An Open Letter RE: Undermining Architectural Value

RE: Unpaid Internships + the Arms Race that is Undermining Architectural Value

Dear Practices [you know who you are]:

We really enjoy the work that you do.  We marvel at the design skills you display, appreciate the value your work brings to communities and end users.  We constantly remind ourselves that this is a difficult profession: one that requires passion, talent and perseverance [not only from oneself, but one’s colleagues as well].  Our practice started in the attic of our founder's house.  When we were fortunate to be busy enough to hire help - the local high school student interested in becoming an architect - we paid him.  We are proud to admit that every intern has received a fair hourly rate for their work.

Our frustration occurs when a potential client calls after we have submitted a proposal and we are asked why a firm that proposes to provide more value to a project [sustainable design, FFE selection, etc.] offers to do so at a fraction of our cost and we find out that they offer their interns, at best a free lunch, and at worst nothing for their efforts. Our firm is a small, dedicated one that provides excellent service to clients that appreciate our work.  We are not a high-profile practice, our work is not displayed in architectural journals...yet. This is an appeal to the studios that we aspire to emulate. Granted, large, international studios are known for this type of practice.  We are not in the habit of tilting at windmills…what we are interested in is addressing the disregard you show for both the aspiring architects whom you ‘employ’ and your fellow practicing architects.  We understand that there is no greater advocate for the individual than him/herself and that they are free to choose to find employment where they can earn a decent wage.  However, when you hold the promise of exciting work and the chance to build a resume and portfolio over their heads, you are leveraging their enthusiasm and naiveté against them.

Perhaps another letter should be addressed to those interns and recent graduates; this message is for the principals of the violating practices.  While an unpaid internship can be rationalized as a professional quid pro quo, the more lasting, damaging implications are felt by other architectural firms when developing fees.  By continuing to use unpaid interns to support your work, you are able to use artificially low fees to complete your projects.  How can a small firm justify fees that support an entire staff when your practice can provide arguably better service and bring greater value to a project all while charging a client less.  If you have enough work to warrant bringing interns to your office, but cannot afford to pay them, then perhaps your fees are too low. NCARB has even tried to give the intern a stronger negotiating position by disqualifying any work performed while in an unpaid position from being counted towards their IDP requirements.  [Another topic to be addressed later].

In light of the most recent AIA ilookup campaign, we are imploring you, as the principals of firms to which we look up, to resist the urge to keep your fees low, deny yourself the convenient excuse of providing interns with a rich learning environment in return for their unpaid efforts and we, as architects and interns, will all benefit.  You bring value to the community and can justify higher fees.

We will not get there alone.  We must buttress one another and encourage the submission of actual, living wage fees to potential clients.  When your practice truly offers more value than another, it should be reflected in your proposal.  We must respect the client's right to choose and ability to understand that the adage of 'you get what you pay for' applies in design fees as well.  Otherwise, you are not only reducing the value of the architect in the minds of the people that hire you and admire your work; you are reducing the value of our work and devaluing the ‘employee’, the human that makes your very endeavors attainable.

                            Your Frustrated, Disapproving Admirer