To Boldly Go – How Risk Can Be An Asset

Risk – a word that can excite or terrify.  Or both.  Whatever reaction it invokes, risk is an unavoidable part of the human condition and it’s worth saying that if no-one ever took a risk, nothing would ever change.  Whilst certainty induces feelings of order, risk can involve feelings of chaos, something most people wish to avoid.  But the architect has already taken and survived many risks by the time they come to run their own practice.  So why not dive in the deep end and take a few more?  It’s better than sloshing around the safe but shallow end of the pool.  When the marginalisation and waning influence of our profession is taken into account, risk can represent a force for renewal. Within my practice, I’ve chosen to develop a model of shared risk- a process by which the architect and client take a more equal approach to uncertainty, working together to produce a positive outcome.  In this context, it can be framed another way- shared responsibility.  Yes, the approach entails risk- if the project doesn’t pass planning, the architect loses part or all of the fee.  But it also entails reward and I believe the benefits by far outweigh the disadvantages.

Ask almost anyone who’s invested in a business and you’ll find they have more respect for people who put skin in the game than those who don’t.  Sharing risk puts the architect on a much more equal footing with the developer. It changes the dynamic from one of hired hand to collaborator, thus ending the pitiful cycle of the architect’s decreasing influence.  Only those who have real confidence in their designs are likely to take this route, a self-selecting group of highly motivated and highly skilled practitioners. 

There’s a strong streak of monastic, almost cult-like philosophy running through our profession.  It implies that any reference to the commercial world is bordering on the vulgar and grubby.  That the aesthetic principles of architecture are the first and perhaps only consideration and we have to put up with those pesky clients and developers in order to achieve them.  I believe this begins in schools of architecture, perhaps the worst offenders in terms of not impressing upon their students that most architects function in a commercial world.  Clients are the ones who put their money where their mouth is.  Without them, there would be no built environment.  In order to enter the world of grown-up practice, we need to be willing do the same.

It’s disappointing that some have chosen to see this strategy as the decline into a ‘no win no fee’ scenario, when it actually places the architect in a position of strength at the heart of the process.  This is not the architect earning less, in reality, they could earn a great deal more if prepared to take bold steps and negotiate themselves into a stronger position.  Often, those who are ideologically possessed reject the package without examining the contents.  They do so at their peril.  As the world changes, we must change with it and evolve new models that can ultimately work in our favour.