A new advocacy player

ArchiTeam; Architecture; Logo; Graphic design; Melbourne; Australia
This article is co-published with ArchiTeam.

In July last year, ArchiTeam launched a working group tasked to find ways it might “educate the public about the value of architects through marketing and public outreach”. This endeavour proposes to engage in both marketing and advocacy activities, a canny mix of pragmatism and altruism that I believe has the power to simultaneously promote our profession and protect the built environment.

But before I elaborate, it’s worthwhile asking the question, why?

There are at least a dozen different organisations competing for a slice of the Melbourne architectural advocacy pie, and ArchiTeam is far from the largest, best funded, most widely known or most experienced in the sector. These are pretty compelling reasons not to get involved with the often poor rewards of architectural advocacy. However, they hardly paint a full picture of the importance of this work, nor the role ArchiTeam might have to play.

Pub; Demolition; Rubble; Raman Shaqiri; Stefce Kutlesovski; Developer
The Corkman Pub, illegally demolished by developers Raman Shaqiri and Stefce Kutlesovski.

Why get involved?

As I have discussed previously (herehere and here), the built environment has too many enemies reaping profits from it at any cost for the architecture profession not to have a go at stemming the tide. Increasing housing unaffordability, ever-present developer greed, the emerging effects of climate change, and a conspicuous lack of planning leadership from government are all hacking away at the future legacy of contemporary architectural production.

Confronting these challenges can seem a mountainous task, but as Gregg Pasquarelli has poignantly described, the architecture profession is guardian of the built environment. Our often lonely role in pursuing quality over quantity demands that we enter the fray whenever and however possible.

This means it’s not enough to just produce the built environment, we need to proactively defend it as well. Lawyers have successfully achieved this within the legal system by exploiting case law, an area they know best. Doctors have done it too, setting up referral systems between general practitioners and specialists that support the entire profession. Architects must do the same.

And indeed, there’s no time like the present. In Melbourne, Daniel Andrews is proving to be far more open to engagement than his predecessor, who infamously met with the Australian Institute of Architects only once during his tenure. In Sydney, the proposal to demolish the Sirius Apartments has met with considerable and coordinated public resistance. And in both cities, festival calendars are overflowing with architecture and design events attended by audiences numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Now might also be the best time to address a rarely voiced truth: it’s not just the built environment that needs help, the architectural profession could do with a hand also. We are losing the fight for Darwinian supremacy, with any number of rival professions beating us at our own game. Have you ever heard of a cheaper version of a lawyer? Of course not.[1] Architects meanwhile must fend off competition from every project manager, building designer, draftsperson and real estate agent thinking they can do it better. If we don’t start protecting our territory with the necessary ferocity, we will soon find ourselves filling a curious yet extinct ecological niche.

So it isn’t really a question of why ArchiTeam should compete for a slice of the advocacy pie, but how.

Advocacy; Logos; Graphic design; Nightingale Housing; Parlour; Pecha Kucha; Open House Melbourne; Robin Boyd Foundation

How to get involved?

Fortunately, there are some shining examples of successful advocacy already at work in Melbourne. They operate at different scales and with different forms of agency, but all share the common goal of promoting architecture and architects. Some have been in action for many years, laying the groundwork for an increasingly design-aware public.

It’s important to distinguish here between public advocacy and government lobbying. The latter is a more procedural endeavour, with all manner of special interest groups clamouring for the same rarefied airspace. There are lots of special interests, but not so many politicians, so lobbying needs to be focussed and internally consistent. As our peak professional body, the Australian Institute of Architects has already assumed this role of government liaison, and should be supported in presenting a unified position to Canberra and Spring Street.

Public advocacy is in many ways the opposite of government lobbying. It is grassroots not topdown, generalised not specialised, conversational not dogmatic, and has room for diversity. The millions of individuals that comprise the general public all have their own interests and passions, and are constantly forming and reforming into tribes searching for chiefs. Want to knit some scarves for trees? There’s a society for that. Can’t get enough parmigiano reggiano? There’s a collective for that too.

So there’s room within the public advocacy domain for ArchiTeam to find its own voice, and its own tribe. To my mind, the organisations that have already carved their own successful niches and are undertaking the best public advocacy work in Melbourne right now are:

  • Melbourne Open House attracts hundreds of thousands of participants each year to its behind-the-scenes tour of the city. It captures the voyeur in everyone, inspiring intense curiosity in buildings and architecture.
  • The Robin Boyd Foundation has allowed a somewhat smaller but perhaps even more passionate audience to discover many of Melbourne’s best private houses. The Spring open day of residential award winners in particular gives a glimpse into the amazing things made possible by working with an architect.
  • Pecha Kucha is a global network of public presentations with architecture at its heart. It’s short, sharp and unpredictable, the diversity of speakers ensuring an equally diverse audience.
  • Nightingale Housing is an alternative housing development model that aims to disrupt the profit-incentivised status quo. Primarily an organisation that builds apartment buildings, it has dramatically altered the conversation around affordable housing within the profession and beyond.
  • Parlour has demonstrated that it is possible to affect positive systemic reform where business as usual is both entrenched and harmful. It has successfully injected gender equity into the centre of design, practice and leadership decision-making.

It’s also worthwhile mentioning the excellent Save Our Sirius campaign in Sydney, which is fighting to retain the brutalist Sirius building on the Sydney Rocks. Tracing its lineage to the Green Bans of the 1970s, this is an incredible example of smart advocacy that utilises a rich mixture of crowdfunding, legal action and public events to further its cause.

These and other examples can act as touchstones by which ArchiTeam shapes its own approach to public outreach. They catalogue the forms of agency already covered, or even saturated, and reveal the mechanisms by which other organisations are getting it right.

Game of Thrones; Small; Dwarf; Powerful

Small but powerful

So how does ArchiTeam fit into this heady cocktail?

Well, first and foremost it is unique in being a Melbourne-centric member organisation for small practice architecture. 80% of its 500 or so member practices are concentrated in Melbourne and rural Victoria, and almost all have fewer than five staff. This is in contrast to the AIA for instance, whose 11,000 + members are spread across every State and Territory, and work within every size and type of architecture practice.

