When you picture the kind of architect’s home that’s usually featured in a publication like Dwell, you probably see soaring ceilings; straight lines in blond wood; a house with an… interesting silhouette that has more window square footage in one room than you’d find in the entirety of a typical city apartment. But for the vast majority of people who do the work of architecture every day, home isn’t a head-to-toe showcase for their design sensibility or a perfectly crafted jewel box of a country escape. It’s just the place where they spend their hours eating, sleeping and, probably more than any other single activity, working.
For a handful of successful firm owners and name-brand stars, maybe the average layperson’s rose-colored idea of what an architect does—dashing off a few brilliant drawings in a light-filled studio, handing them to a builder and waiting for the millions and critical accolades to roll in—is not so far off. But for many thousands of others, it couldn’t be further from reality. And that reality suddenly became impossible to ignore last December, when some employees at SHoP Architects, a prominent New York-based firm, announced their decision to unionize as Architectural Workers United. AWU’s effort at SHoP faced what employees described as intense pushback from the firm’s leadership, and ultimately never led to a vote (SHoP has stated publicly that "any allegations of bad faith campaigning are unfounded"). But the campaign has kickstarted other similar efforts and sparked an important, ongoing conversation about the exhausting workloads and outdated attitudes those in the field are expected to tolerate.
"The industry just doesn’t know how to treat its workers well," says Andrew Daley, a former architect at SHoP who helped launch AWU and is now working full-time for the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers (IAM) to support other architectural workers who want to organize their firms. Daley says that the same issues tend to come up again and again: pay and benefits that don’t match the high level of skill and the difficult, expensive training required for the job; a severe lack of gender parity and racial diversity; an intensely competition-driven business model (exacerbated by arguably misapplied antitrust laws) that tends to transfer its hidden costs to those doing the design work.
And, almost always at the top of the list: the hours and hours of unpaid overtime. The architects I spoke to for this story say a normal week can easily be 50 or 60 hours, and leading up to project deadlines, that might increase to more than 70 or 80 hours for weeks on end. "And that’s not uncommon. That’s very standard," Daley says.
So how does the softly lit fantasy of this particular job persist? Daley’s take is that architects "are bad at educating the public and educating the clients as to what our working conditions are, A, and B, what our value actually is." To help peel back the curtain, Dwell visited three former and current SHoP employees and architects living in New York City—all of whom were involved in the effort to unionize the firm—to talk about their work, how they’ve made a home in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and their vision for how to build a better architecture industry.
Jennifer Siqueira — 39, Project Architect at Bernheimer Architecture
It feels appropriate that Jennifer Siqueira, who knew she wanted to design buildings at the early age of 7, lives in an apartment with such a distinct aesthetic. The previous owners of the Jackson Heights co-op Siqueira now shares with her partner, toddler and cat had hired New York-based David Bench to handle their renovation, and it shows: The sleek midcentury-style built-ins, beautiful tile work (including green bathroom tiles cribbed from Bench’s own apartment) and quirky pointed archways between rooms are not exactly standard-issue for most Queens two-bedrooms. "We saw a lot of other apartments in the area and you can’t come close to this," Siqueira says. "It’s really special."
The family moved in the summer of 2021 from a Brooklyn Heights rental, though they likely would have stayed in that neighborhood if they had an infinite budget. "I just don’t think I would have considered it," Siqueira says of Jackson Heights, which she and her partner, Edwin Ackerman, now love for its cultural diversity, walkability and great food. But once they started looking, "We liked it for so many reasons and we could actually afford to buy a place." That was only thanks to her dad’s help with a down payment on the apartment, which they negotiated down from $535,000 to $510,000. In addition to their mortgage, Siqueira is still paying off the loans she took out 10 years ago to attend her master’s degree program.
As a little girl, Siqueira was "infatuated" with the drawings she watched her older sister make for architecture school. But she knew even then that the work wasn’t just about beautiful ideas. "I was very exposed to the practical side of building in architecture," she told me, thanks to riding along with her dad to the construction sites he worked on and watching him tinker with the plans for the family home he spent years building, piece by piece, in Vitória, Brazil.
Not everything he tried worked out; one door on the never-finished second story of the house memorably led to thin air. So Siqueira’s childhood gave her an itch to rethink—to imagine better ways of building and being—which never went away. That spirit motivated her through five years of design training at UC Berkeley, six jobs at different architecture firms across the U.S., and moments of serious doubt over whether the vocation she’s dedicated her life to is actually a force for good in the world. Ultimately, it led her to push for change within the profession itself.
