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Is business ineptitude to blame for architects’ low pay?

Will Hurst
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The RIBA’s zero-tolerance approach to wages is a positive step, but architecture also needs a new business model, writes Will Hurst

The finding that architecture salaries are in the doldrums and students and women architects are handed the most meagre rewards barely counts as news in some respects, given how depressingly familiar that message has become. 

Year after year, the AJ reports on this state of affairs and year after year the situation fails to improve. So why are we focusing on it now? First, the RIBA’s intervention through its Chartered Practice scheme is notable. Second, because low pay is a vital topic and we want to keep it in the spotlight and learn something from it. And third, because we want to go further and do something about it.

If this was the standard for architectural businesses actually interested in improving their performance, what were the rest like?

As Richard Waite’s news feature covering a recent survey carried out by recruitment firm 9B Careers, suggests, paltry remuneration is part of that far bigger issue of architect marginalisation which the AJ is beginning to tackle. While John Assael is right to say it is unethical and, indeed, indefensible for a practice not to pay its Part 1 students the Real Living Wage, the root cause of this can sometimes be more about business ineptitude than meanness. Sometimes it’s probably a combination of the two. It follows then that we need a twin-track approach to fixing the pay problem. The RIBA’s new zero-tolerance approach on living wages is a step in the right direction, but architecture also needs a new business model, as Teresa Borsuk concludes in the feature.

That will be far harder to introduce and involves architects learning some of that stuff they were never taught at architecture school: how to spot business opportunities; how to explain the value they can bring; how to negotiate with the client and play hardball with the contractor. These are not skills that come naturally to most but they have been studied and adopted by the UK’s leading architecture firms.

I remember attending the RIBA’s Guerilla Tactics CPD event for small and medium-sized practices a few years back and marvelling (not in a good way) at the performance of a number of firms taking part in a mock pitch to one of London’s most prominent public-sector developers. Almost all of them were based on boasting about their own design credentials, with little or no thought given to the client they were addressing or its particular needs. I found myself wondering: if this was the standard for architectural businesses actually interested in improving their performance, what were the rest like? Low pay is just a symptom of a wider malaise.

This article was first published in the Homes edition

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