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How the economy upended young architects' hopes

Frustrated architecture grads are dropping out of the profession. Still, they like the educations they received.
A 1964 Madrid Opera House competition model by architect Jørn Utzon, seen at a 2008 exhibition in Venice.

A 1964 Madrid Opera House competition model by architect Jørn Utzon, seen at a 2008 exhibition in Venice. Seier+Seier/Flickr


Caela McKeever

Caela McKeever

Asking when I knew I wanted to be an architect is like asking when I first fell in love with my husband, or the exact instant I became a Christian. There was no moment of realization, only a soothing understanding that this should be my life's work.

But six years after graduating from college, I’m struggling to plant architectural roots as strong as marriage and faith.  My peers from the Class of 2006 are also struggling; we’re tired and overworked, our energy drained and passion diluted.

The evidence sits in my refrigerator: chevroned tall boys of Saison ale and a meticulous shortbread fruit tart, both crafted by former co-workers and classmates who initially pursued architecture only to search for fulfillment elsewhere. Photographers, typographers, bakers, bikers, and brewers are all disguised on LinkedIn and Facebook as design interns.  There’s a renaissance happening among young architects  —  and it’s not in architecture.

This June I resigned from my job at a downtown Seattle firm to focus on architectural licensure and nonfiction writing. The decision took nine months to reach, but when I finally announced my resignation to peers and co-workers, the unanimous support I received was astounding. Though I knew I wasn’t alone in my disappointment with the profession, I wanted to know more about my peers’ personal experiences than 140 Twitter characters and regular happy hours allowed. 

I had suspicions about why some of my fellow interns had recently abandoned the profession, and why many others were growing weary trying to stay in it. A gulf stretched between the projects of the office world and the projects of our college days. The legal responsibilities of a licensed architect are to provide for the health, safety, and welfare of a building’s occupants, but during our five years as students we were taught that architecture was more than this — we were responsible for creating spaces that provided for people’s physical and emotional well being. We were builders, artists, and humanitarians, entrusted with listening to, observing, and assimilating the culture around us into engaging, thriving, magical places.

Our self-chosen senior thesis topics, the culmination of our architectural educations, were small windows into our souls. Those projects may not have been designed with real-world constraints, but they symbolized an emotional connection to something —   music, travel, cultural heritage, sustainability, humanitarianism —   that we felt should be inherent in any project but was missing from the ones we now found ourselves working on into the bleak hours of the morning.

This gap between what we yearned for architecture to be and what it really was, I believed, was the seed of our disenchantment with the profession, and our impetus for leaving it. 

Inspired by professional surveys regarding the future of architecture, I created my own survey and asked approximately 100 design interns to reflect on their senior thesis projects and subsequent professional experiences.

Over the next few weeks I received 35 responses from 2006/2007 graduates from Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Minnesota, Manhattan, Honolulu, and Abu Dhabi. My theory was partially correct, but not in the way I expected: a lack of respect, for both design integrity and individual effort, was the biggest origin of disappointment. Like me, many were dismayed by a lackluster passion and conviction for good design, and perhaps even more so, the fragility of workplace humanity in the industry — both in the treatment of others and in how we ourselves were treated.

"In a way, when I left college, the one thing I never experienced before, nor did I anticipate, was such massive segregation and pigeonholing," said one 2007 Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo graduate. “I never expected to be made to feel so useless and to question myself as much as I have, for what seems like no reason at all.”

“I feel underutilized, underpaid, underappreciated, undervalued, and invisible most of the time,” replied one co-worker.  Three weeks later she left the profession. 

A University of Idaho graduate lamented, “My experience over the last 2-3 years has really made me question this profession, and my role in it.” Later he admitted, “I need to ignite my passion for architecture again.”

Like architectural alumni before us, the Class of 2006 was introduced to a seemingly arbitrary world of unrealistic deadlines, exhausting work hours, and underwhelming pay after graduation. Our school years in studio prepared us for some late nights, and we expected to be at the bottom of the design ladder initially. But we found sunsets at the office implementing last-minute design changes were the rule rather than the exception, and the recession kept us at the bottom much longer than we hoped by preventing new graduates from taking our place. Even then, some experiences were extreme; for those who headed to the East Coast after graduation, working on high-profile, high-design projects meant working for free for months in the hopes they would eventually be hired as paid employees.

