Architects often talk about architecture as a calling, a passion and a privilege, but very rarely as a commercial endeavour. What starts in design studios as “all-nighters” to deliver the perfect project can become a culture of long hours and unpaid overtime in the workplace. At best this is a self-destructive tendency, at worst it normalises wage theft in professional practice.
Partly because of the dominant framing architecture as an artistic pursuit, the commercial side of architecture has long been either overlooked as an important teachable skill, or ignored all together at university level. Lacking formally taught financial literacy, small sole practitioners often fall into the habit of treating all business income as a personal income and ignoring or undercalculating the costs involved in generating that income. Undertaking long hours to complete projects which give professional satisfaction as well as direct financial benefits can often delay the realistic evaluation of business profitability. This, linked with challenges in accurately estimating time to undertake design work can undermine the viability of small firm in ways that may not be immediately visible to their proprietors.
"Lacking formally taught financial literacy, small sole practitioners often fall into the habit of treating all business income as a personal income and ignoring or undercalculating the costs involved in generating that income..."
When these small firms start to expand, architects can find themselves employing others for the first time. Employment is a complicated and confusing area of law, and it’s one that it’s important to get right. Many architects appear to be ignorant of their responsibilities - in 2016, approximately 10 per cent of the responses to the ACA Salary Survey were for rates that were below the award. Common challenges for employers includes finding the right award and classification, understanding how superannuation is calculated (tip: it’s on top of award minimums), withholding tax rates, leave loading and, a big one for architecture, overtime. While the award allows for some flexibility to be negotiated with individual employees, the general expectation of the award is very clear: overtime is to be paid at 1.5x the base rate or taken as time off in lieu. In over a decade interviewing staff, this clause is widely ignored within the industry.
As disappointing as it that so many people experience underpayment through ignorance and incompetence, there is a worse category of employer – deliberately exploitative firms which run on unpaid overtime, or less euphemistically, wage theft. These seem to fall into two categories, which I refer to as cultural overtime and economic overtime respectively.
Cultural overtime firms are firms in which there is an unspoken expectation and agreement that “hometime” is much later than the agreed minimum. This can evolve slowly over time. What starts as a well intentioned “firm buys dinner” policy and an undertaking to reimburse late night travel expenses can become a core of workers who frequently work late. If overtime is recorded on an ad hoc or informal basis, it can be difficult for staff to take the appropriate leave, further increasing the number of hours worked. Conversely, when important design and strategic decisions are made outside regular hours, people unable to work late may systematically (often inadvertently) become sidelined.
"What starts as a well intentioned “firm buys dinner” policy and an undertaking to reimburse late night travel expenses can become a core of workers who frequently work late."
Economic overtime firms are firms which either aggressively underquote fees to win work, or propose a fee which is simply too low for the amount of work required. This can be due to inexperience in estimating the time required, client scope creep, or the emergence of more complicated requirements. These firms then attempt to make up the difference with additional (unpaid) hours from their staff. This model effectively uses staff time to subsidise the delivery of the project. This creates a huge financial benefit to the firm and its partners, while eroding the long term viability of the industry. After all, if architects routinely undervalue the design and time of their staff, why should anyone else agree to pay for it? Unrealistic fee proposals and unpaid overtime are friends to no one.
At present, there are over 1,700 students of architecture in NSW. In comparison, there are approximately 3,500 active, registered architects in NSW. Even assuming many graduates will find work as ‘para-architects’, the requirement of many architectural schools to undertake work experience prior to enrolment in post-graduate study ensures that there is likely to remain an oversupply of architectural labour in the market at entry level.
With many graduates indoctrinated in regarding architecture’s central skill as design rather than problem solving, This attitude may have its roots in the origins of architecture as a profession and the role of patronage, which required a certain amount of toadying. By linking architecture tightly to creative pursuits which are connected in popular imagination with recreation and poverty, architects unwittingly set themselves up for financial failure. Architects would do much better to tie themselves to professional services, in which the value of advice is not linked to a tangible physical intervention.
As part of the new year, I am challenging architectural employers all over the country to pledge “no unpaid overtime”. While the old cliché that architects earn the least of any person on site, we should at the very least be looking to the construction industry which has a well-established tradition of all hours worked being paid.
About the author
Clinton Cole is the managing Director of Sydney architecture and construction outfit, CplusC Architectural Workshop. His company employs over 15 staff ranging in skill and experience from skilled labourers and university students to project managers and business development managers.