 colours, the fonts are all over the place, there are pictures of the obligatory final thesis project. Bad renders. Pictures in the back of the portfolio of your hobby travel photos with the DSLR camera. A lot of philosophy in the covering letter about design and sustainability and how creative you are.

Most employers will base their hiring decisions on what you have previously done in the workplace rather than what you are like as an existential being.

Besides an employer, even amongst the best architects, wants is not someone to question the meaning of life, or get precious over designing the partitions, when all they want you to do is document the toilets. As the master once said to me “for god’s Raisbeck this bathroom reno is not fucking Eisenman’s House X.” When I worked for the master he was always saying stuff like that to me and it wasn’t long before I got replaced.

9. Hang out with real architects 

Yes, real architects, and I don’t mean star architects or award winners. Find your own mentors. Hang out with the meanest most experienced badass architects you can find. The ones with 100s of years of contract admin or small renovation documentation experience. Hang out with the female architects juggling small practice and family life and about to have children. Hang out with the practitioners who have been working in the back of the big office for 10 years or have been working on the one project for as many years. Hang out with the architects doing it tough in the outer suburbs where the punters think all architects are rich wankers. Hang out with the architects ekeing out a living on schools or hospitals or community centres. Hang out with the “young” practices who are still considered to be “young” after 10 or 12 years in practice. Hang out out with your grad schools alumni. Hang out with moi.

Finally, a few words to the architects who employ our recent students and graduates. 

Firstly. Thank you so much. For the profession good mentoring of architectural students and graduates is essential to it’s future.

Most firms will welcome graduates and students knocking on their doors. The better firm’s in the profession provide there young graduates with programmed and well thought out ongoing education. The competitive firms in the profession also provide and foster an inclusive workplace. The best firms mentor inclusively. Winning awards is one thing but the better firms give back to the profession through effective and inclusive mentoring.

In contrast to the better firms the old catch cry of “what do they teach at archi-school these days” always makes me want to retch and throw up. Usually the elements of the architectural profession that declaim this are those elements who think that a good architectural education is about teaching young architects technical skills and nothing else. Of course, entire architecture schools have been designed around teaching the competencies and then conveniently forget to teach the students how to design or to think. Digital techniques, construction techniques that’s all you get. To suggest that architecture grad schools are somehow too theoretical or concentrate too much on history and don’t teach students real world skills is simplistic, naive and anti-intellectual. It doesn’t really do the profession as a whole any favours.

Many students have worked hard and made enormous sacrifices to graduate. Of course for some architects having an architecture student in your practice is like your worst nightmare. For some architects it might actually mean they have to think about having management skills rather than lurching from fee cutting crisis to fee cutting crisis. Architecture students are not cheap labour or whipping posts for either misogynist views or failed careers and egos.

A few years back I want to the annual architectural chapter awards. For the usual reasons I hadn’t been for quite a few years. The usual reason’s being my own embarrassment and the desire to adopt a low profile after my previous awards night episodes;  everytime I go I unavoidably get too drunk, and then ill, or I ended up having a fight about Eisenman and House X with the master. Or shamefully avoid him because I accidently dropped and smashed the model so many years before. Then there was the awards night I staggered and knocked the waiter at the Hilton and two dozen glasses of dessert wine landed on the public works architect’s toupee. It was really sticky and I had to pay for the dry cleaning.

But on a better awards night I had an epiphany when I realised the entire room was almost entirely full of recent graduates or newly registered architects. The brightest and the best of the recent graduates were there and it gave me hope for the profession’s future.


Surviving the Design Studio: Getting through the last days before the submission deadline.

Architecture is a desperate enterprise. This is because in many ways designing is a race against time. As a designer you are always time poor. Deadlines are imposed externally. The more time you send on the design the more you burn up your fees. Fees that sometimes have already been cut to the bone. Whats worse is that it takes time to design properly. It is a labour intensive exercise that involves the consideration of different options and the exploration of different design pathways.

