Architect’s Salary – Wanna Know?

Bob Borson —  January 18, 2010 — 137 Comments

** UPDATED post – ‘How much money does an architect make from November 28, 2011 **

How much money do I make? I never get asked this question even though people are probably curious. There is a perception from the general public (at least those that I run across) that architects make a lot of money. There is also the perception from within the younger members of architectural community that think architects don’t make enough. Both of these perceptions are irritating to me because it removes some really basic considerations from the criteria one should know in order to provide a qualified answer.

Are you any good at what you do?
Do you have a skill set that is in demand?
Are you able to provide more than one basic service with competency?

I graduated from the University of Texas School of Architecture in 1992 (currently ranked as the #5 Best Architectural undergraduate degree program in the country) with a Bachelors Degree in Architecture. My resume is pretty good and have worked in a lot of different types of practices and have run across a lot of different personality types. Most of these people have graduated from various architecture programs from around the country but the different abilities and skill sets among these people is as varied as any slice across any other profession. And surprise – some of the folks I worked with I thought were great and some were terrible. I have had 9 jobs in the last 17 years. Prior to the one I have now (8 years), I have never stayed anywhere more than 3 years, most were no longer than 18 months. Sounds bad I know, but, I could more than likely go back to any of my previous places of employment and get a job (except for one job that was a 4 month stint that has all disappeared from my permanent record…)

According to the United States government Bureau of Labor Statistics – the Occupational Outlook Handbook,the salary range for architects is:

Median annual wages of wage-and-salary architects were $70,320 in May 2008. **Update –  $72,550 in 2010**

The middle 50 percent earned between $53,480 and $91,870.
The lowest 10 percent earned less than $41,320
The highest 10 percent earned more than $119,220.

I know a lot of people who make considerably more than these figures and I know some people who fall below these levels. Of the people who fall above these numbers, the one trait that almost all of them share is that they are not motivated by the money. They do this because it’s what they love to do, at least at some level. Talented architects seem to never take a day off from architecture; it’s part of who they are. They plan vacations around buildings and places they want to see, take pilgrimages to these special buildings, buy books endlessly about architecture, etc.. Bottom line – it’s not just a job and by extension, not about receiving a paycheck.

Several employers know this and endeavor to make opportunity part of the compensation package for younger architects; opportunity to take on new challenges and get to do something above their current pay level. Some of the best firms to work for are also some of the lowest paying firms but they have a culture in place that rewards achievement with more opportunities for achievement. From the firms standpoint the downside to this type of “compensation” is that eventually your best talent will leave because someone will pay them more to continue doing what they are currently doing for you. From a business standpoint, architectural firms will pay someone a lesser salary but provide them with more opportunities to do things that maybe they have not yet mastered instead of having someone do this work who can complete the task in less time (remember that TIME = MONEY). In order to maintain a viable business structure, if someone is going to take longer to do something, you have to have a lower operating expense assigned to that person – seems pretty obvious to me.

I was reading another architectural blog yesterday and someone had asked the question “why don’t architect’s get paid more?”. Paid more?…Paid more than who? Doctor’s? Lawyer’s? Just like in our profession, there are some Doctors and Lawyers who make a lot of money but they don’t ALL make a lot of money. It’s seems pretty simple to me – people who are exceptional at what they do and/ or provide a service that few other can make higher salaries. Doesn’t that hold true with everything? Where did this sense of entitlement come from? People complaining that they went to school for a long time, took a lot of hard tests and don’t make as much as some other vocation from our society. That drives me insane.

Also from The Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Occupational Outlook Handbook, the salary range for lawyers is:

Median annual wages of all wage-and-salaried lawyers were $110,590.
The middle half of the occupation earned between $74,980 and $163,320.