Second, ArchiTeam members are pragmatists, and already positioned at the coalface of public advocacy. Fooi-Ling Khoo, a sole practitioner and director of ArchiTeam, observed to me that “we’re typically the first architects people work with, or even meet, and are often the ones who convince them they need an architect at all.” Crucial advocacy work is done on this one-on-one level, through an extensive collection of invisible and laborious interactions.

In the context of public advocacy work, small and pragmatic may in fact be better. The AIA was noticeably absent from the powerful anti-tollway sentiment that grew up around the Napthine Government’s doomed East-West Link. It was perhaps prevented from taking a strong stance by having to wrangle with the political implications of large practice members who were involved in the project.[2] The much smaller Australian Institute of Landscape Architects faced the same conflict-of-interest dilemma, but felt no qualms in taking a position and advocating loudly for it.

While larger organisations must somehow grapple with the conflicting and regularly mutually exclusive demands of a diverse membership, ArchiTeam is largely homogenous. It represents predominantly small studios, most of whom work on residential projects. These qualities make ArchiTeam more focussed, more nimble, less stymied by governance red tape, and better able to jump on an advocacy opportunity when presented.

Being small should allow ArchiTeam to concentrate on initiatives that resonate across its membership, to craft a singular voice on issues of interest to the general public, and to react rapidly when opportunities erupt from nowhere and evolve quickly. In time, this will allow ArchiTeam to become a public authority on small practice architecture, and contribute meaningfully on issues where small practice has a qualified opinion. This is an important ambition, and one that honours the member interest that sparked ArchiTeam’s decision to engage in advocacy work in the first place.

As a member of ArchiTeam’s advocacy working group, I’m excited to see where the energy of the membership will lead. The working group has now met a number of times over the second half of last year. These preliminary sessions were aimed at working out the why, the how and the what of advocacy, and have arrived at some inspiring conclusions.

I’ll cover my experience of this process in a subsequent post, but will leave you for now with this pertinent observation from Noam Chomsky:

“If you assume there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to a better world.”


Footnotes:

  1. Conveyancers perform a similar role to lawyers on simple property transactions, but there is no confusing them for the real McCoy.
  2. The AIA did release a position paper on the proposal, but avoided wading into the political battle. It instead focussed only on the proposal’s design qualities.

Image sources:

  1. ArchiTeam logo, sourced from ArchiTeam.
  2. Corkman Pub, sourced from Consulado España Melbourne.
  3. Advocacy logos, sourced from Nightingale Housing, Parlour, Pecha Kucha, Open House Melbourne and the Robin Boyd Foundation.
  4. Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, sourced from HBO.

A better AIA

adam smith

Last month, I wrote an article asking why I’m a member of the Australian Institute of Architects. I acknowledged that the principle reasons are altruistic: the AIA allows me to participate in my profession; it forges a strong profession; and it articulates ambition for our collective future. I also acknowledged that while there is of course a measure of self-interest to my altruism – what’s good for the profession is good for me – membership does not adequately service self-interest of the more pragmatic kind.

Alarmingly, my analysis revealed that only 45% of architects are members of the AIA. This compares poorly to counterparts in law (65%) and dentistry (87%).[1] Equally alarming is the bottom line of the AIA’s 2015 annual report, which declares a staggering loss of $3.6m.[2] I am certain these statistics are related (just matching the membership saturation of the Law Institute would net a further $2.3m), and together they reveal an organisation deep crisis.

I concluded:

If the AIA is to achieve its own self-declared mission, then it has to engage with the disenfranchised. It needs to address self-interest first and foremost, and ensure its value proposition is soLaw Ialluring that every architect sees no choice but to join.

I ended my article there, but I had always intended to follow it up with this one, which will lay out seven ideas targeted at self-interest that the AIA might pursue to re-engage non members and thereby improve itself. But let me begin with Adam Smith, the father of economic theory, who observed:

Individual ambition serves the common good.

This observation is the fundamental theory that underpins the free market economy, but it also happens to be a more eloquent way of phrasing the whole argument of my first article. If the AIA is to thrive, to represent the profession as a whole, it needs to first address the needs of the individual. How can it do this?

revolution

1. Systemic reform

As our peak professional body, the AIA represents lots of different kinds of architects. Everything from architects like me – a principal of a small, inner-Melbourne practice – to architects working in large organisations, or in the outer suburbs of Perth, or on multi-billion dollar hospital projects.

One of the core mandates of the AIA is that it deliver services that match its members’ needs. But can the AIA be all things to all people? My needs are undoubtedly different from those of an employee working in a large, commercial office, and different again from a sole practitioner with forty years experience behind her. The AIA currently addresses these competing needs by simply adding more services, but this strategy has the inevitable consequence of stretching resources thin.

Sometimes the competing needs of its members pushes the AIA into positions of conflict. This occurs most visibly when the AIA remains mute on important issues that many members oppose because other members stand to gain from them. It would do well in this regard to look towards the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, who maintained a prominently critical voice on the shortcomings of the East West Link despite a number of its members being engaged on the project. It is also worth noting that during this advocacy work, and likely because of it, AILA received a 100% membership increase.

The AIA needs to ask some hard questions of itself: should it be a lobbying group? Should it write position papers? Should it represent the profession publicly? Should it be a service provider to its membership? Should it publish news boards? Should it deliver continuing professional development? Should it have an awards programme?

I don’t presume to know the answers to these questions, but I do believe the AIA needs to undertake systemic reform in order to remain relevant (or gain new relevance) in the 21st Century. To do this, the AIA will need to audit its services in order to understand the things it does and doesn’t do well. It will need to pull itself apart then rebuild from scratch, playing to its strengths and shedding its weaknesses.

sigmund freud

2. Listen to the profession

The AIA currently undertakes an annual member survey that seeks feedback on a wide range of issues. In Melbourne, a recently implemented forum for Victorian members provides another valuable mechanism for discussion. It would make a big difference to the usefulness of these devices to extend them, or equivalent forms of communication, to non-members.