Most architects are always designing in a blind panic and this is what you need to get good at. But: too many architects procrastinate and too many architecture students leave things to the last minute. Finally, the procrastination can inevitably give way to blind panic.  Its 5 days to go and you still need to do the layout and print ! OMG !!

As it is almost the end of semester here in my hemisphere I thought I would do a special Surviving the Design Studio blog outside of my normal weekly blogging routine. So here are a few last minute survival points to think about. Enjoy.

1.Dont Panic

Hyperventilating and multitasking and not knowing where to start can lead to conflicted priorities. Its best to sit down and to methodically  plan you way out of things. Make a list. Write down all the things you need to do. Prioritise the list. Decide what you can’t do. Yes everything is interlinked but you can only do one thing at a time.  Put the prioritised list next to you computer and every time you start to panic look at it and stay calm.

Avoid anxiety and your own inner critical negative voice. Be mindful as much as you can.

2. Work back from the end

Know what your layout is (and I don’t mean the layout of your plans). Know what drawings you are going to pin up or publish at the end and how these drawings contribute and support your argument. If you know what you are going to present at the end then you will know more accurately what you have to do. Do an actual mock up and stick it on a wall and see how it looks.  Read this previous blog of mine on layout and this one on verbal presentation.

Timing is critical and working back form the end helps. Too often architects forget to allow for the print queue. There is nothing worse than having a great design but missing the deadline set by the project manager or the studio submission.

3. Plan and resolve your way through problems

The quicker you can resolve issues around your design the better. At the end of the project it usually the medium and little things that need to be resolved.  What is the profile of the roof or volume, where should openings or windows go, what happens at the entry conditions, is the circulation pattern easily communicated. Resolve as much as you can and as quickly as you can.These are design development decisions.  If you think you are getting into a bind about anyone decision. Just make a choice. Its your design.

Know when to design and then when to just produce the images.

4. Figure out what you can and cant do

You cant do everything. Use a prioritised list and a final layout plan to figure out what you need to do.D hat way you won t get sucked into the computer finessing things that you don’t need to worry about and making design development decisions. Concentrate, and complete, the hardest and most time consuming elements of the design and presentation first. Leaving the hard and time consuming things to last is just another form of procrastination.

Your mantra at this stage should be. Resolve, Resolve and Resolve; one issue at a time.

5. Look after yourself

Staying up all night to 5 in the morning hyped up on mother or red bull or coke or amphetamines is really really bad. After 1 am your productivity will drop. It doesn’t matter if you are in your twenties. Take breaks, eat properly and know when it is time to sleep. Get some exercise.

If you are really strapped for time the best you can do is work form 9 am to around 1 am with an hour for lunch and hour for dinner. Then make sure you get 6, maybe 7 to 8 hours sleep. It will help you to make better decisions.

Know when it is not worth it. At the end of the day it is not worth sacrificing your mental health for a better than average pass or wining the selected competition. There will be other design studios and other projects. Stop and get help if you feel your mental health is suffering.

6. Get help

Get your friends in. Get them to do stuff. Get them to lend you another eye when you are not sure about things. Ask your tutor, or a team member, about design and design development decisions. A good tutor or team member will relish the questions and help you to resolve issues more quickly rather than you agonise over something for hours.

Discussing your project s concept and design process with others even at this late stage will help you to clarify and prioritise what you need to do to finish it.

7. When bad things go wrong problem solve and replan again

There will be glitches of course. Once I printed out all of my final thesis drawings and looked at them only to realise they were all wrong. The line weights combined with the particular experimental printing process I employed led to unreadable drawings. It was a total disaster. The best thing to do was to have a sleep and not to panic.

After the sleep I could think straight and look at my drawings with a more evaluative eye. I then replanned my production technique and after a few days had reprinted my drawings. I lost time, but on the second print run my drawings were much better (see 2 above).

