For decades, architects have enjoyed a place among professionals respected by doctors and lawyers, as well as by pop culture and future in-laws.
And for good reason. Architects spend years in school learning their craft, passing grueling licensing exams, putting in long days at the office.
Still, there is an important difference between architecture and these other professions: salary. Even in major firms in large cities, some architects earn more than $200,000 per year, according to the American Institute of Architects, which advocates for the profession. Most barely earn six figures, if that, a decade or more in their careers.
On Tuesday, employees of renowned firm SHoP Architects said they were taking a step almost unheard of in their field, seeking to change the long-time formula for moderate wages. They are demanding to form a union.
Organizers at SHoP, which has about 135 employees and is known for their work at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and a luxury building south of Central Park formerly called the Steinway Tower, said more than half of their qualified colleagues took the card. was signed. Pledged to support the union.
They plan to be affiliated with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and are asking for voluntary accreditation in what would be the only association in a major private sector architecture firm in the country.
“Many of us push the limits of our productivity and mental health,” the firm’s union backers, who call themselves Architectural Workers United, wrote in a letter to the firm’s leadership on Monday. “SHoP is the firm that can start implementing changes that will ultimately ensure a more healthy and equitable future.”
Half a dozen SHOPS employees said they work an average of about 50 hours a week, and often 60 to 70 hours when a major deadline hits, usually every month or two. He said it was also common among more junior architects and designers, who earn between $50,000 and $80,000 a year—more than many people in other fields earn, but a strain for workers who typically earn thousands of dollars in student loans. make deposits.
“SHoP was founded to do architecture differently and has always been interested in empowering and supporting our employees,” the firm said in a statement, adding that it recently became 100 percent employees. – Has become proprietary. The firm did not say whether it would recognize the consortium.
The nascent effort extends beyond a single employer. David DiMaria, an organizer for the Machinists’ Union, said he had spoken with architects who were in the process of organizing at two other major New York firms, which he declined to identify.
And those campaigns reflect a growing interest in forming associations among all types of professionals. Technical workers, doctors, journalists and academics have turned to unions over the past decade amid concerns over loss of autonomy and control over work, stagnant wages and low job security.
The squeeze can be particularly pronounced in businesses that provide large non-economic benefits, whether the sense of mission in a nonprofit or the cultural cachet of working in a book publishing or television production. Such businesses depend on a cadre of young employees who work hard for little pay and a chance to make it into a coveted field.
Architecture often combines these aspects, long say practitioners and scholars, characterized by stringent credentialing requirements, a priest-like devotion to the mission, and a cultural self-importance.
“It’s all the things that make us succumb to the ideology that architecture is a calling, not a career,” said Peggy Deamer, an emeritus professor at the Yale School of Architecture.
This mindset has often led architects to accept relatively low salaries, said Professor Deamer, founder of Architecture Lobby, an advocacy group in the United States with about 300 members.
As a practical matter, many architects said, their firms are often willing to work without compensation, which makes it harder to pay employees fairly.
Firms specializing in customized designs such as SHoP regularly spend weeks preparing proposals for competitions through which clients award contracts, and for which the firms receive little or no pay. And many firms propose fees that are too low to support adequate staffing, several experts in the field said.
“People lower their fees, and once you lower your fees—I don’t know if it’s a slippery slope, but it’s definitely a slope,” said Bernheimer principal of architecture and at Parsons School of Design Andrew Bernheimer, an associate professor, said. in New York.
Architects at SHoP and other firms said that their employers usually resolve this paradox through large amounts of unpaid overtime.
Jennifer Sequeira, an architect who joined the firm in 2017 and was let go during a round of layoffs in November, repeatedly spent more than 60 hours a week working on plans for a residential building in 2020, she said. said.
“I used to work until midnight, eat dinner in front of the computer,” Ms. Sequeira, who has been involved in the union’s efforts, said of the busy weeks. She was pregnant and had to “get up to go to the bathroom every 15 to 30 minutes.”
Jeremy Leonard, an architect who joined the firm in 2017, said he had planned to take time off in the summer of 2020 for an annual vacation with his family, but a supervisor discouraged it due to a significant deadline . Mr Leonard’s solution was to travel but work full time.
“I was in the laundry room for 12 hours a day and emerged for an hour for dinner,” said Leonard, who is also involved in the union campaign.
A spokesperson for SHoP said the firm negotiates the highest fee to be borne by the market, and that it has “walked away from several projects this year that we have determined will not pay for adequate staffing.” SHoP tries to keep employees employed for long periods of time for special projects and lay off people when some end up as competitors, he said.
The organizing campaign follows an earlier round of layoffs before the fall of 2020, and working remotely as employees move to focus on how their jobs are consumed.
Some activists who were holding weekly meetings to make SHoP more diverse were inspired to discuss unionization, which some had learned about through the architecture lobby.
Many employees said that SHoP’s labor practices were better than the norm in the industry – the firm pays interns, for example. That they still feel so stressed, workers said, reflects the depth of the industry’s problems.
Rival firm OMA recently got hacked on social media for a job posting that featured a “no 9-5 mentality.” A former junior architect at the firm said in an interview that he often left the office at 10 or 11, and sometimes after 3 p.m.
A spokesperson said OMA strives to ensure a healthy work-life balance but “there is always room to improve.” The job ad was intended to appeal to applicants with creativity and passion, he said, adding that the company removed the phrase “when we noticed it was being interpreted as code to require working endless hours.”
Supporters of the union at SHoP said they hoped to negotiate policies that could, for example, give workers one hour off after every two hours of overtime. (SHoP currently offers some compensatory leave, but employees say the amounts are small and inconsistent.)
This will require principals and managers to use overtime more judiciously. SHoP staff said principals often wanted multiple renderings when few were sufficient, or drawings that were beyond the scope of their contract – like a landscape.
Under federal rules, employers must pay most salaried workers one-and-a-half hours after 40 hours a week if employees earn less than about $35,000 per year. They typically have to pay overtime to professionals who make above that amount if workers have little decision-making authority, a provision that labor groups say is often overlooked.
Philip Bernstein, an architecture professor at Yale, said a key obstacle to unionizing was the danger that rivals could undercut firms with high labor costs when they bid for the work. But union supporters in SOP argue that if enough firms follow suit, unions could help city or state lawmakers enact rules governing fees and staffing to prevent such cuts. .
While longer hours are common, firms that produce relatively standard construction plans sometimes have more humane policies, several architects said. But sophisticated design firms often treat themselves as artistic ventures to traditional businesses and may have fewer security measures.
“We are an anomaly in the business world of architecture in that we don’t keep track of hours,” says Billy Tsien, a nearly 35-person Todd Williams founder of Billy Tsien Architects, known for his inventive designs on projects like Obama. The Presidential Center in Chicago said in an email. He said employees took time off as needed and most stayed for a decade or more.
Firms such as SHoP and OMA are also known for doing imaginative work, but in greater quantities and for more commercial clients, giving them a greater economic impact on the industry. Union supporters believe that puts them in a strong position to reshape workplace norms.
“We are very innovative in a lot of our office work,” said Danielle Tellez, another SHoP employee who was involved in the union effort. “It feels like an extension of our ambition to lead the industry, to innovate in the industry, but to our professional standards.”