Oiza’s Suit

In one of his classes, Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza once told a story that may have been pure fiction but was nevertheless very enlightening and educational. At a certain point in his life many years earlier he had felt the need to own a good suit, a really smart, classy suit.

He heard about a tailor who was very good but who was also, as a result, very expensive.

After asking the tailor for an estimate and being shocked at the price quoted, he decided to buy some good cloth at a store in Madrid that was much more modest and less ostentatious than the tailor’s shop. He thought that that way at least he would get the cloth for a reasonable price, lower than what a renowned tailor would be charged.

He took the cloth to the tailor, told him he’d received it from a relative abroad and asked if the tailor would be willing to make the suit with it. The tailor said yes, he could do that with no problems.

The tailor made the suit and it fitted Oiza perfectly, but he also charged him the price he had quoted previously. Oiza complained, arguing that, since he’d bought the material, it’s cost shouldn’t have been included in the price. The tailor replied that he’d charged him only for the tailoring: he never charged his customers for the cloth.

This chastening experience led Oiza to reflect on what architects charge for, and why.

Today, that question is more relevant than ever. What exactly do we charge for? They hire us to do drawings, but we end up doing those drawings for free. It’s true. Look at your own work and tell me whether you charge for shading elevations, or making sure heights are shown in numbers that don’t overlap and are big enough to be read but not too big, or drawing up plans conscientiously and with enthusiasm, without thinking about money. Admit it: you don’t charge for choosing fonts or deciding how thick the lines should be, or for the pleasure of having everything in its place, for making sure that even in the most routine, anodyne projects the blueprints are clear and clean.

We don’t charge for those things. We do them for free. What we do charge for is something very different. We charge for telephone calls at unearthly hours and on bank holidays, we charge for an agreeable tone of voice, and for disappointments and for unpleasant meetings. And, above all, we charge for responsibility.

Have you ever thought about the things we do for free without even realising it, and which are really the only things we should be charging for? We’re giving everyone (developers, builders, buyers) a scapegoat, a fall guy on whom to pin the blame for all mistakes, both ours and theirs. We ought to charge – and charge a lot more – for the sleepless nights, the worries. What we charge for is our signature at the bottom of the project. And that’s exactly what Oiza said to round off his story about the suit: “What I charge for is my signature. I do everything else for free”.

He was right. But then again, that’s all that’s expected of us: our signature. The rest doesn’t matter. Does anybody consider it important for the “Right Side Elevation” caption to be right up against the edge of the elevation, at the same height as the “Left Side Elevation” caption? Things like that are our little whims, and that’s why we do them for free.

What we charge for are those situations when that simple little job the builder was so confident about suddenly has a problem and we look around but everyone has disappeared: when we’re left alone with just our dignity and our insurance cover (and if that’s not enough, with our own assets).

That’s what we charge for. And the cloth? Bring me whatever cloth you want, and I’ll make do with it. Or don’t bring me any, and I’ll provide it. My suit is my profession, my pride, my responsibility, my expertise and my fear. And I charge for the expertise and the fear.

Text translated by Andrew V. Taylor
Soy arquitecto desde 1985, y desde entonces vengo ejerciendo la profesión liberal. Arquitecto “con los pies en el suelo” y con mucha obra “normal” y “sensata” a sus espaldas. Además de la arquitectura me entusiasma la literatura. Acabo de publicar un libro, Necrotectónicas, que consta de veintitrés relatos sobre las muertes de veintitrés arquitectos ilustres.

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