chris wise engineer

The harder we work the less we get paid

It’s bananas. The harder we work, the less we get paid, and we can’t blame the recession. Engineers who spend their time making construction easy or architects who work hard on their space-planning only succeed in reducing their fee. Percentage fees are responsible for this, perpetuating what I could call “The Drawer Law” (rewarD backwards).

Why is this? The penny dropped a couple of years ago when I was on a panel interviewing architects for a project worth several hundred million pounds. Afterwards, I asked our client’s managing director if he knew what we, his engineers, did for his money. “I haven’t the foggiest idea” he replied, adding that because our fees were about “market”, if we could run a business, and so could he, he was happy. And that was it….the “market” prevails. The fee in question for us was about £5 million, and I guess he took the same approach for everyone else. Combined fees of probably £30 million, or in rough terms, about 400 man-years’ work, all given out on a “not the foggiest” basis.

This weirdness dictates that now we are trying to re-invent our professions, we really must re-invent how we are appointed. When I joined Arup as a graduate, an eminent engineer called Tony Stevens told me “A good engineer does 10 pages of hand-written calculations per day”. 30 years on that well-intentioned remark should be in a museum. Blithely ignoring the advent of the digital age, fees are essentially the same as 1979. The conclusion is that they can’t relate to what we actually do. There have been many well-intentioned moves over the years to make sense out of this tomfoolery, but the percentage fee culture still prevails. Even today I received an email from a project manager on a retrofit into which we had tried to inject some rational thought: “Your proposal, while eminently logical, makes it hard for me to evaluate you comparatively against the others. Are you able to give some thought to a percentage fee on overall construction costs?”

I don’t mean to be rude, but surely we can do better than this? To “help” us, kindly project managers often send out voluminous “scope” documents which usually just tell you which beans will be counted. An example statement like: “Design the reinforcement” is far too vague: it covers a multitude of sins from (A) Overdesign one slab in 5 minutes and flood the project with twice as much rebar as it needs, to (Z) Carefully design everything over a period of months and make the structure absolutely sing and reduce the embodied energy by half.

Scope-ism like this tries to homogenise us. In percentage-land, no-one is good, no-one bad, we are all apparently average…probably the only field of human endeavour in which this is so. Count the beans properly then everyone is the same….at which point what else is there left to distinguish you except your fee?

Last month we were asked for a structural fee on another £100 million project, this time on a complex waterfront. Elected sight unseen onto a shortlist of 3, we were then emailed a sketch of a masterplan. We were asked for a percentage fee between 1% and 2% (there’s only £1 million difference after all). “All I need is a percentage, nothing else, today”.

Who benefits from this? I suppose possibly the hard-pressed project manager who finds it easier to fill in his spreadsheets. But not the building design professionals who are reduced to just a cell on that spreadsheet. Nor the client who pays for it all without understanding what they get. And not future society which really doesn’t need excellent designers to boil themselves down into commodities.

Real benefit comes not from percentage fees but from understanding. Klaus Bode of the environmental pioneers BDSP once told me, without irony, that he always tries to use intelligent design to bring down the environmental costs of a project so that they are less than his fee. Totally aligned with the green agenda, but innovative companies like BDSP can’t do this and survive if appointed on a traditional percentage. They would make far more money by being rubbish.

For the avoidance of doubt I’m not arguing for time basis fees….I simply believe in commissioning designers in a way which knowingly selects them for their talent not for their convenience.

Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat thinking that perhaps we really are baked beans, and it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference and I should stay in my tin and accept it. Then I remember I am a human engineer.

With great apologies to the exceptions to this benign culture of ignorance.

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