Since its inception in 2007, our office has campaigned for the dignity of the architectural profession. We have recently intensified our work on this vital project by creating a task force consisting of Tom Boogaerts (coordinator), Aaron Swartjes and Tom Maindiaux. A first opinion has already been published and has received a lot of positive feedback:
There was quite a bit of commotion in recent weeks regarding the salary of trainee architects and the role of the Architects’ Association in all of this. We fully endorse these concerns and stress the importance of such initiatives to raise awareness of these issues. Moreover, we would like to add a voice to the debate, as an architecture practice convinced that creativity and professionalism should go hand in hand in the profession of architecture. However, as long as the fees of architectural firms are not correctly geared to the tasks and responsibilities that are unintentionally attributed to us, employee remuneration cannot be substantially increased either, despite this being absolutely necessary and justified.
ORGANISED RACE TO THE BOTTOM
The perception that architects are high earners is just a distant illusion for most of our colleagues. In practice, many architecture firms – leaving aside starchitects and a few other exceptions – struggle with a loss-making activity, wherefore the biggest concern is the slow running cash-flow that permanently poses a threat to a healthy condition for their offices.
The Belgian architectural landscape that is internationally highly regarded, is usually not the result of one person’s genius idea, but of an intensive collaboration between architects, clients, users, engineering offices, experts, authorities, contractors, … Everyone seems to agree that the tasks, responsibilities and risks of the architectural profession in Belgium have increased exponentially in recent decades, while architects’ salaries stayed among the lowest in Europe in relation to construction costs.
Design processes are becoming longer and more intensive due to the increasing complexity of laws and standards concerning urban development, fire, energy performance, heritage, acoustics, accessibility, environment, rainwater, circularity, safety, participation, etc. On top of this, there are for each region differences in those norms, and specific nuances and interpretations have been put in place by the respective authorities.
Building permits thus suffer from an increasing legalisation and the so-called NIMBY-behaviour (Not In My Backyard) by local residents, or even worse, a BANANA-behaviour (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone), making it no longer a matter of enforcing everyone’s rights as citizens but of deliberately blocking projects out of opportunism or just bad will. All sorts of specialised and expensive software packages with associated training increase the workload and overall costs.
Moreover, a lack of proper commissioning by both private and public clients remains prevalent. There is not sufficient time and resources provided, architects are entangled with contracts that are non-negotiable in terms of the scope of services and responsibilities, or assignments are awarded through competitions that require a large investment without any compensation afterwards. The question then arises whether winning the contract at all is better than dropping out early….
Of course, the industry should also be critical of itself. There are an exceptionally large number of architecture firms active in Belgium, especially compared to our neighbouring countries. As a result, there will always be one firm that goes under the fee of the others, for reasons that may or may not be legitimate. Just one of them is a lack of knowledge of entrepreneurship where one is fully aware of the workload and risks of an assignment. Or, qualitative “A” projects at far too low fees are compensated with profitable “B” projects of questionable quality (which they would rather not see appear on their own website or in publications).
Attention to the integration of the site and user uniqueness comes at the expense of economies of scale and/or specialisation. Yet agencies that bet on mass production and generic answers manage to hijack some of the projects, undermining the quality of both the built environment and open space. Design proposals are offered for free, hoping to get an architectural commission out of them in the short or long term. For directors with lots of equity or external capital, there is no need to run the architecture firm as a healthy business where profits are reinvested in staff, training, resources and innovation.
Teaching at colleges or universities, besides it being a noble commitment to the quality of the future generation, is for some colleagues mainly a sheer necessity to make ends meet monthly. For others, however, it is an excuse to attract cheap labour or to regard their office as a hobby that does not even need to be profitable. Such approaches to architectural firms are harmful for the industry.
The Belgian Order of Architects turns a blind eye to the dignity of the profession, despite it being one of its core tasks to protect it. The “architecture workers” (a term borrowed from the “dear architects” platform to refer to “people who have studied architecture, engineering architecture, interior architecture, landscape architecture or urban planning, and are employed by architectural firms”) are the main victims of this.
Historically, the vast majority of architectural workers have operated as (fake) self-employed, earning less than the legal minimum wage at the start of their careers. Young architecture graduates are often employed as cheap labour in exchange for experience and appearance on their CVs. There may be no end-responsibility (Gideon Boie, De Standaard, 03/10/2023), but the costs for architectural workers run high if you can take into account health insurance, social security contributions, free supplementary pension savings, guaranteed income, additional training, annual contribution to the Order of Architects, accountant, etc.
Moreover, periods such as annual construction leave, illness or parental leave are integrally equivalent to a period without income or pension. A “thirteenth” month? On an annual basis, there is not even a twelfth month to invoice, but living expenses obviously run all through the year.
A high number of hours is a must for an independent architecture worker to be able to bill sufficiently at the end of the month. Agencies that offer a low fixed fee and then expect employees to perform 200 or plus hours would be accused of social exploitation in other sectors.
These working conditions lead to a high flux rate to other sectors, and it becomes increasingly difficult for architecture firms to attract talented architects and keep them on board. This relatively high turnover in architectural firms causes part of the accumulated knowledge and experience to evaporate, so even more investment is needed in permanent knowledge transfer.
At first sight, a status as an employee could offer the necessary protection, thanks to the minimum wage and a collective labour agreement, among other advantages. However, it remains to be seen what reference framework would be used for remuneration in further stages of their career. However this may be justified, unilaterally raising the remuneration of architectural workers on behalf of the government would directly result in a large number of architectural firms becoming unviable.
Since the affordability of construction projects, both in the private and public sector, is under considerable pressure, a general increase in the fees of architectural firms does not seem immediately desirable from the point of view of “the construction industry”. It is to the credit of the various Government/City Architects (bouwmeesters), among others, that the conditions for both public and private commissions are improving, but unfortunately their impact appears too limited for a structural change.
Fortunately, good clients appear willing to stop shifting some of the tasks, risks and responsibilities purely to the architect and hereby (partially) adjust the sickened relationship. However, due to the systematic nature of the problems, at this rate, it will take many years before this will lead to the rising of an acceptable salary for architecture workers throughout the sector.
It is no longer acceptable that we as architects (firms and employees) remain victims of the system’s failures, and of the fact that we are exceptionally motivated to provide appropriate spatial answers to the issues presented to us. It is time for a systemic change, and this is a shared responsibility of the Order of Architects, contracting authorities, developers, contractors, bouwmeesters, professional organisations, architecture practices as well as architecture schools, to urgently work towards a healthy sector.
We call on all parties to join the debate on fair conditions for practising the architectural profession in Belgium. The Order of Architects can take the lead in this, based on its deontological purpose for the protection of the client on the one hand, and the dignity of the profession on the other.