Design is never done. This time-honoured adage exemplifies the passion and dedication needed to bring an architecture project to life. By the same token, it is often used to justify some of the industry’s most egregious labour practices. Behind the romantic facade of studio culture, problems like unpaid overtime, chronic overwork and immense personal sacrifice have become normalized as part and parcel of the profession. For decades, these issues went largely unchecked. While architects would lament their long hours or meagre salaries among colleagues, these conversations rarely — if ever — moved beyond the context of the industry. But on December 21, 2021, this dialogue, heretofore confined to studio desks and post-deadline happy hours, was decisively thrust into the public eye. Employees of SHoP Architects, the design-driven New York City studio behind the Barclays Center and the Steinway Tower (111 West 57th Street), announced their intention to unionize with support from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW). Had they succeeded, they would have been the first firm to do so since the 1940s.
Within weeks, their grassroots movement was gaining traction on social media. “It was a hot-button topic. I don’t think you could go into any architecture firm without hearing someone mention it,” a Toronto-based intern architect, who wished to remain unnamed, told me. (Azure has granted anonymity to industry professionals upon request throughout this article). The SHoP organizers’ Instagram page — @architectural.workers.united (AWU), which has now amassed over 13,000 followers — has seen an unprecedented show of solidarity from their industry counterparts at home and abroad. It has since become an authority on unionization in architecture and a platform to advocate for the industry as a whole. “We were cautiously hopeful,” Andrew Daley, a former SHoP employee and associate organizer with IAMAW, told me. “What was really heartening about the response was that everyone saw this as a forum to finally talk about these things in a public way.”
The AWU wasn’t the first group to open a dialogue about architecture work culture, nor was it the first to propose unionization as a solution. The Architecture Lobby, a North American advocacy group, has been campaigning for better working conditions since 2013. The Section of Architectural Workers (UVW-SAW), a U.K.-based trade union, began posting about the subject as early as September 2019. In March 2021, the organization publicized a series of anonymous accounts of mistreatment, each more harrowing than the last. In a particularly chilling tale, an employee recounts the death of a colleague who, after hospitalization from pneumonia, was applauded on his way back to his desk, only to die in his sleep after working late to catch up on his missed hours. In Italy, Riordine degli Architetti’s Instagram page has been exposing similar issues in the local industry since June 2021. An email reposted on its account reveals that one firm offered employees dinner if they worked until at least midnight. Several architecture meme accounts, like @blank_gehry and @loadbearingcolumn, have also embraced humour as a vehicle to critique the industry’s labour practices.
But with each like, comment and share, the performative echo chamber of social media can create an illusion of progress. Despite a growing following, SHoP employees withdrew their petition less than two months after announcing their intention to unionize. In a statement released on Instagram, the AWU cited a “powerful anti-union campaign” as a key factor in that decision. It comes as no surprise to Reza Nik, a Toronto architect, educator and advocate for architectural workers’ rights. “It doesn’t matter how many followers and likes you have on social media if those same people aren’t going to support the movement in real life. At the end of it, on the ground, they clearly lost the traction that they needed to push through,” he told me.
Though SHoP may have failed in its effort to unionize, the industry continues to show a strong resolve for meaningful change. Alejandro Vázquez, a commenter on the AWU’s Instagram, wrote: “Thank you for igniting the fire and sending a clear message that we, the workers in this profession, are tired of exploitative practices. Your attempts at unionizing sparked the conversation and made us realize there are too many of us that share the same experiences. United, we are stronger. This is the start of something to come.” Following SHoP’s coverage in the New York Times, a handful of other firms reached out to the IAMAW for support in organizing. “It’s clear to me, given this amount of momentum, that people want a different system,” says Daley, the former SHoP employee.
What that new system will look like, and how we get there, remains unclear. But to get a sense of where the profession is headed, it is critical to understand the culture that got us to this point.
Architecture has long been positioned as the product of a lone genius, but this rhetoric is based in fallacy. Daley gives the example of Frank Lloyd Wright: a legendary architect whose oeuvre was largely shaped by the invisible labour of underlings who worked gruelling hours for minimal or no compensation — without any credit. In many ways, the industry has changed little since then. While there are a number of factors at play, much of architecture’s work culture stems from the way that architects are educated.