Understanding what the current membership wants will always remain important, but expanding the discussion would provide priceless insight into how the AIA can better respond to the needs of the disengaged. Fundamentally, this process should be about increasing membership, but it may even suggest a few crowdsourced answers to the tough questions of reform.

elevators

3. Get in at the ground floor

The marketing world devotes a great deal of time to exploring customer acquisition theories, and has discovered that one of the best times to do so is at a major life transition.[3] Moving out of home and getting married are examples of such transitions. So is graduating from university. This means the 2,000 or so students studying architecture across Australia must be a priority.

At guest architecture practice lectures I gave this semester at both Melbourne University and RMIT, I asked for a show of hands of SONA members (the student arm of the AIA). The result was, frankly, unnerving. By my rough count, only 15% of students raised their hands. This is for a membership category that costs only $85, just $3 more than the subscription to Architecture Australia that comes with it. And despite the AIA recently making membership free to all first year architecture students across Australia.

I have two ideas that might help:

First, stop offering free membership to first years and start offering it to final years. Having taught both over the past few years, I can attest how little certainty the former have about their future. Students about to head into the workforce are a different breed though, they’re eager to learn about the profession and ready to connect to it. The trick then is to provide sufficient value to the soon-to-be-graduates that they maintain their memberships after their studies.

So second, deliver the aforementioned value to students by giving them what they need most: job opportunities. Not portfolio advice or interview skills or mentoring, but jobs. The AIA is uniquely placed to act as a bridge between education and practice, a position that could be exploited to establish a careers expo in all 16 architecture schools around Australia, every year. This may not be the only way to connect students with potential employers, but I can attest that it was the only one of the many events I ran in my time as SONA representative for Melbourne University to survive beyond my tenure.

supermarket

4. Give us what we need most

The AIA already provides a wide range of services addressing architects’ daily needs: news bulletins, Acumen, the senior counsellor service, Australian Standards, the Environment Design Guide, its legal advisory service, BIM seminars etc. I think many of these services are very useful, and use them frequently, but many architects are happier to remain in the silo of their office than turn to the AIA for assistance.

I suspect the problem here is that the AIA is in competition with a very large number of other sources of information, many of which are free. There’s the internet for a start, which is by now such an indispensable tool for business that I stop work whenever ours goes down. There are peers and more senior colleagues. There are Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the social media empire. And there are the vast array of allied professionals with advice to give or sell: engineers, planners, building surveyors, accountants, lawyers, business coaches, life coaches… the list goes on.

The AIA membership fee (which I’m not for a moment suggesting be scrapped) is what’s known as a barrier to entry. It has the unintended side effect of making all these other, cheaper tools more attractive. But what do all architects need, whether they’re employers or employed, young or experienced, in small practice or large? What do we all need that Twitter and our work colleagues can’t give us?

Money.

The AIA is very cautious about recommending any of its members for anything at all, for fear of claims of favouritism. I understand this conflict, but I don’t see it as a deal breaker. The AIA could be a recruitment agency, using its vast understanding of private practice to connect employers with the right employees. Or like New York City’s 8/20 contracts, it could be a project facilitator, developing rotating lists of architects pre-approved for certain types of work, then driving commissions through connections in government and the private sector. For both enterprises, the AIA could take a courageous role in encouraging excellence in the profession, demanding a strict code of conduct to qualify for participation.

The AIA could also use its position as a representative body of 12,000 workers to leverage discounted essential goods and services. It could be like a giant, national buyers collective.

This isn’t as weird as it sounds. Greens List and the Victorian Bar, organisations that respectively represent around 200 and 2,000 Victorian barristers, already do this for their members. Between them, they provide access to perks as varied as in-house debt collectors, discounted life insurance policies, business coaching, flu vaccinations, common email domains and the occasional bit of merchandise like good quality umbrellas. The Australian Medical Association goes a step further, offering discounted credit cards, cars, hire cars, flights and home loans.

What about discounted rates on share cars or Uber membership? Discounted computers and software. Discounted printing. Discounted 3D printing. Trade discounts on appliances for our own homes. Access to private banking. Scale rulers, tape measures, hardhats and steel capped boots. Eye tests. Photography drones. And of course umbrellas.

20150602 classroom

5. Enforce learning for life

The architects registration boards of New South Wales, Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland already require registered architects to meet minimum annual continuing professional development targets. It is also compulsory for AIA members in the A+ practice category to complete CPD, but unfortunately there is currently no mechanism in place to police it.

Though it has not been documented by any of the above states, I imagine the introduction of compulsory CPD nationwide will increase the demand for CPD events.[4][5] What is more certain is that increased demand will subsequently lead to an increased supply. More architects attending CPD will make feasible more regular CPD events, spread across more locations, with greater diversity of content.

Compulsory CPD is good for three reasons:

  1. In and of itself, CPD is a necessary tool to improve the profession: it increases knowledge and skills, and it generates a shared drive towards betterment.
  2. Tim Horton, registrar of the NSW registration board, points out that CPD is one of the few measurable differentiators of architects from other building designers.[6] This quality should be flaunted not concealed.
  3. AIA membership will benefit. As the country’s leading provider of CPD events for architects, with an established system of providing discounts for members, the AIA would be in an excellent position to convert increased demand into increased membership.

count von count

6. Count things

Past mayor of New York City and my third favourite billionaire businessman, Michael Bloomberg, said, “In God we trust, everyone else bring data.” Data is hard evidence, it can be analysed, distributed and addressed. It can provide reasons for doing certain things and not doing others. Really, data is science, and many other industries already rely on it to function.

Unfortunately, the architecture profession is not good at using data to support itself. Evidence-based design is at best a fledgling field with patchy implementation and, in my experience, poor sharing of resources.[7] We are even worse at gathering useful data about ourselves. Victorian Legal Services, the lawyers’ equivalent of the Architects Registration Board of Victoria, is a worthy role model that maintains a solid database of professional statistics on its website.

