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[Critiquing the Architectural Design Industry] Leading a Team both Flexibly and Rigorously: The Story of the Leaders

edited by
Kim Jeoungeun, Bang Yukyung

SPACE November 2022 (No. 660)

 

Leading a Team both Flexibly and Rigorously: The Story of the Leaders

 

Koh Youngsung Formative architects, Ki Hyunchul Junglim Architecture, Kim Jeongim Seoro Architects, Oh Sinwook Architects Group RAUM

×​ SPACE

 

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SPACE  You are in a position to lead an architectural design organisation. Please tell us how you came to be in this position.

Oh Sinwook (Oh)  It has been in the field for more than 20 years, ever since they opened a architectural design office in Busan in 001. The company, which began with only two employees, grew to 16 and now has nine employees, including myself. In order to maintain a tight system of eight people without expanding the size of the studio, only eight staff seats were set up in the office. As there are members of staff who are on maternity leave and those who have traveled abroad, we are not out of seats at the moment.

Kim Jeongim (Kim)  I worked at Yoo Kerl’s studio (iArc) for about 17 years and have been a co-principal since 2004. During this time, I began to feel a certain impatience that I would not be able to become independent if I delayed decisions any longer, so I set up an architectural design office at a relatively late age. It opened in September 2012, and this year marks exactly 10 years of its lifespan. Not long ago, I hired a friend as partner who I met as a new hire when I was the head of the department, and a total of 10 employees are working with us. I tend to manage every aspect of the project directly, so I think the personnel limit is 15 people, at which level I can still maintain the status quo.

Koh Youngsung (Koh)  I opened up an office at the end of 2011, when I worked at Solto architecture. Then, in 2016, co-principal Lee Sungbeom joined the team and we established Formative architects together. It has been seven years, and the number of employees has steadily increased, and now there are 19 members, including 2 directors, 14 full-time employees and 3 interns. We tried to maintain the number of people, but due to the increase in the number of jobs, the number of people inevitably increased.

Ki Hyunchul (Ki)  I graduated from an architectural school in Bordeaux, France, and worked at the Bernard Buhler Architecte. I am currently the head of the NID (Next Integration Design) department of Junglim Architecture (hereinafter Junglim). Junglim has 920 employees, of which 420 are in the design department, and a similar number are in the CM department. Since it is an office in which various projects are carried out simultaneously, NID department oversee the resource pool, design direction, and data archiving necessary to maintain the corporate identity on every project. Due to the nature of the job, experience is a requirement, so they are composed mainly of about 20 senior employees.

 

 

The Talgeon Phenomenon: Are We in a Period of Transition?

 

SPACE  Recently, many architectural design offices have complained of a manpower shortage. I wonder how you, in the business for a long time, have viewed the phenomenon of design personnel leaving the industry and the subsequent changes to working life?

Ki  The so-called talgeon (leaving the architecture industry) expression is itself unfamiliar, but there have always been groups of people leaving the industry. However, there are more things to compars such as work intensity, working environment, and welfare unlike the past. In the past, many people left the architectural design industry due to difficulties with their work itself or their physical strength and health limitations, but these days, designers rethink their career after encountering larger companies and IT companies as clients and accessing confidential information about other fields.

Oh  I don’t think there’s much difference in talgeonbetween the past and now. Only a few alums survived of the people I studied architecture with 30 years ago. The majority of workers who endured low wages and intense workloads but failed to acquire the license left the architectural design industry one by one. On the other hand, the MZ generation, for whom it has become easier to obtain an architect’s license, exhibits the tendency to decide their career path quickly upon graduating from university. However, in the case of workers who have acquired the license, resignation seems to have dropped significantly. Last year, four out of eight employees left the company after acquiring an architect’s license. Leaving to become an independent architect cannot be called an exodus.

Koh  As a generation who entered university immediately after the IMF financial crisis, I think of my generation as a trapped generation. However, each generation seems to recognise the talgeon phenomenon differently. The older generation sees architecture as a noble endeavour of unique value. Therefore, there was a strong perception that architecture would be dead outside the framework of ‘design’. If the older generation's escape from the architectural design industry for unavoidable reasons (health, money, etc.), the MZ generation will ‘leave’ for other fields quite apart from architectural design field to pursue other career options. There seems to be no difference in the percentage of cases, compared to the past.