It’s a point the AWU drove home in its initial letter to SHoP’s partners: “From the moment we begin studying architecture, we are taught that great design requires endless time and effort, and in turn demands the sacrifice of personal health and relationships. We are taught that architecture is a greater calling, and regardless of how the client is willing to compensate us, we will perform our duty because it is critically important for the greater good.” Unlike most university programs, architecture students devote around 12 hours a week to their studio course, on top of other classes. As many professors recommend students spend an additional two hours on schoolwork for each hour of scheduled class time, the workload is heavier than that of a typical full-time job. As a result, all-nighters in the studio, although not explicitly encouraged, have become par for the course. “It prepares you to devalue your time, to work crazy hours, to over-produce, to hyper-critique everything you produce,” Daley explains.
This pedagogy attempts to weed out the students who are unwilling to make these sacrifices — and it often succeeds. An alumnus of Ryerson University’s undergraduate program told me that many of their peers left the program due to these demands, and much of their graduating class is no longer practising. According to the San Francisco Institute of Architecture, this is far from unusual: For every 100 students that enroll in a traditional campus-based architecture program, only 20 will graduate.
Those who reach that milestone, a feat in its own right, face a long and arduous path to licensure. After completing both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, between five and seven years of education, Canadian graduates must gain a minimum of 5,600 hours of practical experience through the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s internship program — adding another three years to the process before they can even write their licensing exams.
Surprisingly, there is no standard wage for intern architects. An anonymous survey conducted by Archinect found that Toronto-based interns with a graduate degree earn anywhere from $35,000 to $80,000 a year (on average), depending on their experience and the size of the office. For instance, the poll revealed a nearly $15,000 wage gap between two University of Waterloo graduates: While the male with two years of experience earned $70,000 per year at a corporate office, plus a $5,000 bonus and paid overtime, his female counterpart brought in just $56,500 at a smaller firm, despite having more experience. The difference in firm size perhaps explains the remarkable difference in pay, but it is well-documented that gender disparities and the lack of work-life balance afforded to women with children are insidious throughout the profession and lead women to drop out of it in disproportionate numbers.
And yet, pay gap or not, by the U.K.’s standard, these Toronto salaries would be considered competitive. Employees at the second stage of RIBA’s three-part accreditation program earn less than £30,000, the median average in 2021 — a paltry sum considering the cost of living in large cities like London.
Like these pay discrepancies, the working conditions (and, by extension, job satisfaction) also vary drastically at different offices. “My own experience was that the culture of all-nighters in school continued well into practice and for years before I could make the balance work,” an associate at a Toronto firm shared with me. This is especially true at big-name offices where employees are often made to feel that they should be grateful just for the opportunity to be there. These workers are undeniably replaceable, succeeded by a steady stream of eager students and new grads who will happily work for free in exchange for the promise of prestige.
“The more glorious the position, the more people are willing to sacrifice,” an employee at one such “starchitect” firm explains. “I’ve become disillusioned. The young architecture student version of myself would have been happy to achieve my dream of working at a big firm. I’m here now, and I can see why everyone leaves after two years.” The architect, who had taken a pay cut and lower position simply to have the firm’s name on their CV, describes the workplace culture in one word: demanding. Employees put in two hours of overtime per day on average and regularly work weekends.
While some might argue that the time crunch of deadlines is unavoidable, many architects attest that these deadlines are often artificially imposed or result from poor project management. “When you get a 300-page project brief with deliverables at the end of the week, what positive outcome can come from that?” the Toronto associate used to pulling all-nighters asks. “Expecting ideas to emerge on demand speaks to a cluelessness about the design process.” Many of these internal inefficiencies can be mitigated by educating the client and setting reasonable expectations regarding timelines. But with most studios operating on razor-thin margins as it is, challenging the status quo is no easy feat.
The devaluation of architectural work is not the fault of any one firm. While uncompensated overtime is perhaps the most protested of the profession’s labour practices, it is a symptom of a much larger issue: To generate business, firms must often participate in unpaid design competitions and RFPs where the lowest bidder is typically favoured, especially in Canada. “You don’t walk into a restaurant, ask for a bunch of free samples, and then decide you don’t want to eat there. It doesn’t happen in any other industry, so why are we doing it in architecture?” Daley asks. Due to decades of precedent, free labour has become somewhat of an unwritten client expectation, but the problem also hinges on the bidding process involved in winning projects. “If we don’t give our labour away, then our competitor will give it away. And so there’s this race to the bottom,” Daley explains. This is compounded by a lack of transparency around fees; firms have no idea how their competitor is getting to that magic number. In the U.S., companies who openly discuss fees would be in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act and could therefore be charged with collusion. Thus, the cycle of lowballing costs and over-promising timelines endures.
