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So this past week the architectural internet has been abuzz with commentary and reactions to a recent roundtable discussion that happened at an architectural academic institution. It made me wonder “Am I out of Touch?” I have a few takes on this chat by three faculty members that has been deemed quite the faux pas within most of the online architectural communities I keep tabs on. So while I think this may have been over-exposed already, I wanted to maybe take a differing perspective to current commentaries.
So if you are unaware, last week there was a panel discussion held at SCI-Arc entitled “How to be in an Office.” This appears to be a regular Friday chat held at the school. The premise seems to be that faculty members discuss a topic of interest in a kind of roundtable chat held with students in attendance. So during this specific discussion on March 25, there were multiple statements and perceived attitudes by the three faculty members that set off a bit of outrage within the architectural community. As a result, two of the three faculty members were put on administrative leave within a few days of the panel. I am not overly surprised by the comments and also was a bit impressed with the backlash, but also shocked a bit by it as well. I will get into those two opposed notions for the rest of this post.
The Old Ways
I am not going to get into the specifics of the root cause of the outrage. You can simply search this issue and probably find dozens of summaries, retorts, and rants about the actual content of this published discussion. It is still up on the SCI-Arc YouTube channel if you so desire. But part of the controversy comes from the upholding of the notions about “the old ways” that apparently still permeate the profession of architecture. This just in general shocks me. Not in the sense that I cannot believe that some of the elders in the profession feel this way, but that it is even still an issue in the profession. That is to say that this idea of paying your dues by working long hours for little or even no pay is considered some rite of passage that still exists in today’s workplace. I am not so naïve to think it does not exist at all anymore in the profession, but silly me, I assumed it was a small minority of places where this was still practiced.
I operated my firm from the beginning 15 years ago with a mentality that no one was required to overwork themselves or maintain crazy hours to keep their job or to be considered valuable to the office. The only person doing that should be me and it was due to the fact that it was my company. Once the company became more “established” I did not work long hours and I still did not require that of any of my employees. Of course, we had some extra hours during crunch times for deadlines for larger projects, but for 90% of the time, we worked during normal business hours. I did not want to kill myself working 60+ hour weeks and therefore I did not expect my employees to do so either. I know that may seem rare, but in all my discussions with other firm owners of small to mid-sized firms, it was pretty much the norm, at least here in Texas. So was I just out of touch? Was I living in some easygoing unrealistic bubble?
Smaller is better… and cheaper?
One of the other big issues for me was this constant distinction in the discussion between the idea of working for a larger corporate firm and a smaller boutique firm. This is one of the areas where I began to balk. I think many of the current controversies ignore this bit. Yes, there are always differences between large and small firms. We have discussed this many times on the podcast even. But one small comment that stuck in my craw was about how smaller firms charged smaller fees. Huh? What? That to me was a complete load of bull. If that was the case, then man I was the most awesome business person ever because I never charged lesser fees due to the size of my firm. Who the hell does that? Now they may have meant that in reference to total fee income and not per project fees, but it did not really come across that way. So I kinda lost my mind there for a bit on that single comment. This comment was made as a way to “justify” paying less or even not paying new graduates to work at a small boutique firm. This is rubbish. I have written about the ridiculousness of this idea on several occasions. Unpaid internships of any kind are nonsense and terrible. Period.
Everyone is Overworked and Undervalued
I think the tone that could be taken from this hour long discussion is that the value of what we do as architectural professionals is undervalued on many fronts. The saddest and most terrible part to me is that we perpetuate that notion from within our own ranks. It is not just academia that is guilty of this crime either, it happens in practice also. This dialogue is not new, not new in the slightest. Yet it is one that needs a new perceptive. It needs to change. That change starts from within. I do not believe we can express or attain the value we believe we possess until we can across the board give it to ourselves and stand firm in that resolve. It seems there is always someone willing to undercut their colleagues so that they may have cash flow. Oh, I understand it. I understand the urge and often necessity to play that card. But we need to reach a point where we do not; a point where we all value each other as professionals and not cut down the value of our services to ensure we “win” the project. Because the longer we perpetuate that practice, the longer there are truly no winners. I suppose if it was undercutting a 25% fee with a 20% fee it might seem more acceptable, but we all know that is not the percentages we are playing with. We have to make the changes for the betterment of everyone, not just ourselves. I know that may be lofty thinking, but it feels right to me.
So I titled this post “Out of Touch” because I think the academic chat was out of touch with the profession’s current status, but also because it made me rethink and wonder if I was actually out of touch in the opposite manner. Do I think things are better than they truly are in the profession? Were my practice and the practice of my close colleagues out of touch with the larger marketplace? Did I just spend my time with like-minded firm owners and for that reason it appeared to be atypical when in reality it was much different for the other 80% of the profession. If so, that does make me a bit sad. Scratch that, it makes me enormously sad. I like to think that it is not all as bad as it seems to be in the communities of the internet. But in this instance are the internet “complainers” correct? I am not certain, but I think now I might say the truth lies somewhere between the perpetual internet negativity and my lofty love-fest bubble. Let me know what you think of it all. (and if you are tired of hearing about this incident, I apologize)
Until next time,