8. Don’t sit on the computer for the sake of it

If you are sitting there looking at the screen and not getting much done it’s time to move. Efficiency is good and sometimes that means taking breaks every so often. Don’t deceive yourself by thinking that all because you are sitting in front of the computer you are getting things done. Move on to another task.

9. If it looks good it is good

The above statement is my cardinal rule for deciding when to move onto the next task or micro task. If you are running out of time you need to suspend your own inner critic and inner perfectionist. If it looks good then use that and move onto the next task. There is no point having a great and perfect render if the rest of your drawings and images are awful.

Getting the balance right between different images and representation of your design at the end of semester or project is what will count. You are producing an integrated and wholistic design vision. Making one thing superbly refined at the expense of everything else is always remarked upon by the jury critics. But you will never win the competition if you do this. Jury critics usually want to see that how well your design proposal relates to everything.

Of course it may be too late for you to get the balance right. between the design of different elements on your final images. You may have just run out of time or read this blog too late in the day. If that’s then case you may need to make sure a couple of things are so good that you cant fail. This is what I would call a salvage operation.

10. Take notes

Take notes as you work and different justifications, rationale or aspects of your project spring to mind. Use these notes to frame and articulate your own arguments if and when you have to stand in front of your project and discuss it. You can also use the notes to help you include any explanatory or annotative text that may need to go onto the drawings. These notes will also help you to take lessons and insights onto your next project.

Don’t try and constantly second guess your tutor or the critics. Consider what they might want and then craft your response to it. Use the working notes to do this.


All of the above should help if you are in desperation mode and you have kissed your significant others goodbye. You may think you will never see them again  as you go into the vortex of the final days of a design project.  But it will soon be over and then of course there is always the next project and it is actually the next project that all architects yearn for.

Planning Anarchy: Why architects hate urban planners in my city.

Architects are a contradictory profession. Prone to political activism and yet also deeply conservative. Seemingly agile, radical and innovative yet unable to move quickly in the face of gender inequality in the profession. Forward thinking and future driven yet bound by the traditions of the canon.

But if there is one thing I think many architects in my small global city of 4 million people can agree on it is this: Statutory Urban Planners are the lowest form of life.

I am not the only one in Australia to actually think this. A recent article by Elizabeth Farrelly in the SMH also points to the crisis in the planning profession in Sydney. However, I think many of Farrelly’s observations may also apply to Melbourne. The only problem is the planners themselves are not aware of the crisis. Architects, to their credit, on the other hand always seem conflicted by professional guilt and riven by internal debates of one kind or another.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of urban planning and its associated discourse. I was in partnership with a planner who also did architecture. But, many small architectural practitioners I know are angry. They are angry about the idiocy of a planning system that permits the wholesale destruction of our cities fabric and memory and yet binds up small projects in the most torturous regulations and processes.

From the perspective of many architects in Melbourne planning governance is broken and this impedes the governance and development of the city. It is an anarchic system.

Lesson 1: The built environment would be better if planners actually learnt about architectural and urban design

In 2011 we organised a protest against the unsanctimonious and ill considered renovation of a so-called brutalist building. One of the most important examples of this movement from the 70s.   You can read about it here. As a result of our protest, the council undertook to renovate an important element of that building. It is still yet to be refurbished. Despite a heritage assessment report and its significance the planners at the council in question said and did nothing.

Clearly in this instance the planners had no sense of responsibility to or appreciation of Australian modernist architecture.

Perhaps the study of Australian architectural history should be mandatory for statutory planners. The curriculum of most planning courses have a kind of pseudo legal aspect to them. This is matched with a altruistic, if not condescending, interest in community participation. Chuck a bit of sustainability into the syllabus and what more could you want? How about planners study architectural history, visual arts or urban design as a core component of their tertiary courses. How about planners learn about design, design research rather than exclusively focusing on social science research?

