Busy week….

Back to-back competitions.  Yikes.

Can’t show you any of them, though, because they are pretty sensitive projects….

So, a first.  No pics for what is essentially a “visual” blog.

The work was nothing too torturous; seven pencils in a week, slightly less formal (meaning: more sketchy) than the ten sketches I did in five days a little while back, so technically this should have been a cakewalk.  It’s always tough, though, because there’s a lot of stuff riding on a competition.  It’s even more important somehow, and always under a tight budget and deadline. And times are crazy… I’ve heard horror stories that, in this economy, there are a hundred architects submitting proposals to an RFP for a  lobby renovation.

Each of the competitions I just wrapped up had a total of four architects vying for pretty substantial jobs.  Good odds. These jobs were very important to my clients.

A year ago, architects might have thrown $100k-$150k to put together their response to one of these.    Some still are, frankly, those that can.  But most are trying to find ways to creatively go after work and set themselves apart from the pack, but without dropping  nearly as much cash in the process as they once might have.  The job means more to them now, they have less to spend, and they have more competition.

Last year, for something like this, I’d get a call for maybe four or five formal renderings, full color, digital or watercolor.  Fees for that kind of work hover (at least in the Boston/New York market) somewhere north of $15k, approaching $20-25k.  Well, the watchword today is “economy”.  …though I rather think it’s is more properly “value”.

But we (my colleagues and I) are getting phone calls from repeat clients who are looking to save some money.  Not a surprise. I have been suggesting that rather than going into an interview by cutting back from four and doing only one or two formals (the most expensive) images, we consider doing a suite of four or five pencils, somewhat looser and more conceptual.  Say five or six semi-formal pencils in lieu of two formal digital or watercolor pieces.  Let your competition come in with one pretty formal watercolor.  Or one glorious photoreal image.  You come in, through the side door, with a suite of black and white images that provides them a veritable walk-through of the project and avoids all discussion about the thing looking too “resolved”.  Someone is going to stick out from the competition.

Fact is, half of the architects you are up against will default to some sad looking Sketch-Up model-shots.  Your project might be genius/beautiful/brilliant, but clients still want you to show them some love.  You put on your best suit to go to an interview, why not put your best foot forward?  Sketch-up isn’t putting your best foot forward.  Neither is a “quick” in-house quasi-photoreal digital piece.  Clients were maybe amazed say, in 1996, when you had a digital rendering, but nowadays they (your clients I mean) are vastly more sophisticated.  Unless the thing is perfect (and I can think of maybe two digital shops that can meet that description; Neoscape and Studio AMD), your “they’ll-be-so-impressed” digital image is going to leave them feeling odd.  Fact is, if you are going to set foot into “photoreal” world, you’d better nail it.  We are, essentially, hunters, and our eyes have developed over the past few million years to seek out and find detail, movement, and especially anything inconsistent with the background.  There does not exist any computer program yet that can produce anything remotely photo realistic from the push of a button.  It is not possible.  We are close, but even then, the computer (the software, really) is merely a camera.  You still need a very creative architectural photographer to run it.  A friend of mine, also in the business, once said:  “you could hand an 8×10 landscape camera to a hundred thousand people.  Only one of them will be Ansel Adams.”

The easiest thing to do in producing a photo real rendering is to model it.  Everything important happens after that.  A third of the time to model, another third to mess around with the lighting and the camera, …and the lighting, …and the lighting, and the lighting…. (next time you go to a Pixar movie, do me a favor and count how many people they have working on lighting alone). There’s a reason the good photoreal stuff costs money.    The final third is (or should be) spent  in post-production. Those that produce the finest photo real architectural renderings (under a deadline and budget) will spend a good chunk of their time in post production, fixing and tweaking things, in Photoshop for example.  There is no such thing as a “computer generated” rendering.  They are human generated. These guys (the good photoreal renderers) are artists every bit as much as a guy pushing paint.

I’ve had potential clients tell me they “can get a rendering from China for $300”.  So can I.  I can contract for your work, sub out the piece to some shop in Shanghai, and pocket the difference.  You know why I don’t?  Because much of it is junk.  The stuff that is good?  Well…. can they do it in three days, along with a few others, edit the thing to accept all your changes, and communicate with you in real-time, Eastern Daylight Time?  And even if they can, is your design resolved enough to tell them everything they need to know to make it truly “photo real”?

