Chinese architects have told Dezeen they are regularly working through the night while their pay plummets as the country’s property industry deals with a severe crisis.
Dezeen has spoken to more than 10 architects based in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen who reported widespread layoffs, pay cuts and wage arrears in the industry in the past year.
“You are having a good day if you leave work before 10pm,” said Shuchun Yi (not her real name), a young architect and a former employee of state-owned firm Shenzhen General Institute of Architecture Design & Research (SZAD).
“I know some of my colleagues have worked until 3:00am consecutively for three months,” she added.
Yi no longer works at SZAD but was too scared to reveal her identity when speaking with Dezeen for fear of consequences when trying to find another job.
Spiralling developer debt and stalling projects
After a long period of booming urban development, China’s property industry is in turmoil, with developers struggling under spiralling debt and construction projects grinding to a halt.
The crisis is having a major impact on architecture firms, with once-reliable clients no longer commissioning projects.
Among 13 publicly listed architecture firms in China, only one saw revenue growth in the 2022 financial year.
The other 12 all had significant revenue dips, with Shanghai HYP-ARCH Architectural Design Consultant the worst performing, its turnover falling by 60.7 per cent.
One US-based architecture firm with a Shanghai office told Dezeen they have reduced the team’s headcount from around 100 to 30 due to a lack of projects.
Another overseas firm with an office in Shanghai admitted that falling revenues have caused it to curb recruitment, meaning existing staff are having to work longer hours.
Chinese architecture firms are struggling to land new projects as the country’s real-estate boom falters. Photo by Simbaxu. Top photo by Liao Xun/Getty Images
The story of SZAD serves as a useful illustration of the issues facing architecture studios in China.
Founded in 1982, SZAD has offices across the country, including in Shenzhen, Beijing, Chongqing and Wuhan.
Known for designing supertall buildings, it employed almost 3,700 people at its peak five years ago following a strong period of growth driven by China’s real-estate boom.
As China impressed the world with its unprecedented speed of urbanisation, developers demanded faster and faster design and construction times so they could quickly move on to the next project.
In 2013, SZAD signed a long-term strategic partnership with giant Chinese developer Evergrande that led to numerous large projects.
“Architects must reject the ‘follow your passion’ narrative and see ourselves as workers”
“The majority of the projects were residential and formulated, with architects only required to do minor tweaking on each project based on the standard structure that the client supplied,” said Xue Wei, another former SZAD employee (also not his real name).
“Normally it takes between 45 days to 60 days to finish a complete project drawing, but SZAD was able to reduce that time to 25 days,” he added.
“Sometimes, SZAD was even able to deliver a partial drawing of the project in two or three days to help the client speed up the construction.”
Wei claims he and his colleagues were regularly working overnight and rarely had weekend breaks to accommodate the demand for speed.
The obsession with quickly turning around projects resulted in architecture firms fighting to land new projects for lower fees or sometimes even risk not getting paid at all.
“Sometimes the project had already been delivered but the contract was never signed,” said Wei. “It would then be very difficult to get paid.”
Chinese magazine LifeWeek has previously reported similar issues at another state-owned architecture firm based in eastern China.
Employees would have to share the risks as well, as most large Chinese architecture firms use an unusual salary structure in which the contracted salary is set at minimum wage with the majority of income paid in project-related bonuses.
That means if the firm does not get paid for the project by the client, no relevant bonus is paid to the employee architects.
Many architects agreed to such payment arrangements without concern, because there was a consensus that the real-estate market would continue to boom and that the projects would keep coming.