As the peak professional network for architects in Australia, the AIA could circulate the data that we collectively produce, and even generate some of its own. I think there are two broad subjects that need counting (note: this infers the generation of hard not soft evidence i.e. numbers, percentages, rates, measures):

  1. How does design make people’s lives better? If we can prove that better insulation will save $X per year in heating bills, or more ergonomic desk chairs will increase worker productivity by X% per year, or plantation timber framing for a house will save X Indonesian rainforest trees, we can achieve better design outcomes. I am sure that a lot of this sort of information already exists somewhere, but it’s not accessible. Most useful would be a database of design-related scientific studies. The database would contain the papers written for these studies, and also enable the extraction of key pieces of knowledge without requiring every architect to sift through every word of research.[8] The intention here is to replace the current arrangement of every woman for herself, with one where we each learn from and teach one another.
  2. What is the output of the architecture profession? How many architects are there? Where do we work? Where are our projects built? How big are they? How much do they cost? What types of buildings are they? By how much does our input increase resale value? If we can quantify answers to these questions, we will be in a much better position to establish our worth, advocate for good design and improve the reputation of the profession. Collected continuously over time, this census-like information will allow us to track and respond to emerging changes in the profession.

equity

7. Take a stance on workplace equity

Finally, before my list gets so exhaustive it become exhausting, the AIA needs to gets its hands dirty in the push towards greater workplace equity. The scope here is limitless, though currently contentious issues surrounding long working hours, work / life balance, gender equity and unpaid staff are fertile grounds for intervention.

The AIA is already making some headway in this regard, having at the end of 2013 established the National Committee for Gender Equity, and very recently become the major sponsor of the indomitable Parlour. But I would like to see it do more than discuss and indirectly facilitate workplace equity, I would like to see it get aggressively involved. The Royal Institute of British Architects has already done this on the issue of unpaid staff, warning in 2012 that “practices which take on unpaid interns will be stripped of their accreditation.”[9]

I am sure the AIA is wary of excommunicating paying members. However, it will win more friends than it loses by demonstrating a zealous commitment to its own code of professional conduct, which states that “architects who are AIA members uphold the values of ethical behaviour, equality of opportunity and social justice.”[10]

There are a number of ways this could be achieved, from the disbarring of members who contravene fundamental requirements of workplace law (particularly in relation to unpaid staff and the culture of long working hours); to the rewarding of practices with an equitable gender mix with reduced membership fees; to the expansion of the awards programme to include excellence in social justice, workplace equity and service delivery.

Many of these issues are close to the hearts of architects. I am sure we all know what it is to pull an all-nighter at university or have dealt with the snarling egotism of an ungrateful boss. By backing up its policy commitment to equity with action, the AIA would encourage the profession to do the same, and might just inspire a few jaded architects to return to the fold.

nuclear explosion

What now?

I am a proud member of the AIA. While I think there is much about it that can be improved, I believe fervently in its continuing existence and the values it promotes. The architecture profession has enough problems without the disappearance of our peak professional body. But the AIA is in a state of crisis. Membership is devastatingly low and its financial position is tenuous.

To save itself, the AIA needs to re-engage the architecture profession. An extra 4,000 members nationwide will fill last year’s financial hole, but business as usual will not get us there. We need to rethink what the AIA is and what it does, and look to other organisations doing  better than we are for inspiration.

My seven ideas to re-engage the profession all boil down to improving the value proposition offered by the AIA. The services already provided are in many cases very good, but they rely on an audience that already wants to be serviced. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the key to achieving the altruistic aims of the AIA lies in attracting the architects who aren’t interested in altruism.

There are currently too many architects who couldn’t care less. The AIA needs to drastically rethink how it engages them.

 


Footnotes

  1. Information sourced via conversations with representatives of the Law Institute of Victoria, Legal Services Board and Australian Dental Association. Conversations conducted 1st and 2nd June 2015.
  2. Australian Institute of Architects; 2014 Annual Report; accessed June 2015
  3. See: Andrea Learned; Leveraging Consumer Life Transitions for Sustainability; Sustainable Business Forum; March 2012 and Marketing Charts; Profiling People in Transition and the Marketing Opportunities They Present; October 2013.
  4. Having spoken with the registration boards in New South Wales, Tasmania and Queensland, where compulsory CPD was introduced in 2004, 2004 and 2010 respectively, it appears no one tracked the uptake of CPD following regulatory enforcement. There was some indication however that the attendance and recording of CPD events are two different things, with architects generally good at the former but poor at the latter.
  5. The AIA is not actually empowered to make CPD compulsory, it is the responsibility of the various State and Territory registration boards. The most the AIA can proactively achieve is the successful lobbying of the boards. I note that the Victorian Chapter of the AIA has recently hinted at some hard-won success along this avenue, so I hope we’ll see some changes here soon.
  6. Email correspondence with Tim Horton, NSW Architects Registration Board registrar, 1st June 2015.
  7. The one important exception to this observation is Parlour, the only Australian, publicly accessible platform for sharing data about the profession. Its ongoing successes in improving gender equity are proof that data is an invaluable tool for facilitating change.
  8. Google has already started adding this sort of functionality to its search engine. It can tell you directly how tall the Eiffel Tower is without you having to read the statistics page on the Eiffel Tower homepage.
  9. Mark Wilding; Pay interns or lose accreditation, RIBA tells architects; BD Online; June 2012.
  10. Australian Institute of Architects; Code of Professional Conduct; January 2006.

Image sources

  1. Adam Smith, image copyright Getty Images. Sourced from The Guardian.
  2. Revolution, author unknown. Sourced from Playbuzz.
  3. Sigmund Freud, image copyright Getty Images. Sourced from The Huffington Post.
  4. Elevators, image copyright Shutterstock. Sourced from All-types Elevators.
  5. 99 Cent II Diptychon by Andreas Gursky, 2001. Sourced from Artblart.
  6. Classroom, author unknown. Sourced from Larry Cuban.
  7. Count von Count, image copyright Sesame Street. Sourced from Sengkok.
  8. Workplace equity, author’s own image.
  9. Mushroom cloud, author unknown. Sourced from Imgkid.

On being an architect and a dad

oscar in the studio

I am an architect and I am a dad.

I’m lots of other things as well – a husband, a small business owner, a writer, a teacher, a runner – but these two things (together with being a husband) represent the biggest and most important part of me. They demand the lion’s share of my waking life and I dedicate to them the lion’s share of my passions and energy.

For many parents, both men and women, the separation of these roles is reinforced by any number of influences: the physical act of leaving one’s home to go to work; the contrasting mental spaces required to work and to parent; fossilised attitudes within the workplace; even the desire to safeguard the efficiency of work and preciousness of family. The latter was certainly the case for my parents, who put great effort while I was growing up into protecting the bookends of the day.