Kim  Lawyers and nurses have been saying the same thing: that there is a labour shortage in their field. Every generation and society are on the shift, and this phenomenon is due to a change in society’s overall perception of labour, not merely a matter faced within the architectural design industry. As such, we should reflect on our reasons for taking this seriously by adopting a certain language. Shouldn’t we focus on the fundamental problem of not being able to supply and demand manpower? However, it is overly cautious to describe this situation as ‘the MZ generation is less passionate about their career or are aimless’. The more other people above them point out faults and scold, the more they conceal their true heart, since they are fully aware that our generation recognises them as such. Compared when I was their age, they have much better skills and abilities. I think it’s passionate enough just to have a career in this field with this salary while not taking other better jobs. However, I don’t think that the younger generation nowadays join studios, and boldly take up apprenticeships to follow the passage straight to senior architects until they become independent.

 

Every generation

and society are on the shift,

and this phenomenon is

due to a change in society’s

overall perception of labour,

not merely a matter faced within

the architectural design industry.

Shouldn’t we focus on

the fundamental problem of

not being able to supply and

demand manpower?

 

Office Management and Working Conditions

 

SPACE  When and where are the designers moving? I'm also curious about how you’re dealing with this issue.

Ki  Due to the large size of the company, the office manages data related to resignations. Statistics on the overall turnover rate or resignation rate have not changed significantly. However, if there is anything remarkable or of note, it is that senior employees with much experience are taking job offers outside the office. As of this year, software development and asset management are the most frequent destinations. The main reason was the salary gap, but large-scale architectural design offices, including ours, have suffered similar problems. Large offices are working on big projects, so there are many projects that take a long time until the end of the project. The new generation is sensitive to information and wants to get it done quickly, so the studio allocates talents by project. When a long-term project is in a lull, then it is time to move to another project.

Oh  The atelier is put on alert between October and November when the results of the architects qualifying examination are announced. This is because employees who have been working for four to six years will leave the company once they obtain their license. Last year, four of the eight employees left the company within a month or two. Though we found a replacement with five plus years of experience, employees who haven’t worked with us before are like new employees for about a year. When the requirements for obtaining an architect’s qualification were more than five years of experience and the passing rate was low, the period came every seven to eight years, but now everyone takes the test in the third to fourth years, so the period has become much briefer. Accordingly, we have several employees with similar years of experience and can assume the work even if one or two people leave the company. In order to maintain the system, the company has three directors, managers, and assistant managers, hence the more fixed expenses. Meanwhile, I am teaching at a university for the fifth-grade design studio, and all 13 students are preparing to go to Seoul. There are fewer and fewer cases of preparing for jobs in local offices. In particular, they aim for Seoul without knowing the defining characteristics of or any information about each office. It is also clear students are more attracted to largescaleoffices. It’s a pity. So the new talents and new hires are very valuable. On the other hand, relatively few senior workers return to local offices based on their personal circumstances, but they said they had nowhere to go. The overall communication throughout the field needs to be improved.

Koh  We have a similar situation, with three team leaders and three assistant team leaders, and the remaining eight employees are under them. We set the turnover cycle of new employees as three years, and recruit new employees every year on the premise of regular turnover. All of this even when the staffing is not required. In any case, it is difficult to find experienced workers.

Oh  As staff turnover accelerates, a problem occurs in that the quality of our drawings is somewhat stagnant at the level of the third year. Since there are post-delivery problems, the only way to maintain the quality of work is to hire senior people as key personnel, even if it costs more.

Kim  In the past, I also thought I would not hire for experienced positions, but that has changed recently. In our experience, employees usually leave after four to five years of employment, which also means that companies rarely have more than five years of employees. Managers with more than six years of experience are responsible for one project each, so manpower depends on the number of projects. So, the way ahead I discovered was to hire a senior freelancer on a projectby-projectbasis. This is possible because we have a group of people in our office who have been working with us for a long time. The relationship didn’t end after the resignation, but I was helped in many ways while maintaining a partnership with them. If you add new employees to them, they will naturally be educated about the workflow, so the identity of the office will be maintained. Recruiting with in-house designers requires a lot of fixed costs, but because contracts are signed on a project-by-project basis, it has the advantage of being flexible, such as time and salary, that can be adjusted according to each other’s circumstances. People with children adjust their working hours, going to work at ten in the morning and leaving work at four in the afternoon. People who open their own companies work together according to the situation, and work two to three days a week.