Lesson 2:  Planners will tie you up in processes that are disproportionate to the size of the project at hand

In the process of doing an internal renovation of a commercially zoned building in a middle ring suburb the building surveyor insisted an external facing shutter be removed and replaced with a gate in order to facilitate emergency egress. Makes sense doesn’t it ? Sure, it makes sense but not to the planners. They insisted that the new gate be subject to a planning permit including advertising. Maybe 3 months, maybe 6 months maybe a year to get through this process if you are lucky. Providing no one objects during the advertising period. But, maybe someone will object and you will go to VCAT. Of course if any one objects the planners will agree with them.

The architect friend of mine responsible for this project bemoans the fact that, a junior planner is employed at the council on the project and is just following the rules; that way they don’t have to think. She says, perhaps with the benefit of prior experience,  if you complain the planners put you at the bottom of the list and go slow.

Planners are not independent, mostly they are employees of councils, who will simply follow the dictates of their line managers in their organisation.

I am keen to document examples of situations where architects have been bogged down in planning red tape on small inner city projects. Send them to me and I will de-identify these cases and then discuss them in a later blog ! Email me if you are interested. 

Lesson 3: Planners have no control or interest in questioning large scale developments

One of of the last remaining buildings associated with the coach industry. Who cares ??? Not the planners. This facade is about to be completely demolished for a, perhaps tawdry, laneway and curtain wall. Maybe the laneway will have a barista outpost in it.

The upshot is almost nothing is actually governed by the planners. Small projects get locked up in red tape and as Elizabeth Farrelly points out the interests of big developers remain paramount.

Lesson 4: Planners love to meddle in architectural design 

So what’s worse than the planners not planning or not governing the planning system? It is when the planners actually start to see things in the urban environment; or think they actually know about design. Planners love to add design value. But they often get this wrong. Why is that? Urban Planners are not trained in visual or spatial thinking. Sure they can argue and talk about the politics of community participation and the rights to the city. But they by and large have no idea about urban aesthetics, architectural value, or design processes. Their understanding of the issues is extremely simplistic.  Consequently,  since the demise of high modernism and the birth of the building conservation and renovation movement in the 1970s our city is littered with the most simplistic and naive examples of facadism. Rohan Story has all done us a favour by documenting many of these as a part of Melbourne Heritage Action group (thanks to MHA for the images in this blog).

You can always tell when the stat planners have a had a go at a building in the planning process. They love to tweak a corner or add a bit of value to a streetscape. They are excellent mimics especially when it comes to imitating, the facades of Victorian and Edwardian housing stock. Their favourite delight is slapping on the heritage colours out of the paint bucket. Fragmented and “broken down” facades, setbacks on setbacks, screening in myriad materials, different materials and colours; beige, pink, rust and that beloved of all colours for the planner wanting to evoke Melbourne’s historic past: terracotta. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the planners love a balcony.

Future Melbourne Committee meeting 17 May 2016, Agenda item 6.2:

These pathetic efforts are usually touted as a win-win and as a result our city is full of the results of this kind of urban streetscape slop.

In reply to Farrelly’s article the PIA the Planning Institute of Australia responded by stating:

Planning policy provides the checks and balances to put the densities where they best fit and ensure infrastructure is appropriate. There will always be differing public, professional and political opinions and reactions to any rapidly changing city. 

Planning is inherently focused on facilitation and balance where both the public and many differing private interests are accommodated. This should occur without compromising good design, creation of place, amenity and liveability – this is known as the public interest.

As far as I can tell urban planners in Melbourne are powerless and do none of the above. The planners are always good at writing stuff to make it sound nice.  After all that is what they are trained to do. But they need to be visually and spatially literate.

Yes, some of my best friends are planners, many of my more admirably and politically orientated colleagues are planners, but I am sorry we really need to have this debate.

What rankles is how easily the punters find it in themselves to hate architects. In actual fact it is the urban planners the punters should be hating. Yes, architects are kinda guilty as well. Both professions are involved in and witness to the current and ongoing contemporary destruction of Melbourne.

But at least the architects as a profession will argue about it and lose sleep over it. Which is more than I can say for the urban planners.