There is a popular perception that architects are an over-worked, under-paid, unhappy, and unappreciated bunch. While, the truth be told, many architects are quite content in their chosen profession, this perception is at the same time not entirely groundless.

Something for Nothing

I often meet with young architects who come to me in a state of disillusionment. They had secured what they thought was their dream job. Maybe it was at a well-known prestigious firm, or perhaps even a smaller studio that seemed to offer a lot of hands on experience. But the enthusiasm of these young candidates quickly fades away after spending months or even years struggling to maintain a healthy work-life balance in a business culture that expects self-sacrifice and fanatical loyalty from its staff while offering practically nothing in return for all of this hard work and dedication.

The issue of unpaid overtime in particular strikes a nerve. Expectations of uncompensated work are widespread throughout the industry, and it occurs in firms of all shapes and sizes. According to the results of a survey conducted by The Architects’ Journal, almost 40 percent of architects work at least 10 hours of overtime every week, and over 80 percent of these respondents claimed that they never got any money for their extra work.

This practice is currently illegal here in Australia and many other countries throughout the world, yet there is often a lot of pressure on architects to tacitly conform to this setup. It’s safe to say that the pressure to do so starts at university, where students are encouraged to work long hours. They are not, however, also taught how to value and manage their time. Once these young candidates enter the workforce, they may face shrinking fees, project schedules that are set too tightly, and badly organised, under-staffed teams. Yet studios demand that these architects be “team players” and simply work longer and harder for less. Young architects are also made to believe that those who put in longer hours have a greater chance of promotion.

Not surprisingly, this often has dire consequences for the morale, emotional health and well-being of architecture candidates both in school and on the job.

Taking Responsibility

But who do we point fingers at? The architecture schools that venerate all-nighters?The firms trying to maximise their profit? The clients with unreasonable project demands? The global recession? The architects themselves?

Where ever we place the blame, that means someone somewhere has to shoulder the responsibility to make a change, and architects certainly owe it to themselves and those who they serve to take a good, hard look in the mirror.

Those who choose to continue to stay in an environment that forces staff to work crazy hours with little to no compensation and appreciation are themselves part of the problem. In a certain sense, it’s the easy way out. It may be more comfortable to bend to a situation that is exploitative, disrespectful, or oppressive, to point to the circles under your eyes and say that you simply can’t work any harder, than to stick yourself out, to take risks, and make the career moves that can propel your career forward on one hand, but have the potential for failure on the other. It’s easier to just shrug your shoulders and say, “that’s just how it is.”

This is especially true for those with a family, or those with any kind of life outside of client briefs, renderings, and piles of paper work. These professionals are usually not able to maintain such a work schedule and are denied the real opportunities for career advancement.

So, you can keep telling yourself that maybe things will change at the firm, after all, it has a good reputation… that you will eventually start your own practice one day… that you are doing it in the name of promotion because you see a future for yourself at the firm… and maybe, you are right. But once the reality of the situation shows the futility of this behaviour and the mindset behind it:

…when the change never happens… when the promotions don’t come… when it’s never the right time to start that practice of yours… when you are too tired and uninspired to focus on design (and how much design do you even do, anyway)… then it means a change is in order.

It’s not just about considering the value of your time in terms of dollars; it also means the value of your passion, your talents, experiences, and ultimately, your life and your self-respect. As one architect put it, “The fact that you accepted these terms and work for free does not help the situation or the bigger picture… Stop waiting for something external to change the situation for you.”

The change you really seek is internal.