The Architecture Lobby members perform outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center during the 2016 National AIA Convention | Mitglieder von The Architecture Lobby demonstrieren vor dem Pennsylvania Convention Center während der National AIA Convention 2016 © Peggy Deamer
GAM 19

Deprofessionalization and Architecture

Peggy Deamer

“She’s a professional!” This conjures up so much: education, class, stability, expertise. In the context of architecture, a special luster accrues: creative and cool on top of cultivated, upper-class, secure, and resourced. But really, what does it mean to be a professional?



Definitions. A few binary distinctions by which “professional” is contrastingly defined offer insights; while these are not “technical,” they contribute to a lay-person’s perspective and as such should not go unheeded. One obvious binary is between “professional vs the amateur.” This has a monetary aspect— the amateur is “a person engaged in a pursuit … on an unpaid basis”— and a performative aspect— the amateur pursues his/her metier only when s/he is motivated while the professional works according to a schedule regardless of mood, desire, or personal difficulties.[1] (Hm. The money part sounds good, but the worker-bee part is not so exciting and conflicts with unscheduled inspiration.) Another is the binary between “professional vs. expert.” As the saying goes, experts know a lot about a little; professionals know a little about a lot of things. Or, “Experts must know the answers! Professionals must know the questions!” (Yikes. Are we sure we don’t want to be able to tell our clients that we indeed do have “the” answers?) A third contrasts a profession from a business: “professions are social services; businesses make money.” (Ouch. We actually do want to make money.) A fourth contrasts a profession from a vocation. “Vocations include a wider sense of purpose and contribution to the world, whereas a profession constitutes a job or career with specific skills.” (This is confusing! Aren’t we always insisting that our training is not merely, like learning technical skills, “vocational”?) A fifth contrasts those with a license from those without, the first being sanctified and regulated by a granting governmental authority, the second being laissez-faire and entrepreneurial. (But aren’t we being taught that we need to be “innovative” and “break the mold”?) A sixth binary contrasts professional organizations from labor organizations – unions: “unions focus on (employees) relations with the employer, while professional associations cater to individual needs.” (Gosh. Aren’t we architects supposed to be pulling together for an industry-wide satisfying work-life balance?)
These “professional” connotations confound an uncomplicated sense of reward for the hard work necessary to become a professional architect and they warrant a closer look at the pros and cons of being a professional. Or, rather, because we know the pros— the financial status that we have traditionally assumed— they lead us to examine the cons in two different lights: the cons which compromise those happy assumptions, and the pros which describe active benefits of not being a professional, of deprofessionalization.



Cons of Professionalism

1. Occupational Isolation
Technically, a profession is an activity/industry that is regulated by state licensure. In the US, what is determined to be a “profession” is governed state by state, but it includes, variously, locksmiths, ballroom dance instructors, hair braiders, manicurists, interior designers, massage therapists, and upholsterers. What is called a “profession” is really nothing more than “occupational licensing.” In the US, it has been one of the fastest growing labor markets as people move from salaried employment to independent contracting. Studies have found that licensing has hindered job creation, especially at the lower level of the workforce, while not resulting in better services. By 2008 occupational licensing in the US grew to 30 percent of the workforce, up from below five per cent in the 1950s. In contrast, in the same period, unions represented, at its peak in 1950, over 30 percent of the US workforce, but declined to less than 12 percent by 2008. The winner is state licensing boards as we pay for each license and its annual renewal. The loosers are those who have drunk the neoliberal Kool Aid about the advantages of being a participant in the gig economy.

2. The Elitism of the Learned Professions
But still, there are professions and “professions”, and the “learned professions” such as law, medicine, engineering, and architecture are recognized by the government and antitrust laws as a category: they are defined by the length of study and their responsibility to society, usually defined by a code of ethics. As Magali Sarfatti Larson has pointed out, the invention of professionalism is the result of late 19th century liberal capitalism. In that period, the three simultaneous goals of professionalism, she says, were to ensure a guiding, elite knowledge sector; to (ironically, at the same time) hark back to pre-capitalist ideals of craftsmanship, universal protection of the social fabric, and noblesse oblige; and to offer conventions of standardization, scientific and cognitive rationality, and a functional division of labor— all of which are no longer warranted or appropriate.[2] With regard to architecture, the 19th century gentleman architect was identified with the class he served; indeed, the late arrival of the first owner-architect contract in 1921 — and coming nearly 30 years after the first owner-contractor contract (the contractor being the original ominous other)— indicates that for an extended period, there was virtually no divided between the owner and the architect: same social standing, same friends, same education. Until the owners got economically savvy, the architect was the right-hand arm of owners who relied completely on the architect’s expertise. This is no longer the case.
Clearly these 19th century conditions rationalizing professionalism in general and in architecture in particular are no longer applicable to or appropriate for our 21st century economic system. Neither its division of labor nor its social motivation (elitism) should continue.

