Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Hey, architects: Don't cheat me, bro!

Okay, in all fairness, I found this on Lulu Brown's blog for architecture interns, but as an architect I love it. This guy/group of people/whoever has started a blog that calls out architecture firms that advertise unpaid internships. Here's the thing about internships: if you do work from which the firm directly benefits and that firm is not a nonprofit, you have to be paid--it's the law. Architecture firms will occasionally try to hire interns to do drafting and/or 3D modeling for them and not pay them, under the guise that "any work is some experience to put on a resume", but in most cases it's illegal. (If you get college credit for the work, then hey don't have to pay you. Other rules apply--check the Department of Labor's website for details.)

While work is slowly coming back for us architects (some places slower than others), I'm still a little fearful for my colleagues, especially the newest among them. When they need just a few more months' worth of experience hours to sit for the ARE, they'll be sorely tempted to work for nothing just to get those last hours of experience. And why do my fellow architects even do such a thing as ask interns to work for free? Is it avarice? Is it not charging enough for their time and expertise in the first place? Is it thinking that the architect is so amazing and skilled that the newest of our profession should be leaping at the chance to simply bask in the light of the architect's countenance? I imagine it's a combination of all of these and maybe more.

Architecture as a profession has a weird culture, seemingly based on the Taliesin model set up by Frank Lloyd Wright. In Wright's model, the apprentices were paid little to nothing and lived in tents on the architect's property (at Taliesin West, anyway) and barely got by in order to sit at the Master's feet and absorb his (and always a his) philosophy and skills. Wright himself was a brilliant designer and engineer but a piss-poor businessman, always seemingly going into, coming out of, or on the brink of bankruptcy. It seems as if even those of us architects that might revile Wright's work still live in his shadow when it comes to the business side of our profession. We undercharge for one project in the hopes that it gets us another project with that client (or with a bigger client), and perhaps that second project will pay for the first one...but it seems that payback never comes. We can barely bring ourselves to ask for additional services when asked to do work outside of our contracts, saying yesyesyesyesyes ofcoursewecandothat anythingyousayOmasterwiththecheckbook without reminding ourselves now and again that we do live in a capitalist society and money is a form of respect due its members for skilled services rendered. As my friend Eric over at Blue Architecture says, "Architects are so focused on helping the world and 'being noble' that we forget that being able to pay your bills and make a decent living is 'noble' too."


paul mitchell said...

I honestly have no problem with the unpaid model of internship. I actually advocate for less and less licensure and registration, too. Having graduated from architecture school after being in the construction industry, I had the full frontal assault of dealing with a bunch of artists teaching other artists how to make pretty drawings. Any graduate from my school NEEDED a heavy internship just to get the crap removed from the head about art and design.

We design buildings. Yes, we can have an effect on society, just like the trash collector does, but we design buildings.

As an aside, I actually know an architect that spent over 100k designing the logo of his new firm. They stayed in business less than a year and the big school job they got was taken over by another architect that was a "grandfathered" licensee who never attended school after the ninth grade.

Chris said...

I’ve always felt really fortunate to have been both a paid-intern (we called them co-ops) and to have worked for firms who paid all their interns. I remember reading, a few years back, of an informal survey asking architects what level of experience was necessary before they allowed their staff to meet with clients. I have worked for very non-traditional firms and have always had direct access to my clients, even when I was an entry-level designer. I was surprised to read comments from higher management that said they wouldn’t allow staff to meet clients until they had several YEARS of experience. I thought, why would you hire someone who you couldn’t even trust to conduct themselves professionally with a client? It makes no sense to me. I’m from the school that believes you get your junior staff giving presentations and meeting with clients right away (if even in a limited capacity) so they can develop their skill-set and advance.

If I can find the original survey I’ll post a link.

Mile High Pixie said...

Paul: LOL at the firm that spent itself into bankruptcy over a logo! What a goober! I'm beginning to hear of schools (such as UT-Knoxville) that require their arch students to work for a certain amount of time in the construction industry as part of getting their architecture degree. (And I should note that one of the ways you can get around paying interns is if they're getting college credit for the work they do at your office.) Understanding design and being a good designer is fine, but at some point we have to stop pretending that we're all "artistes" and start making stuff that actually works, stands up, and keeps the water and weather out.

Chris: I agree. If you don't trust your junior staff to be adults with clients, why did you hire them in the first place? I've also found that bringing junior staff to a meeting or two makes it easier to have them fill in for me if I get double-booked, sick, hit by a bus, etc. The client and contractor then know them as part of the team, not just "the only guy available to do the meeting for Pixie."

Miss Kitty said...


design elements said...

I agree with Paul...Happy Easter!

WG said...

Yep. Greed. As American as Gold Plated Apple Pie. Two words people. Class Warfare.

Mile High Pixie said...

Mom: I'm not sure it's so much class warfare in architecture as it's age warfare. It's been my observation that older architects came up in a FLLW-like studio environment where not paying someone for work was par for the course because of how much on-the-job training you got (and where that training was as good or better than what you got in what few architecture schools there were). In the past ten to twenty years, though, the M. Arch degree is the new cover charge to just get into the Nightclub of Architecture, and it's hard to tell someone that they have to get a 6-year degree and then pay them like they work at Taco Bell (or not pay them at all).