After reading my peers’ responses and examining my own feelings towards my recent departure, I found myself asking this question: in order to be considered successful — worthy even — in the eyes of the profession, must architecture’s roots be deeper than marriage and faith?

In a 2003 Seattle Post-Intelligencer piece about young architectural firms in Seattle, journalist and architect Sheri Olson observed, “Even in a profession that tends to eat its young  —   with soul-crushing internships and expensive licensing exams — we have far fewer than normal up-and-coming architects.”

This professional cannibalism is devastating, not only to our generation, but previous generations who experienced the same detrimental cycle — and who now either suffer from post-licensure amnesia, or simply have no desire or reason to look back at the mountain they climbed and question its steep ascent.

Olson’s second observation is just as acute today as it was 10 years ago; in addition to exam fees as burdensome as they were in 2003, study material is expensive and difficult to acquire if not provided by your employer. Though popular culture tends to erroneously portray typical architects as upper-middle-class, these expenses are difficult to accommodate for young interns on beginning salaries.

Many responders admitted that, compared to their mindset upon graduation, licensure isn’t a top priority anymore. While being a licensed architect is a prerequisite to owning your own practice, and can be an asset at small firms, there is little financial or professional incentive to become licensed while working at large firms, which often have well-developed processes in place that involve select licensed individuals signing drawings for the entire company.

It doesn’t help that the organization administering the licensure maze, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, is, according to one of my peers, “about as responsive as a corpse.” The proprietary software created specifically for the exams and distributed on the NCARB website is only usable on outdated computers (both my Mac laptop and Dell desktop computer are not compatible), and given that the exam is entirely digital, the expected four to six weeks gestation period for each exam’s results is agonizingly slow (thankfully, however, I received my first exam’s results in two weeks).

It would be easy to blame superiors and a faceless bureaucracy for our frustrations and subsequent flight, but we should share some of the blame.

The problem is exacerbated by a generational gap in communication and expectation, and in order for change to happen, we need to practice the same level of collaboration that we expect from our leaders.  Our class entered the profession with high expectations for ourselves and our anticipated opportunities, and when they weren’t met, we felt slighted, swindled, snubbed.  After experiencing a workplace form of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief, we stopped caring and became indignant.  This produced two scenarios: caring so little as to produce mediocre work, or caring so little as to abandon the profession entirely.

Those who vocalized their frustrations in an attempt to remain engaged either battled for success or let disappointment build until they reached a breaking point. At different times in my career, I have been an example of both the former and latter cases.   And like us, future generations of young interns will suffer the same rollercoaster if ours does not attempt to close the gap.

A few weeks after architect Andrew Maynard’s ArchDaily article highlighting the profession’s dreadful work/life balance reputation and employee exploitation in architectural office culture began spreading like a welcome fungus across the Facebook pages of my peers, I found myself discussing the merits, rather than the pitfalls, of a design education with a 2005 University of Oregon graduate at a recent Bellevue College lecture.  “I think what architecture school really did,” he reflected, “is teach me how to think.”

Those who have left the field have no regrets about initially pursuing an architectural education even after the recession forced many laid-off interns to consider a career change earlier than they may have initially considered. But in order to maintain the health of the profession, a fundamental change in how young interns are integrated into the design environment, and in how they apply their education, needs to occur.

This idea is nothing new. The early 2000’s saw a resurgence of interest in the issues and rights of architectural interns locally and nationally, but the conversation faded with the onset of the recession. Thankfully ,the analytical, observational and cultural skills imparted by our architectural education created a sharp, versatile, empathetic group of individuals that can change our communities  —  whether by buildings, beer, or baked goods. I hope my peers and I persevere through this renaissance with our architectural passion intact. Eventually it will be our turn to lead, mentor, and collaborate with young architects wading into the profession. And if we’ve missed our opportunity to create change from the bottom-up, we must challenge ourselves to glance back at those old and worn mountain trails, and to implement change from the top-down.

But there’s hope. Another trait my generation happens to share, for better or worse, is stubborn determination.

