Architects Must Remember to Recognize the Value in Themselves

OAA president Kathleen Kurtin suggests a new value proposition is needed for Canada’s architects.

One of the perks of being the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA) president is visiting many of this year’s graduates who will be the future of the profession.

Kathleen Kurtin, OAA, FRAIC,

Recently, I had the chance to speak at a couple of universities, and thought carefully about what my message should be. For both architects and society as a whole, there are many emerging challenges, from the climate crisis to social inequity. Students are particularly aware of these issues and want to be part of the solution. Attracting these students to the profession requires a strong profession that allows our members to support themselves and their families in an equitable way. As graduates embark on their careers and become interns, I felt it important to emphasize the value of the contribution they make to projects.

I feel that practising architects should also be reminded of this message.

In our professional lives, our contributions to the built environment create value for many people. Whether we work for an architect, developer, or corporation, they will generate significant value as a result of our contribution. The owners and clients of these projects will also make money from the work that we do, and these projects will continue to generate income over the life of the project. Not only does good architecture make the world a better place, but good architecture also creates value. We are an integral part of the team that creates that value, and it is important that we insist on being properly compensated and receiving our fair share as a profession.

Both interns and architects deserve to be compensated at an amount reflective of the knowledge, experience, and responsibility brought to the job. Any time any one of us offers services for less than we deserve, we reduce not only our own self-worth, but also that of the profession.

Becoming an architect in this country requires at least six years of post-secondary education culminating in a master’s degree, a minimum of 3720 hours of experience in a variety of different subject areas, working under the supervision of an architect, and successful completion of a final set of exams. If you are focused and determined, you can become an architect in nine years, but 12 is more often the case. Post-registration, there is an ongoing comprehensive continuing education component, ensuring that we maintain expertise and currency within the profession. Architects are highly skilled, highly valuable, and deserving of appropriate compensation.

Given the responsibilities that lie with the profession, the extensive education and mandated experience required to become an architect is understandable. After all, a poorly designed building could put hundreds of lives at risk. However, certain responsibilities in the construction process are beyond the control of the architect. Many institutional clients, nevertheless, attempt to transfer liability for uninsurable items outside of the architect’s control into standard contracts.

The OAA has successfully negotiated some of these clauses out of some institutional contracts, but the transferring of risk continues to be an issue with others. There are also still many supplementary clauses that compromise the financial viability of architects. Signing on to these contracts ultimately becomes a business decision left for each architect to decide. Unfortunately, financial literacy is not a strong skill set for some architects, leaving them unprepared for the consequences of these decisions.

The combination of less-developed financial skills and a lack of appreciation for the value of what architects bring to a project has resulted in many in the profession being vulnerable to bad contracts. In our excitement to take on a project, we may forget that being able to do a good job requires more than talent and passion—it also requires money to ensure that we can take care of ourselves and the project team during the work and ensure that enough time is allocated to create the best project possible to meet the client’s criteria.

A culture of not placing a value on time begins with all-nighters typical of studio projects in architectural schools, which are accepted as the norm and then often repeated throughout careers. We hear at social gatherings (often rants, but sometimes boasting) about the amount of overtime architects work and the lack of compensation for that overtime. This attitude is counter-productive to creating good work. There is a great deal of research that concludes that the more overtime you work, the less productive you become, and the poorer the quality of the results. Valuing yourself as an architect allows you to earn a reasonable living balanced with a decent quality of life while creating better projects.

Creating a good project requires time. The actual time spent on a project through all phases, by all members of the team, needs to be anticipated and included in fee proposals. Everyone from the principal to the student must be paid for their time. It is absolutely incumbent on architects and practices to pay their employees fairly and to provide reasonable working conditions including rest periods, overtime compensation, and public holiday pay.

Some practices will need to rethink the way fees are structured to ensure everyone is paid fairly. Concurrently, a Quality Based Selection process (QBS) needs to be promoted and pursued by the profession at the national level. This, in addition to the development of an Architectural Policy for Canada being led by the Canadian Architectural Licencing Association (CALA) are steps in the right direction.

Whether a student or a firm principal, we are all learning on the job, continuing to acquire knowledge everyday, as our profession evolves. By working and learning together, architects and interns can create a respectful and equitable profession—one that benefits both society and architects by creating an inspired, safe, resilient and healthy built environment that works toward addressing the big issues of our time: the climate crisis and social inequity.

In recognizing the value of architecture, we must always remember to recognize the value in ourselves.

Kathleen Kurtin, OAA, FRAIC, is the president of the Ontario Association of Architects. After launching her independent practice in the 1980s, she joined Scotiabank the following decade as its chief architect and director of design, leading architects and designers in the development of the bank’s real estate portfolio globally. In 2014, she re-established her independent practice. Kathleen was instrumental in establishing the OAA’s Safe Work Places Committee, which has sought to make the architecture profession more equitable.