architects, competition and professionalism


Envy is the ulcer of the soul.” – Socrates

I came across this quote while scrolling through my blog feed and was almost struck dumb by the enormity of it’s implications. For years I’ve talked about the need for architects to be more organized as a community, to work more diligently at building up the next generation, to be more involved in local activities and generally to simply promote the profession in a positive light. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that the biggest problem and the most difficult hurdles to get over would be envy, and her evil sister, pride.

I’m not sure why this never fully occurred to me before, but looking back at my career I’ve seen first hand the territoriality of architects and their work. And not just with other architects whom they are in competition with, but even with employees. One friend of mine, when he left one of the last firms he worked at before hanging his own shingle, was nearly threatened with a lawsuit because a potential client was going to follow my friend rather than stay with the other firm. I remember thinking at the time “how ridiculous is this?”, but thinking back now, it’s a pattern of confrontational behavior that has always been in our profession.

This envy of others leads to an attitude of “well, I should have gotten that project because we’re more qualified…blah blah blah”. This continued attitude leads to more of the same and eventually becomes a competition of pride where architects begin puffing themselves up more and more and taking cheap shots at their competition in this race to try and get more projects than the other guy.

All the while we don’t realize that the client is in the middle of this game, and they see what’s going on. They see the bravado and the chest-pounding and wonder why they need to put up with this crap just to get a building designed. I wonder the same thing.

If the profession is ever going to move beyond this sad state of affairs in a global marketplace we have to rekindle the sense of community and collaboration that we felt early in our careers and even during studio. When we are able to work together we all do well.

8 thoughts on “architects, competition and professionalism

  1. I have seen this several times in my career. That is how many people are able to start out on their own because they were able to take some clients with them that they worked with at a different firm. This is the reason why so many companies have “no compete clauses” written into their contracts with employees. Of course this does not only happen to us architects but to many professional companies. I hope that someday this all stops, I doubt that it does, but we can hold onto the dream.

    • Steve, thanks for the comments. I’ve had my own share of experience with the “no compete” clause. I even talked to an attorney once who specialized in construction law and dealing with architects who basically told me it’s not enforceable. The example is that if you left a firm for another and worked as an architect/intern in any capacity you would be violating that clause owing to the fact that all firms typically compete for the same work. In essence it would force you not to work in a given city for 2 years after leaving. No court would uphold this. At least that’s the story I got.
      Either way I think things HAVE to change. As the world gets smaller and smaller we either work together or in many cases we just don’t work.
      Thanks again!

  2. I am with you the whole way here, but after receiving an poorly written RFP this week there is another side to the picture. We often lose work for all of the wrong reasons…another topic. That frustration breeds and we vent it on the wrong person, the other architect versus the client. Sometimes unscrupulous or just selfish clients will use this envy tactic against us for their own benefit. They pit us against each other to get the lowest fee.

    As for the no-compete thing, people want to work with certain people for a reason, even if its someone that leaves an office. You can’t fight that, not even with no compete clauses.

    • Speaking of the RFP process, what would happen if, say, three firms that were all “favored” for a project decided “hey, lets form a joint venture for this project”. Oops, no competition among colleagues, everyone gets a piece of the project and the client gets decades of experience all converging on their new building. Winning.

  3. Great post & comments here. Some of the roots of the issue can be found in the academic model of arch school, whether it’s a student huddled over an obscured drafting table or a overly dismissive juror at a crit. It’s easy to see how this helps lead to a professional culture that is inherently skeptical, competitive and yes, envious. One ray of hope for the future is right here where this conversation is taking place: social media. Over several years I have found that the interactions between architects etc. has been decidedly more friendly, cooperative and open than the real world. That being said, I doubt that the emergence of architecture communities in social media has changed much about the issues discussed here, but for the individual to have access to these online communities where the sense of competition is less prevalent is a positive thing.

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