Based on were those lawyers work:
Management of companies and enterprises was $145,770
Federal Executive Branch was $126,080
Legal services was $116,550
Local government was $82,590
State government was $78,540

For someone to determine what they should be making simply based on the fact they are an architect is foolish. There are extremely competent architects out there that don’t make a big salary because they don’t have commensurate abilities to run an office, or communicate, or manage the time spent working on a project. There are also architects out there that are doing tilt-wall construction warehouses and site adapting Circuit City’s and Taco Bells that are getting rich.

The most important thing for anyone considering a career in architecture is to try and determine what you like and what type of projects your skill set is best suited. IF you can do that, than regardless of what your paycheck is, you will be rich.

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  • D,

    Hi Bob, what would you do if you were me?
    I have just graduated and I need a job ASAP. I have always wondered (throughout my schooling, and the few internships that I got) if I am good enough. I feel like I didn’t learn a lot of essential things while in school, and although I hold a Masters degree in architecture, I don’t feel confident to call myself an architect. I consider myself super creative and I have a love for design, but I feel like there is so much I do not know about architecture and structures that I dont feel confident when I apply for a job. I am terrified of getting hired and being fired for simply not being fast enough. I can sketch you anything, but am not too savy with any software. I jumped from one to another while in school, so I know a little bit of everything, but I regret not mastering at least one. Quitting architecture is just not an option for me, 1. I love it too much, 2. i’ve invested too much. So I am yet again a recent graduate terrefied of the real world of architecture.

    • Bob Borson

      I’d stick with it. I don’t honestly think you are feeling anything too unique for new graduates. In fact, I put off taking the A.R.E. for years because I felt like I didn’t know ANYTHING about being an architect … When I finally did take the test, I passed all of them on the first try so whatever my initial concerns were, I clearly got over them.

      It will take some time and experience before you start to feel like you are asking the right questions and have the ability to solve your own problems (or at least, know where to go to get the right answers). These are the things that matter. I hire people in my office for their ability to problem solve – which infers that I am always asking them to do things that they don’t know how to do. Nothing wrong with that, but thinking you aren’t worth having around because you don’t already know everything is a waste.

      Best of luck.

      • D,

        Thank you so much for your response. I have been watching tutorials on Revit and have decided to dedicate a solid 2 months to it to gain some confidence. I do have another question if u get a chance to reply. I am moving back to the US (came to London for Masters) and am currently applying online, so I am pretty much open to all states for a job and can move anywhere, do you think it will hurt my chances since employers will want me to already be in their city? should i leave out my address from my CV so they don’t know? whats the best way to ensure they don’t hesitate because of my location? Any cities you recommend for someone who is 100% open to move?

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  • Anonymous

    This is one of those posts that just won’t die. So I guess it’s a good one.

    I have a B-arch. I graduated from U.T. Austin in ’96 (4 short years after Mr. Bob). In my time, I have leveraged my experience from living in NYC, SF, LA and working in some really challenging work environments. I’ve built some notable things, some impressive things and some lucrative things, but it’s all been fun.

    When I left TX for SF in ’97- I was making $35K
    I moved to NYC in ’99 – I started making $55K
    When I left NYC to go back to TX in ’05 – I was making $75K – (10 years experience)
    From ’06-’12 – I went out on my own. I was making $159,000 + bonus
    ’13 – I have my practice, a related business & am also an owner/develop my own projects, I will net $230,000.00.
    ’14 – was a very good year. Salary (both companies + investments) = $449,000.

    My point in this is not to brag, but to state that you can use the skills and knowledge, you gain as an Architect to help yourself. Where I see so many Architects fail, is that they save their money for that ‘nice car’, Eames furniture or $100/ft tile for their kitchen, where as if you started investing in a condo in an up and coming neighborhood, you could put your knowledge of cabinetry, tile or roofing to work for yourself. Hold it for 5 years, sell it for a profit and reinvest.

    I still do this. I help someone with some advise in exchange for material or some labor. Heck, I installed hardwood floors this weekend in a rent house I’m about to sell because the materials were $3500 and the labor was $7500 and I’m certainly patient and clever enough to make my weekend be worth $7500 more in my pocket when it comes sale time.

