Can Architects Finally have a Seat at the Table? Labor Rights and Work Conditions in Architecture

Many architects experience what they call “the slippery slope of becoming an architect” in their early years. Expectations do not match reality and the situation gets worse with time. The prestige of being an architect is evidently gone with the modern work environment. There are burnouts from working overtime or on weekends to “gain experience”, high expectations, low wages, physical and mental strains, and constant burnouts. How can architects fight for labor rights in the face of years of exploitation? And what are the current efforts to do so?

2021 was not without its share of controversial incidents. People no longer feel the need to follow the established ways of doing things after almost two years of uncertainty, extreme caution and sudden changes in day-to-day tasks. This is especially true when it comes down to work environment matters. While there have been many instances of economic inequality, corporate injustice, and lack diversity throughout most industries for a long time, the pandemic has changed the relationship between work-related issues. It gave employees the chance to voice their concerns and set boundaries. This allowed them to ensure their mental, physical, and emotional well-being.

L’agence Office / jaq. Image © Antoine Bonnafous

However, this year the spotlight was also on the architectural practice. Students, employees, interns and practicing architects all shared openly their “inhumane” working conditions via social media. They claimed that they are often underpaid and overworked. In addition to the controversy surrounding unpaid internships that was heatedly debated a few years back, full-time employees at world-renowned firms like OMA and Foster + Partners have openly shared their “inhumane” working conditions on social media.

The New York Times has also recently shared concerns by SHoP Architects’ employees, claiming that their work environment has forced them to seek new means that change the formula of long-hours-for-minimum-pay. Employees shared their stories about how they were discouraged from taking rightful time off due to important deadlines. They were also laid off after working long hours to submit proposals. No compensation was given for these extra hours. The firm declared earlier this year that it was now 100% employee-owned, but equity shares have yet to be allocated. Employees are confident that they won’t have much control over how the firm is managed.

Barclays Center / SHoP Architects. Image © Bruce Damonte

How do we improve the practice of architecture and create fair working conditions?

Unionization is one of the most discussed solutions to the inequitable work environment in architecture and design. SHoP architects have joined forces to promote change in the profession and transform it into an equitable, just, and fair practice. The union is based on values such as transparency, inclusion and diversity, support and empowerment. It has received international support from organizations such as Architecture Lobby.

BOHO Décor Head Office / BOHO Décor. Image © Hiroyuki Oki

Zaha Hadid Architects, along with its Employee Benefit Trust, announced earlier this month the transition to employee ownership. The award-winning firm employs over 500 people. According to Zaha Hadid Architects’ own public statement, this organizational shift will ensure that profits from projects are reinvested into equipment and facilities, which benefits all employees and fosters transparency in the organization. How does ownership actually benefit employees? Employee ownership is not only about financial gain. It’s also a collaborative opportunity that gives employees the chance to be involved in business decisions, which can alienate the top-down structure. In the UK, there are both US-based and UK-based companies that are exploring unionization.

Zaha Hadid Architects Presents Virtual Gallery Exploring Architecture, NFT's, and the Metaverse. Image Courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects

Governments can play a significant role in protecting architects’ rights, along with shared ownership and unions. Most countries have federal regulations that require employers to pay contract-based workers (40 hours per week) 1.5 times their hourly rate for every hour they work overtime. Employers cannot contact employees outside of work hours in some countries. It is only a matter time before architects change the way they practice.