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Weekend roundup: Can trade union combat architecture’s long hours?


This week’s top stories reviewed by the AJ’s Simon Aldous: Architectural trade union launches • Grenfell report blames firefighters • Zaha Hadid Architects wins Sydney airport job • Transmission site receives RetroFirst message

Have architects gained a taste for industrial action? Following last month’s climate strike, where hundreds of architects downed tools to take to the streets, they have the opportunity to be similarly militant over their own working conditions.  

The United Voices of the World Union has set up the Section of Architectural Workers (SAW) with the aim of combatting the sector’s ‘toxic culture’ of overwork, underpay and discrimination.  

The union says some of its members report working as much as 60 hours overtime per week, while others have not taken a weekend break for four months.  

The EU Working Time Directive was meant to prevent this, limiting the average working week to 48 hours. But as the AJ revealed back in March, many employers force staff to opt out of the directive, with a large number of respondents saying their employers told them they would not hire them unless they signed away their rights – even though this is illegal.  

While the United Voices of the World Union is relatively new, it has already proved effective, bringing the London School of Economics’ outsourced cleaning staff back in-house.  

Many argue, however, that the very fact such a union is setting up is an indictment of the RIBA, which seems to do little more than wring its hands over poor employment conditions.  

Institute president Alan Jones was elected to the post on an ‘architect first’ campaign. One way of giving that slogan meaning would be if the institute made decent working conditions a condition of practices keeping their RIBA chartered status.  

Poll: Would you consider joining the new Section of Architectural Workers trade union? 
• No, inappropriate to my job
• No, it won’t make any difference
• No, I dislike trade unions
Vote here  

Last week’s poll asked, in the light of the latest architectural salary survey, how readers’ pay had fared in the last year. Of those voting, 41% said their pay had stayed broadly the same; it had fallen for 33%, while a fortunate 27% had seen their pay rise.

Firefighters made ‘scapegoats’ by Grenfell report

Grenfellshrine anthonycoleman

Grenfellshrine anthonycoleman

It’s easy to forget things over time, so let’s remind ourselves of certain facts that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017. For example, following the 2009 fire at Lakanal House in south London, the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group wrote to four different housing ministers, each time warning of tower block fire-safety concerns.  

The Lakanal fire, in which six died, was exacerbated by cladding panels that caught fire within four-and-a-half minutes. And as at Grenfell, there were no fire sprinklers. The parliamentary group’s letter in 2014 read: ‘As there are estimated to be another 4,000 older tower blocks in the UK, without automatic sprinkler protection, can we really afford to wait for another tragedy to occur before we amend this weakness?’  

While some councils did subsequently invest in making their housing blocks safer, Kensington & Chelsea wasn’t one of them – though it did give out £100 rebates to its top-band council taxpayers. It reportedly saved £5,000 by installing cheaper, but more combustible, cladding at Grenfell. 

So it’s a little depressing that the report of the first phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry seems to primarily point the finger at failures by the fire service, rather than the politicians who ignored calls to take action that could have prevented the tragedy – politicians who instead recast health and safety regulations as ‘red tape’.  

The inquiry’s report criticises the fire service for adhering to the ‘stay-put’ policy. This is a policy that seeks to protect residents from unnecessary exposure to smoke while potentially getting in the way of firefighters and arguably would have been the safest course of action before the tower was wrapped in combustible cladding.  

The report’s second phase will examine the building’s refurbishment, leading the fire brigade union to say the inquiry was being held ‘back to front’, scapegoating firefighters for the building failures.  

While few will begrudge the inquiry being thorough, will it prove the case that by the time it publishes its final conclusions, most of the culpable politicians will have long since left public life?

Architects Declare signatory to facilitate massive increase in air travel

3 zha cox sydney airport

3 zha cox sydney airport

Just weeks after Zaha Hadid Architects completed its £8.8 billion terminal for Beijing Daxing Airport, it has won the competition to design Western Sydney International Airport, beating entries from Rogers Stirk Harbour and Foster + Partners among others. 

The £2.9 billion airport will be capable of handling 10 million passengers a year once its first phase completes, though it is ultimately planned to be able to handle 82 million by the time it completes in 2060. 

Which begs the question of how much of the world will still remain an attractive destination in 40 years’ time if countries continue with such cavalier attitudes to the climate crisis. 

ZHA signed the Architects Declare pledge on sustainable design earlier this year – as did RSHP and Fosters – provoking the now-familiar questions about how it can justify working on a project that will facilitate a further increase in greenhouse emissions? It argues that its design will employ ‘sustainable design principles across the building’s architecture as well as its construction’. 

Fosters meanwhile can console itself with the news that it has been picked to design a new Red Sea airport serving a luxury resort in Saudi Arabia, to be used by a million passengers per year. It’s ‘eco-friendly’ of course. 

If pressed, both practices would also probably argue that refusing to work on airport projects will not prevent them from being built, which is probably true. But it certainly raises some questions for Architects Declare.

RetroFirst message received, loud and clear



Architecture of a considerably more sustainable nature is being planned by Van Heyningen and Haward Architects in the form of a new £35 million state secondary school in Rugby. 

Houlton School will be a conversion of the Grade II-listed Rugby Radio Station building, which was once the largest radio transmission site in the world and, until 2007, transmitted the time signal that acts as the UK’s national time reference. 

The facility was set up in 1926 as part of the government’s Imperial Wireless Chain to link the countries of the British Empire. Later, it provided radio contact between nuclear submarines across the world, making it a ‘Category A’ target during the Cold War. It was a familiar Warwickshire landmark because of its dozen 250m-high radio masts. 

Van Heyningen and Haward has held detailed discussions with Historic England and the Twentieth Century Society so that it can restore the listed building’s façades and preserve the industrial character of the main internal spaces. The school is expected to open for year-seven pupils in September 2021.


Readers' comments (3)

  • Summary: Architecture is exploitative; the Establishment is devious; Airports are not eco-friendly; and building conservation is the most energy efficient form of property development.

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  • Both Zaha's successors and Lord Foster & co could wind up emulating the mythical oozlum bird, the way that things are going.

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  • Has the world of architecture become such a cynical joke that a satirical TV comedy sitcom is required, along the lines of ‘Boston Legal’ (hilarious). ‘London Architectural’ could feature downtrodden salaried architects, living rough and using foodbanks, while they complete the working drawings for luxury ‘sustainable’ airports, from concepts handed down by starachitects, who commute by helicopter from the Cotswolds and jet around the world.

    Episode one could be entitled ‘You have nothing to lose but your job’, as ruthless architect bosses break the attempts of their rebellious wage slaves to form a union, by intimidating the ringleaders with thinly veiled threats of physical harm. The first story could end with picket lines and mass sackings as a cliffhanger, while the latest airport project falls behind schedule, and the prospect of multimillion pound fine looms large, and threatens the gilded existence of ‘the firm’ and its ‘let them eat cake’ founders?

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