3. Changing Antitrust Laws
In the US, the learned professions used to be exempt from antitrust laws which insist on competition between companies, firms, and businesses. The “learned professions” were understood to have an ethical responsibility to society that spared them from competing against each other by offering lower and lower fees at the expense of doing careful work. As the US courts first ruled, “Professions are distinct from trades.” The specific advantage of this exemption, in architecture and other professions, was agreed upon fee-schedules determining how much a firm would get paid for a given scope of work in a given area. But that protection from fee-based competition began to erode in the US in the 1970s when the Department of Justice (DOJ) saw fee-schedules as a form of collusion. In architecture, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) was sued by DOJ and issued two antitrust consent decrees, one in 1972 and another in 1990, in both cases for proposing fee schedules. The first led to the AIA’s temporarily getting rid of its Code of Ethics— which justified not competing on fees by the need to serve a higher mission— and the second led to a $50,000 fine and a requirement to play a DOJ-produced video explaining why it was illegal to even mention fees or wages at local regional, or national meetings. Today, the learned profession is still intact but its privileges are virtually non-existent.
Clearly these cons are linked to the below-described pros of not professionalizing and what follows picks up on the above themes. Still, certain specific advantages may not be obvious and are helpful to consider in their specificity.

Pros of Deprofessionalization

1. Benefiting from Overtime Work
Whatever advantages that might exist for being a “learned profession,” labor and business laws are not one of them. The rules that enforce minimum wage and overtime pay come with exemptions for “learned” professionals, meaning that, architectural workers don’t have access to (they are exempt from) this labor right. Labor law in the US says that salaried workers whose yearly income is under $47,476 yearly ($913 per week) need to be paid time and half for hours that exceed 40 hours a week. In other words, architectural workers whose salaries are under this threshold (many) should get overtime pay … except for those that are participants in the “learned professions”. Those for whom overtime pay is excluded are the following: “The employee’s primary duty must be the performance of work requiring advanced knowledge, defined as work which is predominantly intellectual in character and which includes work requiring the consistent exercise of discretion and judgment; the advanced knowledge must be in a field of science or learning; and the advanced knowledge must be customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction.”[3] Let’s stop being “learned” and get our just rewards!

2. Certification
If one thinks that the main or only reason to get licensed is to guarantee qualification, there are other options. Certification is a system used in other industries, such as aviation, to guarantee sufficient training. Unlike licensing that is administered by the state, certification is managed by the specific industry. The state ensures, for the public, the safety of and fair access to an industry; industry certification ensures that those operating in the field comply with what it determines is essential competency in the field. Ironically, while the state is meant to look out for the public’s interest, its main function is making sure that prices remain competitive and as low as possible, something that produces not better or more ethical practices but, rather, a race to the bottom as firms in a given industry figure out how to cut costs to compete, never a guarantee of delivering the best service to our clients.
If one follows the aviation certification model, another advantage is staged qualification. In aviation, a certain number of flight hours allows one to qualify as a pilot for certain types of flights, but not others. As more flight time is accrued and different types of planes are flown, the range of certification grows. In architecture, this would allow recent graduates of architecture programs to qualify for a certain scale of work, making them employable to clients at an earlier stage of their career, something that works both for the architect (earlier autonomy) and the client (a less intimidating brand.) And the cost (and hours) of getting a license is done away with! The exams, the marginalized pay during the internship period, the tutorials— all these economic and psychological burdens are thrown out the window and in their stead, more time for the work we want to do, the community we want to support, and the family with which we want to spend time.

3.  Horizontal Alliances
One of the main functions of a license is keeping others who do not have the “right” training out of a certain jurisdiction. But these same walls that keep other disciplines from invading a given industry also pens that industry in. If Sarfatti Larson critiques professionalism from the left, others such as Richard and Daniel Susskind critique it from the right, claiming that our current “knowledge economy” requires sharing intelligence and innovation across disciplinary boundaries.[4] In architecture, keeping out contractors, interior designers, engineers, landscape architect, designers and draftsmen ensures that we are unable to make easy and productive alliances. In New York, a design-build firm must have two different companies for design and construction, just as developer-architects must operate two separate legal entities. Likewise, if we are licensed in one state, we can’t practice in another state that doesn’t have reciprocity.
The shift away from laws that put us in defined confines is as much psychological as it is legal. There are territories that we currently think are beneath us that actually offer architects more oversight, more credibility, and more income if we didn’t self-restrict. For example, in holding on to the BIM model and knowing more about the “as built” of a project, architects are natural as post-occupancy building maintenance managers. This is not only a source of income, but a sign to clients that we architects care about the long-term functioning of the building.

