Architects Are Starting to See Themselves as Workers — and Organizing Unions

Though architects have long been seen as privileged creative professionals, they are finding themselves in increasingly de-skilled and exploitative work environments. It’s no wonder that they’re starting to unionize.

BA Union is now negotiating the first collectively bargained contract in the architecture industry. (Getty Images)

In a moment of heightened interest in unions across the country and an upsurge in militancy among “culture workers” in particular, a new industry is joining the labor movement: architecture. Last fall my colleagues at Bernheimer Architecture and I formed the first union at a private sector architectural practice. BA Union, with the support of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), is now negotiating the first collectively bargained contract in the industry.

As the first firm to organize, we stand alone, at least for the moment. The reason it has taken architecture workers so long to begin unionizing is because we have traditionally refused to identify as workers — and, as a result, have failed to see the need for collective organization to improve our conditions. Thankfully, architects are beginning to see the need to unionize to better their own conditions and those of others.

What Do Architects Do?

It’s important to start with a clear understanding of exactly what architects do. Traditionally perceived as what sociologist Max Weber would call a “privileged status group,” they have carried a certain level of, in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, “cultural capital.” In other words, architects have enjoyed social esteem due to a certain public idea of what they do — designing nice buildings for rich people — and their autonomy as creative professionals. But today, both conceptions mystify more than they help us actually understand architecture.

While architects are certainly professionals and have historically been considered artists, their day-to-day responsibilities are different than popular perception has it. In addition to designing buildings — a quality Karl Marx admired as differentiating us from the “best of bees” — architects are responsible for complying with building codes, accessibility laws, and zoning ordinances, all of which directly serve public health and safety.

Though we aren’t physically constructing the buildings, we are there every step of the way making sure regulations are met, as well as coordinating the litany of consultants that are required to build a building in the twenty-first century. These include, but are not limited to, structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and civil engineers; landscape architects; lighting designers; and, depending on the scale of the project, roofing, facade, and even package-delivery consultants.

As buildings have gotten more complicated along with the governance surrounding them, the work of the architect, especially in cities like New York, has moved away from traditional artistic design. While much of this is due to an ever-evolving division of labor, we can also understand the evolution of architecture as involving increasing alienation of the architect from their work, as Marx would put it.

Architects are doing less traditional production like physical drawing and focusing more on bureaucratic compliance mediated through increasingly complex technology. In fact, today architects are not only producing drawings digitally; the entire process is being inverted. Through software such as BIM (building information modeling) owned by monopolies like Autodesk, computers now make the drawings themselves while much of the regulatory work of zoning and code compliance is left to the architect — a trend toward de-skilling also threatened by other forms of contemporary automation.

Meanwhile, a consolidation of building and a desire for low-cost services is eliminating work that used to support smaller artisanal practices, instead favoring larger, more “efficient” construction. In cities across the United States, the push for maximized unit counts through “economical” designs leaves little room for architectural craft, instead producing buildings that are eerily similar no matter the location.

At the same time, decades of neoliberal policies have made not only the construction and financing of buildings much more expensive, but have affected the material reality of architectural workers as well: today emerging architects are finding themselves in more precarious conditions than in the past. Thanks to crippling student loan debt, notoriously long hours, and a crisis-prone economy, a new generation of architects is beginning to come to terms with reality. Primed for exploitation by the academic studio environment through long nights spent on individual passion projects, young designers emerge into work settings that are all too willing to take advantage of such energy and enthusiasm for their own profits and prestige.

It doesn’t take long for the combination of low pay, uncompensated overtime, technological drudgery, and never-ending revisions from the client and boss to create a unique form of burnout. Even at relatively healthy firms like ours, many workers have a strong desire for more participation in the structure and “design” of their workplaces. While management may have good intentions, and even acknowledge and sympathize with the grievances of workers, the demands of the workday often supersede those concerns.

This has been the case for us at BA; many joined knowing it was a rare office that prioritized a work-life balance. Though we have felt respected and valued, we have still struggled to find an effective format to address other issues, whether they be technical concerns like proper IT management and software training, or more structural ones like project roles and job classifications, both essential to creating efficiently run teams.

