The culture of working for free – be it through internships or competition entries – damages the profession, but it can be tackled, argues Tarek Merlin
There has always been an issue with architects giving away design work for free, but maybe it’s time we finally did something about it.
The news that the chosen architect for this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, Junya Ishigami + Associates, uses unpaid internships, (and, adding insult to injury, demands they work a six-day week, 13 hours per day and supply their own computers and software), has quite rightfully been met with disdain. But it also speaks to a deeper wider issue of devaluing design input that starts at the earliest levels of the architectural profession.
The defence these businesses give is that the interns have not yet been trained to the required skill level. Well that may be true, but this just means we need to take a closer look at architectural education and the way students enter the workplace. Seems to me that the blind navel-gazing that goes on in some schools – and the demand for endless hours of unnecessary work – is completely irrelevant. We need to find a better balance.
What if the RIBA made it against the architect’s Code of Conduct to enter any competition that demanded free design work?
My practice, Feix & Merlin, has been working with Central St Martins’ MArch students, who are actively encouraged to do two days a week in practice as a formal part of their education. We take on (paid) freelance students who, over a year or two, eventually become fully fledged employed staff. We’re on our third generation now and it works very well. This way they get to know us and what it’s like to be in practice while they study so that when they graduate, they are ready for employment – with us or anyone else.
Forcing students to spend endless hours painfully theorising, drawing pretty pictures, blinkered to the pressures of the business of architecture, serves only to devalue design in the future, leads to accepting low-paid work, and even unpaid internships, which leads on to free design work and zero-fee bids.
The change that’s coming has to be holistic – encompassing changing the culture of architectural education, banishing unpaid internships and banning free design work in professional design competitions.
Just to be clear, we’re not talking about speculative work for an existing or potential client, a quick feasibility study or freebie concept sketch. These are part of a service-based business model that dictates that some tasks are for free, and as long as this is balanced against paid work for the same clients then, yes, of course, that makes sense.
What we are talking about are certain design competitions, or procurement tenders dressed up competitions, that demand significant level of free design work from a large number of architecture practices.
We’ve had these kinds of discussions many times before and there are usually three main common reasons that are used to justify free work, each of which I hope to debunk here, and maybe affect some change.
Reason architects work for free #1: ‘If I don’t do it, then someone else will’
But what if we were all made to stop doing it? What if the RIBA and the ARB made it against the architect’s Code of Conduct for any registered architect to enter any design competition that demanded design work for free?
Clients would find that if they wanted a set of high-quality competition entries they would have to pay a fee for it. A fair fee for good quality design work.
But might this just put clients off holding competitions?
We definitely need more, not fewer, competitions so the aim here is to reach a sort of consensus of what a competition should be like, respecting the pressures clients are under.
What if all competitions were fixed as three stage?
- Stage 1: A very simple a description of the practice, some examples of previous work, completed or not. No design work, sketches or images.
- Stage 2: A long list who are paid to prepare design ideas, to a concise and clear brief, to RIBA Stage 2 (only). No expensive professional CGIs, no expensive physical models, just some sketches and plans. Any entrant providing ‘extras’ would have these removed from the entry, and run the risk of disqualification.
- Stage 3: A simple interview/workshop discussion, at the architect’s offices or at a building they have completed, to meet all the individuals involved and finalise the decision-making process.
This process is actually aligned with the RIBA’s own competition guidelines which set out best practice objectives for running competitions. And there are other examples of this working here and abroad. Russell Curtis and others have worked with the RIBA to help improve this issue. Endeavours such as Project Compass, developed by architects to improve the culture of procurement and standards of the built environment, are doing great things in helping to establish fairer and more open and transparent procurement process in competition. For example, Architectuur Lokaal in the Netherlands ran a competitive process where Stage 1 was 2x A4 pages of text and 2x A3 pages of reference images (no design); Stage 2 was a shortlist of five with €10,000 honorarium for each to prepare 5x A1 boards with design proposals.
Isn’t it up to me how much time money and resources I put against my own work?
If you provide ‘extra’ free work you are undermining the paid work that the rest of us do. And if you are putting your business at risk, you are also jeopardising the success of everyone else’s.
Where will the money come from to pay all these architects?
The amounts we’re talking about here are relatively small, and remember, the point is to limit the scope of work required for any competition so as to keep the cost to the client relatively low and to ensure the resource cost to the architect is reasonable.
Reason architects work for free #2: ‘It allows me to prove what I can do’
The second most common argument I hear is that competitions are good for showing off our ‘creative flair’. Well, this is something that you should be able to show through examples of your previous work, not in endless free design work that is not based in reality. But this point does bring us on to our last reason: how do we attract new talent who may not have many completed projects?
Reason architects work for free #3: ‘It allows young talent to enter the market’
I just don’t think it’s realistic to continue on with this romantic notion that talented young graduates are suddenly going to win a major international competition overnight. Pre-qualification questionnaires (PQQs) for any kind of large-scale project tend to be designed to prevent small practices from even entering. Having a fair process based on meeting the architect, rather than box ticking forms, would be fairer to all.
Changing the culture of free design work will take time and require further debate before we can reach a consensus, so this won’t happen overnight, but hopefully, we can continue some of the conversations that have already started on this topic, and head towards a more balanced approach to the value of design work.
Until then, keep dreaming, keep working. Get paid.
Tarek Merlin is director of Feix & Merlin Architects