4. Cooperativization
Professionals in the US are not allowed to form as a cooperative— a business model that is worker owned and worker run— because the state licensing boards, assuming a firm will have a workforce of licensed and unlicensed personnel, refuse to give these workers equal status. In contrast to this, many European countries, with robust socialist, communist, and anarchist pasts, are more receptive to principles of worker self-management. Cooperatives are more than agreements to collaborate; they are legal entities with specific business structures defined by certain principles: membership that is voluntary and non-discriminatory; a one-member-one-vote structure; members that contribute to, and democratically control, the financial resources of their cooperative; transparent democratic decision-making; and members working together at the local, regional, national and international levels to further economic democracy.
In the US, architecture firms that want to operate as coops must construct workarounds to the prohibitions against professional coops, workarounds that are time consuming and expensive since they entail extensive legal shuffling to shove a non-competitive business model into competition-mandated antitrust laws. But even in countries that are less phobic to cooperatives, there is an ideo- logical resistance to professionals cooperativizing, especially in an industry like architecture that privileges individual genius. Anywhere in the world, small architecture firms— which suffer from the same forces of amalgamation and homogenization experienced historically by small manufacturing— can only gain from sharing resources, personnel, knowledge, material, and the expense of bookkeepers, consultants, lawyers, and insurance. More importantly, cooperatives push against the three types of worker “alienation” that come with capitalism: alienation from one’s work; alienation from one’s co-workers; and alienation from oneself as work is disengaged from affective life.

5. Unionization
Unions are exempt from antitrust laws; they are a legal way to discuss fees and wages. While they only organize employees, the reality is, at least in architecture in the US, ¾ of us are workers, not owners or managers. If we are interested in a profession that acts “professionally”— fair fees and wages, legal labor practices, humane working conditions, clear procedures for advancement, respect from those who hire us— and advocates for the value of our labor and expertise, unions are an alternative to professional organizations. If we think that unions are not applicable to professionals, it is not the case. Doctors in the US use unions to fight insurance companies and medical residents to petition for humane working hours; lawyers working for Legal Services are unionized. If we think that unions are not appropriate for creatives, England is home to its first trade union for artists, Artists’ Union England (AUE) (giving the group power to improve working conditions and resolve unfair wages). And in the US, the Screen Actors Guild (stopping exploitation of Hollywood actors signed by major studios) and the Writers Guild of America (negotiating wages, working conditions, health care and pensions for its members) are just two examples amongst many of creatives unionizing.

San Precario: Prayer from Precarious Architectural Workers
© Peggy Deamer

6. Overcoming the Negative Public Image of the Architect
The public holds a schizophrenic view of architects. On the one hand, people think it is really cool when any of us say we are an architect: they always wanted to be one and they admire the artistic, well-paid, and well-educated trifecta. On the other hand, if they have been in a position to hire an architect, they think “expensive,” “unnecessary,” “merely interested in a personal vision,” “won’t listen,” and will cause their building to leak anyway. They also have a weird sense of what we do. Many sophisticated people don’t realize that we are not developers and no, we didn’t call those pencil thin super tall residential towers into being; while others think, as my sister put it, our time is spend deciding between square or round windows. The point is: the word “architect” conjures up nothing real and nothing helpful. One has to think that if, as is the case in Sweden, anyone can call themselves an architect, people would ask more questions. What scale of work? Where trained and how? Environmental work? Private work? etc., etc. People would want to know if we’re the carpenter type of architect or the “fancy” kind or the socially motivated type or “sustainability” kind. In other words, a more engaged set of questions no longer resting on myth and misgivings would arise.

Conclusion: The Story of Sweden. All of these arguments can be backed up by Sweden’s approach to architectural organizing. As indicated, architects are not licensed in Sweden; a plumber can call himself an architect. Interestingly, in a cross-European survey, it was determined that Swedish architects make the most money; there is, in other words, no link between licensure and pay. But there is more. The Swedish Association of Architects (SAA), they’re equivalent to our AIA or RIBA, is a union, not a fraternal organization. Moreover, it is a union of employees, meaning that it attends to the nature of architectural work, not making of profit. (Employers are part of another union made up professional firm owners from various industries.) And because unions are integrated into the political system, the SAA has power in the parliament. Perhaps because there is no licensure, architectural education matters more in Sweden than one might expect. It (and its accreditation) and not licensure is the proof of competency, the indication that one indeed knows more than the plumber. And because the government has a vested interest in the competency— both because their economy is based on innovation technology and because they will be the clients of most architects—it gives large sums of money to the universities for forward- looking approaches to architecture and to architectural offices for research grants. This means that those on-the-ground architectural workers are the ones shaping the direction of the discipline. The result is an openness to innovative procurement techniques.
One day, other countries might become as enlightened as Sweden. As a country organized by unions, it sets an example that goes well beyond architectural licensing. But in the meanwhile, we can begin with the one controllable act we architects have— deprofessionalization.

[1] Quotes in this paragraph indicating generic meanings are taken from Wikipedia.

[2] Magali Sarfatti Larson, The Rise of Professionalism: Monopolies of Competence and Sheltered Markets (New Brunswick, NJ, 2013), xiii.

[3] US Department of Labor, “Fact Sheet #17D: Exemption for Professional Employees Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)”, available online at: (accessed January 15, 2023).

[4] See Richard and Daniel Susskind, The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts (Oxford, 2015). Also Daniel Susskind, A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond (New York, 2020).