The complexity of these interconnected factors is part of what makes rethinking studio culture such an insurmountable task. But the overarching system is as much at fault as individual outlook. “It’s difficult to not see this as a generational issue,” the Toronto associate says. “My colleagues frequently lament the lack of skill or commitment by junior members of the staff, while at the same time wholly empathizing with those who don’t want to work a 100-hour week without adequate compensation. You can’t be a good architect if you’re only ever at your desk scrambling to meet yet another ill-considered deadline. Being engaged with communities, with your family, with culture is part of the depth of experience required for this work.”
Across generations, an underlying current of fear thwarts a more balanced approach. Studio owners worry that increasing wages, and therefore increasing fees, would mean losing out on projects. Architects rightly fear that speaking up will cost them their job or reputation. Before Reza Nik opened his own practice, SHEEEP, speaking up and questioning the narrative meant sacrificing the opportunity to work on projects with certain principals at his former place of employment. He explained to me that those who have tried and failed to enact change are burdened by a “soul-crushing pessimism” that continues to be passed down to future generations. Another architect I spoke with, who is based in London, noted how difficult it is to challenge norms on an individual level: After refusing to work unnecessary overtime, they were met with pushback — not just from their employer but from fellow colleagues to whom it had not occurred that resisting these labour practices was even an option. “It’s tough. I’m treading on very thin ice sometimes,” they confessed. “I have to be really careful because, on the one hand, if I don’t fight hard enough, I will slip right into their position. And if I fight too hard, they will see me as too radical.”
Architecture’s infamous work culture is so ingrained that it often operates in covert ways. Employees may not be explicitly asked to work overtime, but dirty looks on their way out the door at 6 p.m. can be just as detrimental. Overwork can often be self-imposed. To many architects, their profession is more than a paycheck — it’s an identity. And in a capitalist society that celebrates hustle culture, where it’s all too easy to conflate work ethic and self-worth, it can be more difficult to set boundaries. “I love designing, but I think that, at a certain point, you need to step back and realize doing it 24/7 is not really sustainable,” the intern architect told me. “I hope the industry doesn’t remove that joy, because nobody got into this field because they want to get paid insane amounts of money. They got into this because they’re designers or artists in some capacity.” In many respects, the system is designed to exploit the idealism and intrinsic motivation of creative workers.
One individual or firm can do little to change an industry so entrenched in its ways; collective action is needed. But could unions be the panacea architects have been searching for? Daley himself notes that, while they are an excellent tool to advocate for worker rights and improve conditions, unions are not the only solution. Many argue that unions lack the nuance needed to address the complexity of architects’ concerns. “It feels like a stopgap measure — something that can compel the changes that are needed until its ambitions become normalized,” the Toronto associate explained to me. Others advocate for a different solution entirely. “I agree that our profession needs to change, but it’s not clear if unionization is the right approach,” says Anya Gribanova, director of New York architectural studio MN. “Unionization is driven by the staff, but I believe it is the company leadership who needs to drive change. It can only come from the top down.”
As an alternative, offices such as Interior Architects and Gensler have proposed an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), a form of profit-sharing, while Zaha Hadid Architects has instituted a transition to employee ownership through an employee benefit trust (EBT). An architect from one of these firms told me that, while it’s better than nothing, the profit-sharing model has made little difference to their overall quality of life or to the studio culture. With those at the top garnering a higher share of earnings, and those lower on the hierarchy taking home a nominal yearly bonus, this system perpetuates the power dynamics that unions seek to dismantle.
Overall, many agree that professional organizations and licensing bodies could offer more support in advocating for the profession, while also acknowledging that further legislative change is needed.
