washington, D.C., despite much debate, is still not a state. But if it were, it would share Maine's state flower: the mosquito. This is why I've just returned from my second foray to find Citronella fuel for the tacky tikki torches I have in my backyard. Yesterday, I bought a gallon of the stuff from my neighborhood hardware store for $10. I was in a hurry, so while it did strike me as pretty expensive I just paid the freight and kept going. Today, I was at Target and noticed the same product on closeout special for $3. I bought two bottles, feeling smug about getting a deal and bitter for having spent more in the first place.
In almost every realm of our economy, we've trained consumers to look for deals, to play the angles, to push for discounts. Frequent flyer miles from airlines, “reward points” from credit card companies, manufacturer rebates and dealer “incentives” from car makers. Wal-Mart didn't invent rock-bottom bargaining; companies have competed on price for years. That competition is even fiercer these days because the Internet has given consumers the means to comparison shop like never before. And they now can buy outside of their market with the click of a mouse. They are armed and dangerous. No wonder “do more with less” is the business slogan of the day.
I've gathered from our scads of e-mails about architectural fees that this downward pressure on prices is happening to residential architects, too. With so many sources for house design, consumers are understandably driven to find the “value equation” in this extremely expensive purchase. Many architects wrote in to tell me that the profession must abandon the quibble over fees and stress the “value” architects provide to the client. Indeed, the Congress of Residential Architects, which is convening immediately following our Reinvention conference in December, has chosen the topic of value as the organizing theme of its meeting.
This may well prove the way to go. But I think residential architects may have to take the argument all the way. All the way back to price. After making the case that the house will live better, look better, and go easier on the environment, ultimately you'll need to establish that this greater worth translates into a higher sales price down the road. And if no one else does this work for you, you'll have to do the research to quantify that premium yourselves.
I suggest you keep track of the houses you've done: what they cost to design and build, how much they sell for when they turn over—every statistic you can discern. When they sell, check the so-called “comparables” in the area and note the difference. Cultivate relationships with Realtors who work where you build. Teach them about your practice so when it's time to list a house you designed, they'll tout you in their marketing materials. After all, they're looking for a reason to charge more for that house too.
An increasing number of home buyers understand the qualitative difference between a cookie-cutter house and a well-designed one. Architects are already making a good argument for their professional value; the next step is to prove that value quantitatively. That will move architects out of the realm of luxury and into the smart buy category. Why not make the case for choosing you airtight?
Comments? Call: 202.736. 3312; write: S. Claire Conroy, residential architect, One Thomas Circle, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20005; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.