All these questions are best addressed through the collective bargaining process, and though we are still in negotiations, the process has already established a Labor Management Committee through which even issues outside of bargaining can be discussed and implemented.

What Took So Long?

Why haven’t architects started to unionize until now? While some of it has to do with antitrust law and the protectionist credentialism common to all professions, many of the impediments to change have been self-imposed: whether it be a “love of work” myth, an obsession with avant-garde design, or even an eagerness to work free internships, many within the profession are now articulating the features of the industry that have made architecture unwilling to adapt.

However, less has been said about another key component of this stubborn resistance: class consciousness. Specifically, the aforementioned factors have encouraged architects, including employees, to identify more with the capitalist class than with the working class.

This identification has deep roots, as architects have historically associated with artisans and craftsmen. The common model is the studio, in which a seasoned architect creates an apprentice-type environment to train young designers. Additionally, before the emergence of the computer, architects would affiliate with other craft-based industries through the making of physical models and drawings, including studying with other craft practitioners. In fact, since the Industrial Revolution, many architecture schools have been lumped in with broader schools of “design.”

Seeing themselves as skilled artisans rather than workers, architects were content to fly under the radar, pleasing their clients while “usefully working” away in their own studios; as the glut of suburban housing and other postwar projects fueled the growth of artisanal practices and created a reliable path of upward mobility in the twentieth century, dissatisfaction was kept at bay. We are in a very different reality today, one in which capital’s endless drive for profit has degraded the architectural craft and produced a more exploitative workplace for architectural workers of all kinds. This reality calls for a new understanding of class in relation to architecture.

What’s Next?

Much could be and has been said about the true “class position” of architects and designers, especially because of the complex relationship between firm owners and employees in a service-based industry. Is it too simplistic to define employees as exploited workers since they are wage laborers? Or are they complicit in the benefits, cultural and economic, attained by their practices at the behest of their employers? Does the fact that they don’t own anything within the firm, including the means of production of their drawings, override other considerations?

Though asking whether architects are artisans, petit bourgeois, or something in between makes for an interesting and important debate, time is not on our side. For an industry complicit in the climate crisis and entrenched in broader systems of capital and the injustices they generate, change needs to happen now, and unionization is a crucial tool for effecting it.

Thankfully, there is more organizing happening, as several other offices are pursuing unionization with the IAMAW and advocacy groups like the Architecture Lobby continue to support conversations around unionization, hosting events and providing valuable resources for prospective organizers. The potential of this work has appeared in some of the first meetings BA Union is having with other firms as they seek guidance in the unionization process, creating a new form of solidarity across offices.

But architecture is in a similar place as other design industries, far from the tipping point seen among other “culture workers.” While traditional pro-owner organizations like the American Institute of Architects (AIA) are now willing to entertain the idea of architect unions, if a new class consciousness is not fostered, the movement risks stalling out.

If architects want to participate in a “revived and reimagined” labor movement, they should understand that their class position uniquely situates them between traditional laborers (i.e., construction workers) on the one hand, and capital (developers and landowners) on the other. The construction industry, especially in a city like New York, has fought for rights and protections that keep its labor both safe and valuable — it might surprise some that the average salary of a typical building tradesperson in New York is higher than that of an architect. Developers and landowners have strengthened their own position not just through ever-increasing acquisition of property, but also dependence on low-cost design via architecture offices that are happy to outbid and undercut each other.

This has meant that building design is viewed at best as a luxury commodity and at worst as a service that can be trimmed until all that remains is what is necessary for minimal compliance. Without collective action to push back against these developments, the degradation of architects and their craft will only get worse, and the potential for solidaristic action with other workers will slip away.

Rather than identifying with the class that is paying them (albeit less and less), architects can shed their outdated aspirations and instead begin to identify with the construction workers who make their designs a reality. Doing so will help make it obvious why architecture workers should organize — a first step in addressing various problems in the industry, and the possible beginning of a new “cross-class” form of solidarity with traditional laborers and other social movements.