“For all my cynicism,” wrote that earlier 2007 Cal Poly grad, “I believe there is a good side to architecture.” 

Caela J. McKeever is an architectural graduate of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and recently completed the nonfiction certificate program at the University of Washington. After working on large East and West Coast retail projects for six years, she is currently pursuing architectural licensure and projects concerning architectural humanities, interior architecture, and design for children. She can be reached through editor@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Sep 25, 11 a.m. Inappropriate

Architecture has always been a very competitive profession. It is certainly a good education, and many folks have chosen to stay in a closely related field, permits and/or planning, development (small or large scale), etc.

Architecture is commonly perceived as a male bastion - I imagine that has changed a bit, but it would be nice to see some detailed reporting on that subject, in the context of the 77% and 99% economic statistics.

I left the younger cousin profession Geographic Information Systems over similar concerns after a reasonably notable 5 year career. My situation was likely more extreme than yours and I'd encourage you to stay in the biz.

This entire country - including specifically academic and professional fields - needs exactly the sort of change you yearn for. Hopefully that will be happening sooner rather than later.

Posted Tue, Sep 25, 11:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Each of the seven divisions of the Architectural Registration Exam are $210. I don't think this is a great burden considering it's a one-time expenditure.

Not to say that there aren't inordinate expenses associated with the trade. For instance, many people assume that with architectural licensure you've earned your "AIA", as opposed to the reality that the AIA is just a marketing guild that charges architects over $450 for yearly membership.

As "corpse-like" as NCARB may be, they did implement a system to provide for a well-rounded intern work experience. I think your likelihood of being pigeon-holed was much greater pre-NCARB.

jeffro

Posted Tue, Sep 25, 12:15 p.m. Inappropriate

Jeffro I hate to say it but you sound like you might work for NCARB. While it's commendable what NCARB attempted to implement, they're not successfully monitoring and applying it. Their EVR registration is, if anything, slower than the previous paper recording, and it's impossible to reach a person there to trouble shoot issues with your account. As for the one time costs of the ARE's, they are indeed that, but bear in mind that's nearly $1500 out of pocket in a profession where the average salary is fairly paltry when compared to the amount of time worked, expense and duration of education, etc. Add that to the fact that the majority of jobs in the field are located in cities with higher costs of living, then suddenly that $1500 means a lot more. And that sum is of course not including the cost of study materials.Yes many companies will reimburse, but that's after the fact.

I say all this as someone who is described quite aptly by this article. I don't say it bitterly, as Caela indicates there is still hope, but the system is in dire need of fixing on all fronts.

Eli

Posted Tue, Sep 25, 12:30 p.m. Inappropriate

No, I don't work for NCARB, although that would be some great job security:)

I do not doubt that the aforementioned organization is a huge bureacracy that doesn't actually facilitate the monitoring process. However, I've always felt that seeking out varying work experiences was the responsibility of the individual. I would never rely on the method of record-taking to ensure I was getting a well-balanced diet of work that didn't make me feel like a cog in a machine.

As for the ARE, at least it's broken down so you can take it one section at a time if that makes it more affordable. Sort of like putting your architectural registration on lay-away.
Also, study materials are all readily available at the public library. There's really no need to purchase these items.

jeffro

Posted Tue, Sep 25, 4:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Caela,

I too was a 2006 grad in architecture & I hear your frustration. I've had my share of unemployment and setbacks (in 2008 & 2009), but now I'm working full-time in a great small firm, I'm paid well, I write for a blog, I even submit the occasional competition entry, attend lectures & stay active in the design community and I am on my way to getting my license - 5 exams done, almost there! (And I've been with the same great guy for 10 years). I guess you could say I clawed my way back . .

Yes, NCARB is a total pain in the ass, but IMO you've got to seriously dedicate a lot of time to this process, even the mind-numbing bureaucracy. I'm not saying you haven't, but it can be done. I'm proof. And I'm not an outlier - there are plenty other of us "making it."

Look, school is a wonderful place to imagine, explore and learn what kind of architect you want to be, but nothing, absolutely nothing, is more rewarding than being able to detail and draw and work with builders to see the entire team's designs actually built. Architecture in the real world is a group sport, and gaining the knowledge required to get a license is arguably a big part of being able to play on that team. And it takes time and patience.

