Architecture’s Vicious Equation: High-Cost Education and Low-Paying Jobs. Could PAVE Offer Another Way?

  • 29 Aug 2013
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  • Architecture News Editor's Choice
Gund Hall (home of the Graduate School of Design) during Harvard Graduation. Year 2007. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia User Tebici

Every year thousands of young hopefuls attend architecture school, entering with the expectation that, after their years of struggle and long hours in studio, they’ll come out the other end as legitimate architects doing legitimate architecture.

How quickly they must abandon that unreasonable idea.

From CAD monkeys to baristas, most architecture grads are not doing what they thought they would when they submitted their first tuition checks. And, to add insult to injury, those tuition checks only multiplied, leaving our grads in thousands of dollars of debt.

Surely there must be another way. PAVE, a kind of Kickstarter that connects individuals to investors, offers—if not a solution—then a very intriguing alternative.

According to their website, PAVE is “a funding community that connects talented young Americans with like-minded investors who provide money and non-financial support. In return prospects pay them a percentage of their earnings down the road.”

All kinds of people use for all kinds of projects—from starting ecological fashion brands to getting the first Kenyan to the top of Mount Everest. But of course, the architects using the platform caught our eye.

Daniel Toole, a young architect who will be starting his M.Architecture in Urban Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design this fall, is hoping that PAVE will not only allow him to finance his education, but also immediately begin shaping his career around what he’s genuinely interested in. Since PAVE investors receive an amount proportional to one’s income—whatever it may be—for ten years, Toole has more freedom to take enriching jobs within the architecture industry (where big names all too often correspond with lousy paychecks).

As Toole told me in an interview: “if I take some low-paying jobs in the front end of that first decade after graduation that are rich career-wise i.e. an associate professorship, or a lower paying position in the employment of a renowned architect that might not pay so well, my payments back will be lower than a standard federal payback that would just adjust to my income and be spread out longer. The fact that [PAVE] investors understand this and the fact that they value your professional development is a positive plus.”

Of course, as a recent New York Times article, “Program Links Loans to Future Earnings,” pointed out, there are some who have interpreted the PAVE contract as a type of indentured servitude. Yet, for Toole, “loans are indenturing too.” And, for PAVErs, the idea of giving your money (“indenturing” oneself) to investors who are also mentors, as opposed to an anonymous bank, is what makes the program far more appealing than a traditional loan.

Shane Gring used PAVE to successfully back his business BOULDan organization that simultaneously gives architects LEED building experience and provides affordable green housing. He told me that it’s inspiring for him: his money is “not going to line banker’s pockets, but instead a cool individual who cares about what I do.”

And the best part of PAVE, according to Gring (who spoke to us right before his campaign closed)? “I’m a few days away from having 15,000 dollars in my bank account, to getting rid of my debt and moving forward. It will allow me to rid myself of burdens, to free up my income to have a better lifestyle.”

While PAVE not be the way for all young architects to begin financing their education or endeavors, it does offer an interesting alternative, especially as it could potentially raise public awareness of architecture. As Toole points out, it could become a kind of “Kickstarter for architectural ideas…to be taken part in by the general public.”

However, perhaps more importantly, PAVE exposes how impractically expensive has become (and how completely inappropriate in comparison to the standard architecture income) while offering a potential way to reform it.

On the financing side, a proportional payment scheme would seem to make sense for the relatively low fees that architects tend to earn for the first decade(s) of their careers. For example, despite the many other issues architecture education in the UK may have, UK graduates have paid back their undergraduate tuition fees in a manner proportionate to their income since fees were first instated in 1998. The state of Oregon has also recently approved a pilot program that would have its graduates do the same.

On the other hand, the sheer pressure of student debt has forced many aspiring architects out of the discipline itself. As Gring told me: “Architecture is a very lateral major, the skills – being able to take criticism, present ideas clearly and refine them over time – are very transferrable. [...] It’s super sad: a lot of talented friends are no longer in the field, there’ve been a lot of casualties. There have to be more innovative ideas for it to be reasonable for people to go to school.” Perhaps an industry-wide reformation is needed – unfortunately, though, that doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon.

But perhaps, instead, architecture education should embrace this change and turn these “casualties” into possibilities. If architecture, already a complex, cross-disciplinary area of study, embraced its inherent transferability and prepared students to potentially work outside the field of architecture—and into better paying positions—the issue of financing would cease to be as relevant.

In the meantime, PAVE offers an innovative alternative: a way of working around the vast limitations that the current system has placed upon our students. At the very least, PAVE is sparking an important conversation.

You can help support Daniel Toole’s PAVE Campaign here.

Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "Architecture’s Vicious Equation: High-Cost Education and Low-Paying Jobs. Could PAVE Offer Another Way?" 29 Aug 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 27 May 2015. <>
  • Thomas Batzenschlager

    Interesting article Vanessa ! It is indeed a very important problem that might have big consequences for the future of the profession. But to me, the real equation (which is also in your text) is the relation between the qualitative evaluation of the work of an office and the quantitative evaluation of the salary that the same office propose to its employees. It is a fact that young and creative office are where the lowest salaries are. And as a young ambitious architect, you know that working for a big corporporation that would only focus on comercial design but offeriing you a good salary will be a black point on your CV. This might have bad consequences for the rest of your career. So that’s why so many young people accept these bad conditions in order to save themselves from been rejected from the “creative” world. But we can’t blame these low paying offices : they are not (in most of the cases) responsible for that. The global economical sistem, ruled by the law of the market is hardly compatible with the creative world. It is almost impossible to quantify the creative process and most of the work that a “creative” does will not be quantified as it would be in the case of the production of bottle of coke. The problem is that the un-quantified (and almost un-paid) development process of a project takes most of the working time. The fees are only there to pay what you submit as a material, not the work you have to do to produce it. In that case a comercial office will gain more benefit as it suppose to reduce the process and make it more repetitive, eficient, but of course, less interesting.

