A number of leading architectural firms are not paying students to work up to 60-hour weeks yet are happy to let them draw up important competition entries, while graduates are being offered hard-work, low-pay deals just for the kudos of being employed by a major practice. Illustration by Scott Garrett

Last year, a prominent architect was publicly challenged by a 26-year-old student. Why, the student wanted to know, did the architect's practice break RIBA guidelines and allow students to work for months on end without pay?

The architect demanded to know who had leaked this information, and denied that the practice did "employ" students. The challenger responded that the firm had previously advised those who wanted to work for it to "seek external funding". The architect then became flustered and the room filled with the noise of murmuring students. Despite the architect's unwillingness to address the issue, this previously taboo subject was now out in the open.

It is known in the architecture community that young designers are systematically exploited by a few high-profile practices. This is met with a compliant silence, for fear of bringing disrepute to their profession. Evidence uncovered by Building shows that a number of international firms have allowed students to work for them on competition bids for up to six months without offering any money. Still more students at practices across the country receive poor wages for the hours they work, with overtime often unrewarded. Even recently qualified architects who have gone into their first job suffer from this work-hard, pay-low syndrome.

In one case, an overseas architecture student in her mid-20s, who does not want to be named, came to England to find work. Within weeks of approaching a high-profile practice, she was working from 10 in the morning until 10 at night, six days a week. Alongside her, she says, were 14 other young architects from all over the world busy preparing a steady stream of competition entries. Of these 15, the majority were paid - but some were working for free.

The student says she had a good experience during her time the firm and freely admits she offered herself up so that she could add the practice's prestigious name to her CV. During her time there, she lived off a private scholarship and says her "salary" was picking up knowledge and skills that she would not have been able to acquire anywhere else.

But the celebrity of big-name architects is not enough to persuade all young architects to give up their earnings. In another case, a German architect who now works for one of the biggest practices in the UK, and does not want to be named for fear of losing her job, turned a major practice down when she realised she would receive no money at all for her labour.

She says: "I was invited for an interview and told that I could start at any time but they wouldn't pay me. I would have to find a scholarship from somewhere. I was told by the director to take it for granted that I would be working from nine until 11 every day, and sometimes on Saturdays. I was surprised because I was expecting a salary of some sort, even if it was very low. I had wanted to come to London but this was ridiculous. I turned it down."

Workplace illustration

Credit: Scott Garrett

The campaign

The RIBA is aware of the student labour problem, but claims it has no powers to combat it. In October 2000, it published guidelines on the minimum conditions of employment for students, based on the advice of student representation body Archaos. But the RIBA cannot insist on its implementation.

More than five years later, RIBA president Jack Pringle recognises that the problem has not subsided, and is determined to renew the institute's campaign to end the practice once and for all. Chris Ellis, acting director of education at the RIBA, says: "It had been too long since we formally discussed it. That is, until recently when Jack Pringle met with Archaos to talk about their campaign."

Whatever we did, it would be difficult to stamp out. Sometimes it’s impossible to legislate for these issues

Chris Ellis, RIBA

Ellis points out that next year architects will be able to become chartered, rather than registered, practices. Those that do will be required to implement the RIBA's guidelines, including minimum wage requirements for students. However, if practices don't sign up as chartered practices, the RIBA will have no power to intervene. Ellis admits: "Whatever we did, this would be difficult to stamp out. Sometimes it is impossible to legislate for these issues."

Even though the number of firms that use unpaid labour is small, its effects are felt throughout the profession. For one thing, they are naturally placed at a competitive advantage when it comes to competition entries. As David Clarke, founder of David Clarke Associates, points out:

"It is not equitable to have a commercial practice winning competitions from free work."

Another prominent architect remarks that only students who can afford to work for nothing get the chance to work with the "hottest" practices. This simply serves to re-enforce the outsider's perception of the profession as reserved for the children of the wealthy.

He says: "[Using unpaid students] is done by a group of exclusive firms. They are rather convinced of their own greatness and think they can go around ripping people off. It isn't fair on the less well-off students and it's giving the rest of us an extremely bad name."

Echoing this view, Chris Nash, managing director of Grimshaw, says his firm rejects approaches from students who offer their services for free: "It places your relationship with someone in a totally different light - one that we are not comfortable with. Some people might not see this as a problem but we rely on having a good reputation."

Grimshaw is a good payer - a student would receive £18,000 for their year at the practice.

BDP is another fine example, offering students £19,000 and benefits such as life insurance cover and health screening. PRP also offers bursaries to "exceptional students", provided they contractually agree to stay employed there, and Richard Rogers Partnership pays £18,000 plus health benefits after six months.

Workplace illustration

Credit: Scott Garrett

Speaking out

You don’t have to treat people badly to be successful – it’s possible to be profitable and behave in a proper manner

Mark Bottomley, BPTW

Many young architects suffer exploitation in silence, for fear of damaging their careers in a small, closed industry. But Building columnist Tarek Merlin, who now works at Alsop Architects, has revealed that the problem isn't exclusive to students. He says that during his first job at Foster and Partners he was paid poorly considering the number of hours he worked.

He says: "In my first job after leaving the Bartlett, I went headfirst into Fosters. I hated it and left after eight months. I was paid a pittance, and felt very much at the bottom of the food chain. I was expected, without question, to work overtime, without pay, for long periods."