I don't want you or any other "recent grads" (although I don't think the class of 2006 can be considered recent anymore) to think that a fulfilling and sustainable life in architecture is impossible because it's not.

P.S. In writing, I always find its better to offer solutions or examples of ways to make the situation better after you've criticized something. It makes the piece more constructive for everyone.

Posted Tue, Sep 25, 4:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Great article and I agree that architecture school taught us how to solve problems in a creative manner which has been most useful. However, the issue starts in school where professors (most of which have never practiced professionally) do not give realistic descriptions of the working world. My "Pro-practice" class came in the last year of the program and was so brief that it really wasn't that helpful. Also, since it was at the end of the program there was no way to go back and taylor your education to better suit your interests as you entered the working world.

Once in the working world I began to notice another problem that is self inflicted. New CAD programs come out every other year and architects began focussing on getting everything correctly drawn to the fraction of an inch. More clients began to request that every minutia of a building was documented and architects complied. Contractors began to rely wholly on the drawings to be accurate and with skilled construction trade labor becoming scarce, even more responsibility was shoved to the architect's court. Not long ago, the architect was only to provide design intent and then work in partnership with the contractor to provide a finished product that was consistent with the construction practices of the day. Now with BIM programming becoming more prevelant, the architect and the contractor are becoming more at odds with each other leading to more frustration from the client and yet more responsibility for the architect to draw it right the first time (in less time, for less money...because you got that new program that solves all the problems for you, right?) so that the contractor can use it for a budget evaluation and in turn the client can value engineer all the creativity out of the project.

My guess is that with "middle-men" type professions, we will never have the upper hand when all we have is our hand out. Unless the AIA actually did some lobbying for architect's interests (Create a Union? Push for laws requiring architects stamps on more of the built environment?) instead of just making us pay our way into their secret club old men, I don't see the profession making any drastic improvements anytime soon.

todd

Posted Tue, Sep 25, 5:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Just give it a couple of years:

http://archrecord.construction.com/news/2012/09/120925-Survey-Predicts-Architecture-Shortage-by-2014.asp

Posted Wed, Sep 26, 8:14 a.m. Inappropriate


I don't think the headline fits the content of the article. The headline suggests this will be an article about layoffs and/or architects unemployed as a result of the economic recession. However, it appears the author voluntarily chose to leave a full-time position with a downtown architecture firm because she was unhappy with the work. She indicates she wishes to have time to prepare for the registration exam, but apparently the cost (nearly $1500) will not be a problem even though she has chosen to become unemployed.

Posted Wed, Sep 26, 6:57 p.m. Inappropriate

I started architecture school in the mid-'70s, graduated in the early '80s with a professional degree and now teach in the field. Ms. McKeever's decision to leave the field is one that I see amongst my students, too.

I think there are a couple reasons worth noting.

First, though she does not indicate the place of her employ, it is easy enough to look up on LinkedIn. I think, in spite of JefferyOschner's comments to the contrary, the economy does play a role. Large- and medium-sized firms have very little economic flexibility right now; daily work has become Taylorist and is broken down into very small and repetitive actions that become as uninspiring as working on an assembly line. It reduces risk and uses people with efficiency, but does not reflect what we expect of a profession, where judgment and tacit knowledge gained with experience play and important role in professional growth.

Second, we worked long hours in the old days, too. But there was a craft to producing drawings and models that gave lower-level staff pleasure, and eventually this translated more and more to a sense of producing something even more exciting: a building. But the interface with the computer has destroyed this sense of craft, and we have not developed new transitional strategies that allow interns in their first years to feel their work has a creative outlet.

The third thing we no longer do is give our young people a REASON to want to remain. People they admire in their 40s or 50s have also been laid off (there is that economy again) just as ruthlessly as the younger ones. Why work hard to remain?

There is much pressure on the schools to prepare students for professional practice, and Ms. McKeever's alma mater is one that is generally thought to do a good job. But the challenges she raises cannot be solved on our side, and it is up to the profession to take this one on.

danab

Posted Wed, Sep 26, 7:18 p.m. Inappropriate

In the 1980's recession I worked for a recruiter in Seattle. We saw many architects looking for new work, any type of work. It is one of the many construction-related jobs that takes a dive when no one is buying, building or able to sell homes, new or old. Commercial construction has been interesting to watch in the past couple of years in Seattle. It didn't take as much of a dive as I expected, but it isn't healthy.

