The Broke Architect — Part 2. A culture that has to change.
Updated: Dec 29, 2021
Following the great amount of response to my first article, “The Broke Architect?” I thought I would look deeper into the surrounding factors of mental health, working culture and unpaid work of salaried architects in the UK. This year I also posted an article about an architect, Andrew Donaldson, who sadly ended his life in 2017 by jumping off the Washington Bridge into the Hudson River. Andrew was a salaried architect who worked at Skidmore Owens & Merrill on the Freedom Tower and at HLW International in New York City, New York.
Follow my mentoring of young architects and those in training, I heard of common issues within architecture that most seem to have experienced at different times.
Architect Ben Channon, who is a champion of raising issues around mental health as the founder of the “Architects’ Mental Wellbeing Forum” stated in an article in 2019 for online magazine Dezeen, “Sadly there still seems to be an embedded culture of late nights and students not being treated with the respect they deserve at many universities.” Many other opinions are aired in this article relating to the culture of long hours and stress-causing burnout.
What is sad to see from this article is students complaining that their professors are creating this culture and expecting “all-nighters” as a right of passage. I wonder how this would play out in a legal sense if this was expected once they were in employment?
However, despite these issues, many people want to pursue architecture, and universities are full of students studying architecture. I decided I wanted to learn more.
For my first poll, I set out to investigate the issues around retention and whether students of architecture intended to fully qualify, partly qualify, specialise once qualified, or go into teaching architecture. Of 129 who voted, 58% planned to qualify, with 16% intending to quit before qualifying. The interesting statistic was that 24% wanted to specialise post qualification and many architects do this, however it is not often communicated by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). I specialised nearly 13 years ago to design nuclear facilities and went client side, but many decided to become developers, design managers and consultants with one of the main drivers being the better salary compared to working in private practice.
In 2016 The Architects Journal wrote about research carried out from recruitment firm 9B careers, finding that architects who remain in private practice for more than 11 years can expect their salaries to peak, on average, at £53,000. In comparison, the research shows that if you go client-side, then the average is £84,800. Specialising or becoming an expert in one area is a great way to leverage your salary.
My second poll explored the extra hours that salaried architects were expected to work unpaid, over and above their contracted hours. It found that most architects work at least 5–10 hours extra a week. Putting this into context, this is between 260 and 520 extra unpaid hours over a year. If you take a salary of £40,000 and an hourly rate of £20 per hour for a 40-hour working week working 48 weeks a year, you will lose between £5,200 and £10,400 a year. Of those who voted, 11% worked 15–20 hours; this is a staggering 780 extra hours for 15 hours a week or 1,040 extra hours for 20 hours. To put this in monetary terms, on a rate of £20 an hour, that is between £15,600 and £20,800 unpaid work. If you are an architect on a basic salary of £40k per year and you regularly work 20 extra hours a week, missing out on a wage of £60k a year!
In the third poll, I asked architects how many extra hours per week they are paid for, above contracted hours. Of those who voted, 84% stated they were not paid, and the rest made up of 16% who worked on average between 5 and 15+ hours. This range of 240 extra hours per year for 5 hours extra a week equates to an additional £4,800 per annum (based on £20 an hour) and for that small 4 % working 15 extra hours paid overtime a week equates to 720 extra hours a year it can bring in an extra £14,400.
In conclusion, a small fraction of architects who earn, on average, £40k a year for a typical 40-hour working week can earn between £4,800 and £14,400 extra but only by working longer hours. This only occurs if they work paid overtime between 5 and 15 hours extra a week, and is this really sustainable? It could be argued that to increase your salary, you have to do long hours, but poll two suggests that the majority work those additional hours unpaid.
Working on the basis that the polls indicate that many salaried architects are working long hours unpaid, I then tested this theory with poll four when I asked the question: What is the most significant cause of mental stress within the profession of architecture? Of those who voted, 64% believe that the most immense mental pressure within the profession is caused by the culture of working long hours. However, where does this culture come from? As highlighted earlier, I believe that this begins within the education system where a culture of all-nighters is expected following the dreaded “crits,” which often create last-minute revisions of students’ designs and can involve changing models, drawings, and those final presentations with very little time available. This culture is usually transferred to the office working environment where students of architecture are often expected to work long hours under the guise of “learning their craft” or “paying their dues.” I personally find this culture akin to modern-day slavery, and it’s a culture that has to stop at its inception, even at a university level.
