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A Conversation With Peggy Deamer

A Conversation With Peggy Deamer

"There seems to be this dichotomy where if you talk about money or architecture as a business, you must not care about design. How we got into that false dichotomy is boggling to me. How did that happen?"

Peggy Deamer is Professor of Architecture at Yale University and a Principal in the firm Deamer, Architects. She is a founding member of The Architecture Lobby, a group advocating for the value of architectural design and labor.

Jack Murphy (JM): We had a speaker in the lecture series recently who used Hannah Arendt’s distinction between labor and work to think about the difference between architecture and buildings. I know the distinction between labor and work is important for you; maybe you could start by talking about how you see the distinction for architectural work?

Peggy Deamer (PD): I had never actually heard before that labor was equated with building and work was equated with architecture. Usually what one hears from the Hannah Arendt discourse is that labor is bad and work is good. Labor is what you do to feed yourself—it’s what animals do—and that work is something that has a more lasting value, a more cultural value.

If you actually read Hannah Arendt, that good/bad dichotomy is really not the case. For her, it’s a dialectical process. Action is the final thing. She’s not trying to set up that “work equals good, labor equals bad,” she’s trying to say that even work—where you’re doing more than just daily sustenance—isn’t enough to build a good society. What does make a good society is action, being involved in a political context, arguing for the community. That’s how I think about redirecting the Hannah Arendt discourse.

For me, the work/labor discourse operates at a whole other level, or in another context. I think work is what we do personally. We go to work at 9am, we come home at 10pm, if you’re an architect, so work is something we understand as a personal activity. Labor is just an indication of that work functioning in the economy. Labor is not a negative thing, it’s a descriptor of a government’s or a nation-state’s understanding of its GDP, via the cost of labor.

I can switch easily between the two terms, and neither is good or bad. One just makes you conscious that you are a cog in an economic machine, to put it bluntly, but also that the wheel has larger implications than your personal experience of work. It’s not just, “Do you like your job?” There are larger questions at work.

Francis Aguillard (FA): Hannah Arendt identified work, labor, and action. Would action be part of a motivator for setting up the Architecture Lobby? Do you feel like that was missing from what you were seeing around you in the architecture profession? And another question—take either one—is: What would be the importance for you of situating architecture labor within the broader economy? I find that really fascinating, similar to situating labor as a definition of something that happens in the economy.

PD: Well, I could talk about that on two different levels, but it makes me wonder if you read Thomas Piketty’s Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century.

FA: I haven’t read it, because I’m so intimidated by it. [laughter]

PD: Part of what he talks about in the book is that there are two different kinds of wealth. One is the wealth that comes from labor, which is: You get a salary. You work, and you get a salary. For the most part, throughout history, the balance between that kind of wealth and the money itself making wealth—money growing money—has been about 1:6. Whether it’s in your personal lives or through the government, one sixth of it is from labor, and the other five sixths is really money making money, your savings, and whatever. Part of what is now so distressing to him is that, in the United States in particular, that ratio is out of whack. The division between the haves and have nots is much more extreme than it has been, which means not just an unstable economy but an unstable government. This is just to say that labor is part of the larger discussion of how we think about these things.

I guess in some way maybe I don’t have an answer to the question except to be conscious about understanding value in a different way, whether you have your own firm or you’re working for a firm. To understand the value of labor is to understand the value of employees, such that you all are paid well, and the reason to pay you, an employee, well is so you will stay longer, and in staying longer, you’ll contribute more to the firm, you’ll know how to make better buildings, and you’ll have a larger vision. There is a larger payoff to understanding the value of labor. You’re not going to have a business plan if you don’t understand the value of labor.

Where architecture sits in that larger theme… the fact that we’re a small part of the economy is weird because construction is a big part of the economy. So our not attaching ourselves to construction is a large part of what needs to be talked about. I’m a proponent of attaching ourselves much more to the profits that come with construction and investigating how we do that. But there are other people who think that if architecture wants to survive, it has to disengage itself from construction—that our dependence on construction and its vagaries, in terms of recessions and depressions, is part of our precarity.

Maria Nicanor (MN): In Spain, for example, architectural education is framed very differently, and is also much more connected to the construction industry. The educational process implies that you have to almost invest practically ten years of your time to become an architect. The technical component of that is very heavy, very strict. You’re practically an engineer after you come out of architecture school, and it is therefore, very much tied to the construction industry. But the financial crisis was catastrophic for Spanish architects and it meant a complete migration of young architecture professionals in Spain to other countries. It’s a system that has valued that connection and, in the last decade, has suffered heavily from it. I wonder where the balance is between those two systems. I myself am a product of being intimidated by that system which was too technical—I prefer the American system—and I didn’t go to architecture school, partly because of that.

