When Will Architects Be in the Firing Line?

John Held , 7 November 2019

Every day a new story hits the headlines outlining a case of workplace exploitation and underpayment. John Held ponders when architecture’s long hours culture will hit the front pages, and what the ACA can do to help ensure we have fair and efficient businesses.

Reports of workers being underpaid and working excessive hours have been common for some time in the hospitality and convenience store sectors. Recent reports of underpayment of Woolworths staff show there are wider issues. If naming and shaming high-profile restauranteurs is today’s news, when will prominent architects be placed in the firing line?

Oliver Wainwright’s recent Guardian article about architectural workers in the UK and the formation of a new union to represent them, and the creation of similar organisations here, highlight the need for best practice employment conditions for all Australian architectural practices. There are some differences between the UK and Australia – in particular, the existence of a specific Modern Award for Architects and Students with minimum rates of pay, specified hours and conditions, and restrictions on unpaid internships. Yet we often hear of unpaid overtime, unrealistic expectations and pressures to meet impossible deadlines.

Directors say they are caught in a bind – ever-decreasing fees and ever-increasing demands of time and outputs. Running a good business, however, is about finding a way to balance time, cost and end results, while at the same time creating a vibrant workplace where people are valued, work is focused and efficiently planned, and everyone has a life outside the office. If that means finding the courage to say no to unreasonably demanding clients or reducing that fee further, that courage might result in a better practice and happier staff.

Wainwright notes that “…There is still a deeply ingrained culture of architects thinking of their work as a ‘vocation’, and an artistic labour of love, so the long hours and poor remuneration have become an inevitable part of the package. But a new generation, saddled with more debt than ever, has had enough, and thinks the time is ripe for change.” He also notes the attitude often starts at university,  with “… the masochistic studio culture of staying late and courses designed to breed individual competition rather than collaborative working. We’re taught to believe architecture is like a religion.”  It will be interesting to see what the soon-to-be-released AACA survey into Architectural Education has to say on this issue.

We assume most practices won’t want to end up on the front pages like our chefs. We have to assume most directors have the welfare of their practice staff at heart. We must encourage and educate graduates to want to stay in the profession and not leave for parallel careers with better pay and conditions.

What can the ACA do? Apart from advocacy and research, and provision of peer networks and resources to ensure architects run better businesses, do we have the ability to call out bad behaviour?

Write and tell me the three things you think the ACA can do to promote better practices. It might save a lot of trouble in the long term…