    I don’t know how to help those folks in expensive market (NY, Seattle, Austin, SF) it just isn’t tenable to live there making $125K a year. I think of it the same way I do a $100/ft tile backsplash. You may want it, but you can only have it at the price of something else. Enjoy living in those markets and learning the skills from those high pressure, long hour situations but when it’s all said and done, Take your skills and leverage them where you make the most difference, comfort and the best life for your family.

  • Bill

    I’m a Part 1 Graduate Architect – I make $24196.80 a year.

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  • Sheilzcurie da Dios

    what can i do after loosing my direction?

    • Bob Borson

      depends on how you lost your direction or where you are in your current development (school, early professional, etc.). Are you disenfranchised by your role within the profession or if you’re still in school is it a particularly challenging year/studio/teacher?

      There are a lot of moving parts to this question and responding without knowing more would be very difficult.

  • tushar

    can we get a good job without doing mba after doing b.arch

  • Nemanja

    Per month or per year ?

  • Vic

    Be your own boss!

  • 198kevin

    You know what drives me crazy. The whole if you aren’t willing to die poor and have no friends you aren’t dedicated. There is no other profession with this mindset. Lawyers, if you could find free time during law school, people praised your time management. Same with doctors in med school. Architecture….you must not be dedicated. What is with this profession? Why is being a well rounded human being a bad thing. the whole paying with experience is complete bull. Whenever I hear a boss say, “this will look great in your portfolio.” As an excuse to get me to do something for free I immediately think what cheap f#$% And wanting money is not fake. It’s hard to live out your dreams when 3 years out of school you feel like your killing your bank account if you splurge and get a burrito for lunch instead of your peanut butter sandwich on trader joe’s $1.99 bread.

    • Girafa Ponkan

      It’s hard to live on your dreams when you need to feed a baby. Life is real. No joke.

  • JL

    A lot of people who get into this business(profession) need to do more research before actually committing to it. The schools will never show us the dirty side of this business(yes “business”) If they show us we would never be interested in applying for this romanticized major. Who wants to type up boring forms and draw up meaningless plumbing plans, look at lawyer written zoning and codes for a small 1 family house in Hickstown that need the toilet renovated and file in the local town hall. Who wants to deal with rude clients and government officials attitude. Who wants to do accounting and payroll every month(12a.m. in the morning)? But this is the reality of this business(DEAL WITH IT!). Just like in a relationship/marriage. School is just the honeymoon period. If you enjoy design go get a job in a design firm with design works. If you just want $ get a job that pays you more for your rendering and drafting skills. If you can’t get either than be happy at least you have a job. If you are not happy about your job….CHANGE YOUR JOB IMMEDIATLY! Life is too short. But if you can’t change your job/situation there is no point of complaining and thinking about it. My advice to people who are suffering or think they are suffering in this profession. Try to improve yourself as a person first. Improve the way you think. Improve your skills in all area of our field. Know a little bit of everything and built on what you learned. Be good and respectful to your boss or client no matter now they treat you(cause you can always quit). Built up your own reputation and always remember your client/boss is always your Boss after all. respect them! respect yourself! ….Once you got all those down all your jobs will be flooding in. You won’t even have time to count your $:) I was very happy as an architect when I was making $200 a month running a starting business and is still very happy as an architect. I am still trying improve as a person as an architect and a businessman every moment, Life and business is full of up and downs. No need compare or think about salary to much…….P.S. am making top 1% since 33:)

    • Johnross Dhliwayo

      Love the passion :) , im only starting ,i really feel like i want to do my own thing , obviously there has to be investment in time and knowledge input , Do you think its doable ?, straight out of university . thanks for sharing

      • JL

        Doable but I think its best to finish your internship and get your license first. When you have your own business you wont have time to study. Also as you get old and have kid it just make it that much harder. Good luck