Sam Schuermann (SS): I’ve been thinking about the relationship between education and licensure. What it would mean for education and what that would mean for labor to have licensure upon graduation? What might that mean for the architectural market as a whole? Would more people start being architects? If we had no licensure, would there be a big difference from architectural practice now?

PD: It’s interesting. I think that one of the reasons AIA is so weak is because it doesn’t control architectural accreditation in schools and it doesn’t control licensure; the first is handled by NAAB and the second by NCARB. If we wanted to have a professional organization that had more power within society and the government, we would have to have an organization that controlled all of these aspects. Recently, RIBA in the UK separated licensure from accreditation. They felt it was a mistake, and now they’re working to unite them again. I think the reasons for that are that if you set up an antagonistic relationship between the two, then neither of them has much power to sway the architects or the legislation. So I guess that’s in my head, besides the positive example of architects in Sweden. For those of you who didn’t listen to the podcast, Sweden, where anyone can call themselves an architect—that is, there is no licensure—has the highest paid architects amongst European countries.

There’s no relationship between the professionalization and higher fees, which I think is interesting. But it seems that right now, when people hear architect, or a client hears architect, they think, “More expensive, interested in their own vision, won’t listen to me, the building will leak anyway, and why should I do it?” Once you think that, there’s, “Why don’t I go with the person who’s charging ten percent instead of twelve percent cost of construction, or charging 150 dollars an hour over 175?” If anyone can call themselves an architect, they might actually ask, “What’s your background? What do you know? What is your experience?” whereupon you can talk about the fact that you have an environmental concern, or that you have done sixteen buildings out of wood so you know wood construction, or whatever. You would actually start a discussion about experience, expertise, and interest. That just doesn’t happen now. I don’t think potential clients ask real questions; they just think “expensive,” and “interested in their own egos.” The set of questions that would come up if we didn’t have the professional siloing could be helpful.

SS: Then expertise becomes a continuum or a sliding bar rather than a yes or no, which I think is problematic in the US right now.

PD: Absolutely. I think things would be really different if we had a sliding scale. You could do a certain kind of work after a set of years.

JM: Earlier in the conversation, you mentioned being interested in ways for architects to more closely integrate into construction and participate in the profits that come from the construction industry. I’m curious about ways you see that happening through contractual models or arrangements? I think one thing you mentioned before is the fee being based on how much money you save the client versus a percentage of construction cost. What are other ways you see that integration being possible?

PD: The most concrete way is through integrated project delivery contracts. Those contracts set up a limited liability company (LLC) as an agreement between the owner, the contractor, the architect, and whatever important subs might be on the job. You can bring in as many players as you want to address the parameters of the project: the time frame, the goals around quality, the performance criteria, and the cost. The owner can reliably finance or fundraise that amount, as everyone has had to agree to that. It’s not like the owner is saying, “I’m not doing more than twenty-five million,” because the contractor and the architect are there saying, “There’s no way. If you’re also identifying this amount of quality and performance, it’s just not going to happen.” The owner puts their money aside with profit as part of that figure, so that if the project comes in on time and on budget, everyone shares the profit. The risk and reward is shared equally. For me, it’s a fabulous model. Obviously, it would make most people hesitant because when it’s not design-bid and you’re not able to choose your contractor based on who will do it the cheapest, you have to have an enlightened owner who, before the process begins, will identify the contractor. But they’ve identified their architect, you know, so!

Toshiki Niimi (TN): I have a question that may be related. It seems like the way you talk about labor as part of the economy—like problems about how architecture labor is valued, for example—is ingrained in broader societal systems. I’m wondering how an individual architect or smaller groups of architects can tackle that problem? Do you think it’s through the reassessment and re-evaluation of the actual value of the work that architects provide?

PD: Yes.

TN: Do you think that’s through contractual arrangements, or are there other ways that you think would work?

PD: Contracts are one, but I also think it’s changing the narrative. That’s a narrative from owners to their clients about why it’s absolutely worth it to do eighteen percent. You could say, “Yes, you can go around the corner and get someone who will do it for twelve percent, but one of the reasons why this is worth it is because I only hire the best, and I hire the best because I pay them the best and because they stay around. The people who work for me have been with me for ten years as opposed to a revolving door of ten years. Since you’re probably going to be working not just with me on projects but you’re going to be working with a few people in the office, I want to make sure you’re handed the best people.” I mean, that’s just an example of the kind of change of narrative that would be helpful.

I still practice, but at one point my practice was much bigger, and when it was much bigger, I think that we thought about hiring people just based on what was competitive. If Tom Smith Architect upstairs was hiring for $35,000 a year, we better offer $35,000. I don’t think we ever even thought about it, and we certainly didn’t think about whether we were looking for people to stay long term. Nor was there any analysis of what we were paying people and what we were charging people. It was kind of like we were told eighteen percent—oh okay! We were told $35,000—oh okay! I don’t think that’s a business plan.

