The BA saga might be giving unions a controversial reputation, but a more organised workforce wouldn’t go amiss in the architecture profession right now
As the jobs have dried up, wages have gone from inadequate to pitiful. This week’s news analysis focuses on one practice, Parritt Leng, that is asking Part II and III architects to work a 14-hour day in return for £80. This means that an architect who may have been studying for seven years would be better rewarded if they operated a wheelbarrow. This example has outraged the profession, but Parritt Leng is not necessarily a rogue employer – it’s just doing openly what others do more furtively. Comments on building.co.uk have thrown up examples of architects whose training has entitled them to spend all day working for the kind of money that a banker with equivalent experience might spend on lunch. With Parritt Leng, the low wages seem to be driven by desperation rather than a desire to extract surplus value from its workers. The reality is that it may get takers for the job because last month there were 1,430 designers out of work, but it risks associating itself more with lousy working practices than with anything else it does.
That said, the ethos of the architecture profession has always been accommodating of this kind of behaviour. Some young architects, particularly those lucky enough to be the offspring of wealthy parents, have been willing to work for next to nothing (or nothing) if their employer is a glamorous practice. The RIBA has spoken out about this, but it has become part of the profession’s culture. And the truth is that an architect’s time has always been worth less than practitioners’ in other professions. Doctors have historically done well out of the government because the British Medical Association makes Unite look like a bunch of hippies. Lawyers, like architects, are highly regulated, but all of their hours are billable. As for accountants, well they make the whole time and money system work.
By contrast architects are willing to accept that because their discipline is related to the fine arts, they themselves are artists, and should therefore spend their time either starving in a garret of their own design or suffering the agonies and ecstasies of the creative process. This might sound a bit rich coming from a journalist (a profession with its own problems with pay and pretension), but efficiency is not a dirty word. Working until 10 every night can’t be productive for anyone, can it? It’s admirable that architects feel a sense of calling, but if they don’t value their own time, then why should their clients?
Some young architects, particularly those lucky enough to be the offspring of wealthy parents, have fallen over themselves to work for next to nothing (or nothing) if their employer is a glamorous practice
The 40-year plan
Paul Morrell’s interim report on construction’s role in the development of a low-carbon economy is, as he says himself, a 40-year business plan for construction. The Climate Change Act has enshrined in law that the UK will reduce carbon emissions by 26% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. That means spending billions upgrading our buildings and creating a green power grid. The report acknowledges the barriers – not least the need for clients to change their behaviour. The report also considers how we can turn aspiration into reality. The industry needs time to digest these implications, and we’ll certainly be doing our bit in the days to come. The overriding message, though, is clear. It is that the industry needs to transform itself. And that transformation is the holy grail we’ve been searching for all these years: an industry that can produce a better product for less money – in this case designing and building zero-carbon buildings for what it costs now to meet Part L – and that means collaboration like we’ve never seen before. Exciting, isn’t it?
Denise Chevin, editor