Deservedly, this subject has received a lot of recent attention in lecture, institution and media circles. The gender discussion is multifaceted, but revolves predominantly around equity, work / life balance and family. Thanks to excellent research conducted by Parlour, we know that women disappear from the profession as they get older.[1] We know that disparity between the career progression of men and women still exists. And we know that long hours and poor pay remain a systemic problem within the industry, conditions that prohibit the balance of work and family.

But this is not my experience.

For me, the presence of women in the workplace, together with a flexible, family-friendly approach to working hours are the norm. After graduating, I worked at Perkins Architects where half the twelve architecture staff were women, where part time work for returning mothers was encouraged, and where the day started at nine and finished at six. Since establishing Mihaly Slocombe in 2010 with my wife, Erica Slocombe, these conditions have endured. We work from home, enjoy flexible working hours, wrap up by six, and our son, Oscar, is an important (if sometimes destructive) part of the studio environment.

This is not to say that we are world’s best practice. We don’t have an official gender or family policy. Plenty of the choices that have lead to our current work / life balance have been unconscious. And our parenting roles are in many ways based on traditional gender divisions. We are not driven by a fervour for gender equity, we just live and work in a fluid way that feels right.

I wonder if this is a commonplace arrangement? Since so many architects at some point start their own practice, surely my experience is not unique. Surely there are other archidads out there sharing the parenting load… Which is why I’m writing this article. Amidst all of the wonderful energy devoted to revealing and correcting the gender imbalance and poor working conditions that we know persist in our profession, the role of working men in parenting seems to be a less popular subject. While the picture we have of working mothers is highly detailed, the one of working fathers is blurry at best.[2]

I’d like to share my story in the hope that it provides some (tiny) measure of balance to the gender discussion. There is no doubt that the old boys club, unconscious bias and the glass ceiling are men’s shame to bear, but when I reflect on my dual identities as architect and dad, or should I say, co-identities, I am struck by how unlike the traditional caricature of male architects my life is.

matchbox cars

Location, location, location

More than anything, this distinction is enabled by the location of the Mihaly Slocombe studio in our spare bedroom. Working from home means work and family flow into one another: I am around my family, and my family are around my work, all the time. Design presentations, emails and piles of drawings overlap with play, songs and piles of toys. There is a shifting but ever-present colony of Matchbox cars in every corner of our house, my desk included.

My day would not be complete without at least one stint of working with Daddy time, memorable sessions involving Oscar perched on my lap while he navigates my iPhone with unnerving aptitude and I try valiantly to tap away at my keyboard around him. Meetings and deadlines are scheduled around nap times, dance class and nanny days. Making any decision in our work life means negotiating the needs of our family life, and vice versa.

I even muse sometimes what influence this will have on Jake, our graduate architect. He takes part in the rituals of family lunch most days; he gets to enjoy Oscar’s regular visits to our studio space and interchangeable demands for John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance and Craig Smith’s timeless The Wonky Donkey; he arrives in the morning to tales of sleep deprivation; he has watched Oscar grow from a baby into a toddler.

Blurring boundaries

While working from home began as a decision to reduce our operating costs, it has evolved into an essential ingredient in the way we do business. This might strike many as highly counterproductive. And it’s true that a different office environment might facilitate greater profitability (as might slogging away at work 10 hours a day, 7 days a week). But in Oscar’s three years, I’ve never found the blurring of my identities to be a problem.

The practice of architecture has always expanded and contracted to fill the gaps in my life. All the way back to my primary school years, sketching houses was a weekend hobby. I undertook my first project commission while studying at university, and my second while working four days a week at Perkins. As a dad, architecture continues to bend and sway, to take place when it can and must.

I recognise this situation won’t last. Erica, Jake and I work 10 full time equivalent days between us, some of which overlap with us all working together. Our spare bedroom studio is very comfortable for two, but the third is challenging. Adding even one additional staff member would be impossible. But when a career first takes shape as a primary school hobby, even the difficult bits are imbued with a lustre of ease. I’m incredibly lucky to feel like this, I know, and recognise that for vast swathes of Australia, work is a chore. But for me, it’s just not. I love my family. I love architecture. While I still can, why in the world would I want to keep them separate?

Shared decision making

To use an old (somewhat gender-stereotypical) saying, it’s hard to say who in our family wears the pants. The same goes for our practice. As the primary carer, Erica is the expert on Oscar and so drives most decisions concerning him. As the primary businessperson, I drive most decisions concerning Mihaly Slocombe. But we are fortunate to enjoy both a work and life partnership where neither of us makes those decisions independently. The pants therefore are either large enough to fit us both, or we hop about wearing one leg each.

Ownership of our projects is also shared, as is any sense of individual authorship. This has only become more evident since Jake came on board two years ago, whose critical design input through modelling, detailing and documentation have come to reshape our design process.

Is this sharing of responsibilities rare or is it the norm? I’ve never canvassed opinion amongst either my friends or work colleagues, though it’s likely there exists a whole spectrum of structures. I do know it makes me uncomfortable watching Mad Men’s Donald Draper make executive decisions for his family. Perhaps it should be the norm. It is no coincidence that Parlour considers issues of gender equity as the canary in the coalmine for the whole architecture profession, women and men inclusive. We’re all in this together.

oscar playing shops

Future decisions

Writing this article has inspired me to reconsider my work and life ambitions. With a new baby on the way, and all the attendant furniture that will inevitably accompany her, the idea of keeping our studio at home has become more tenuous. But it’s an arrangement I hope we can retain, at least until Oscar and his baby sister head off to school, as it allows me to be the sort of parent I want to be. I like being around, listening all day to the sounds of Oscar’s play even if I’m not directly part of it. I like the zero commute time, the morning hustle to get the house ready for its use as a studio, and then the evening hustle to finish off work in time for dinner at 6pm.

When Erica returns to being a full time mum next year, having our studio at home will also enable her to remain connected to the work of the architecture practice that bears her name. Just as I am around Oscar all day, she will be around our work all day. Quick questions can be fielded, clients can be greeted, progress discussions can be had over lunch.

