Gen Y Speaks: Many have left the architecture industry due to low pay and stress. I learned that a good culture makes the difference

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be an architect.

Ever since I got my first Lego set at the age of three, I’ve always believed that the works created by architects make a real difference in people’s lives.

Improving the human experience in an ambitious, yet sustainable way was really what I wanted to do.

If the compulsory six-year higher education for this profession may seem a cumbersome barrier for some and a fortuitous path for others, it taught me my first lesson before even entering school: the path to becoming architect is long and very expensive.

Nevertheless, I was lucky to have parents who supported my ambition and allowed me to undertake this journey.

After national service, I started enrolling in the Architectural Association (AA) in London and was incredibly excited to be surrounded by what I perceived to be some of the brightest minds in the world.

What really motivated me was the diversity of perspectives and cultures that inadvertently led to variation in critical thinking, technical analysis, and theoretical dialectics.

Some of my peers would probably have been better off as software engineers, artists, or even philosophy students.

But there we were, in an academic cultural melting pot centered on the same architectural path.

However, late nights in the studio and harsh academic culture created a tumultuous environment for prospective architecture students.

In my freshman year, a quarter of the cohort had dropped out.

By the time I finished, only about half of the students who started with me had graduated.

ENTERING THE PROFESSION

After graduating, my first foray into the professional practice of architecture was in 2013 at a practice in Singapore.

In an office of about 40 people, I quickly learned that architecture is not particularly well paid compared to similar professions such as engineering or other jobs that require extensive higher education such as medicine or law.

Many architects spend their careers watching other professionals with comparable training achieve financial heights, while architects’ salaries barely cover living expenses.

I began noticing similar underlying problems for the profession that many of my colleagues were facing – constant long hours, endless deadlines, low pay, and overwhelming job stress.

The attrition rate for architectural offices was extremely high, with some constantly changing companies for higher salaries, and most leaving the architectural industry for more lucrative professions.

According to a survey by the Singapore Institute of Architects, only seven percent of young graduates said they were likely to stay in the profession long term.

Having been fortunate enough to have lived on several continents and been exposed to different cultures and perspectives, while still being in the profession, it is what I have learned that will create a working environment that enables architects and designers to flourish.

PRIORITIZE COLLABORATION AND DIVERSITY

In 2016 I joined global architecture firm HKS and was based in their Singapore office.

As a new office, our team of six people quickly realized that we were working much more efficiently (and happily) thanks to a flatter, more collaborative culture rather than a top-down approach.

Architecture has always been a team sport, with the realization of projects in collaboration with colleagues, clients and consultants.

Within the profession, there seems to be a tendency towards top-down management and a top-down modus operandi, and often peers are very quickly confined to certain jobs and the types of projects they were working on, with little or no opportunities for growth or to work in various roles and sectors.

These factors clearly explain why the industrial brain drain is so severe – few people see the light at the end of the tunnel.

My team has taught me that culture, like our professional work and deliverables, is something we need to constantly refine and improve.

After building the office from the ground up, we learned that people are our most important asset, and we operated on the fundamental truth that we are better together.

By embracing a flatter, more collaborative culture of trust and empathy, it allows us to excel and contribute to the best of our abilities.

The traditional hierarchical approach often results in fresh graduates being given endless tasks at the close of business, all to be completed in the same day.

Naturally, this creates an incredible amount of resentment and stress, and many give up soon after starting.

By contrast, our motley crew of six lived by the motto ‘no one is left behind’.

As the newest and youngest member at the time, I was incredibly grateful for this mantra, which created camaraderie and ownership within project teams.

This purpose-driven mission will ensure that architects have this great platform to thrive and excel, as innovation comes through diversity of perspectives, cultures and backgrounds.

EMBRACE BOUNDLESS THINKING

In 2019, I moved to the HKS office in San Francisco.

Nestled in the heart of innovation and technology, I learned that architecture, as a discipline, must very quickly adopt new design thinking methodologies in order to take architectural outcomes from ordinary to the extraordinary.

Results are the currency of credibility. Without extraordinary results, our knowledge and our craft will not be respected in the long term, nor the value of our process, our thinking and our expertise.

Architects must create solutions to today’s complex problems through limitless thinking.

In San Francisco, my younger colleagues brought with them an abundance of emerging technologies and methodologies, elevating the ways of architectural design and production through explorations of materiality, process, and tool sets.

On the other hand, those with experience possess knowledge and technical expertise. Yet knowledge transfer within offices has traditionally been a one-way street.

To drive boundless thinking and bring much-needed innovation to the profession, architects need to start asking the right questions and questioning the validity of previous assumptions.

We must have the rigor to test, experiment and explore innovative and inventive solutions.

Above all, we need a paradigm shift.

The days of manual drafting and computer-aided design tools are over. Young architects are now using processes outside of the norm – those that involve algorithmic design, performance tuning, and automated documentation using a variety of programming languages ​​like C# and Python.

To be at the forefront of innovation and invention, offices must learn to embrace new methods and value the experience that these young architects bring on board.

OFFERING FLEXIBILITY, CONNECTIVITY AND COMMUNICATION

At the end of 2021, I moved back to Singapore, taking over as head of the HKS Singapore office, focusing on projects from North Africa to Australia and everything in between.

Growing from a small family of six to a team of 50, I’ve learned that prioritizing the engagement and well-being of our co-workers allows us to foster an environment of trust.

So we focused on building an open and authentic platform for communication and listening. This is the foundation of an inclusive culture.

By prioritizing professional development and autonomy, we can empower our colleagues and teams, with the common understanding that the focus is on their knowledge and experience.

While our contemporary environment is constantly changing, our professional obligations remain.

As architects and designers of our environments, we face increasingly complex and interconnected challenges, different from those of our past.

In the face of challenges of increasing complexity, our ability to solve these problems can be amplified by focusing on creating collaborative, innovative and authentic environments.

Being able to take stock of one’s career and evolution within the industry can create opportunities for learning and progression.

As architects and designers, we must constantly challenge ourselves, our leaders and our clients to create space for all of us to succeed and come out on top. Pursuing your dream should never be unreachable.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Gordon Gn, 33, is the office manager of architectural firm HKS Singapore.

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