In some way also, it’s part of our attitude that we do piecework. You hire up if you have a project and you fire down when you don’t have a project, so you don’t have to think long term. You don’t have to think, “We made money on this one,” “We lost money on this one,” “Now we have eight people,” “We have four people now.” That’s kind of the way things go. That’s also not a business plan… But I’m not sure whether that’s what you’re asking.

TN: I read in your answer a type of long-term engagement with people that enables their value to be better appreciated. Maybe one of the problems with the economy now is the fact that we’re doing work everywhere and so everywhere we go we hire somebody new. And since we don’t have any knowledge about that part of the world, we have to judge based on a value that’s extracted from the quality that the people are providing.

PD: That’s interesting.

TN: I wonder if greater local engagement is something that’s closer to what you’re describing?

PD: I hadn’t thought about it in terms of local engagement, but I think that’s absolutely right. One can speak to the real conditions on the ground as opposed to just thinking, you know, “This will take three people at this desk and that software,” and whatever. Yeah, it’s interesting.

It makes me think about Peter Gluck, who’s an architect in New York. His firm is design-build, they are their own contractors. His team members go live in the area, and that’s an example of what you’re talking about. That’s a real point of power. It offers a control that we normally don’t have, and I think it gains respect from the owners who know that those local conditions are tentative.

MN: That’s very connected to the way that students can now shop around. You all decided that you wanted to come to Rice. You could have picked any other school, and that’s certainly not local, right? In terms of what’s out there, the market for education is vast. It’s not local, probably, to your origins, and also not local to where you’re going to end up practicing—possibly, not always. The ideological differences between all of these schools are vast as well. Some of them are making that gap between the profession and construction bigger, it seems. Is that part of the problem, that some schools are intellectualizing the profession too much?

PD: I really hadn’t thought about it. I teach in New Zealand quite often, and I’ve been struck by the fact that when students do thesis projects, they always do them in the town that their school is in, which I have thought is provincial. [laughter] I mean, it’s partly because many of them grew up in the town that they’re going to school in, and so they want to go back to their neighborhood and solve the neighborhood problem. I’ve always thought, “You should learn about larger problems, or you should learn about larger conceptual problems.” Part of me thinks you need to have the broad view, the kind of global view about where architecture can insert itself. But I guess in some way it’s true that you want to think about the place that you’re going to work in. I don’t think anybody thinks about New York in New York. They’re in New York because it’s where the firms are big and they do fabulous work, but I don’t think anyone is thinking about New York as regional condition at all. It’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about that.

FA: I think one of the things that comes up, whether it’s local or large-scale, is that some understanding of architecture in a macroeconomic context is helpful. It opens up all these questions and the realization that there are alternatives to understanding it through typical partnering with a MBA program to work on a development in Hudson Yards, for example, or through understanding it like Patrik Schumacher understands it as global markets and stocks flying around. There are macroeconomic frameworks which really make something critical and make you challenge how architecture is done, and I say that because the economic part gets kind of downplayed in the discipline sometimes as being overly pragmatic or not academic enough. To some degree that doesn’t even exist very much as an academic project, and so it’s hard to frame the questions.

In addition to contracts, what The Architecture Lobby and you talk about is about first situating our own value in a firm, no matter how big or how small, and that eventually this would have some correlation to when you bid on a 300 billion dollar project and situate the value of the profession. You point out that a lot of these things eventually catch up with us, when we undercut each other, work for free internships, or take a job with a master’s degree for $30,000 in New York or Los Angeles. All of that eventually translates to the upper end as not being able to situate value at any line of the process.

PD: Right, because you don’t have the language. Part of what you’re pointing out is that it’s not something you talk about at school or in the profession at all.

FA: Even though there are academic models for it in other disciplines.

PD: There seems to be this dichotomy where if you talk about money or architecture as a business, you must not care about design. How we got into that false dichotomy is boggling to me. How did that happen?

This is why I think one way to overcome that false dichotomy is to think about design in the larger sense, that how you get the project done—procurement—is a design project. That’s not not design. It’s part of the ingenuity of being persuasive, of having the big picture, of knowing how the pieces fall. It’s knowing how this trade can be leveraged. I just think there’s another way we can think about the business side so it doesn’t feel so threatening.

MN: Well, how you do it is design, right? And if you consider yourself a good designer and then your process is not good design, then that’s not a critical way of practicing.

SS: I have a related question that is certainly indicative of this larger problem.

