The Indicator: The Next Architecture, Part 5

Abandoned building, Cincinnati, via

Compensation is, let’s be blunt, a controversial and touchy subject in the architecture profession. It’s taboo to even bring it up. If you are working in architecture there’s a good chance you don’t even want to tell people how little you make because it’s just embarrassing. If you are an employer you don’t want to admit how little you pay your people because it looks bad and is equally embarrassing. So, let’s all be embarrassed together, employees and employers alike. After all, we are all in this together and we all depend on one another.

“What sort of salary range are you seeking?” This was an email a former colleague shared with me. After he sent them his resume and portfolio this is all they asked in reply. What is one supposed to do with a question like that? It used to be that firms would tell prospective employees what they were paying for certain positions. Now, they want you to tell them what you expect. They are banking on you telling them some ridiculously low amount, something way below what you might have been making before the recession.

More after the break.

You see, the market has “corrected itself” and now that the economy has imploded because of the banking industry, salaries have been adjusted down. Keep in mind that compensation has remained mostly flat for decades. Between 1947 and 1977 pay kept pace with the growth of the economy. Starting in the late seventies this trend began to reverse and salaries flattened out relative to economic growth. Below is a graph that charts this trend from 1989 to the third quarter of 2010.

Employment cost index data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Courtesy, The Huffing ton Post

What would this look like if it were done just for the sector of architecture? For one thing, it would be flatter and from 2008 to the present it would show a general trend downward. You can also add to this the statistical fact that American’s, on average, work one month more per year compared to their European counterparts.

The “correction” of wages in architecture is in part a way for the industry to stabilize after enduring the shocks of the recession. As a sector, it laid off almost 50% of its workforce (if you look at the statistics for the period 2008 to the present). What that means is that you, the reader, probably know someone who has been laid off (especially if you reside in the U.S.), or you are thinking, “That’s me!”

As Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton, has noted, the reasons for the flattening are not that complex to understand. It was a perfect storm of globalization, mechanization, privatization, and the legislating away of protections that ensured the growth of the middle class after World War II.

Abandoned office, Cincinnati via

Unions that once ensured the “basic bargain,” as Reich puts it, have been gradually losing ground to protect this bargain since the late-seventies. Architects have never had a union. Though there is evidence to show they might be in need of one. The closest we come is the AIA, but the AIA is not designed to protect the rights of architectural workers. If you are in architecture, you fend for yourself.

In the absence of one entity that looks out for everyone working in architecture firms, it becomes the individual’s responsibility to negotiate a meaningful salary. No one trains you how to do this. There is no ARE section dealing with how to negotiate your salary. There is no studio on this topic.

So, when confronted with the question, “What salary range are you expecting?” There are a few correct answers. Some will get you hired. Others will most definitely get you passed over. Here are a few samples:

To get hired, say the following:

“Salary isn’t important to me. What matters most is having the opportunity to gain experience working for your respected firm.”

“I respectfully defer to the scale you have in place and would look forward to joining your team.”


To be passed over, say just about anything else. I could think of some funny examples, but this is a serious topic. But, I can’t resist just one: “I expect to be paid what I am truly worth.” How about that?

Abandoned building, Cincinnati via

The other problem with compensation in the field is the lack of transparency. In one global firm I worked in salaries were all over the map. People doing the same jobs were getting vastly different salaries. Naturally, those who negotiated more successfully were compensated a little better. Management always asked that you not disclose what you were earning to your peers. Of course, no one listened to this. We all talked about it over drinks after work and then as a group we sometimes tried to push the bar a little higher. Our own little union! Pathetic.

One of the only ways to break through this compensation information wall is a crowd-sourced tool like Archinect’s Salary Poll. Just a quick glance will reveal the range of salaries for similar positions and responsibilities. It is also possible to track the decline I mentioned earlier by comparing results from pre-recession years with the 2008-2010 period. Much of this is tied to geographic considerations, as well. While it’s not so useful to draw a direct correlation between an intermediate architect in Montana with one in, say, San Francisco, it is useful to compare results from major urban areas.

Here’s an example:

27M, Los Angeles, CA, $43,000
Type of work: Fulltime
Type of workplace: Boutique
5 year experience
Job Captain
IDP Completed
benefits (just medical)
normal hours
5 days of holiday
10 vacation
5 days of sick
10% pay-cut due to economy
No raise or bonuses for past 2 years

Here’s another interesting one. You might think, he’s not doing so bad. But he’s older, more experienced, licensed, probably has a house and a family. Compared to his peers in other professions he’s not making it:

44M, Suburban NY, $100,000
Type of work: Fulltime
Type of workplace: Boutique
22 years experience
Licensed NY and CT
CAD specialist
Project Manager up to $6 million dollars
three weeks vacation, unlimited sick days
Must pay own health insurance
Salary reduced 37% due to economy

Before the recession, this person, with an M.Arch., would have been getting at least over $50K. Try living in Los Angeles on $40K. Not recommended.