 

SPACE  I’m also curious about the onboarding process. If you acknowledged the reality that employees change every three to four years, what efforts would you make to maintain the company’s design identity or quality control?

Oh  For small-scale ateliers, we do not feel the need for a customised education for seasoned designers, regardless of the year of experience except for those joining us with less than one year. There is basically no need for a programme, the detailed design education that our office does, whether it’s in the first year or the tenth year, should be under the same instruction for all employees. Our company strategy is to keep a project journal and log all the issues. All discussions and instructions that occurred during the project were recorded in a diary and shared. Even if the project leader changes, if you only study what is written in the diary, you can get a detailed understanding of how the work is progressing. Issue summaries refer to the main issues issued during the week, such as laws, demands of public officials, omissions, and so on, organised by the person in charge and announced at the Monday meeting. The content brought in at this time is something that everyone should pay attention to, regardless of years of experience. If you learn these things as data, that alone becomes a good education. This is an inclusive education. This is what I found after a process of much trial and error.

Kim  Principal Yoo Kerl said many times that; ‘the office is not a place to study, but a place to work’. Someone pointed out that the attitude of coming to a studio to learn is wrong, and I completely agree. I don’t entrust projects directly to juniors. Form a team with one or two people below the manager level and allow them to learn on their own within the team, beginning with client exposure, however, we also share a link to which data can be found in which folder by sorting out all the past project data systematically on the server.

Koh  There is no separate training since it runs a small scale, so it’s a hands-on structure. While I agree with the first two, I tend to give them as many opportunities to design according to their own vision as possible. When they are coming back empty-handed after spending some time to think on their own, it gives them an ownership that they connect with the project. I believe this is the time when designers forge attachments to the project. Starting next year, I want to educate them in a slightly different way. Instead of giving new hires a project right away, I’d consider having them do a supporting role under a team leader for about six months, allowing them to embark on their own projects once they’ve gotten used to the work to some extent.

Ki  Many large-scale architectural design offices employ group design. Decisions must be made within the team as it does not follow the design of a specific leader. At this point, we tend to do a lot of reviews because we need to ensure autonomy within the design identity of Junglim. From the design review to the technical review of the drawings, all must undergo a lengthy and systematic process. If you don’t follow this process well within the system, you won’t be able to meet deadlines. Therefore, education is essential; we teach how to use the data in the archives organised by type, using the outcomes accumulated by Junglim as an asset. On the other hand, we lead them to the support of specialist departments within the company (environmental, mechanical, structural, contracts, etc.). Projects that have not been digitised use Metaverse and 3D scanning technology to convert them into useable data.

 

SPACE  In light of the recent social debates concerning the work-life balance, there seems to be a growing concern about the kind of working environments and benefits offered.

Oh  Until recently, I was condescending about such considerations, but in the last two or three years things have changed dramatically. In the past, I thought it was a great opportunity because I worked a lot and worked overtime so I could get extra pay and learn a lot. According to legal standards, I took all the weekly holiday and overtime pay, but the starting salary of a new employee with a starting salary of 30 million KRW was more than 40 million KRW. However, employees today think differently. Maintaining a work-life balance is even more important. So instead of eliminating overtime from three months ago, we have each team meet the project deadline. In the case of design competition teams, I gave them autonomy and held them accountable if they couldn’t submit, and it has worked well. Of course, the sheer workload has to be digested within a few hours a week, so we needed more manpower. Finally, seeing what I should have done in two weeks in three weeks, I realised it wasn’t impossible. In their free time in daily life, employees realise self-development by site visits and reading. A recent welfare effort is to introduce two cats to the office. After one cat came, the atmosphere of the company improved, and I realised that small things can make employees happy. Of course, I also go to work on weekends to take care of the cats. But I regard my work-life balance as positive; the office is running well and the staff is following me well. (laugh)