The next highest cause of mental stress is related to a lack of money. If you are working long hours and your pay is at a level where you can’t fully enjoy what life has to offer, is it any wonder that architects are stressed? In an article featured in Building Design 2018, Phil Coffey raised the issue of mental health, stating, “We must stop young architects selling their soul for their careers. After the £9,000 a year fees over at least 5 years at university, the salaries are often low and hours are long, but architecture is a social profession that should deliver better places to live, work, and play for everyone.” however, it seems that architects don’t get that for themselves. Phil argues that a lack of business acumen is lacking amongst the architecture students and that architects are seen as commercially naïve.
The Architects Benevolent Societies (ABS) currently pays out in excess of £1 million annually to help more than 500 architectural professionals and their families, in the current climate the pressure on this charity will only increase.
I then wanted to explore the negative ways that architects deal with stress. A look at the ABS website made sombre reading. The stories of architects who have experienced mental stress and breakdowns are shared. On average 1 in 20 members of the wider architectural profession will need to seek help from the ABS at some stage in their lives. The poll results were that most architects, 66%, deal with stress by overeating and having an unhealthy diet; comfort eating is a common way of masking anxiety. Next came 22% of those who admitted they drank excessively to deal with stress, which is something I have seen both at university and at work in private practice. Next came smoking, and for a tiny percentage it was illegal substances.
Poll six explored the positive ways architects deal with stress, and it was fantastic to see that exercise was the highest option as this is a proven stress-buster. The second stress reducer was regular breaks and time out, which has proven results amongst advisors on mental health. The very act of taking yourself away from a situation and taking a holiday or mini-break is proven to result in distressing. Thirdly, people said that talking to others was a great way to deal with mental stress.
I then began to wonder — do architects favour a negative or positive strategy when dealing with stress? On LinkedIn, I was challenged numerous times to reveal if a positive or negative strategy was more favoured. Poll seven was created to ask this question, but it was inconclusive. However, negative strategies were seen as less common.
For my final poll, I focused on the mental health challenges of those that studied architecture to understand what mental challenges people faced during their time at university. The biggest response by far was from the 49% that voted burnout was their biggest challenge.
The culture within architecture seems unhealthy and it really needs fundamental change. This has to begin within the universities and then flow into the working environment. I personally believe that many architects would benefit from joining a union, I myself have seen the benefits over that last 12 years and the good news is that Section of Architectural Workers (SAW) is a union that aims to help the architectural industry. Members of SAW organise both in their workplaces and across the sector around overwork, under-pay, unstable employment, a toxic workplace and university culture, discrimination and unethical practice. Members facilitate collective casework, host training and events, and run campaigns.
In addition there are ways that you can avoid the above pitfalls and this is where I can offer some advice. For the last three years, I have mentored/coached people into success while also specialising in designing nuclear facilities. Nuclear has large capital projects, and there is little competition in this field compared to other areas of architecture. Architects in my sector add value through in-depth knowledge of designing complex buildings (we are perfectly trained for this), and sound design is understood as critical to safe handling and storage of radioactive material. This results in being able to charge a higher premium for such expertise.
However, specialising or becoming an expert architect is not the only way we can increase our value and maybe we can learn from the biggest company on the planet, Apple. In the words of author and marketing guru Donald Miller, “Apple likely doesn’t make the best computers or phones, (that is subjective of course) whether apple has the have the best technology is debatable, but it doesn’t matter. People don’t buy the best products; they buy the products they understand the fastest. Apple has inserted themselves into the customer’s story like no other technology company, and as a result, they are the largest company, period.”
Architects need to understand what their customers want and to make the process of getting what they want as efficient and simple as possible. This is where the founder of HOKO, 28-year-old Danny Campbell, understands clearly. His practice has been described as the “Uber of architecture.” He has worked to drive out some of the overheads of architecture (administration) and automate many processes. HOKO provides a web based platform where homeowners select from a range of options. HOKO offers an IKEA-style design service, straightforward pricing, and an optional build service, and this has proven so valuable that the practice has secured £400,000 in scale-up funding, securing 15 projects in just a few weeks of going live. The practice aims to become the UK’s №1 in residential architecture in a brief period.
Finally, I wanted to share my Top 7 tips on how you can earn more money as an architect:
Find yourself a good mentor with a proven track record and learn from them.
Become an expert in a field that is in a non-competitive niche and pays handsomely for it. For example, nuclear, utilities, data centres, infrastructure.
Become a leader in a large practice.
Go into business for yourself as a consultant.
Get repeat work from high-value clients.
Work as part of an in-house capability for a blue-chip client.
Become the best at what you do and find someone willing to pay for it.
Remember, this is a life long journey.
If you would like to know more about life coaching/mentoring, you can contact me on LinkedIn.
To make a donation or seek help the Architects Benevolent Society can be contacted at www.absnet.org.uk. To join SAW visit firstname.lastname@example.org
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1–800–273–8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org.