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How we can change the culture of free design work

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The culture of working for free – be it through internships or competition entries – damages the profession, but it can be tackled, argues Tarek Merlin

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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


Readers' comments (7)

  • Tarek, I’m with you until you start with that favourite of the reactionary architect - attacking the supposed ‘navel gazing’ in the schools. Navel gazing or as I prefer to call it, speculative experimentation, is an essential part of developing imaginative architects. Your mentor, Mr Alsop would be turning in his grave! The attack on experimental thinking also perpetuates the myth that it is all that goes on in schools when in fact it is also backed up by some of the most innovative and rigorous technical thinking in respect of new construction techniques, digital fabrication, new materials, sustainability and much more. The pathetic excuse given for not paying interns - that they are not educated for practice - is just that, - a pathetic excuse. In my experience the products of the ‘navel gazing’ schools are eagerly snapped up by practices keen to make use of their amazing range of imaginative skills and technical knowledge. I doubt very much whether the likes of Ishigami would take on any students who where not amongst the very best in this regard so the reasons given by his office for not paying interns is highly disingenuous and misleading. It’s is up to practice, not the schools, to get it’s house in order.

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  • Navel Gazing, really? Cheap shot in an otherwise well argued piece.

    The course of architectural education has changed. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake was once encouraged. Today, critical engagement, open enquiry and allowing graduates the freedom to think is being driven out by the profession’s apparent need to create office ready employees.

    While it is important for students to learn basic office skills, the acquisition of administration and teaching project processes is the responsibility of the profession not the role of schools of architecture.

    It is important that practices retain strong links with education and forge connections with students, however in my experience Master of Architecture graduates are bright and capable and learn quickly, so should still be able to leave university confident that they can secure a long career in architecture.

    However, in order to respond to today's culture of low fees and low pay, there is pressure on schools, coming from the profession to make architecture graduates able to deliver professional skills right away and to ensure that more MArch teaching effort is diverted to administrate business, legal and client protocols.

    I believe that my role as a professor of architecture is not to help you find a job. Instead, it is to teach you what it is to be an architect.

    I have promoted free thinking and open enquiry and taught the importance of history, social responsibility and the importance of context and developed students as creative thinkers, who also have the expertise and knowledge required to make buildings of worth.

    This approach I also believe has produced many young architects of real value to the profession, many are now successfully holding senior positions in international practices.

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  • Alan, how can you teach someone what it is to be an architect if you can not find them a job? This is contradictory and illustrates the complete disconnect between the architectural schools and practice. It seems that the schools think they can just ‘experiment’ with continuous design project exercises, in a vacuum from the reality of the increasingly marginised architectural marketplace.

    The reality is that due to changes to procurement methods etc the traditional profession of architecture no longer really exists. Selling false hope to generations of acolytes is morally bankrupt, but dictated by changes to university funding and fees. If you admit that you can not find your graduates jobs, which is why they are taking out exhorbitant loans to pay the fees, you have no right to take their money.

    The full time architectural training model can not continue in its time worn traditional model, but must adapt innovatively to the new reality. The syllabus needs a complete overhaul, so that a more general and useful liberal arts bachelors degree is offered. Many students drop out after this stage anyway, and should have a more useful qualification with which to pursue a diversified career, beyond the narrow and economically constrained bounds of architecture. This will then allow realistic specialisation at postgraduate level.

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  • I usually don't engage with commentators who choose to be nameless.

    However, my graduates have all found jobs, a good number occupy senior positions in highly respected practices in the UK and abroad or are running their own offices. The reality is that it's the profession that needs a complete overhaul and must raise its game.

    Promoting critical engagement in schools and encouraging open enquiry, social responsibility and experimentation in architectural education above all else does not create a vacuum, in fact in my experience, it produces young architects of real value to society, not office fodder for a profession losing esteem and being driven to the bottom by PQQ's for projects that the majority have no hope of winning; speculative work, acceptance of ridiculous contractor and developer demands and low fees which result in low pay, reduced employment prospects and talented graduates working as interns.

    The profession must look to itself for reasons why architects are being marginalised, not the schools. As for competitions don't do it. People place little value on what they don't pay for.

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  • Alan, I have a name...I am 'Number Five'. You have quite concisely outlined the complete disconnection of academia from the real world, presumably from the very top of your ivory tower. If you are not prepared to engage with the problems of the real world, then I think you need to issue a health warning to young and idealistic acolytes, so that they can make an informed decision over their choice of degree course and potential career. The second half of your second paragraph is quite a good kernel of the warning that you should be issuing to prospective students—before you have made them the now customary unconditional offer of a place on your course. Bums on seats keep professorial seats warm!

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  • I would 100% agree with the comment made by mr. DUNLOP that “The profession must look to itself for reasons why architects are being marginalised”.

    All statistics prove that only a 2-5% of all the worlds’ projects are designed by architects.
    All statistics also prove that our clients, the general public, do not understand the value of what we are doing. We need to teach them about this value in a way so simple that they can appreciate our creativity and pragmatism.

    Therefore, in order to “flesh out” more effectively and take steps towards the recognition of architecture, we should consider a key focus mandate; to examine well-designed architectural policies, guidelines, events and actions for popular involvement in order to communicate the architectural aspirations directly to the general public and, with the use of a simplified and popularized architectural language to ensure that “The Role of Architecture in Society’s Quality of Life” — UIA’s declaration — becomes a part of the consciousness of the citizens of the world. This new "Call to Arms", should specifically and systematically work in cooperation with the schools, organisations and professional bodies to create knowledge, to mitigate the huge gap in awareness that separates “the general public” from the social values and benefits of architecture.

    …And finally we should ask ourselves:
    • How did the “grand” congresses, exhibitions or any other kind of events, (apart from sharing and exchanging architectural information, amongst the main participants, the Architects), reach out to the wider communities where these events, of great importance, are taking place?

    • How did the schools, the architects and the professional bodies attract and motivate the “many” (citizens) to learn, to their benefit, what is important regarding their built environment and the reasons why?

    Is there any doubt, after all, as to why architects are being marginalised?

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  • Number, there is a disconnection between what is being taught and what is happening now in the profession, I agree. The reality is that it is in the schools, in the main, that the most interesting and forward looking work is being undertaken in architecture, not in practice.

    I'm commenting as both a practitioner and teacher. With respect, I'm not sure of your background other than you appear to know little about teaching.

    As architects what we offer is our expertise in critical analysis, lateral thinking, expert critique, client engagement, place making, knowledge of history and research techniques. As Sean Griffiths writes "the most innovative and rigorous technical thinking" These are the most important elements that are being taught and remain at the centre of the best schools.

    As architects they are our expert skills, yet today in practice we give this expertise away for free.

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