A former co-worker of mine (who is now working for another architecture firm than the one we worked at together) recently Tweeted a complaint about having to work until 5pm on the Friday before a holiday weekend. My first thought was not that I felt any sympathy (although I do sympathize), but rather that there are may architects (myself included) who would be glad to have that problem right now. The grass may be greener, and all that, and if it were a different economic climate and I was a full-time employee of a firm, I might very well make a similar complaint in the same circumstance.

Another former co-worker of mine (from the same former firm) got a new job with a large firm earlier this year after a long period of deep underemployment and now commutes an extra 30-40 miles twice a day, and, on top of that, is working far longer hours than he used to. That just seems to be the base expectation in many larger firms. Architecture is one of the fields most badly decimated by the Great Recession, and there are thousands of trained architects looking for work, or who have abandoned the field and gone instead into new lines of work. Why, then, does this seem to be the current state of affairs?

This leads directly to an article I came across a couple weeks ago, written by Andrew Maynard, an Australian architect whose work and whose approach to work I have admired for a while. (Maynard also coined one of the best lines ever on the topic of green building: “Sustainability is like teenage sex. Everybody says they’re doing it, very few people actually are doing it. Those that are doing it are doing it badly.“) His article about work-life balance is a worthwhile read, especially for other architects. He talks about how he took a very different approach to work than his peers when he was working at a large commercial firm, and how that was at odds with the prevailing culture of the firm. Rather than fighting the corporate culture, he started his own firm which he runs in a very different fashion. “At 5.30pm all staff leave the office, including myself.” Only on a few occasions does he return to the office after hours (his commute is merely a flight of stairs).

His approach is unusual for the US, as well as in Australia. In many instances, salaried employees are seen as a pool of free overtime labor, and expectations of working extended hours and of giving up nights and weekends are common. Maynard also has a number of good observations about the foibles and “broken logic principles” followed by too many architectural employees. Australian practice doesn’t sound too dissimilar to that in the US in this regard, as well. He notes, for example, “Architects are often the lowest paid person on the building site and the only ones willing to donate their leisure time for free.”[1] Architecture is notorious for eating its own, for making extreme demands on the time and energy of those (most especially the lower tiers) who work in the field. That’s not the kind of place I would ever want to run, and I wouldn’t want to work in an environment like that if I went back to work for someone else.[2]

Around the same time, the Valve employee handbook was also making the rounds. Like Maynard’s article, it also offers some good insights into a better, more humane and egalitarian way to run a company (architectural or otherwise). The pull-quote in Maynard’s article comes from the Valve manual: “Working overtime for extended periods indicates a fundamental failure in planning or communication.

Valve has a completely flat business hierarchy. There are no bosses and subordinates, everyone is on equal footing, and teams come together and work on the projects they want to work on. While that’s not the model of an architectural practice (projects are externally dictated, rather than internally generated), the idea of a flat organization is appealing.

The firm I worked for, when I was working with the above-mentioned co-workers, had a pretty flat structure. It was a small firm (although it was the largest office, barring one summer internship, that I ever worked for), and everyone had to wear a number of hats, and fill different roles at different times. We had a boss, whose name was on the door and who was the guy in charge of it all, but beneath that, there was a good deal of flexibility. No one had job titles. Everyone had their strengths (I was referred to as the office’s “residential specialist,” and I was certainly the banner carrier for green building although the firm, as a whole, was a groundbreaker in green building) and different levels of experience, but no one worked in a locked-in role. I might help one of my colleagues as a “CAD monkey” on a project they were working on, and a few weeks later, they would be doing the same under my direction.

In the last couple of weeks, I also found myself in a discussion with an old college friend who was asking me for career advice[3] (because I’ve had a career arc where I’ve made some significant changes; he’s now looking at a career change and was curious about how I made the decisions I made when faced with those turning points). Among the things that I mentioned, was a great quote from Expect the Unexpected [Or You Won’t Find It] by Roger von Oech: [T]he renowned chair designer Bill Stumpf was asked what criteria he uses to select new furniture projects. He responded, “There are three things I look for in my work: I hope to learn something, I want to make some money, and I’d like to have some fun. If the project doesn’t have the promise of satisfying at least two of these, I don’t sign on.” (p 114)

I think this may be a better rule than Maynard’s strict 40 hour limit, although I don’t think he’d disagree with my perspective here. If I’m having fun, or if I’m learning something new, or if I’m being paid for it, then I’m not going to complain about occasionally working extra hours. But that should be the envelope in which architectural work takes place, rather than the ‘pay you for 40 and expect you to put in another dozen on your own’ that seems to be more commonly found. Putting in extra time should be the exception, not the rule

Too many architectural projects are defined by a sale of hours (the hours worked by the firm’s emplyees). If architecture is merely who will do the work in the fewest hours, then it is not a skill that is valued, it is a commodity, subject to simple market competition. That may be the way to think about pricing when it comes to getting an oil change for your car or buying a steel beam; those are commodities. When I’m offering my services as an architect, I’m not trying to offer a cheaper oil change than the next guy. The value of an architect is in the advice they provide and the decisions they make on behalf of their clients.

When it’s good, architectural work can be fantastic fun, and working with good people on an interesting project doesn’t seem like work at all. (I just recently saw a Facebook post from someone who was writing about how much she loved the Malletts Creek Branch library, a building I worked on (along with the help of those two former co-workers) several years ago. It’s gratifying to see how much people still love that building.) But not every project is like that, and that should not be the expectation of all. To quote Maynard again, “Other professions, such as law, demand extended hours – why not architecture? Law is one of a handful of professions that has a cultural predilection for extended hours. The fundamental difference between law and architecture is that lawyers are typically paid very well.”

Trying to predict the number of hours that a particular project will take seems misguided. Parkinson’s Law dictates that, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” To try to compete on a commodity basis simply transfers the burden onto the backs of the architectural employees.

Architects complain that they are underpaid and undervalued.[4] It ought to start with some recognition within the profession for the value of its own work.

Andrew Maynard: Work/life/work balance | Parlour

[1] He also (uncomfortably) points out the number of architects who think I will one day start my own practice and notes, “The proliferation of small practices and their significant cull rate illustrates a pathology unsupported by economic logic.”

[2] Economic realities force us all to make compromises from time to time. If I take a job where I’m working 60 hours a week, it’s because I value my children more than making a stand on principle.

[3] I am the first to admit the questionability of his choice for advisor.

[4] A real estate agent’s commission for selling a building is often a higher percentage of the value of the building than the architect’s commission was for designing it. We clearly value the ability to sell something far more than we value the ability to actually do a thing.