26M, Los Angeles, CA, $40,000
Type of work: Fulltime
Type of workplace: Corporate
1 yr. exp
Full benefits

Of course, things could always be worse. Oh well. He’s young. Plenty of time to move up, right?

22M, Ahmedabad, $600
Type of work: Fulltime
Type of workplace: Starchitect

The Indicator, a weekly column focusing on the culture, business and economics of architecture, is written by Guy Horton. Based in Los Angeles, he is a blogger for Metropolis and frequent contributor to GOOD, Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper and Architect Magazine. He is also a contributing architecture critic for The Huffington Post. Follow Guy on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in The Indicator are Guy Horton’s alone and do not represent those of ArchDaily and it’s affiliates.

Cite: Horton, Guy. "The Indicator: The Next Architecture, Part 5" 31 Mar 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 29 May 2015. <>
  • Kent Johnson

    thanks for once again making architecture sound horribly unsatisfactory as a career

    • eric

      it is on a financial standpoint. compare us to other professional degrees. compare us with the other trades and consultants, render people, model builders, etc.

    • Jack Becker

      anyone who glamorizes the profession for what it isn’t is doing a disservice to anyone considering architecture as a profession. this was an insightful and honest appraisal of the realities of architecture today. thanks for that

  • Chris Carlton

    Making 100k a year with benefits at 44 with a B.Arch is not bad in my book.

    Tons of careers where a bachelors won’t get you anything more than 60 or 70k.

    • MPArch

      Please note the person mentioned (the 44 year old) lives in the New York area. He has to pay his own health insurance, his car insurance and rent (or property taxes if he owns his house) are all sky-high compared to most of the rest of the country. For a 44-year old with that much experience, AND A FAMILY, it’s not ideal. There are a lot of people with much less credentials that are making more than him.

    • Chris Carlton

      Ahh.. Guess I missed the no health insurance bit, not to mention the 37% pay reduction… and I guess NY is expensive, wouldn’t know myself really.

      • Janeece

        HSY2wz I’m not easily impressed. . . but that’s impressing me! :)

  • jacko

    Pick the right firm and prove yourself as a useful employee and you’ll make more than enough money. I think this is one of those issues that we all just like to complain about no matter how much we’re making.

    You could go work at joe schmoe cookie cutter firm and make 100k a year easily, because they’re a profitable company doing profitable things.

    OR you can go, live the architecture dream and work for a slave driving, high design firm and make the low end of the salary spectrum.

    You choose your own path…start your own firm then, you’ll make a ton of money even on smaller projects.

    • Su Butcher

      So why can’t ‘high design’ firms make it pay?
      Or is it simply that they won’t pay their students/graduates/interns/staff?

      I think we should be told.

  • Dustin

    Architects seriously need to unionize. Things are just going to get worse until we do. It’s crazy that policemen in Canada are pulling in around 100k a year while an Architect with a Masters degree barely breaks minimum wage. It’s time we wake up and do something about it.

  • David

    jacko, whatever man.
    the issue is the graph.
    The productivity line and the salary lines should be more or less parallel. If not, something’s not right.
    Can you get that?

  • Marjanne Pearson

    There’s no question that architecture and design firms were hit hard by this recession. Only the most stable firms were able to avoid laying off staff members and reducing salaries and benefits in order to keep their core teams employed.

    Now that employment opportunities are beginning to reappear, each of us needs to be able to evaluate what we bring to a potential employer’s table. I’ve posted an article written in collaboration with my colleagues, Nancy Egan FSMPS and Paul W. Nakazawa, that addresses how you can evaluate your own credentials in qualitative terms —

    When you go to an interview, you should be prepared to state your own “value proposition” in terms that the potential employer can understand and relate to. And you should also be prepared to address realistic, market-based salary ranges directly related to your potential value to the employer.

    After all, if you can’t talk about your own compensation, how will you be able to discuss fees with potential clients?

    A word of advice: If you’re concerned about compensation, you need to do your homework. There are many salary surveys available, including free information available online via and ARCHITECT magazine, as well as publications for sale from organizations like Design Intelligence, the AIA, and SMPS. Many AIA Chapters will have a copy of the most recent AIA salary survey in their libraries, and most large firms have copies in their HR departments.

    Good luck!

  • Da Insane

    Try Bulgaria for examples, guys! This here is nothing! Really! ;)

  • ygogolak

    I think the case of the internship working for the Starchitect is the most interesting. Large shops utilize this “free” labor and exploit it.
    But the upside is that you have an amazing portfolio working there. Metropolis just did a huge graphic of the spin-offs firms from Rem (Zaha, BIG, FOA, MVRDV, Studio Gang, etc…) Hard to argue with the possibility of future success for a short period of making no money. It’s wrong, but the firms have the upper hand.

  • Fredo

    “I expect to be paid what I am truly worth.”

    I think this sums it up – that shouldn’t be a joke. I think it’s right that the problems with architecture are laid bare, otherwise things will never change. I hope people can take this information and do something positive with it.

  • Belinda Hamilton

    “Vacation” is the controversial and taboo subject in architecture