Wellbeing of Architects Symposium recap

20 May 2024

The Wellbeing of Architects Symposium took place on 8–9 May at the Collingwood Yards, a two-day event of rich layered discussions around mental wellbeing in architecture. An engaged, committed audience included students and educators as well as practitioners and members of professional bodies and the wider built environment. Educator and practitioner Sarah Hobday-North did a brilliant job live-posting about the event. Here she offers a summary and some food for thought.

The Wellbeing of Architects Symposium was officially a “pre-conference” fringe event to the Australian Institute of Architects Conference. I dare say that everyone who attended this prequel felt like they were at the main event. The energy over the two days was visceral and imbued with a heady and motivating mix of frustration, focus and relief. There was a sense that this is just the beginning.

Relatable data is a valuable commodity in research. Useful data with practical implications even more so. Between 2020 and 2024 such data has been created and woven together by Naomi Stead, Julie Wolfram Cox, Maryam Gusheh, Brian Cooper, Kirsten Orr, Byron Kinnaird, Tracey Shea, Jonathan Robberts and Vicki Leibowitz. Full credit is due to the research team and its supporters.

Even if you read no further, don’t close this tab before downloading the guides that give YOU the practical outcomes of this project. Thanks to Justine Clark, Susie Ashworth, Alison McFadyen, Naomi Stead, Byron Kinnaird and Liz Battinson.


Complex systems like a 50-person architecture practice, a university, or even a whole industry ultimately need numbers and spreadsheets to run the underlying software. Creating and maintaining those systems, however, is the “wet-ware”. Flesh and blood humans who have physical and emotional limits. To bastardise Winston Churchill, we create the systems, and thereafter the systems create us.

The bad news is that improving the wellbeing of architects isn’t totally in the hands of the architecture profession. We exist in a system bigger than us and beyond our direct control. The good news is that we certainly can do things to get our own house in order, and in doing so may create positive side-effects for the whole system.


Over the course of the symposium I uploaded about 4,500 words in LinkedIn live-stream posts. A quick bit of visual data crunching (see below) shows the top 20 or so words. Using this data I can summarise the event in a few short sentences:

Architects’ wellbeing is about how we value our time, work, practice and research. It starts as students, when we are taught (and teach) our profession’s body of knowledge and its culture. If we do not value our own time, and that of others, we risk creating a high-stress profession that is not a pleasant place to stay.

If I could persuade you to take on board just two more words from the symposium they would be 1) scaffolding, and 2) communication.

Scaffolding was a word used repeatedly on Day 1 when the focus was on architectural education. It has nothing to do with temporary structures used to support the construction of a form. Except, that is, it has everything to do with systems of support used in teaching and learning to help students build knowledge and skills from the level they are currently at. To “scaffold a student” means to actively support their learning in a way that is emotionally safe and intellectually productive. Hard hats are optional.

Communication approaches cliché. But unpack this word and its implications for your practice and you will have a solid foundation for excellent client interactions, staff interactions, risk management and even fun in the profession. (Have you downloaded the guides yet?)


On more than one occasion, the researchers beseeched themselves and us to “not admire the problem”. But we need to have a look at these findings:

  • Architects have worse wellbeing scores than the national norms, and it got worse from 2021 to 2023
  • Students of architecture are faring even worse than practitioners
  • 12% of architects rank themselves as in severe distress
  • A further 30% say they are in mild distress and 16% moderate distress
  • Architects are objectively more depressed and anxious than the national norm
  • Key pain points are time available to complete work, work outside hours, pressure on the self, and total amount of work (it’s all about time and resources!)
  • Over a third of architects are working more than their contracted hours on a weekly or daily basis
  • Over a third of architects are dissatisfied with their pay
  • The patterns are the same whether architects work for a company or for themselves
  • However, the longer you have been an architect the “better” you feel. This is partly about remuneration, but more accurately a sense of fair reward.
  • Is it because we architects are perfectionists? No.
  • Architects do have high standards (which is healthy) but we don’t have very high self criticism for not meeting those standards (which is unhealthy)
  • We are proud to be architects, but we wouldn’t recommend it to others (what’s with that??)

“I do love it. I just find it overwhelmingly exploitative.” — study participant. Senior team member, 6–10 yrs experience, NSW, 2021

  • Byron Kinnaird presenting the Wellbeing research findings.
  • Naomi Stead
  • Maryam Gusheh and Vicki Leibowitz


Architects will do well to realise, to our bones, that we produce more than buildings. We produce knowledge, and if you need to be convinced of this, please dig into the work of Dr Flora Samuel. You might start with Why Architects Matter.

Professions exist to preserve and further develop a unique body of knowledge, be it law, medicine, accounting, teaching, or (even!) architecture. The profession of teaching, for example, has created, safeguarded and uses terms like pedagogy (the art and science of teaching and learning), constructivism (learning by interacting with others; see Piaget), and even the Zone of Proximal Development (the knowledge edge-point where all learning “scaffolds” start; see Vygotsky).

Architects have our unique knowledge body too.

Established firms like DEGW, as well as newer “next-gen” practices, show that archi-knowledge is business. Knowledge is NOT merely understanding regulations and codes. We are talking about something else more robust. More robust even than Google or the person at the next desk. It comes from research and it comes from Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE).

POE is a key piece of practice research that insurers must get on board with. For the sake of our knowledge and our wellbeing, finding and compiling our successes and less-than-successes must not be seem as a risky practice that reveals only liability. Medicine became professional when reasons for death were studied. Teaching became professional when different learning strategies were compared for effectiveness. Architects and our allied construction industry professions must take an equivalently fearless view of POE. Existing evidence suggests that practices that do POE get more return work. That must be good for wellbeing too.


This is just the beginning.

An executive summary like this is only possible because of the work done by others, and the genuine community that has flourished around this topic. I give the final word to Emma Williamson, co-founder of The Fulcrum Agency and recently appointed Western Australian Government Architect. When asked, “what does an emotionally and financially sustainable practice look like?” she gave five points. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

An emotionally and financially sustainable practice is:

  • a creative consultancy
  • an agency
  • not doing full services
  • serving a client type, not producing a building type
  • staying small, prioritising paying and being paid well

Oh, and download the guides!

  • Paulo Macchia and Emma Williamson
  • ACA National President John Held
  • ACA CEO Angelina Pillai chairing the Peak bodies panel

Sarah Hobday-North is a registered architect and founder of Architect GP, a new business model for connecting clients and architects. She is also a qualified secondary school teacher and sessional staff member at Monash University and the University of Melbourne. She has worked in urban, community, education and residential design. Sarah is sick of architecture being actually and perceptually outside the reach of mainstream housing, so she is doing her bit to change it.

Symposium photos: Alex Salem, courtesy of the Wellbeing of Architects project