Koh  Our experience was slightly different. In the past, offices had an open air arrangement like a university design studio. However, as the time to concentrate on work is becoming shorter and shorter, the working hours are also gradually increasing. At the risk of being called ‘old-timers (kkondae)’ I felt the need to control. No matter how much we talked, late students disappeared within a week of when we made a rule requiring late friends to submit a late reason statement. The generation of today seems to be afraid of official records. They are also relatively sensitive to being disadvantaged or losing money. When I try to support basic expenses like overtime payments and taxi fares to compensate the unreasonable things encountered in the office, but employees take it for granted and complain about the incentives regardless of the company’s revenue or their contributions. I find this frustrating. 

Ki  When thinking about office welfare, the most valuable thing for employees is time. Junglim introduced the mandatory work system. We are implementing a system where if you keep your working hours from 10 am to 2 pm, which is an intensive work period, you can freely adjust your working hours based on the 40 hours per week. Individuals can use their time efficiently because commuting isn’t tight and everyone submits and manages time reports. However, the managers have no choice but to go to work early in the morning and take care of the team. This is because managers have so much responsibility and authority over work. It seems that this system has played a role in increasing the total number of headcounts.

Kim  There was a peak season last year where I worked overtime quite a lot for a while, and many people resigned during that period. Since team leaders set schedules from the start of a project signing, and they are with client meetings and processes, employees work overtime based on a teams’ needs. Although overtime pay is not paid separately, the holiday date has been adjusted, and there is no loss compared with overtime hours, and rewards will be given at the end of the year. Because of deadlines, if I’m working on vacation, I'll give them as much rest as possible. No specific person in the studio is in charge of accounting and business management, and we all write our working hours into Excel timesheets.

After one cat came,

the atmosphere of

the company improved,

and I realised that small things

can make employees happy.

Of course, I also go to work on

weekends to take care of the cats.

But I regard my work-life

balance as positive;

the office is running well

and the staff is

following me well. (laugh)

 

SPACE  With the introduction of the architecture accrediting system, most universities revised their five-year programmes and implemented a designoriented education. What do you think about the effectiveness of this education system for our field?

Oh  Actually, I didn’t notice much of a difference. While engineering subjects were indeed excluded from the curriculum, and more time was devoted to design, so the architecture-related education increased. For me, there are no discernible differences in practice. After the introduction of the five-year programme, if you complete three years of practical training, you can take the architect license exam. The system needs to be supplemented by introducing a 4+2 programme or extending the training period.

Kim  From the employer’s point of view, I agree with this statement, but it seems that education is not a matter of judging only from the employer’s point of view. After graduating from a four-year programme, I was also studying theory in graduate school, and the set reading and what I learnt at that time became an important source of enlightenment for me from which to broaden and deepen my views. I think the five-year programme is also a system for developing the skills desirable for an independent architect. Looking at the creation of working drawings and detailed drawings and the creation of practical design studio courses, I think architectural education has become more fulfilling. Unfortunately, however, for students who do not plan to choose a different career path, there are no alternatives. The United Kingdom implements a 3+2 programme, and a bachelor’s degree is awarded after three years of schooling, which can be transferred to other colleges and departments. I think such a reasonable supplementary measure is necessary.

Koh  Even after college graduation, many folks find it difficult to understand and design the scale of the bathroom. I think more practical training is needed.

Ki  I wish there was a step in the course that would cut it once so students could decide their career path earlier. I believe that more specialist education should be offered to those whose career paths are determined as design. There may be alternative ways, such as earning credit after about six months or a year of practicing in the field.

 

 

The Future of Architects

 

SPACE You have been working as an architect for a long time, what are your concerns at this stage?

Kim  I feel that it is meaningful and precious in itself that I am able to continue in this career. My first goal was to design about ten spaces that I really liked. As with the joke, ‘My longing is to pursue a long career nothing else’, I'm concerned about the sustainability of the office. Due to the nature of the industry, architecture is an energyintensive profession. Instead of existing in isolation, it is better to listen to the stories of several people and solve the problem with a more comprehensive view, and conflicts will arise. You have to overcome the fatigue that comes with this, and to make it in this industry. 