    So i think other solution could exist. Laws should be more flexible and at the same time more precise regarding creative work. Or governments should give more financial help to designers. But all of these ideas are going against the wall in times of recession.

    So mabe we should just accept this situation, which not so bad compared to so many other jobs. At the end, we are rich – rich of the right of designing, rich of having the possibility to propose and to be creative, and rich to enjoy every bit of our daily work.

    • Deland P

      Thomas, I agree with you to a certain extent. I think also that architects undervalue their own work and many operate on a strategy of survival rather than adding value to design. For example I have seen small creative offices compete with corporate offices by reducing their design fees to an extreme low level in order to get a project. Also they might do hundreds of interviews and unpaid RFPs in order to get one project. Within that process thousands of dollars and time are invested in models, renderings, drawings, etc. So as a result these small offices will pay their employees little or nothing at all. In addition, through architecture publications, these offices have gained a reputation within students, teachers, practitioners, etc. Hundreds of graduated students will flock to these practices because of their creative reputation and since the demand is so high, the employer knows that someone will take the job for a minimum salary, a stipend, or a sandwich.
      One of the biggest problems is that many architecture firms lack any business model other than to stay to afloat. I recently visited an architecture office in Brooklyn that had turned into a development company. By investing, they have become owners of their own projects and have gained absolute design freedom. They can even choose the projects that they want to be involved. Through this model, even though there is a considerable amount of risk, you get rewards in terms of design and profit. You can also pick projects that will be of value to a community.
      I think a good approach, is to design a way to add value to the creative process. That way architects can be more proactive and relevant in society.

      • Thomas Batzenschlager

        I totally agree with you. I’m still a very young architect (4 years of experience) but i’m already thinking fo how could i open my practice without falling into the trap. By working in different countries in the world, i’ve notices that hybrid firms are more and more common. Architects find ways to merge architecture design with other practice in other to equilibrate their economical balance. The only problem is that nothing prepare us or more exactly, our education doesn’t include the knowledge to establish such strategy, and so you’re right : architects need to learn about buisness, and I’d like to learn too ! But how and where ?

  • Michael F.

    Peer to Peer financing is a risky business. It’s one thing to have a bank or larger institution take on future debt returns, who have better capacity to write off a difference in the payback and what is loaned out. It’s another thing for an individual. The PAVE website doesn’t really address any financial security for the investors, or how the payments are doled out (lump sum or over the course of investment, like most federal student loans).

    The intent is admirable, but PAVE doesn’t address any of this upfront. If it becomes a popular alternative to federal financing for student loans, then hopefully it’ll bring some more leverage and awareness to the tuition costs in general

  • Colin Ford

    My F-in-Law is an 80 yr-old, very accomplished Arch. My wife went back to school early 2000s / mid 30s,to follow-in-footsteps…she’s now grossly underemployed. Schools/Industry/Gov’t must do better job of predicting demand/jobs….or cut the student loan debt on those that don’t pan-out.

    • Eric in Colorado

      Architecture has never been about “demand.” It’s about a person’s desire and personal aspirations. If a person is in it for the demand they’re in it for the wrong reasons. Regarding “Cutting the student loan debt” if a person obtains their education it shouln’t it be paid for, no matter what the circumstances after? If I buy a car and wreck it I still have to pay for the car.

  • Scott Bodenheimer

    There are too many architecture schools graduating too many designers. These schools employ too many architects as faculty who must teach to supplement their reduced incomes from being “creative” vs “commercial” architects. It’s a supply vs demand problem. Either supply has to be severely diminished, or demand must be greatly increased.

  • student

    “a funding community that connects talented young Americans with like-minded investors who provide money and non-financial support. In return prospects pay them a percentage of their earnings down the road.”

    …isnt that what the loan system is?????

  • Eric in Colorado

    This article starts with what has always been a flawed assumption on the part of students, that “they come out as legitimate architects doing legitimate architecture.” Architecture schools in general do not teach all of what is needed to “do Architecture.” There is so much of the business, relational aspect and brass tacks of building that simply have to be learned in the office and field environments. Let’s get the profession (not industry) working on clearing THAT up.

  • D. Whit

    There are too many architects. Period.
    Too scared to be outright artists and too unskilled to actually be in the building trade.
    It seems to me that only architects think they are absolutely integral to the building and construction industry.
    Talented architects will always shine, but be careful who is allowed to claim the mantle. Attempting redesigns and renderings of the wheel and raising the price merely because it is the work of an architect will not cut it any longer.

  • Monica

    To be honest, the situation with education that we have today is very disturbing: while costs continue to increase, the situation with unemployment remains the same. The longer government ignores this problem the closer we are getting to another crisis, which I am afraid will be even bigger than the one we had in 2006. I feel really sorry for kids, as they are forced to drop the education (I am mostly talking about on time visiting of classes) and look for substandard part time jobs). This influences entire education process: worse grades. Of course if go online, you will see that services similar to help to keep marks good. Still, it is not the same