Stability is far more important than huge equity appreciation in any type of market.

Posted Thu, Sep 27, 8:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Architecture is a luxury, like Prada or Ferraris. A large majority of the buildings in America are built entirely without any architects being involved at all. Accurate figures are hard to come by, but most of what I can find indicates that between 60% and 80% of single family homes are built without any architect being involved, and well over half of all commercial buildings as well.
Architects are usually icing on expensive cakes- they are not used by most residential single family home developers, or most industrial tilt up warehouse builders, or even by many small apartment complex builders.

This means that when the economy tightens up, the jobs for architects disappear disproportionately to the jobs in construction. The high end projects tend to get put on hold, the lowest cost per square foot stuff is the most likely to continue to be built.

And when we have ALL construction slammed for 3 or 4 years straight by the largest recession (depression, really) in 80 years, it stands to reason that there will be a huge job loss in the architectural profession.

The only architects I know that are very busy right now are doing state work- schools, which are needed in growing districts, or infrastructure -- tunnels, for example.

I can call up and get an engineer to stamp plans for a pole barn, and, in Skagit County, get a permit in two weeks for a couple hundred bucks- or I could hire an architect, pay him or her ten grand or so, and in six months build a custom barn/workshop that cost 4 times the amount of the pole barn. The amount of people doing the latter, where I live, is virtually nil right now, but did exist 4 years ago.

Ries

Posted Fri, Sep 28, 9:23 a.m. Inappropriate

We need more architects like we need more lawyers.

Posted Fri, Sep 28, 7:48 p.m. Inappropriate

I've been in this profession for 15 years. It's not an easy profession, it's not lucrative for the first 20 years typically, and this is common knowledge. For most of us, our passion pushes us through the tough times. This article appears to come from a very young person who has no one but herself to look out for. When pay-cuts hit both my husband and I in 2008 b/c of the massive devastation of the construction industry in our town, we hunkered down. We worked long hours, we found new jobs, we did whatever we could to keep our kids fed. I didn't give two hoots about my dreams. I had to feed my kids. And it was the greatest thing that could have happened to us. Our love of architecture encouraged us to quit our jobs, move 2000 miles away and start over. And we're thriving now.

Bad economies serve a purpose in weeding out those who are doing their jobs for the wrong reasons. Stick it out, make huge changes, or become someone new. Don't blame architecture. Architecture has been hit, but so have many other industries.

kpad

Posted Mon, Oct 1, 9:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Boo freaking hoo.

Here's a revelation: a job market has been affected the the laws of supply and demand. There is a limited demand for the type of job the author and her peers seem to want. Thus, they are unable to make the kind of money they want, working the hours they want and are "kept at the bottom" of their profession.

Welcome to the real world...

PJS

Posted Thu, Oct 4, 12:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Same things were true in the 70s and the 80s and the 90s, which is why I decided to not bother with a five year program and just put together a basic degree that included some architecture, mechanical engineering, design, and heavy on the social sciences, and got the heck outta school to find a REAL job.

I had a lot of friends in the 80s working at large and prestigious firms and making half of what I was making and working twice as hard. They were frustrated at not being able to express their creative side, while I was developing sellable skills and having the freedom to be creative on my own time. Other friends who were architects ended up making a living doing cabintry and acting as thier own construction managers. They were smart enough to gain the skills to implement.

The really good, really business saavy folks can make it as architects. They also have to be competent enough to wear multiple hats and realistic enough to know the niche they will fill.

Posted Tue, Jan 8, 7:41 p.m. Inappropriate

The economy may have upended some aspiring architects' hopes, but at least the author of this article has not given up. She may have been a little bored with her work, but she has taken a very proactive stance to study for the licensing exam and become licensed. And perhaps she is taking the time away from a job she had for at least 6 years to explore other aspects of design and architecture and how she can make the best contribution. It all sounds very hopeful to me

Kamille

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