What would you say to a student in a condition where multiple professors and administrators at the majority of architecture schools encourage you to take an unpaid internship because it’s at a firm that is well known, or where they encourage you to take out loans to be able to pursue a job somewhere that you’re not going to be paid? How do we stop romanticizing and fetishizing undervalued labor or exploitative labor practices for interns?

PD: Don’t do it. You just say no. Say, “One, it’s illegal, and two, I value myself more than that.” There are no ends that would justify the means, because the means become the ends pretty quickly. Colleagues of mine whose firms are failing have no concern about exploiting labor; they use their personal precariousness to justify bad and illegal wages, and I think there’s a relationship! They are encouraging exploitation and they’re not succeeding. You know, let’s kind of put this together somehow.

JM: I think one thing that comes out of this is a real reorganization of how firms are structured. One thing that I’ve been seeing and looking at a lot of are different models for how firms can be organized—not just the visionary and the draftsmen, but sets of partners making firms or people making firms who are across the country or across the world. Maybe you could talk about how firm organization and firm culture—to articulate it at that institutional scale—makes a difference? We’ve been talking about it, but maybe in terms of a business plan and the organizational framework for the work itself?

PD: One of our projects at The Architecture Lobby now is encouraging small firm cooperatives. At one extreme, that means employee-owned firms. At another level, it’s pooling resources for a number of small firms, organized either geographically or programmatically. Offices might have the same person administrating the benefits, doing the salaries, the financials, and the healthcare so that each firm isn’t starting from scratch to figure these things out. There’s a place to go where all of that is given. How much sharing of expertise and sharing of employees… that’s part of how far one is prepared to take the cooperative model. I personally think it is natural to go from sharing expertise, sharing resources, to sharing wealth.

FA: I think we have time for one more question. One item about the Broch ‘n’ Talk format is that you could ask us anything. Maybe you could end with one last question to us?

PD: Because of the local question that came up, I’m curious about how much being a student here in Houston or at Rice affects your desire to work in a particular way? Do you think your education is particular enough that you would operate differently when you get out there in the world than if you had chosen another school?

TN: I would say, and I can only speak for myself, that Houston as a city is so different in many ways that it does make me really aware of the economic aspects of architecture. You go out and drive on the highway and you would see weird urbanisms everywhere here. It makes you aware of social implications of the built environment. It really makes me aware of architecture in relationship to its larger networks.

PD: Where do you think you’re going to practice?

TN: I don’t know yet, but I’m from Japan.

PD: So you’ll go back?

TN: There’s a good chance. I ask some of these questions because Japanese practices are pretty notorious for their exploitative ways.

PD: It’s so interesting. I’ve just heard horrible stories. The relationship between architects and constructors seems to be so positive; it doesn’t harbor the antagonism that we feel with our contractors here, and the quality of construction is so much better. It’s interesting there’s this positive on the one hand. How did that exploitative side happen? I mean, I heard SANAA is horrible, you know—you have to compete to be unpaid. Is that right?

TN: I’m not sure. I have a bit of a different perspective because I only partially grew up there; I stayed in the US for high school and college, so my sensibility is slightly different. But I know there is a tradition of apprenticeship models that’s been upheld in the country. My sense is that when the apprenticeship model merges with the global capitalist way of constructing buildings, it turns into a massive mess.

Rose Wilkowski (RW): At Rice there are a good number of professors that are long-term Houstonians; either they have been here for the majority of their careers or they were born and raised here. I think they have a unique approach towards their projects. They really are invested in improving Houston as a city and they know from experience that it has a lot of infrastructural problems that they’ve seen develop over the course of their careers.

At Rice it’s not just, “I’m really invested in doing great houses,” but that good design is important on high- or low-budget jobs. At least in my experience, it has opened up a lot of different approaches to different types of projects where you can make money. I don’t think I would ever come into this program thinking that you could do affordable housing for non-profits and actually make money. It just seems like that would be pro-bono or something, but no, there’s still a market for that. There are organizations that want good, well-designed, well-executed projects, and are willing to pay money for that.

PD: So even if you don’t stay in Houston, there’s something about that commitment that has been demonstrated to you that you can bring to another place.

RW: I have to admit, before I visited, I think I viewed Rice as this bubble of a private institution. Nobody knows it’s in Houston, sometimes, but to come here and to see how invested Rice is in Houston is pretty incredible.

FA: I think we should end on that positive note instead of global capitalism distorting the apprenticeship system, which is also equally valid. Thank you for the time.

PD: Not at all, thank you for being interested. I’m encouraged. I really think that it’s your generation that’s going to change things. I think my generation’s drunk the Kool-Aid and is not going to change, but as you enter into the profession, I think you’re going to be more savvy and value your expertise more.

This text is edited from a conversation that took place at Rice University in Houston on October 10, 2018.

Thumbnail image of Broch 'N' Talk conversation courtesy Rice Architecture.

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