If architects have any time left over after baffling their novice clients, they ought to spend it explaining that it makes sense to pay them what their work is actually worth

Along with my fellow members of the RIBA, I recently received a note from our president, the estimable Sunand Prasad, about resisting the temptation, or perhaps it would be more realistic to say the pressure, to cut fees.

Of course, the architects’ main problem is not really cash-strapped clients. It is other architects. And not just because we compete with them over money. You can imagine a novice client wanting to build something and being given the name of three architects. The first they see, WhizzPlan[4], tells them they need a fabulously sexy, sleek, seamless essay in fractal glazed facades and rainscreen ceramic. This will send the right image to their potential customers and thus save them a fortune in PR fees. This all sounds very good until they go and see Cosy Green + Friends, who say: “God, you can’t have that WhizzPlan[4] nonsense. It’s exactly what you don’t want. It’s entirely untested, your staff will all melt when the sun comes out and nobody really knows how to calculate the bearing stresses on all that inclined glass. “ They then explain that what is required is a nice self-effacing, low-key building with plenty of daylight, sheep’s wool insulation and a self-sustaining ventilation system powered by the recycled heat from the hot water wasted in the washbasins.

This sounds even better, although clearly it doesn’t cut much ice with Portico, Aedicule Associates; in fact, they just stare in horror. “You can’t possibly build this earth closet vernacular! It’ll look like a travellers’ encampment. How can you think of building that on such a sensitive site? Just look at all that delicious late 19th-century stonework round the corner. No, what you want is a handsome traditional building. Everybody knows how to build it, so it’s tried and tested, and it gets better as it gets older. It will last forever and the planners will just love you for it.”

I’ve always thought it amazing that clients are happy for an estate agent to charge them 2-3% of the entire project cost for two weeks doing not very much

What should have happened is that in the first instance our would-be client would have given these three a brief, and offered them a few thousand quid to come up with some ideas. Then, after a subsequent interview, they would appoint the firm that they thought they would be able to get on with for the five years that they will need to be working together. And of course they should all be charging exactly the same fee.

I’ve always thought it amazing that clients are quite happy for an estate agent to charge them a fee of 2-3% of what is effectively the entire project cost including fees, furnishing, financing, profit, for a leisurely two weeks doing not very much, whereas their architects are thought of as being ridiculously out of touch with the market if they ask for 5% of the basic construction cost for what can easily be three years’ work. And the ridiculous thing is that the better the architect, the easier the building is to sell, and so the less the agent has to do.

Nobody said that life was fair, and I do know one architect with only a few more employees than me who is rich enough to fly his own aeroplane, which he uses to locate sites to augment his development portfolio.

This design sounds even better, although clearly it doesn’t cut much ice with Portico, Aedicule Associates; in fact, they just stare at it in horror

Sunand is right that the best way of persuading clients to appoint you properly is to explain to them what work needs to be done, and to make it clear that unless you are paid enough money to resource the project, your professional indemnity insurance company will not cover them if anything goes wrong. This is especially true in times like these, when absolutely the last thing you want is to be stuck with a commitment to work for practically nothing once we return to a climate of sensible pricing.

If our novice client had been a seasoned developer, it could have traded on the narcissism and vanity of the rival architects and probably persuaded them each to do enough work for it to secure the next stage of funding and paid them practically nothing for providing what is by far the most valuable part of an architect’s repertoire.

I‘m always cheered up when I hear of good architects charging a lot of money. IM Pei was recently asked to design a sports stadium for a competitive Olympic bid.

When he told the consortium what his fee would be, they told him, “Oh, we’ll be happy to pay you – once we’ve been awarded the commission.” Mr Pei was not impressed. “If you guys can’t get your act together enough to fund my initial fee, I don’t see how you’ll be able persuade anyone to let you build their building.”