I had a 90-minute call from a client this afternoon explaining why they were not going to pay for the drawings I’d done for them, as they weren’t what they had asked for, and this was our mistake and nothing to do with them changing their minds, and so on. As I put the phone down, my ears burning and my head throbbing, I thought: “Why do I have to waste my time having conversations like that?” And suddenly I realised – right now, I don’t.
Perhaps it is a bit like privatisation. Flogging off all the utilities was never part of the Tory manifesto, but one day Mrs T found herself in the stranglehold of the GPO with an 11-week wait for the new phone lines she needed. “I only wish we could sell the bastards off,” she screamed (or words to that effect) and the rest, as they say, is history.
Like all creative people, architects are, I suspect, overconscious of their shortcomings. “If I were as good as I think I am,” they say to themselves, “my client really should have had a better service.” This is where the extreme parsimony of the very rich cuts in. Hard-nosed commercial people pick up on this self-doubt. “I’m knocking two grand off this bill as you didn’t make a very good job of it and we didn’t really want you to do the work anyway, but I’ll send you a cheque this afternoon.”
When £2000 tomorrow is worth £4000 in three months’ time you sometimes have to take it – practices like mine are vulnerable to economic bullying, and there’s nothing like a VAT demand due in two days to make you extend ridiculous discounts to clients that are 12 weeks late paying.
The difference between being worked to death and having nothing to do is two phone calls either way
The truth of the matter is that any architect doing the sort of work I’ve been doing for as long as I’ve been doing it just has to know what they’re doing, otherwise they’d no longer be doing it. One way round the difficulty is to give clients that won’t pay for a good job a bad one. The problem with this is that, no matter how much you might like to, it’s hard to lower your standards. It is like a good builder trying to do a lash-up. Unless it subcontracts the whole job to someone who knows no better, it can’t. It is simply not in it not to take that extra 10 minutes to ensure that the sockets are level.
I had a very dodgy client once whose idea of toshing a flat up was to paint everything with one coat of white emulsion. It looked OK for 25 seconds, but I don’t think I could persuade any builder that I’ve ever come across to paint the fitted carpet on the stairs.
When you have a lot of work, you can start charging some of your services as additional – services you would usually throw in for free. Not out of greed, but out of need. Why pay an assistant to work on a money loser when they could be working on a money winner?
On the other hand, it’s nice if all your jobs are profitable, but some are acceptable even if they barely break even, simply because your client pays quickly or has good taste. What is not agreeable is working for a scuzzy one and not making any money. However, as in so many creative endeavours, the difference between being worked to death and having nothing to do is two phone calls either way. We can all remember taking on those jobs that we didn’t really want to do a few months ago, and thinking: “Well, if I wasn’t doing this, what the hell would I be doing?
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London.