When I think about it, isn’t this what the entire gender discussion boils down to? How can we, as individuals living in a contemporary, egalitarian society, live our lives so the parts are in balance with one another? Working long hours sucks. Spending evenings locked up in the office sucks. Working the right amount to contribute meaningfully to the broader community while still dedicating the right amount of time to my family feels great.

I like my life.

oscar on site

 

This article is co-published on Parlour, an online resource on women, equity and architecture.


Footnotes:

  1. Around 45% of architects in their twenties are women. This number declines to less than 10% for architects over 55 years of age. Statistics sourced from Gill Matthewson; The numbers so far; Parlour; March 2012.
  2. I refer here to the general tone of the gender equity discussion. Since I am by no means an expert, I may be entirely wrong here. Please feel free to correct me if I am.

Images:

  1. At work with Oscar, author’s own image.
  2. Matchbox cars, author’s own image.
  3. Playing shops, author’s own image.
  4. On site with Oscar, author’s own image.

 

Why working for free is not okay

studio

Last week a recent architecture graduate from the University of Melbourne, Graham Bennett, asked via Twitter what his social network thought about working for free. The barrage of responses from architects and commentators, myself included, was rapid and a little outraged:

It’s illegal.
Claire Hosking

It’s both illegal and illogical: if a practice needs you to do work, it should also be earning fees to pay you.
Warwick Mihaly

Students and graduates working for free endangers sustainability of honest practice.
Melonie Bayl-Smith

It reinforces poor business practices by architects! Morally and economically dumb.
Charity Edwards

You will learn more about architecture getting paid to push a lawn mower than working as an unpaid intern.
Clinton Cole

If students and graduates aren’t getting paid, or are getting underpaid, it’s time to name and shame!
Gintas Reisgys

Revolution!
Justine Clark

Though it’s possible that those with dissenting opinions were either too sheepish to contribute, or entirely absent from this particular network, the above comments reveal agreement among practitioners that graduates working for free is inappropriate and unethical.[1] This is echoed in the excellent speech given by the Australian Institute of Architects Victoria Chapter President, Jon Clements, at this year’s state architecture awards, where he condemned the retention of unpaid staff. He asked us to consider the “progressive compromise of our profession that results if we reduce the costs of delivering our services to unsustainable levels based on inappropriate employment conditions”.[2] Despite this, and despite the clear position of the Fair Work Act 2009 that all Australian workers must receive a minimum wage, we know it happens.[3] We know that in some practices graduates work for free, are underpaid, or work long hours without overtime.

The conditions that encourage this behaviour are embedded into the very fabric of contemporary architecture practice, making them hard to comprehend and even harder to remedy. There is insufficient scope within this article to meaningfully unravel these conditions, however I offer the following broad observations:

  • Supply currently outstrips demand. The value of building activity in Australia since June 2008 has remained stagnant, yet there are around 1,000 students that graduate from Australian architecture schools each year. [4][5] To put this into perspective, since 2008 the architecture profession has swelled by nearly 5,000 new architecture graduates or approximately half the number of currently registered architects. [6] As Clements put it, the architecture profession is increasingly forced to compete for slices of a shrinking pie. Leading up to the global financial crisis, demand for new buildings was high, and the Melbourne skyline seemed to be decorated with as many cranes as skyscrapers. In 2008, enthusiasm for the construction boom led to Monash University opening Victoria’s fourth and Australia’s seventeenth accredited architecture school. Despite the clear downturn in the construction industry since the exhaustion of Prime Minister Rudd’s 2009 economic stimulus package, the schools continue to pour out graduates.
  • Architects are undervalued. From my experience within our architecture practice, and according to the anecdotal reports of colleagues, architectural fees are under constant siege: by local Councils whose projects are procured according to fee competition; by residential clients who are unable to distinguish architectural services from those offered by draftspeople; by developers who prioritise the cost and timeliness of a project over design quality; and most disconcertingly, by architects looking to undercut one another. It is no coincidence that when the client sits down at the table with her architect, engineer, project manager, town planner and quantity surveyor, it is the architect who is earning the lowest hourly rate. It can be argued therefore that it is only natural that a profession as financially squeezed as ours will pass on its own poor remuneration to its staff. My Career analysis confirms this: in the third quarter of 2013, architects were amongst the most poorly paid of all construction occupations. [7] Our average salaries were less than those of all other sub-sectors save interior designers and draftspeople, and as little as half those of project and construction managers.
  • Architects work for free all the time. In addition to inadequate fees, we spend a sizeable portion of our time doing work for free. We meet with potential clients, we enter design competitions, we undertake unsolicited projects, we write blogs, we do work for our families, and we offer opinions around Sunday barbecues. Some of this we do for the love of architecture, but all of it we do because the success of our practices relies heavily and somewhat frustratingly on serendipity. Every interaction we have with other people, no matter how innocuous, might lead to a future project. As such, we are obliged to treat each opportunity as though it will. I like to call this the long play. It is a strategy that relies on the prolific commitment to loss leaders: time spent willingly and for free now so that paying work may eventuate later. Since we inhabit a working environment where loss leaders are necessary for survival, who are we to criticise graduates from exercising the same long-range strategy?
  • Architects are not businesspeople. Our savvy engagement with the long play aside, the architecture profession is dogged by a collective reputation as poor businesspeople. We barely know how to keep our invoicing straight, let alone appreciate the complexities of employee rights and ethical business conduct. This may in part be because many architects are in business to make buildings, not the other way around: we feel that business is for the bankers and accountants, we just want to get on with the real job of architecture. So, it is entirely feasible that architecture practices entertain the idea of volunteer staff because we don’t know any better. Perhaps, when we are regularly bombarded by graduates offering their time for free, temptation gets the better of us. For architects with strong design reputations, this is particularly true: working for a local starchitect carries a great deal of prestige so graduates seek them out even at the cost of lower salaries.
  • Graduates want to get ahead. In our currently downturned economic environment, competition for scarce graduate architect positions is inevitably fierce. It is not enough to finish top of the class, nor have an impressive portfolio: graduates feel the need to think outside the box to obtain employment. In email correspondence following his controversial Twitter query, Bennett noted that his lack of experience and contacts is holding him back from finding employment. He would be happy to sacrifice pay for 3 – 6 months to gain that experience. He also pointed out that while working for free does not necessarily assign appropriate value to his time, it’s better than not working at all. A discussion with my Masters level Design Thesis students at the University of Melbourne revealed similar sentiments. While all were opposed in principle to working for free, deeper probing revealed that some were prepared to entertain it under certain circumstances i.e. working for the right architect, for a limited time, or with a guarantee of fast-tracked registration.

