Do unsustainable employment practices and continual fee cutting mean architecture is driving itself into the ground? Jon Clements’ pointed speech at the Victorian architecture awards speculated on the differing health of the public and private faces of the profession.
It is encouraging to note that in a period of economic turmoil the Victorian Awards program continues to expand, this year attracting a record 240 entries across eleven national and three state categories, in addition we had 21 entries to the Bates Smart Award for Architecture in the Media.
Before we move on to the focus of the evening, I would like to take the opportunity of a captive audience to reflect on the economic environment and a on number of issues we face as a profession.
Just last week I had a dinner with a group of architects, as architects do. We are all directors or principals of our respective practices, essentially a mix of friends, acquaintances and contemporaries representing various office sizes from small to large. The dinner is a quarterly catch up during which we discuss a broad range of issues relating to industry and practice – I guess it could be referred to as an architectural health check over a glass of wine.
On this occasion I was voicing my genuine concerns about the future of our profession in an industry environment where the level of respect for the value of the architect and architecture is clearly diminishing in the face of competing commercial outcomes and an appetite for risk aversion.
One of my dinner companions – an award-winning architect, a mate of many years and an excellent advocate for architecture through the media – challenged my concerns. His position, which he underpinned by referring to some of the excellent architecture emerging throughout Australia, was that we have good reason to be far more optimistic. He projected that once the economic conditions improve the market will shift and balance would be restored.
The healthy debate that followed clearly reminded me of what could be called the two faces of architecture.
The first is the “public face” – the built work. This is the architecture we read about, critique, experience and occupy. Clearly the public face of architecture extends well beyond the projects we see on the covers of magazines or that we celebrate with awards, however, in respect to the profession’s broad commitment to the delivery of quality design outcomes and to matters of environmental sustainability we have good reason to be optimistic.
The second is the “private face” – architectural practice, the extensive professional process we engage in to produce the public face of architecture. One would assume that if the public face of architecture is in good shape, it must follow that the private face reflects a similar state of good health. Unfortunately this is not necessarily the case.
In my role as Chapter President I am exposed to a wide range of commentary and opinions on the state of the industry, particularly during a market downturn. While most of the feedback is anecdotal, clear factual evidence continually arises that indicates that our profession is quick to compromise its own standing through knee jerk survival techniques and that the flow-on effects remain with the industry for many years.
As many of you would be aware, the commercial conditions of current practice have shifted substantially and there is evidence that a growing number of architects are engaging in desperate measures to maintain an edge over their competitors often sacrificing any hope of profitability while trying to grab a bigger piece of a smaller pie.
At what point do practices forget the real cost of the professional services that we should be expected to deliver? Do they stop to consider where the industry will be one year, two years or ten years down the track? A competitive environment that results in a profession being expected to offer their services for free is both unhealthy and unsustainable. If architects seek to restore the respect that they genuinely deserve then why are they overlooking the real and immediate impacts of their procurement decisions and what sort of example are we setting for our younger architects, the very future of our profession?
There is no place for unpaid staff in an architectural office other than formally approved teaching-in-practice programs, nor should architects work extended hours without appropriate remuneration or allocation of time in lieu. Many of us are bombarded with employment applications offering free services, but we need to stop and think about the progressive compromise of our profession that results if we reduce the costs of delivering our services to unsustainable levels based on inappropriate employment conditions, including the exploitation of interns and work experience students.
Students, architects and administrative staff deserve to be paid their legal entitlements for their contribution to a productive office, irrespective of the limited experience that they may have acquired. Every architectural practice in Australia should operate on a cost base that protects this position.
The average architecture graduate takes between five and six years to complete their degree and on average they work in practice for approximately four years prior to undertaking their registration exams. On successful completion of their registration exams the minimum award rate for their employment is $49,739 – approximately $20,000 below the average Victorian salary. Having gained five to ten years’ experience architects in our profession can expect to earn an average salary between $60,000 and $90,000 per annum. To put things in perspective, and to stay within the bounds of the industry we operate in, a project manager with similar experience can expect to earn between $120,000 and $200,000 per annum and a construction manager between $160,000 and $250,000.
Why has one of the oldest professions in the world allowed the value of its employees in this country to slip to approximately half the value of broader employment in the same industry in which it operates?
If we are to attract the best new talent to our profession what sort of apprenticeship can they expect when we are sending our documentation offshore in response to tighter economic conditions?
Are we really the lead consultant any more? Or is this simply a term that continues to be pinned to the architect for the purpose of offloading risk?
How is it that our profession has allowed the market to expect us to do more for less?
Taking some of these observations into consideration it could be said that we are at risk of eating our young, however, it is not all bad.
During an ongoing global financial crisis the Victorian Architecture Awards program has continued to grow, once again attracting a record number of entries. The standard of work across all categories is truly exceptional and it reflects the fact that, in the face of adversity, our members continue to demonstrate an undivided commitment to improving the quality of our built environment. Our legacy is judged by the built work we leave behind.
Tonight’s results demonstrate that the public face of architecture in Victoria is in excellent shape – and on behalf of all our members I would like to congratulate the winners of awards and commendations. Our celebrations should also recognise the extensive professional commitments from the private face of architecture and the many people who collaborate in the interests of delivering a successful project.
We can be optimistic about the fact that architecture continues to be embraced in a wider range of spaces, however, it is clear that our profession also faces many challenges. In the current environment you can be assured that the Institute is working hard to protect our territory and to advocate for the value of architecture, but significant change and advancement for our profession cannot be achieved without change from the architects in this room.
The delivery of the awards program requires a huge effort from an extensive team and on behalf of all our members I would like to extend thanks and appreciation to our primary awards sponsors and partners, Monash Art Design and Architecture, Pin-up Gallery, the awards task force, and the team at the Australian Institute of Architects including Alison Cleary, Elycia De Guia and Libby Richardson, our invincible Awards Coordinator.
The 43 jurors deserve particular thanks for the extensive time and effort that they contributed throughout the process of determining this year’s results. The presentations to juries were held over two full days and resulted in 112 shortlisted projects. A number of projects were visited on more than one occasion and the deliberation process continues to be extremely rigorous.
The winners of the Victorian Architecture Awards can be found here.