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How can architects reverse the profession’s downward spiral?

Paul Finch
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We need less bleating about Brexit and gender pay gaps and more focus on the true issues that are harming architecture, says Paul Finch 

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Sadie Morgan (pictured) warned, at the AJ100 breakfast last week, that the profession risks sliding into irrelevance. It follows Amanda Levete’s recent call for architects to be less risk-averse, and a stark warning from developer Mike Hussey a few months back that designers would be wiped out if they continue on their current trajectory.

Even taking into account an element of hyperbole that can creep into public statements about the future of any profession, none of this is to be taken lightly. While practices beat themselves up over the so-called ‘gender pay gap’ and its peculiar obsession with ‘average hourly earnings’, clients and contractors continue to wonder at the enormous amount of work many architects seem perfectly prepared to do for nothing. It is the absence of income that matters, not how it is shared out.

In the case of some competitions, it is not just work done for free by one practice alone, but by half a dozen of them. The accumulated losses for the profession scarcely bear thinking about, but do much to explain why mature professional architects can expect to earn considerably less than their contemporaries who decided to do something else at college. 

People who want to benefit from (relatively) cheap EU labour present themselves as champions of principle rather than admitting they are cheapskate employers

The horrendous costs to students of studying architecture on a seven-year course is limiting the gene pool for practice, and making EU imports look ever more desirable. Nobody seems to ask why there are so many of them in London practices: the answer is that the EU and its one-size-fits-all currency have combined to wreck the economies of the countries from which so many architects have departed. Most of them won’t be going back any time soon, especially as their rights to remain in the UK are secure.

A ready supply of skilled professionals, of course, depresses their value, hence the bleating on the part of some practices about ‘losing’ EU professionals as a result of Brexit. There are always people who want to benefit from (relatively) cheap labour; they often present themselves as champions of principle rather than admitting they are cheapskate employers, the sort who don’t pay overtime but expect their toiling designers to do whatever is necessary to pitch unpaid for work from equally unscrupulous clients.  

By the way, if you are really interested in these things (which I am not), wouldn’t you like to know what the gender split is in non-UK architects working here, and what the ‘gender pay gap’ is in respect of these imported professionals? A wonderful opportunity for more time-wasting activity instead of doing something more positive, such as getting more engaged with infrastructure, as Sadie Morgan suggests.

If the profession is underpaid and under-appreciated, as it seems to be, how might it go about reversing the downward spiral? Whatever its critics may say, the RIBA has a critical role to play. It is time for all serious members of the profession, even if through gritted teeth, to come to the aid of the institute in tackling a series of issues which affect not just the profession, but everyone.

In no particular order, these include pushing for greater weighting being given to design quality in all procurement processes involving public funding; leading a campaign to expose exploitative competitions and ‘warn off’ members from taking part in them; championing decent employment practices; streamlining qualification procedures to put UK students on a more equal footing with their EU and other counterparts; continuing to campaign for more and better housing; promoting high-quality public spaces with targeted programmes; and treating/curating 66 Portland Place as a cultural powerhouse.

I was going to add something about destroying the useless and counter-productive Architects Registration Board, but that will have to wait for another column.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I pretty much agree with everything Paul Finch says in this article. We have a profession obsessed with virtue signalling about gender equality and Brexit, yet in reality they want their staff to work unpaid overtime that puts off people staying in the profession who want a family life and they want cheap European staff to under cut the local wages. When will architects stop under cutting fees and working for nothing?
    Only thing I don't agree on is that we need ARB and protection of title otherwise our fees will be further under cut by unqualified self professed architectural designers.

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