I had a (potential) client call once looking for a rendering.  I quoted the fee.  They balked.  Instead, they developed the model in-house.  Five days’ worth of a junior designer’s time.  Shipped the model to a shop in China, where they labored on it there to produce the final rendering.  The architect’s senior designer on the project made corrections to the renderers’ work each day.  Sent them back mark-ups to be worked on overnight.  24 hours later, and… >Bwink< into the in-box there’s a progress shot.  Still not right.  End of a week, a day before deadline, and they were pulling their hair out. Forty hours of a junior designer’s time, plus twenty hours coordinating by the senior designer/manager.  In the end, the thing cost them $7000 all told.  I had quoted them little more than half that. Ultimately, they couldn’t use the image.  Wouldn’t be surprised to hear that some kid in their office is (to this day) still futzing around in photoshop trying to make it work.

I have a great friend… worked with/for him for nearly 15 years.  Called me (after I left the architecture firm we were both at) to do a “quick sketch” for him over the weekend.  He needed it for a meeting on Tuesday, with the mayor.  I quoted a price.  I did not mark it up as I usually would, for the weekend effort.  I also discounted it a bit.  “Hmmmm…. well, I dunno.  Maybe I’ll just play with it myself for a bit.”  You see, most architects can draw.  Why pay me when they can do it themselves?  Good point.

He spent the entire weekend.  Called me that Tuesday, from a bar (I am not making this up).  Totally dejected.  Spent the entire weekend holed up in his studio at home.  His family was out in the sun, after a Spring of nothing but rain, in the first glorious weather of the year.  I went with my family to the beach…  Turns out, he figures he spent at least 12 hours Saturday and 14 on Sunday.  Did the line work, and then brought it in Monday to be scanned and colored in Photoshop by a junior person, to the tune of about 8 more hours of that kid’s time, and another four of his own.  Next day, the meeting was canceled. >Insert trombone slide here< Bwah bwah bwah bwaaaaaaah.

Because we have the relationship we do, I felt perfectly comfortable to laugh when he told me this.  He laughed too. Into his beer.

Anyway… my point? Saved himself some cash by doing the work instead of hiring me, right?  Did He? Let’s do the math. He’s a principal. In Boston, a senior principal bills out somewhere near $250 an hour, maybe $300. We’ll put aside how much more valuable the time was to him than that, seeing as how his wife and family spent the weekend without him. At the principal’s rate, his effort was worth at least $7500.  Plus the lost weekend.  His junior staffer cost another $1200 or so at the blended (staff) rate. $8000 or better for a rendering that he wasn’t happy with and that his client didn’t need.  The kicker is that he didn’t bill for it either.  It wasn’t reimbursed.  I’d quoted him less than half that amount.  He could have bounced his kids on his knee all weekend, had his staff do other (i.e. billable) work on Monday, beaten me up about every little thing that he didn’t like (and I’d have changed it), and then marked up the rendering 15% to cover his time, and had it reimbursed by his client. He’d have made $500 or more just hiring me to do it. And would have had what he wanted in the first place.

Even if he could do it painlessly, he still would have spent 20+ hours working on a rendering instead of getting his own work done and directing his staff.  That’s lost billable time.

I dunno….

Because I have been lucky enough to poke my head into a few of the better nationally known firms, I have had some close architect-friends ask what the “name” firms are like.  Grass is always greener, etc. They want to know what it’s like in a “famous” firm…  Know what they are like?  They don’t equivocate.  They make decisions, they do good work, and expect good work.  They pay a professional rate because they are professionals and do professional work themselves and expect to be treated as professionals.  They work as late (or later) than I do, and yet they don’t get paid any more than other architects.  They get the best work, and have the best staff to do it, because they expect the best effort, and that sets them apart from the firms who “could do it if they only got the chance”.  They make their chances happen by doing what they do best and by hiring others who give their best effort.

It’s a simple as that.

1 Comment

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One response to “Busy week….

  1. Wow Jeff – another really good article. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone here. I actually put down similar sentiments about outsourcing and the real work involved in a Knol article which I had written recently:


    It has just made the rounds with cgarchitect.com as well as vizdepot. The response has been very positive. I think your article really compliments it very well. If you don’t mind, I’d actually like to link up this article on the site in the comments.


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