Koh  I couldn’t agree more. Even though we are quite busy with projects, we always feel the need to do something new, so our energy seems to run out quickly. I’ll be fortyfour next year, and I’m already thinking of about long I can continue in this job, and I am not even 50 yet. As I continue to be stimulated by social media platforms like Instagram, I feel that controlling my speed is an imperative.

Oh  Turning 50 this year, I start to feel like the people I know have disappeared. Structurally, even those who get noticed as young architects in their 40s have a hard time continuing to work into their 50s and 60s without keeping their work ethic. The age of clients and field managers is also declining, but it takes superior effort to work flexibly with a youthful attitude. In this context, the breakthroughs that come to my mind are design competitions domestic and abroad. I think the competition could be a breakthrough if I want to work while validating my worth without being content with the status quo.

Ki  There are many people who have been with Junglim for 20 to 30 years. Personally, in my late 40’s to early 50's, this seemed to be a time when the unwavering affection for architecture started to diminish. Taking off the sunglasses, free from the preconception of architecture, I am one step away from illusions that space and light create or even from a grand architectural concept, the holistic insight and artistic inclusivity of looking at reality become expanded. I see this as an opportunity to jump into another dimension with a broader perspective.

 

SPACE  Is there anything you would like to see in the field of architecture or in wider society?

Ki  In reality, the immediate cause of difficulty for an architect is the deliberation and licensing system. The administration requires design books and deliberation that even the responsible civil officers cannot handle. When I ask an expert to do something I can’t do by myself, the workload increases over time. In many cases, the results overlap and contradict each other. I think there is an urgent need to improve the system so that working life is not overloaded with side tasks.

Oh  I cannot help but refer to the design competitions. They have long strived to improve the quality and impartiality of public buildings, but those involved and their supervisors need to work hard not only to make the system healthier, but to run in a healthier way.

Koh  For the sake of our workers, we strive to charge fair design fees. When a design request is received, we disclose the cost of the design in accordance with our standards right from the beginning. Those who find this high will naturally turn to a new office. Whether the client is private or public, I hope I can work at a fair price. If the standard of payment for people known to the public increases, wouldn’t the unit price of the design market where new architects enter the market also rise?

Kim One of the biggest problems is the disappearance of mid-scale offices between large-scale architectural design offices and ateliers. In fact, as capitalism tightens its grip, polarisation and imbalance exist not only in architecture, but in society as a whole, and so there is no clear solution. It’s time to think together how to create a healthier industrial ecosystem where all classes can flourish, even if it’s a pyramid.


Koh Youngsung
Koh Youngsung graduated from the Graduate School of Architecture, Hanyang University, worked for Solto architecture, and then established the design lab, EXA. In 2013, after changing the office name to Formative architects, many emotional, experimental projects developed. He aims to create architectural projects that pay attention to the sincerity of an essence rather than the surfaces of a space.
Ki Hyunchul
Ki Hyunchul graduated from Korea University's Department of Architectural Engineering and France's Bordeaux Architecture School, EAPBX. He has worked at Junglim Architecture since 2008 after working at the Bernard Buhler Architecte. He is in charge of the convergence of design and technology and the advancement of the organisational design process.
Kim Jeongim
Kim Jeongim is the principal of Seoro Architects. Kim graduated from the Department of Architectural Engineering at Yonsei University and the graduate school in the same university. After 20 years of various practical experiences in offices led by Kim Incheol, Seo Hyerim, and Yoo Kerl, Kim opened Seoro Architects in 2012. Kim is interested in creating a holistic environment that reflects the interactions and relationships between elements constituting our modern society and contains various landscapes of usage.
Oh Sinwook
Oh Sinwook is principal of Architects Group RAUM and works as an adjunct professor at Dong-A University and a public architect in Busan. He graduated from Dong-A University in the Department of Architecture and earned a doctorate with his thesis, Study on the Meaning and Effect of Schema in Architectural Design Process. He has worked on a variety of projects under the theme of ‘spacery and the future ahead, the new spectrum of white’, and he recently published Architecture of Self-Esteem.

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