Cornelia Li

Josh Mings, AIA, has vivid memories of how the modern architecture of Columbus, Ind., shaped his childhood. He wandered the stacks at the I.M. Pei–designed Cleo Rogers Memorial Library; ran into the concrete columns placed smack in the middle of the hallways at Fodrea Community School while rushing to class; and marveled at the Brutalist design of the city’s Southside Elementary. There was no doubt in his mind that he wanted to create awe-inspiring structures, too—he wanted to become an architect.

Mings, who has been practicing for 10 years, already had the feeling that he was shouldering an unsustainable workload at a housing firm when the pandemic hit. He’s now taking a leave of absence to focus on his health in the wake of weight-loss surgery that he underwent in August 2020, and he feels unwilling to compromise on work/life balance in a future position. His 60- to 70-hour workweeks were negatively impacting both his physical and mental health.

“By and large in housing, clients demand aggressive scheduling so that they can get the most return on investment,” Mings says. “That causes principals that are chasing the work to agree to deadlines that aren’t suitable to the practice of architecture and actively burn out project architects, staff architects, and emerging professionals—which leads to a profession that cannot sustain itself and damages the mental health of those within it.”

He adds, “We now have to face project timelines that are even more aggressive and unsustainable due to the issues with global supply chain and construction market pricing.”

Architecture is far from the only industry currently facing upheaval. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in December 2021, and a September 2021 study from the Harvard Business Review found that resignation rates up to that point were highest among midcareer employees (those between 30 and 45). Wide swaths of workers are being spurred to reconsider their priorities.

Within architecture, calls to organize for better working conditions—like the unionization push at SHoP Architects at the end of 2021—are initiating honest conversations about long hours, compensation, and a lack of diversity that makes it challenging for architects of color to feel accepted. The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the racial reckoning it instigated across American culture only added a further breaking point in terms of stress for many architects of color.

The crisis is real, and it’s supported by data. Monograph, a company that makes project management software for architects, surveyed 225 architects in 2021: 96.9% reported that they were experiencing some form of burnout.

A Tipping Point

Burnout is not a medical diagnosis, according to the Mayo Clinic—rather, it is a compendium of feelings of depression, a general lack of well-being, and even physical symptoms like shortness of breath. It’s a side effect of many creative jobs, but architects are particularly susceptible due to the rigorous nature of their work.

According to the Monograph study, the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t cause burnout for architects, but it seems to have made it worse. Of the architects surveyed, 87.1% said that their burnout increased during the pandemic. This tracks with the experience of architects like Mings, as well as that of Patricia Acevedo Fuentes, AIA, who left traditional practice a month ago after realizing that she could no longer cope with long hours and a culture that, as a Latina woman, she found challenging. She now works for a developer and her work/life balance has greatly improved.

“I was working 55 to 60 hours a week,” she says of her pandemic workload. “There was no break—there was no light at the end of the tunnel.”

The increased hours became additional to what Acevedo Fuentes felt like had been an unofficial title throughout her career: equity, diversity and inclusion consultant.

“I was doing two jobs, because the white people were not doing the work and they were expecting me to educate them,” she says.

As the murder of George Floyd coincided with the beginning of the pandemic, Acevedo Fuentes explains, the focus was on equity, diversity and inclusion. “Everybody [was] talking about EDI and centering the human experience in the work that we’re doing. But because we were remote and Zooming in and out of meetings, I feel [like those discussions] fell to the wayside.”

“I would be shocked if people of color weren’t leaving [the profession] in this moment,” she says.

How to Move Forward

The shock waves currently being felt in architecture have the potential to impact what the profession looks like for years— even decades—to come. At the principal and firm-owner level, finding qualified applicants has become a challenge.

“I feel like I get a call every other day about a project,” says Mark Gardner, AIA, principal of Jaklitsch / Gardner Architects, a small boutique firm in New York. He can’t hire fast enough to meet demand for the amount of work that’s coming his way and the number of potential clients that are looking to fast-track projects to get out in front of potential supply chain challenges or price increases that may lay ahead in the coming months.

“I was talking to some younger friends in architecture who were talking about their friends who had left the profession during the pandemic, and we’re really feeling it,” Gardner says.

For those who have recently completed architecture school, it can be tough to see the value of licensure. One 2020 graduate, who prefers to remain anonymous, is reconsidering their commitment to the profession in light of the turmoil they have experienced entering the job market. They are struggling with the decision to spend “so much time and effort studying for the licensing exams on my own time and spending what little money I have saved for a career that is on such shaky foundations,” they say.

“I talk about this topic with my therapist often—my conflict between wanting to practice good architecture but not feeling like I can have a secure future with the work/life balance I want,” they say. Hesitation to enter to a profession that has the potential to cause burnout is a valid concern—and one that the profession needs to reckon with if it wants to effectively address pipeline issues.

While there is no singular solution for the problem of burnout, acknowledging the multifaceted problem is a place to start.

“Strides are being made in equity, diversity, and inclusion [in architecture]— but these are all for nothing if overwork, unsustainable deadlines, and workloads remain,” Mings says.

For architects like Acevedo Fuentes, however, overwork was just one facet of her frustration—progress in areas of EDI isn’t happening quickly enough to keep architects like her in the profession.

“It’s so easy to brush me aside and say, ‘Oh, well, she just wasn’t cut out for it,’” she says. “And we [women and minorities] hear that so much, but that’s not really the problem.”