It is relatively well-known and is one of the primary factors of decision-making for many who tread this career path that an architecture salary can be pretty imposing.
However, if you were to survey a few dozen individual architects to assess how much they make, you’d end up with a wide range of data. You’d see that something is going on that makes each architect subject to considerably different compensation than the last one.
For example: In 2018, architects in the States made a median salary of $79,380 annually. The highest-paid 25% earned $104,510 while the lowest-paid 25% pulled in $61,280 (source).
With such discrepancy between both extremes of the pay scale, you’d likely want to investigate the factors that affect an architect’s salary range – apart from the more obvious experience factor.
Beginning with your initial salary as a graduate architect, additional career moves you make will modify this number and make it notably different 5 or 10 years later than the salary of your friends from architecture school at the same point in their career.
How does this happen?
1. Location of the Firm
The local economy, the city’s size, and even the regional value placed on architecture services will make this easily overlooked component of your career subject to severe fluctuation.
The city where you work could lead the world in its architecture and pay you to develop designs worthy of preserving its integrity. On the other hand, you might reside in fast-developing suburbia more concerned with haste and simple, cookie-cutter designs and get paid according to a strict budget.
There is also an international component at play, with two similar designs in two separate nations of different economic statuses fetching – perhaps unfairly – considerably different amounts.
Salary could also vary based on the areas a firm serves. An architect who works for an international firm might receive significantly more for breaking through the global competition barrier than an architect who works for a community-focused firm.
There are many considerations here. But fortunately, online services like Glassdoor can provide an average salary for an architect in a given area to simplify what can become rather complicated.
2. Firm Size
As a general rule-of-thumb, more prominent firms tend to offer bigger salaries.
While the emotional appeal of “community” you get by working for a small firm is valuable, the unfortunate truth for many architects is that they eventually outgrow these businesses when their skills exceed the salary many small firms can provide.
Larger firms have more clients, are well-networked, and generally land more lucrative and well-paying work for the architects they employ.
If you intend to remain loyal, larger firms tend to offer more headspace to grow your skills and acquire promotions.
3. The Firm’s Specialization
Like the previous two factors listed, specialization tends to be affected by the firm’s location and size.
Large firms located in wealthy metropolitan areas are more likely to specialize in commercial projects for Fortune 500 companies or luxury penthouses, perhaps, than a small firm located in Bolivia, North Carolina, specializing in basic residential designs.
Therefore, you might find yourself significantly better off working for a firm specializing in the largest, most expensive, and most economically implicative projects in optimizing your income.
In architecture, when it comes to choosing a firm based on salary, you will find that bigger is better – both in the firm’s size and projects in which the firm specializes.
4. Your Qualifications
Generally, a licensed architect makes more than an unlicensed one. A LEED-accredited graduate from M.I.T lands more high-paying jobs than a fresh-out-of-school, non-accredited architect.
While qualifications do not determine your salary alone, they positively influence your overall hire-ability and make it more likely that you work for a more prominent, optimally located, higher-paying firm.
If you have yet to find the motivation to get your architecture license – and are currently unsatisfied with your career – perhaps the increased likelihood of getting a job offer from a more lucrative firm might motivate you to get started.
5. Number of Years in the Industry
If you compare your salary to your friend from architecture school who graduated at the same time as you did, this won’t apply.
Among your industry co-workers, however, while you might not spend time disclosing your salaries in conversation because of etiquette, the amount of experience that comes only with time has implications in how much an architect’s salary accumulates over the years.
Time alone does not translate into a salary increase – time with skills improvement does!
Additional years in the architectural industry help boost your paycheck because they allow you to become a better architect if you use them to do just that.
The more successful projects behind you and the more ethos you have established in the field, the more value you accumulate as an architect.
6. Current Market Conditions
An architect’s salary is, in many cases, a direct reflection of the economy. One could even say that the economy represents how well architects are doing – a strangely specific analogy, but mostly accurate.
While designing new buildings can be an essential service, in wealthier nations such as the United States, architects tend to receive much of their income through – what some might call – the construction of “luxury” buildings like modern skyscrapers and expensive villas.
In times of recession, demand for luxury goods like brand-new homes tends to decrease, as can be observed in the trends that followed the 2008 Housing Crash when the value of new private residential buildings plummeted (source).
Architecture is a cyclical industry – it is lucrative during times of prosperity but can be incredibly stressful in times of scarcity.
7. Your Role/Position within the Firm
- Drafting technician,
- Architectural illustrator,
- Senior architect,
- Senior designer,
- Licensed architect
What you do – for better or worse – is equal to or greater than the importance of how well you do things.
If you look back on the list of titles, you might notice that salary increases toward the end of the list. While many of the same skillsets are applicable in all the roles, compensation is subject to change a good deal even with what seem to be subtle discrepancies with each title.
Generally, if you have the added responsibility of leading a team of architects, your firm will see this as an added value to your position.
On the other hand, a drafting technician is unlikely to make as much as some of the other positions due to the perception of it being a largely labor-based job.
The highest-paid position holders tend to sit higher on the chain of command, affect the firm’s processes more severely when they call out, and hold the most responsibilities.
8. How You Make Yourself Indispensable
How do you make yourself indispensable?
Is it through your unmatched dedication? Your openness to new challenges?
Whatever the case, bringing something to the table that few architects can match is a way to passively persuade employers to pay you more as an incentive to stay with the firm. A mediocre architect with thousands alike, on the other hand, is unlikely to receive as many notable pay raises simply because they aredispensable.
A mediocre architect, to a firm, is not worth keeping if it means raising his or her salary – it makes more financial sense to let that employee quit so the firm can replace the position with someone else who is content with base pay.
So, are you indispensable?
Would your departure put a sizeable gash in your firm’s operations and profits?
If the answer is yes and your employer agrees – and you have excellent technical skills and experience – then you have the needed leeway to rise into the six-figure territory as an architect.
9. How Unique Your Designs Are
It is impossible to deny that creativity plays a factor in an architect’s salary, considering it is the keystone of the field in more ways than one. Those who stand out with portfolios that jump from the herd are the ones that the best-paying firms will likely hire.
It would help if you made a habit of innovating, bringing novelty to your projects, and capturing clients’ attention through successful presentation and the sheer allure of your designs.
Uniqueness and novelty (along with a reasonable amount of practicality) are the most important attributes you have as an architect to ensure that you truly are indispensable.
If you have not landed your dream job yet, but you consistently produce compliment-catching, practical designs that truly stand out, then don’t give up by settling for mediocrity.
There is a demand for you out there, but there is one more critical element that you will want to master if you are interested in a higher salary.
10. How Well You Promote Yourself
For a firm to promote you, sometimes, you need to promote yourself first. Success does not always shower those who deserve it without some old-fashioned self-advocacy.
It is not a call to arrogance but a call to confidence for those who seek a higher salary.
Many architects who make the most do so because they were not afraid to point out their designs’ positive effects on a firm’s profits and reputation or how well clients appraised their particular efforts.
Too often, talented architects never rise far above their starting salary despite the overwhelming creative potential and evident improvements in technique either because they retain loyalty to a firm they have outgrown or are afraid of appearing arrogant and unprofessional.
Recognizing how you fit into the realm of opportunity increases your chances of seizing more of it.