Editorial: The Price of Architecture

With summer upon us, several hundred newly graduated architecture students are coming into the work world from schools across Canada. A mixed bag of experiences awaits them. Some will start their own practices, others will work with established firms of various sizes. Yet others may continue their studies, or pursue opportunities in other fields.

One experience is all too common: many will start working in architecture offices where working unpaid overtime is the norm. Putting in extra time—especially approaching deadlines—is generally accepted as simply part of the culture of working as an architect. Just as students accept the rigours of late-night design studio work in school, staying past regular hours in an office (especially when others are doing the same) can seem like no big deal.

But unremunerative work takes its toll. On a personal level, it affects work-life balance for employees. This is an especial concern for contract-to-contract millennials, and for employers who aim to retain talented young staff. The expectation of unpaid work also creates an unequal playing field for those who have other obligations—such as the care of parents or children—and who can’t put in the extra hours that are an understood requisite for career advancement.

On a broader level, a reliance on unpaid labour allows firms to low-ball their fees, feeding a downward spiral of underpriced design services.

Unpaid overtime is tacitly supported by employment legislation across most of the country. In most provinces, with the notable exception of Quebec, the labour regulations that stipulate the requirement for overtime pay don’t apply to registered practitioners of architecture and students in training to become practitioners. This exception has been interpreted variously, but in some jurisdictions it is used to avoid paying overtime to a broad swath of employees.

The exemption stems from an intention to protect the public interest. As self-regulated professionals, architects must adhere to the highest standards of care for public safety. They can’t design a faulty building and excuse themselves by saying that they had maxed out on their daily allotment of hours. But should this expectation apply to all of those that work at architecture firms?

At this year’s meeting of the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA), Kitchener architect John MacDonald advanced a motion addressing the exemption clause in Ontario’s Employment Standards Act (ESA). MacDonald suggested that the exemption from overtime pay should be narrowed to apply only to architects that hold a certificate of practice—not all licensed architects—as well as to non-employees who are students-in-training. MacDonald argued that most architects are not stamping drawings nor assuming ultimate responsibility for their integrity, and should therefore retain full rights under the ESA. 

The motion received nearly unanimous support from the members present—a hopeful intdication of the profession’s readiness to address the issue of unpaid overtime in a unified and systematic way.

On a broader level, the OAA hopes to take things even further: it aims to entirely remove the exemption for architects from the legislation. For the past two years, it has been working with the provincial government in a broader review of the ESA. The most recent report, produced by an independent body, has recommended a review of all of the exemptions in the Act.

Even if architects are subject to the Act, there will be loopholes. For instance, managers as a group are exempt from overtime provisions across the country (the review in Ontario also hopes to set stricter guidelines for how managers are designated). In Quebec, employers can offer a fixed weekly salary to employees that isn’t tied to a minimum or maximum number of working hours, so long as they end up paying at least minimum wage.

Nonetheless, the direction of the current discussion is promising. It points towards architects taking action in promoting fair working conditions and granting due recognition to the profession’s most important asset: its people. It’s a step that is necessary to ensure the healthy future of architecture culture and to assert the importance of architecture’s role in society.