By the time Siqueira started as an associate at SHoP Architects in 2017, she had no illusions about what a job at a prestigious and ambitious New York firm would require. "I knew it was going to be hard, it was going to be intense," she says. She had been prepared for that from the moment one of her college architecture professors, during the first class meeting, told the students she’d be disappointed if she showed up to the studio at 1 a.m. and didn’t find anyone else there working. "I was trained for it," Siqueira told me.
But that didn’t make it a sustainable way to work. The grueling hours seriously impacted her personal life and the plans she and Ackerman were making for the future. Siqueira—who recalls that, on one project, she sometimes worked until 3 or 4 a.m. alongside a pregnant coworker—assumed she would have to quit if she had a baby. But after the pandemic started in early 2020, walking away from a job no longer felt like an option. When their son Joao Santiago was born in the spring of 2021, Siqueira used part of her parental leave and then returned to work, planning to take a second chunk of time off several months later. She never got the chance; SHoP cut her job in a second round of layoffs that fall, marking the fourth time Siqueira has been laid off in her career.
"When we started talking about a union, the word was so, so taboo. But since then the conversation has totally shifted."
In the year leading up to that, she had also been talking to colleagues about the pressures of the job and their frustration with the firm’s lack of racial diversity, which led to organizing in earnest toward a unionization vote with support from IAM and the Architecture Lobby, a national organization that connects architectural workers to advocate for change in the industry. As one of the few architects of color at SHoP, Siqueira saw those issues as inextricable. By the summer of 2020, in the wake of national protests for racial justice following George Floyd’s death, some employees started pushing for a clearer response or action plan from management to increase diversity at SHoP and in the field, beyond a few donations they’d made to other organizations. "I was always driving home the point that we don't want to be bringing new talent that’s diverse into this firm when we ourselves are not happy," she says. "We need to figure out how to improve our workplace so we can invite people to flourish in this environment, not struggle."
Struggle, in Siqueira’s experience of architecture, was the norm. She had given up on the idea of working for a firm long-term and was thinking about establishing her own practice until she started a new job at Bernheimer Architecture this past spring. The hours are much more manageable and, unlike at SHoP, "They know what I stand for, what I’m about," she says—including her organizing. That makes all the difference in the work itself: "I can breathe."
Siqueira is also excited by the changing conversation about labor in architecture, even though the campaign at SHoP didn’t end the way the organizers hoped. "When we started talking about a union, the word was so, so taboo," she says. "But since then the conversation has totally shifted. And so much has happened. Amazon, Google, Starbucks, Kickstarter—what they call white collar and blue collar alike are doing this, are mobilizing. And so it has permeated our profession, and in a good way."
That kind of widespread paradigm shift is crucial if architectural workers are going to make real gains in the industry in a way that reinforces the value of the work they’re doing. "When you unionize, the idea is not that you unionize just one workplace," Siqueira says. "You unionize many workplaces, because only density will drive that baseline to a better baseline. That bar is so low right now. And once you raise that bar, then that becomes the norm."
Megan Peterson — 26, Designer at SHoP Architects
For Megan Peterson, COVID made all the difference.
"All of a sudden we were working from home, and all of the fun parts of the office went away," she recalls, of how her experience at SHoP changed at the beginning of 2020. "A curtain opened, and I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ I was just sitting there, working 60 to 80 hours sometimes, in my apartment, in a room without a window."
A workload that had seemed more manageable when there were friendly coworkers and free snacks around suddenly felt unbearable, as did the very tiny Brooklyn apartment Peterson was sharing with a roommate. "I had such a hard time finding an apartment that was within my price range that had room for a desk," she says. But ultimately, a StreetEasy listing with terrible photos led to a lucky pandemic deal on a three-story, three-bedroom apartment in a 19th-century South Williamsburg rowhouse that Peterson now shares with two roommates. She pays $1,300 a month for a living room filled with light by three windows, a kitchen that includes a charming dining nook ("It’s definitely nice to be able to have a kitchen table," she says), and a bedroom with more than enough space for a desk.
"You see your friends can afford a really nice apartment, or can buy a car, all of this stuff."
But the new apartment still couldn’t resolve Peterson’s growing frustration with the demands of her job—and with how little she was paid for all those extra hours. Comparing her situation with people the same age working in other fields, "You see your friends can afford a really nice apartment, or can buy a car, all of this stuff," she says. "And they also aren’t working late; they get to go out with their friends at night."
SHoP had offered Peterson an internship and then a job as a designer when she graduated from the University of Nebraska’s undergraduate architecture program in 2018. Having grown up in the tiny rural town of Ord, Nebraska (where "there really aren’t architects"), it was an exciting opportunity. And Peterson enjoyed the interesting projects she got to work on, which included designing U.S. embassy buildings in other countries.