These conditions do not justify working for free, but they do serve to muddy the waters somewhat. It seems that the current economic climate is forcing the architecture profession into a tight corner (desperate times call for desperate measures) and I am left somewhat less certain about my position on this issue than when I first offered my quick response to Bennett’s tweet.

Importantly, what is revealed is that unpaid work is not a standalone issue: it is wound up with a plethora of other concerns, none of which can be solved on their own. Given this entrenched complexity, where and how could we possibly intervene to affect positive change? Do we tell the graduates struggling to find work to stop offering their time for free? Do we tell the architects whose fees are a fraction of their construction industry contemporaries to stop accepting them? Do we tell the universities whose federal funding is ever diminishing to reduce the size of their classes? Do we tell the profit-motivated construction industry to improve its valuation of the architecture profession at large?

There are no easy answers, but perhaps we don’t need there to be. Engaging unpaid workers has an ethical dimension that precedes any legal or economic influence. As professionals and as human beings, it is imperative that we conduct ourselves to the highest possible standard of social responsibility. Profiting from the free labour of staff does not accord with this responsibility, with our collective position as design and built environment leaders, or within the constraints of fair and decent behaviour. In ethical terms, it is much simpler to determine the correct course of action.

Any employer is in a position of power over her employees and as such has a duty of care to ensure their financial livelihood. As a colleague remarked to me, the limited experience of the graduate architect means she can only base her opinions on a restricted understanding of the socioeconomic framework in which she is hoping to work. The long play might be suitable for the principal of an architecture practice, because there is a clear understanding of the associated risks and an explicit transaction between the work done for free now and paying work received later. But a graduate is not yet fully equipped to foresee or extract the benefits from this transaction: what’s stopping her employer from accepting six months of free labour and then dumping her for a newer, fresher face?

Proponents for unpaid, studio-based internships might argue that it takes upwards of twelve months before a graduate is able to contribute financially to a practice anyway: why should we have to spend large amounts of time training graduates and pay them too? I return to the imbalance of power in the employer / employee relationship: the opportunity for exploitation is too easy. There is little preventing an employer from neglecting her role of stewardship, and it takes a particularly gutsy graduate to voice dissatisfaction with bad treatment. The Association of Consulting Architects warns against this outcome, citing expert legal advice from DLA Piper: “Where the arrangement between an architecture practice and an unpaid student takes on the characteristics of an employer-employee relationship, he or she may be owed minimum entitlements”.[8] What was initially promised as an unpaid internship too easily devolves into a position with the same responsibilities as any other paid employee. Even though the graduate may still learn a great deal, there is no guarantee of it, no regulated criteria by which to judge progress, and no way to enforce a commitment to a paying position at the end. Perhaps the introduction of a formal internship period under the oversight of the various States’ registration boards could alleviate these issues, but I know of no plans to implement such a scheme.

Discussing this issue earlier in the year on The Architects on Triple R, architecture critic Rory Hyde raised a further ethical criticism of the practice, noting that unpaid graduate positions bear an inexcusable social inequality.[9] In Japan, where starchitects are numerous, unpaid positions are commonplace and working hours are intolerably long, only the independently wealthy can afford to gain the necessary work experience. Poorer or unsupported architecture graduates, no matter how brilliant, are excluded from the best design studios because they can’t afford to both work for free and feed themselves. Transported to Australia, a country that rightly prides itself on its egalitarian values, this scenario is deeply unsettling.

We abolished slavery, set a minimum wage and established a 38-hour working week for good reasons, in short: to protect the quality of life of the individual. We were all graduates once, and have all benefited greatly from the generosity and tutelage of our own early employers. As we progress through our careers and move into positions of greater power, we need to protect and nurture our profession’s youngest members.

For me, the contemporary conditions that facilitate unpaid staff are not relevant, because the ethical position is clear: free labour might be tempting to offer and hard to refuse, but it serves the interests of neither graduates nor architects. As Clements suggested to the gathered crowd at this year’s awards, unpaid work fails to protect the future robustness of the architecture profession. He asked, “At what point do practices forget the real cost of the professional services that we should be expected to deliver? Do they stop to consider where the industry will be one year, two years or ten years down the track?”[10] If we are interested in the built environment, in good quality architecture, and in sustaining the profession for ourselves and for future generations of architects, we must promote a financial framework in which we are paid what we are worth to do the work that needs doing.

How this might be achieved is a subject for another day, though it’s safe to say that procurement methods for both public and private sector work, partnership arrangements on large projects, the financial structure of fee agreements, and the scope of services offered by architects are all in need of renovation. The improvement of public advocacy and our roles beyond the construction industry, in politics, media and education, is essential. Representational bodies must also play an important role. The Royal Institute of British Architects is taking a stand, warning last year that “practices which take on unpaid students will be stripped of their accreditation”[11] Will the Australian Institute of Architects get behind their Victorian Chapter President and take a similarly visionary position?

We may not be able to encourage Bennett and his fellow graduates to stop offering their time for free. We may not be able to prevent individual architecture practices from accepting unpaid labour. We may not be able to instruct the universities to reduce their class sizes. But we can and should work towards realigning our perceived value within the construction industry and the broader Australian experience. This is the break in the cycle our profession sorely needs, the one that will reverberate through all the complexity of our contemporary condition: it will help architects earn what we’re worth, ensure our graduates are paid fairly and allow us to keep doing what we do best.

at work

This article is co-published on Parlour, an online resource on women, equity and architecture.


