Free Range Architects

Recently I attended a discussion on work life balance in the architecture profession. The forum was part of the Process series of free public lectures held in the Loop Bar in Melbourne. It is widely accepted as fact that the architecture profession has a problem with low pay and long hours.

For those wishing to dispute the low pay I would direct you to the Architects award as found at Fair Work Australia’s website. Here we can see that after a minimum of 5 years study including what is now a Master’s Degree the overworked graduate in full time employment is entitled to an annual wage of just $44,141.  If you fast forward another 5 years or so the graduate will hopefully have become registered and would have been deeply engaged with building design and architecture for at least 10 years. They now command the amazing salary of just $54,190. To put this in perspective, one could have spent those 10 years working in retail instead. By taking this path you would likely be qualified to apply for a job selling cushions (to go in the building designed by the architect) for a salary of $65,000 – $74,999 per annum (see job advert here).

Last year as president of the Victorian Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects, Jon Clements gave a ‘state of the union’ style address to the annual Victorian Architecture Awards dinner.

In my role as Chapter President I am exposed to a wide range of commentary and opinions on the state of the industry, particularly during a market downturn. While most of the feedback is anecdotal, clear factual evidence continually arises that indicates that our profession is quick to compromise its own standing through knee jerk survival techniques and that the flow-on effects remain with the industry for many years.

As many of you would be aware, the commercial conditions of current practice have shifted substantially and there is evidence that a growing number of architects are engaging in desperate measures to maintain an edge over their competitors often sacrificing any hope of profitability while trying to grab a bigger piece of a smaller pie.

The desperate measures Clements refers to, are not confined to low wages. Very long work hours are also problematic throughout the industry. Starting at university, students are rewarded for working harder and longer, a conditioning that continues into practice 5 or so years later. Amongst peers and in social settings, stories of outright exploitation are common. These stories are backed up by research such as The 2012 Graduate Survey, undertaken by the Australian Institute of Architect’s.  It found that:

27.6% of respondents indicated that they worked beyond 45 hours per week despite only 3.1% claiming they are contractually obliged to do so.

The long hours has the most damaging effect on those with family responsibilities. It is also partially responsible for the gender imbalance in the numbers of registered and practicing architects.

Back in the Loop Bar, architect and presenter Stuart Harrison highlighted how important work life balance is by presenting Robin Boyd as an example

“As great as Boyd is, he architected himself to death… This is not a good model… Boyd robbed us of more Boyd”

This very blunt assessment of the issue of work life balance highlights why something must be done.

Those at the big business end of the industry would suggest that market forces, extreme competition and a difficult local economy are what is driving this problem. However the industry has had this problem for a very long time.

So with this very depressing state of current affairs I offer a suggestion. Free Range Architects.

First an analogy.

When a person does their weekly shopping trip they are given a choice as to which eggs to purchase. Apart from the size of eggs the primary difference is caged or free range eggs. By placing this information on the carton the ethical choice is in the consumer. To ensure that the consumer isn’t being misled, an independent body with a high level of public trust (the RSPCA) endorses the product with their mark of approval.

To take this analogy back to the architecture profession, my suggestion is that the AIA sets up an independent ethical employment body. This body would then determine what the ethical standards of employment should be. Architecture firms could then apply to have their employment practices audited by the body, to ensure that the standards are upheld. Directors would be required to sign statutory declarations to ensure the standards are maintained for the full year. Employee salaries would also be audited to ensure no gender bias. Successfully audited free range architects would be entitled to display the mark of approval and be showcased on the ethical employment body’s website.

The system would need to be funded by the practices wishing to be endorsed, however there would be substantial benefit in them doing so. Firstly and foremost free range architects would be happier, healthier and likely to be more productive in the time they spend at work. The quality of the architecture is also likely to be higher.

Government could become involved by only awarding contracts to those who have been ethically endorsed. Big business who were also looking to do the right thing would be more likely to hire a free range architecture firm over a ‘caged’ firm.

Competitions could be run which limit the entrants to only free ranged. Importantly graduates applying for jobs would know what they were getting into.

Over time the benefits for becoming free ranged could be increased. A+ membership of the Institute could be subject to a successful ethical endorsement.

Another benefit of this scheme is that it would assist the many firms who are already doing the right thing with suitable recognition. This gives them a competitive advantage in a competitive industry.

Finally this could be part of the solution to put the architecture industry back on track towards being a highly respected and well paid profession. As Stuart Harrison pointed out, unless we are paid well we will not be taken seriously.

Is this a good idea? Could it work? Have your say in the comments section below

Architecture is for Everyone

About Michael Smith

Architect and Director of Atelier Red + Black based in Melbourne, Australia
This entry was posted in all posts, construction industry and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Free Range Architects

  1. I like your suggestion a lot, Michael. Its most promising quality is that it offers a realistic and controllable point at which to intervene in the current spiral of low salaries / low fees / low salaries.

    It is hard for individuals to refuse to work for exploitative practices, hard for practices to offer better salaries, unlikely business will miraculously start valuing architects more, and a very long shot that government will impose better standards.

    But the AIA can and should implement an ethical employment scheme (not minimum wage but ethical wage). It is in the interests of all salaried architects and, long term, of the architecture profession as a whole. As you point out, the AIA also has at its disposal many avenues via which it can enforce the ethical standard. Visionary and practical!

    Keep on pushing the idea. I saw you tweeted Stuart Harrison, make sure you get onto all the newly elected Victorian Councillors as well as Jon Clements who has stepped up to National Council. Let me know how you go.

  2. In principle this idea is interesting – and in some ways I think A+ membership aspires to do this kind of thing (but there are no current requirements for it in this regard). Eggs and architectural services are different things, part of the success in eggs is that the cost increase as a proportion of your total shopping is low. In some ways, this quality/price mechanism exists now – some good firms who treat staff well charge more and get work. But this is not always this case, and many issues exist as you and others, particularly the Parlour research, has noted. Could we just get the award wage increased? Would that then raise the cost of services across the board so all benefit? Or if we explore this idea further could a successful brand be developed to ensure quality both in terms of equity and staff treatment but should it also ensure design quality?

    I’m not sure Government would jump to it, they are often some of the worse offenders in terms of price based selection, it will take a long time for them to change. But yes the profession needs to pay its staff more and treat them better. If we can’t we have failed before we even try to make better the lot of others through good design (and maybe we should prepare for this). It might be worth looking further into why salaries in the profession got so low compared to others (is it just that it’s hard to describe what we do – the broad range of activities not just one thing?), how it happened and why we didn’t do anything about when it was happening. As I said last week at Process, I think Thomas R Fisher’s book ‘In the Scheme of Things’ is useful in understanding the profession’s issues.

    I think there maybe some concerns on what qualifies as free range in eggs, but yes that system works in terms of perception. I’ll ask a few people what they think about the idea. Keep it up Michael.

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