Responding to this assertion, Foster and Partners - which has not been accused of any student exploitation - issued the following statement: "I note that Tarek Merlin left the company in 2001. We review our salaries on an annual basis and check these against industry benchmarking to ensure our salaries are fair and equitable. We are addressing long working hours through initiatives such as the office closing at 9pm."

Many architects think the education system is largely to blame for students' willingness to give up their basic rights in the workplace. Merlin attended the Bartlett School at University College London and says he and his fellow students were "bred to be mugs". He says: "We're taught to be obsessive - to live, breathe and shit architecture. So when we arrive at work it's almost as if we expect to be treated like second-class citizens."

Most of the students Building spoke to feel that the RIBA is turning a blind eye to this problem. One says: "The role of RIBA is to look after architects' interests. But when you ask prominent architects who don't pay students to work for them to hand out the prizes at award ceremonies, it's sending out the wrong message. It's not an appropriate role model for students."

They add that the structure of their degree is conducive to commercial exploitation. This is because their studies are broken up into two parts, separated by year out with an architecture practice. Many students change architecture schools for the second leg of their studies so during the year out they tend to be without institutional support.

Recently students have turned to unconventional methods to voice their frustration. Part IV is a blog run by an anonymous British architecture student in which like-minded people from all over the country voice their dissatisfaction with the treatment they receive

at the hands of star architects. Among the anecdotal evidence presented on this blog are claims at least two leading practices have consistently broken RIBA guidelines on student employment. In one instance, a student who had been on a free "trial" at one of these firms for four months was told there were no openings when the project she was working on finished.

Most practices do abide by RIBA guidelines and some go beyond minimum requirements. Architect BPTW this week made its third consecutive appearance in the The Sunday Times' list of the best small companies to work for. Partner Mark Bottomley says his practice has found the right balance between treating students and staff well and being financially successful. "We are evidence that you don't have to treat people badly to be economically successful," he says. "It is perfectly possible to be profitable and behave in a proper manner. In my opinion, if you are not operating within a set of core values, there is no point operating at all. It's not worth being in business if that's the way you are going to behave."

Workplace illustration

Credit: Scott Garrett

The overseas question

Hugo Hinsley is in charge of future practice at the Architectural Association in London, and has been helping students find work for more than 10 years. He says that working for free is more accepted by foreign students: “It is more common with students from abroad because they need the famous practice on their CV when they return home. There is more pressure on them. British students are not as desperate because they can build their career up more slowly. It is easier for them to live in London, where a large proportion of the admired firms operate.”

Archaos’ Good Practice Campaign

In January this year representatives from national student architectural society Archaos met RIBA president Jack Pringle, who is supporting its Good Practice Campaign.

The GPC is an awareness campaign for students and practices to ensure that the landmark minimum conditions set out by Archaos and the RIBA in 2000 are met in every office. The GPC is calling for:

  • A minimum rate of pay of £6.80/hour, £8.17 in London. (This equates to £12,240 pa nationwide and £14,706 pa in London for a 37.5 hour week, 48 weeks a year)
  • That all employers fulfill their statutory duty to conform with the EU working directive (no more than 48 hours/week)
  • A contract of employment, which includes the period of employment, the level of remuneration, the number of working hours per week and conditions for overtime payment/benefit, holiday and sick pay
  • Students should not work beyond the number of hours outlined in their contract without both parties agreeing additional remuneration in accordance with the rate outlined above

For more information log on to www.archaos.org/practice/good.html

The miseducation of Tarek Merlin

Architectural education has a lot to answer for. I was a product of the Bartlett and it was a pretty tormented time. It’s as though instead of teaching us about drawing techniques and construction methods, we’re bred to be mugs. We’re taught to be obsessive – to live, breathe and shit architecture. So when we arrive at work it’s almost as if we expect to be treated like second-class citizens, unskilled labour. It is as though we want to work for very little pay and do stupid amounts of overtime for nothing, because we are passionate, because we love what we do.

But what does it say to the employer if you work for little or nothing? What does it say to your peers, and most importantly what does it say about you? Well, clearly, it says that the work you do does not require monetary recompense. Anyone could do it. Oh really? Then why does it require seven years of study and three qualifications, leaving us smothered with debt?

In my first job after leaving the Bartlett, I went headfirst into Fosters. I hated it and left after eight months. I was paid a pittance, I was at the bottom of the food chain and was expected, without question, to work overtime without pay for long periods.

I’m now happily ensconced at Alsop Architects; there’s a very good atmosphere and a great work–life balance. And in terms of the way we work, we just get on with things in a simple intuitive way without too much working late or at weekends. Of course it does happen, and I’m happy to work hard and get the job done. At the end of it, a thank-you and a day or two off in lieu does not go amiss.

In order for a creative architectural practice like ours to function properly, you need to have a creative passionate and excited staff. And to be a passionate and exciting employee, you need to have a life. You cannot be that kind of person if you spend all your time at work. Put simply, employers must become more aware of the value of the happiness of their staff. No more taking people on without pay (even if an eager student offers their services for nothing). They must stop putting pressure on employees, particularly new recruits, to work long periods of overtime for free. This attitude to what we do and how much it is worth follows us into our later careers.

We are employed to provide a design service – that’s what we do. Because it’s not always tangible, it’s not a product, it’s difficult to put a value on it. Over and above the actual drawings, the man-hours, the overheads, there’s the value of inspiration, design thought, creativity, whatever you want to call it. The value we put on it is way below what it’s worth.

Firms must stop putting pressure on employees to work long periods of overtime for free