Gus Alexander - Abolishing the RIBA advisory fee scale, as the government wants, is another sign of our crass inability to appreciate the value of good design
trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers claims that the RIBA is operating a restrictive practice by publishing recommended fee scales. By doing so, he insists, architects are acting in an uncompetitive manner.

If the only people allowed to offer design services for building works were architects, then perhaps he might be right, but in this country anyone is allowed to design buildings at whatever price. All about us there is evidence that they are not being designed well enough, which suggests that the people who design them should be paid more, not less.

In my view, the architect's fee can be the best value item of a whole building project. But then I'm the sort of person who thinks that the chef is the most important person in the restaurant. Not that the waiters and the maitre d' aren't important of course, but however good the decor or the service, if the food isn't any good – what's the point? Some years ago, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission removed the RIBA mandatory fee scale. Surprisingly, most clients interviewed were in favour of retaining it. "When we go and see our funding authorities," they said, "we are always asked whether we are getting the land at the cheapest price, or borrowing money at the cheapest rate. When it came to the question of consultants, we were able to say that we were paying the standard fee scales. This seemed to satisfy our backers, and meant that we could choose whom we wanted to work with." This didn't cut much ice with the commission, which abolished the scale anyway.

It reminds of an interview with Michael Collins, the astronaut who was sitting in the command module when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were taking their first tentative steps on the moon. "What were you thinking when your colleagues were out there making cosmic history?" he was asked.

"I just kept reminding myself that every single component in this spacecraft was provided by the guy who submitted the cheapest tender," he replied.

Most people engaged in a business with which they are unfamiliar are more interested in not being ripped off than in getting something for the lowest possible price. Usually when I offer someone a copy of the RIBA fee scale and say "this is what we usually charge", there is an almost audible sigh of relief.

Architects belong to the only profession that people go to when they aren’t in trouble

But then I usually operate at a level where a full service is required. Increasingly, architects are being asked to tender part of the professional service, and indeed the whole concept of a professional service has become a dirty word. However, when I work for other professionals, especially solicitors, they are always keener to appoint me on a recommended percentage fee than an hourly rate. "At least I know what I'm in for at the outset," they think.

Architects belong to the only profession people go to when they aren't in trouble. If you're threatened with prison, you'll pay a barrister anything; but why pay an architect this apparently huge fee? For making a few drawings? I mean, whose bloody building is it? It always amazes me that you pay a genius more or less the same price as a schlock drawing outfit – indeed, there are so few brilliant architects I'm amazed they have to tender at all.

The problem is that design is so hard to quantify.

At least with a sensible fee, an architect knows that he or she can put in the time thought appropriate.

If you told most clients how long a particular piece of design work took to unravel, they'd never believe you – usually because the end result looks inevitable. It's not as if most architects are in it for the financial rewards anyway.