"The work is really exciting; the people I’ve worked with are really great," Peterson says. "But realizing the way that the industry works and the way that architects are treated and the lack of value is so depressing for me. I can’t overcome that, you know? It’s not something that I’m willing to just be okay with."
Peterson, who was actively involved in union organizing at SHoP, was disappointed when they didn’t make it to a successful vote. "But looking back, we learned a lot and were able to pass on what we learned to other firms," she says. "So hopefully someone can do it." Since then, SHoP management has begun to hold meetings with staff to talk about their concerns and how to start addressing some of the issues that were raised during the unionization campaign. But at this point, Peterson is disillusioned enough that it’s very hard for her to imagine working in architecture longterm.
"It’s not the work that I don’t like," she says. "It’s just the hours and the pay." And given how deeply ingrained and systemic the industry’s labor problems are, that’s not something Peterson imagines could be easily addressed just by finding a new job. "Hopefully this conversation that has really been sparked can help change something. I’m still excited about that," she says. But, she adds, "I think it’s going to take a long time."
Shuping Liu — 31, Design Team Member at Studio Gang
If you ask Shuping Liu to pick the best thing about his apartment, there’s no contest. "The main reason to move here was the park," he tells me. The friendly Windsor Terrace co-op building where he lives with his partner Jackie Krasnokutskaya, also a registered architect, and their dog Katie, is across the street from Prospect Park, creating what Liu calls a "unique urban condition—that I live in a city, but it looks like I’m facing a forest."
A close second to the views, though, are the light switches. "This is our favorite thing," he says, happily demonstrating one of the wifi-enabled Lutron dimmers they installed over the original switches, which transmit a signal to smart bulbs in the ceiling fixtures—no rewiring required. Trust two designers to focus on a small detail with big impact. Other highlights include all the features Liu had never before experienced in a New York City apartment: a dishwasher, a microwave, a "real adult stove" and an honest-to-god dining room, "which I never thought we would ever have."
"There’s just a ton of labor that’s involved, and it’s a lot of people. And some of it isn’t glamorous at all. It’s just Excel spreadsheets."
"Architects are just working people who also aspire to have nice, well-designed things," Liu says, explaining why he, like most other people, sees the architects’ homes featured in media as beautiful pipe dreams. "For us, it’s not a matter of the design. It’s a matter of the means, of having all the money to do that kind of work," he says. "Because architects understand more than anyone how expensive it is to design anything."
There’s a lot of work Liu would like to do on the apartment, which the couple bought for $695,000 at the beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020. Their budget would have been much lower if not for a big financial assist from his parents on a down payment—but "with help and with our income, we could pay the mortgage." They didn’t have anything left over for renovation, which means that replacing the kitchen cabinets, counters and floor, among other items on the to-do list, will have to wait.
"That’s a lot of money that we don’t have yet," Liu says. Instead, they’ve focused on decorating the apartment in a way that reflects their shared sensibility: uncluttered and—thanks to street finds, gifts from friends and simple, functional homemade furniture—cheap. The one big decor investment they made when they moved in was a (crucially dog hair-repelling) leather sofa from Hay.
Finances aside, Liu says he thinks the biggest gap between the public perception of architects and the reality of their work is the persistent myth that a single creative genius could design every aspect of any given building. "It really isn’t one person in practice," he says. "There’s just a ton of labor that’s involved, and it’s a lot of people. And some of it isn’t glamorous at all. It’s just Excel spreadsheets."
You could say exactly the same about unionizing a workplace. Liu witnessed that effort begin and end at SHoP, where he worked for seven and a half years before taking a new job this spring (one he feels "much more aligned with") at Studio Gang. He saw it as a fundamentally hopeful act. "We all thought—we all continue to think—that the industry can be better. So it all starts from the level of optimism," he says.
To Liu, the fact that AWU wasn’t able to maintain a strong pro-union majority on staff once they went public with their campaign doesn’t mean that their work wasn’t worthwhile: "We thought even the effort was important." And now, seeing the response from other workers in the industry, "I think there is a really strong ripple effect," he says. "I think offices understand that architects do have means of creating trouble if they don’t have their expectations met."
When it comes to filling an apartment with furniture or designing a building, Liu feels strongly that it’s not just about the end result. "I think the process of getting there is part of the enjoyment of doing it." And in architecture—both as a practice and as an industry—there’s always room to improve. "You get to keep reinventing the wheel," he says. "And hopefully the wheel gets a little better."
This article has been updated to more accurately reflect employee critique and involvement in the unionization drive.
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