Industry Cannibalism: A Culture of undercutting in Architecture

By Ayanda Made

We’re all familiar with the saying “The value of anything is what someone is willing to pay for it” and if you aren’t, unfortunately, it’s the underlying culture you the architect have inherited. I’d like to change your perception regarding this saying and pour the foundations for a new culture of valuing work by proposing that it is firstly the value determined by the collective producing the product or service, together with the value of what the public would associate the product or service with. But the first half of this statement is the crux of the current situation. The trick is this can only work if there is a common understanding, respect, and agreement between Architects of what that value is because if we collectively agree on the value of what we do, we get to set a standard that our clients and broader society can follow.

If you don’t believe me let’s take the economics of money for instance because this is what it’s all about, our livelihoods. We all use it, we all need it and we all wish we had more of it but for this example I want you to focus more on the whole idea of it. In its most basic it’s printed paper whether that’s a 20, 30 or 50 Rand note and chances are the A1 sheet of paper you use to print your plans on is worth a whole lot more.

So how does it work? why do we value it so much? The trick about it is we’ve all agreed as people that it has a certain value and that’s the only reason you and I can buy the things we enjoy so much with it. Quite obviously money then is only more than a sheet of paper because we have collectively agreed it has value as a group, the key ingredient being a consensus.

…where our lack of consensus lets a small percentage of professionals control the value and quality of what we produce, we not only do ourselves but our clients a horrible disservice.

If the flip side of the coin relates to the first saying where our lack of consensus lets a small percentage of professionals who lack the respect and pride in what they do and how they do it control the value and quality of what we produce in an industry as complex as architecture, we not only do ourselves but our clients a horrible disservice.

This happens in two ways:

The first is undercutting works on a bottom-up approach and is, in all honesty, a level of self-exploitation whether we realize that or not. How undercutting works then is that the lowest and not the best price sets the standard for the whole industry and although this at face value seems good for the client it also simultaneously reduces the quality of work that gets carried out as these two are almost exclusively married to each other.

The second is the idea of cannibalism in the industry which plays itself out a little like this: If professionals in an industry undercut each other for long enough, the price and quality of work produced eventually becomes the new industry standard. So, to continue to undercut in order to win work you need to drop your price and with that the quality of what you do even lower, eventually creating a cycle that causes that industry to begin to slowly collapse in itself to no fault of anyone else but its own.

This cycle if left misunderstood has the potential to spiral to the point where it just doesn’t make sense to or worth it for new, young potential architects to pursue a career in the profession or even the profession itself to exist as it does. Unfortunately for us then, this unspoken side effect becomes one where if someone is undercutting an industry standard for a set of work of a certain value and quality there’s a high likelihood someone is undercutting them, and whether it’s evident now or we see it a little down the road there is a bottom where this way of business eventually pulls down the industry as a whole.

.. I believe it’s something worth thinking about, worth talking about and worth doing something about.

So, for all of us, agreeing on a collective value as architects isn’t about overcharging or undercharging but rather creating an environment for us and our clients where they are getting, and we are providing the full value of what something is worth and reshaping this culture of cannibalism and self-exploitation. The silver lining though is that architecture in South Africa as a profession has the ability to unlike most due to its size organize itself around this new culture of agreed value and restored pride in what we do. A culture that once enjoyed a high level of respect and status in the hearts of the general public not only because of what we do but how we’ve continued to contribute to society. For those reasons alone, I believe it’s something worth thinking about, worth talking about and worth doing something about.