Spec Work? My Dirty Little Secret

I have a confession to make: I recently did some free work for a local contractor, and this wasn’t the first time. Can you forgive me?

Photo from Flickr © Brad Stabler

Whew, it feels good to get that off of my chest.

Ok, so my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek. But it is true, I did give away a freebie, and I’ve done so in the past. And I admit, a part of me feels I committed a misdeed in a dark corner.

In the U.S. we architects call this “spec” work- doing something for free with the hope that it will bring in paying work later. Spec work can range from something as small as consulting on a color selection to drafting a set of architectural plans. I’ve worked in firms where we did copious amounts of spec work for contractors or potential clients- developers, investors, and others. But other firms where I’ve worked have steered clear of giving out anything for free.

Some say that providing something for free lessens its value for the recipient. And of course there is the issue of liability. Publicly, architects repudiate this practice. Detractors argue that it brings down the architecture profession as a whole.

Few publicly admit to the practice because, well, no one wants to be the architect giving away free work. But I have a suspicion this is more common than we like to admit.

The scenario goes like this: A developer ‘friend’ with whom the architect may have worked in the past approaches the architect about a new venture. We will call it the “spec-taculous mall”. The developer reassures the architect that the spec-taculous mall will be a resounding success and that all the banks and financial backers are on board with the ‘idea’ of the project. But there is a small catch.

The bank needs a set of construction drawings before the loan will be funded. Oh, nothing fancy you know, just a few elevations, a floor plan, and maybe an exterior rendering. That’s all. Oh, and one other thing- there isn’t any money for architectural services. At least not from the start. But as soon as the drawings are approved, the money will flow freely and the spec-taculous mall will be a smash-bang success. We can all retire to Tahiti.

While our sinister tale is fictional, the situation is all too real. And although the correct response here is clear (h#ll no!), not all situations are so cut and dry.

Detractors argue that this practice cheapens the perceived value of an architect’s services. But it is easy for those who have plenty of work to cast stones from their ivory towers.

For those struggling to make ends meet, it is hard to turn away a potential lead for business development.

What do you think? Is this a valid strategy for an architect? Will this practice help or hinder your firm? Has anyone had success (or conversely failure) with this strategy? Please leave your comments below!


Enoch Sears

I am a licensed California architect who loves researching and sharing about running a great architecture business. I founded Business of Architecture to help solo architects and small firms run a better business so they can have the peace of mind to focus on creating great architecture.

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