The question remains: Can we address the problems that pervade architecture work culture and still create good design? It’s one that warrants asking, both in academia and in practice. Some worry that decreasing the intensity of the normally rigorous architecture curriculum will produce “a bunch of softies who can’t produce good design,” as David Lee, co-host of the Second Studio podcast, put it in his episode on architecture’s mental health and burnout problem. Worse yet, making school less challenging could render the transition to practice that much more difficult.
According to Nik, this question is, in and of itself, a large part of the problem. “If you think design excellence only comes through exploitation, then you’re living in the old world,” he told me. And if we’ve learned anything from the Great Resignation, it’s that the younger generation simply won’t accept these kinds of labour conditions. Nik empowers his students at the University of Toronto’s Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design to question the messaging they receive in school in hopes of inspiring a cohort that will think critically about these issues.
Recent events at the Southern California Institute of Architecture indicate that students are already leading the charge. After a roundtable during which Marrikka Trotter, a SCI-Arc faculty member and associate at Tom Wiscombe Architecture, romanticized the norm of a 60-hour workweek, it came to light that interns at TWA (a group that includes SCI-Arc students) were subject to unfair conditions, from being expected to work unpaid overtime to being assigned inappropriate tasks, like deep-cleaning the studio. Shortly thereafter, SCI-Arc committed to an independent investigation and placed both Trotter and Wiscombe, who also teaches at the school, on leave — all in response to student demands.
Slowly, these shifts in perspective are beginning to trickle down into practice — in the more socially democratic Nordic region, at least. A Canadian architect working in Denmark told me that the country’s general approach to work-life balance has filtered into the local architecture industry, noting that a flatter management structure in Scandinavian offices has helped cultivate a democratic work environment where all voices are valued equally. The results speak for themselves: When workers are happy and well-rested, they are more productive and make fewer mistakes, which ultimately benefits the company and its clients.
In fact, it’s not just the Danes that have it figured out. At Toronto firm BDP Quadrangle, the pandemic has served as a catalyst to build more flexibility for its workers. “Because we were redesigning our office at the same time, we took the opportunity to rethink the whole work culture,” says principal Stefanie Siu Chong. “Moving forward, we are not going back to nine-to-five.” As part of the firm’s “people and culture pillar,” paid overtime kicks in after 37.5 hours per week, which is, unfortunately, a rarity in the industry. Certainly, firms that pay overtime will more carefully consider whether that overtime is necessary. But instead of watching the clock, BDP Quadrangle trusts that its employees are spending the time they need to complete projects at a high standard — an approach that feeds into its results-oriented performance evaluations, where everyone, including those at the top of the hierarchy, gets constructive criticism.
Many architects noted that open communication and transparency are key to creating a healthy workplace culture. For New York’s MN, this all starts with the client’s onboarding meeting. Setting a reasonable schedule and educating the client on the design process is crucial to ensuring projects have the resources necessary to be successful. Unlike many firms, MN doesn’t hire and fire as projects come and go, which has contributed to almost a zero per cent turnover in its seven years of practice. Instead, it strives for a 40-hour workweek, mental health breaks, and salaries and benefits at or above the market rate, all while keeping a busy social calendar. “While I hope that most offices have implemented some or all of these practices, we all know that drinks don’t make up for cutthroat or aggressive or toxic work environments,” says Gribanova.
But before a healthier work culture can really take hold, the industry must reconcile the lofty social goals of many high-profile projects and the conditions under which employees are expected to bring them to fruition. “We have to remember that we’re trying to design spaces that have longevity and promote well-being in our daily lives. So, if the people who are designing them aren’t feeling that way, and if we’re under significant amounts of stress, that doesn’t really align with what our goals are as a profession and the outcome of our work,” a Toronto-based architectural designer told me.
Industry advocates have a long row to hoe before this philosophy manifests as standard practice, and it’s clear that we won’t get there without widespread structural change. But while the dominant narrative on social media has understandably been clouded by frustration and disappointment, there is hope for a more sustainable industry. “Being able to materialize ideas and dreams and shape the built environment makes architecture a beautiful profession,” says Gribanova. “How it’s practised can be as well, so let’s drop the myth that great architecture comes from struggle.” Perhaps great architecture exists not because of this struggle but in spite of it.
In the wake of SHoP Architects’ historic unionization effort and the social media-driven dialogue it has inspired, architects from across the industry share their thoughts on the work culture that led us here — and its future.