The Indicator: The Next Architecture, Part 5

The Indicator: The Next Architecture, Part 5

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.

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.

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?

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 B.Arch unlicensed 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 NCARB B.Arch Licensed NY and CT CAD specialist Project Manager up to $6 million dollars 401(k) three weeks vacation, unlimited sick days No OT 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 M.Arch Full benefits 401k

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 Internship

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

About this author
Cite: Guy Horton. "The Indicator: The Next Architecture, Part 5" 31 Mar 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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