[1] By graduates, I refer also to student architects and other junior architecture employees
[2] Jon Clements; The two faces of architecture; Parlour; June 2013
[3] Fair Work Act 2009; Commonwealth Law ID C2013C0049. National minimum wage entitlements are further described on the website of the Fair Work Ombudsman
[4] For the June 2008 quarter, the total value of Australia-wide building activity was $20.5b. For the June 2013 quarter, the total value was $20.3b. Building Activity, Australia; report #8572.0; Australian Bureau of Statistics; June 2008 and June 2013
[5] Gill Matthewson; Updating the numbers, part 1: at school; Parlour; January 2013
[6] There are currently 9,956 registered architects in Australia. Gill Matthewson; Counting registered architects – no easy matter; Parlour; January 2013
[7] Construction, Building and Architecture Salary Centre; My Career; September 2013
[8] National Communiqué, Internships Update; Association of Consulting Architects Australia; June 2013
[9] Simon Knott, Stuart Harrison, Christine Philips and Rory Hyde; Vic Awards 2013; Triple R, The Architects; Episode 374; July 2013
[10] Jon Clements; The two faces of architecture; Parlour; June 2013
[11] Mark Wilding; Pay interns or lose accreditation, RIBA tells architects; BD Online; June 2012

Community

This is the 9th instalment in a series of 10 articles where we attempt to categorise chronologically and thematically the list of things you will need to start your architecture practice, and furnish it with the glimpses of insight we’ve accrued during the first three years of our architecture practice, Mihaly Slocombe.

9. Community

membership

When: Later
Importance: Moderate
Cost: Varies
Difficulty: Varies

Almost every aspect of your architecture practice, from the quality of your designs, to your marketing strategies, to your financial management, can benefit from your involvement in the right communities. By this we do not only mean the people who live next door, but your cultural and professional communities too. In other words, other architects, designers and the institutions that support them: collectively these people are a ready-made source of advice, assistance and feedback.

The types of communities in which you might take part can be roughly divided into five categories: design, business, marketing, culture and tribal. To make the most use of these, be prepared to juggle the full breadth of media the world has to offer, from online forums and social media, to international awards programmes and local lecture series. You will need to spend plenty of time in front of your computer screen, but just as much time getting out to actually meet people.

You will know you have chosen the right communities when you find they keep overlapping. The truth in this was neatly displayed when we attended the Presentations to Juries a month or so ago: shuffling from room to room with us were people whom we follow on Twitter, with whom we share blog discussions, attend lectures and seminars, present at design talks, studied and worked.

Design communities are those that allow you to present your design work and review the work of others. If all that happens once a project is presented is a round of applause, you are not participating in a design community. Reciprocity is essential to the success of these communities, as is the willingness of their participants to be critical about one another’s ideas. Given architects’ reluctance to subject themselves to negative criticism, even constructively offered, they are very hard to come by. We suggest you start one yourself, perhaps with friends from university whose journeys into architecture practice parallel your own. Every couple of weeks we catch up with one or two friends over lunch to discuss design and practice in a loose but longstanding arrangement affectionately referred to as the Round Table. We entered the Flinders Street Station Design Competition together and, we must confess, could do better in heeding our own advice by presenting our work to one another more often. Design communities cost whatever you’re having for lunch.

Business communities are those that help you get better at any of the myriad skills and processes you need to keep your architecture practice afloat, from big picture things like time management and fee negotiation, to detail things like filing systems and contact lists. We take part in the Australian Institute of Architects‘ Small Practice Forum, a group of 30 or so architects that meets every two months to discuss subjects like marketing, fees, office manuals and, most recently, cloud computing. The Institute also runs plenty of continuing professional development events that are well worth attending: the oddly named but business-savvy Blue Turtle Management and Consulting (BTMC) have presented a few such events, one of which we discussed here. The cost of Institute membership varies and is generally hefty (we pay around $1,000 a year), however we feel its value is priceless.

Marketing communities are immensely abundant, require a huge amount of time to maintain and rarely pave the way for new projects. We say rarely, because every now and then they do, which will render every hour spent previously worthwhile. Houzz is an interesting tool that allows designers to upload photos of their work (1,000,000 so far an counting) to an indexed and searchable database that other people selectively add to ideas albums. It is also a useful way to have clients give you a summary of their tastes and design interests. New Architects is a series of casual design presentations run every couple of months with a strong emphasis on young designers. A website is on its way, however invitation is currently by email list or word of mouth only. Various agencies around the world, including Houses Magazine, Design Institute of Australia and Australian Timber Design Awards here, and World Architecture News and Architectural Review overseas, all hold annual awards programmes for both speculative and built work. There are many, many others. Finally, 70% of Australians own the houses they live in: the more you connect with your neighbours and local community, the more likely you are that you will get work from them. Houzz and New Architects are both free to join, though most awards programmes will cost $200 – $400 per entry.

Cultural communities will not necessarily win you new projects nor allow you the opportunity to present your work to the world at large, but they will increase your appreciation of good design and generally nurture your soul. Melbourne is blessed with a large number of organisations that foster such communities, including the Robin Boyd Foundation (RBF), ParlourMelbourne Open House (MOH) and C + A. Each has its own dedicated focus: modernist architecture for RBF; women in architecture for Parlour; public open days for MOH; and concrete for C + A. All run lecture and seminar programmes, publish journals and offer access to some of Melbourne’s best architecture both past and present. The cost of events varies, from nothing in the case of MOH’s annual open day to $65 for Parlour’s upcoming Transform workshop.

Finally, tribal communities are those you start yourself. They are generally online, often emanate from a blog or Twitter feed, and focus on one issue or interest area. They are not necessarily central to the architecture work you do, but revolve around it or are related to it. There are two important qualities of the tribal community: first, you are its chief; and second, you are its chief because you have been talking about its interest area before anyone else was. To paraphrase Texan artist, Austin Kleon, to whom we have paid tribute here, if everyone is talking about apples while you’re interested in oranges, you should start talking about oranges anyway. Eventually, when the rest of the world catches on to how great oranges are, you will be an established orange guru and natural chief.

Participating in any or all of these communities will grow what we have come to call your cultural capital i.e. the value you have to the culture around you. As your presence in awards programmes, forums, lecture series, blogs and design organisations grows, so too will your cultural capital. This capital will not necessarily win you projects and will certainly not turn you into a starchitect overnight. However, if you enjoy your communities without thought to future stardom, you will find your capital grows of its own accord, a development that we believe can only have a positive impact on your future design career.