Beyond the Charrette: The Post-Pandemic Office
It is widely expected that the architecture profession comes with sleepless nights, low salaries, and midnight shifts. This lifestyle is formed and encouraged from the moment aspiring designers enter their first studios; inevitably, the culture carries over into the workplace. But if design practice is physically and mentally trying, it is also considered intellectually fulfilling. The promise of architecture — part of why I want to become an architect — lies in its important contribution to the world, one that is severely undervalued. But lately I’ve been rethinking some of my assumptions. Why is pulling all-nighters considered an achievement, even a victory? Why is the golden ticket into the world of architects won in a contest to see who can exhaust themselves fastest?
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, toxic architecture-office culture may have found a silver lining. Architecture is, after all, a job; sacrificing our sleep, health, and personal lives just to complete a set of drawings is not only destructive individually but also damaging to the profession. Changing the culture needs to begin in school; we need to challenge the misconception that assignments and grades matter more than sleep, health, and social existence. Architecture students work longer hours than any other major in college, including spending more time on homework than other students. 1Dan Howarth, “Architecture students work hardest of all US college majors,” Dezeen (February 14, 2017). This was certainly true for me; intimidated by the first assignment of freshman year, I stayed awake until 3 in the morning to make sure it was absolutely perfect. Everyone else in the studio was doing the same, and soon this 24-hour studio culture became ingrained. Naturally, we took this mentality with us into the workplace.
I got my first job right after completing my undergrad degree, and quickly became aware of the uneasy relationship between architects and money. “Architects are trained just as much as doctors and lawyers, so why aren’t we paid the same?” I thought to myself, naively. My experience in an architectural office was less than tortuous, and I learned many of the skills that a young architect needs. But though I tried to maintain a reasonable work-life balance, this was nearly impossible. My weeks averaged 70+ hours, with no paid overtime, on an already skimpy salary. On the rare days when I gathered my things to leave at 5 pm, I felt self-conscious and uncomfortable. But why should wanting to have a life outside work seem wrong, or entitled? Many architecture projects are run by small teams under the direction of a project manager. But when a team needs to work overtime week after week, something has gone wrong in the management of the project. Yes, surprises come up — but, by definition, a surprise is an infrequent occurrence.
It’s now 2020, and things aren’t as they were, and likely will never be the same again. As a 24-year-old, when I think about the traditional chained-to-the-desk mentality and boot-camp-like devotion, I now think about a nervous breakdown or burnout waiting to happen. But the COVID-19 pandemic might possibly help produce the solution young designers are seeking — a way to finally bring about that healthy work-life balance that has been so elusive for so long.
The rising generation of architects and designers are extremely tech savvy, which means it’s now possible to work just as well, if not better, from home or some location that’s remote from the traditional office. A quick survey of my architect friends reveals that their offices are developing safety protocols. One is working on a rotational schedule: one week in the office and the next week at home, to maintain 50% capacity in the office at all times. Another has been working at home from 9 am to noon, then going into the office for collaborative contact in the afternoon. Many of my friends are really enjoying this shift to working remotely. A strict office environment may not work well for everyone. Some of us may thrive in a busy cafe, others at home while sketching and blasting music, still others collaborating in a workspace with colleagues. We are in a crisis that, of course, we never wanted or expected. Yet it seems possible that a new mindset will emerge. I hope, amidst the tragedy, that COVID-19 might catalyze us to create increasingly human-centered workplace cultures.
- Dan Howarth, “Architecture students work hardest of all US college majors,” Dezeen (February 14, 2017).