Watch programmes like Grand Designs and you’d think architecture was a glamorous, highly paid and creative profession. Rot, says Susanna Clapham
I have often laughed to myself at a survey undertaken by dating agency Drawing Down the Moon that rated architects the sexiest male professionals. This was a survey of women’s ideal partners, and it found that architects were seen as “balanced and rounded individuals who combine a creative approach with a caring, thoughtful disposition”. It concluded: “The ability to cope with pressure of work in a relaxed manner was also deemed to be a significant plus.” But although we look appealing externally, we are in need of major renovation internally. The survey failed to reflect the truth that architects are probably one of the most discontented lot of professionals out there.
I often hear horror stories that make architectural practice sound more like a job in a sweatshop than a career that requires a seven-year training. Recently I heard of a well-known practice that worked their team extraordinarily long hours - until 1am, 2am and 5am for days on end - to meet unrealistic deadlines, then chastised one particular employee for a simple mistake in his work. This practice is also sometimes two months in arrears in paying staff.
Time and time again I hear stories of things happening that in any normal office would be unheard of. How about that story in the architectural press of a practice that was advertising a junior position at less than the minimum wage of £5.71 an hour for a 14-hour day? They might be better advised to go and flip burgers for £5.80. I once worked in a practice of just three staff where the boss regularly shouted at us and often yelled at clients over the phone. In my last job, from which I was made redundant, the boss frequently promised unrealistic deadlines to clients that would ultimately mean late hours for junior staff and no help with getting home.
I now find myself going it alone. This is partly because of the precarious job market and partly the desire to strive to make my own mark. I have encountered discouragement and negativity from my professional contemporaries. They tell me there is so much competition out there that it is hard to find clients - and when you do, they quite often don’t pay. And it seems everyone is out to get us in today’s blame culture - I am scared to sneeze for fear of being sued. Now with this round of public spending cuts I dread to think where it will leave us.
In my opinion, the RIBA does little to defend or protect our position despite the £370 chartered membership rate. The only recompense is the four letters I can attach to the end of my name. I also wonder what protection the Architects Registration Board offers. For the privilege of being called an architect, we have to study for seven years - only to earn less than a freelance plumber. There are grumblings in the ranks and a new Facebook group has sprung up, “Architects Against Low Pay”. This has become a soapbox for many like myself, although it is probably a waste of time to try and change people who do not want to listen.
I have been told that the number of people applying to study architecture has soared, thanks to the many programmes on TV which show the glossy, attractive side of the job. This is a worrying development. The reality is that many architects are now having to diversify to bolster their meagre incomes.
It is not all bad news. My own redundancy has imbued me with a sense of determination and renewed energy that lay dormant for too long. I have spent the past six months expanding my horizons by exploring many strands, some architecture-related and some not. I certainly would not have achieved that while slogging away in another tedious practice. I may have less income but my quality of life is better and I feel richer.
Not everyone will be in a position to take such a risk, however, and I hope one day better rights, pay and hours will be awarded to my fellow architects. We are held in such high esteem and lauded by the media. I wish this was reflected in the reality of the job.