17 Real Reasons Architects Are So Underpaid (& Remain Poor)

A profession involving design always sounds sexy.

Combine design and real estate, and the vast majority of people typically imagines luxurious homes, fast cars, and an even sexier lifestyle to boot.

Architects must be rich, but that perception could not be further from the truth.

Why are architects poor?

And, why are architects so poorly paid?

why are architects poor

Why the Poor & Underpaid Architect

Being underpaid exists when the remuneration is lower than the work performed and responsibilities shouldered.

Compare the architect’s earnings to the salary an average blue-collar worker takes home, and the situation is not all that bad.

But given the architect’s relatively long and expensive education – on par with doctors, lawyers, and engineers – the earnings stake is less than rosy.

Architects make a decent living, but the effort vs. pay equilibrium is unbalanced.

Is the employee architect poorly paid, or is the principal architect not making good money?

An architect’s paymaster can be a private hirer, real estate property developer, government, or an architecture firm.

1. Supply vs. Demand

Colleges and universities train and spit out thousands of graduate architects each year, and the trend is not stopping.

An economy in the pink of health barely supports the existing crop of architects.

When you factor in the increasing number of new architects entering the fray annually and an economic climate that is sluggish more often than it is robust, competition in the job market heats up.

Architects need to compete for the limited projects, and undercutting fees naturally take place.

Most small firms operate on a thin profit margin; because a building’s design and construction duration typically stretch a few years, they need a healthy supply of new projects to support their existing headcount.

Startup firms and freelancers offering architectural services on the cheap to get their foot in the door add to the oversupply of architects in the market.

The rate of supply increase will continue to outstrip demand recovery on the current trajectory.

2. Poorly Understood Profession

Architects have traditionally been doing a poor job educating clients and the general public.

Design and drawings – and the massive efforts to develop them – are intangible compared to brick and mortar or the instant product in hand when you exchanged money for it.

How do window size and placement enhance natural lighting and the room’s overall mood?

How does the architectural treatment shield the large glazing from the afternoon sun yet enhance the façade and blend in with its surrounding environment?

And, how does it affect the property’s resale value down the road?

Each site, building, and structure is different.

These questions require research, design and development, and coordination time to produce a workable solution that fits the functional, costs, and aesthetic requirements.

Educating clients and the public on architecture’s intangible benefits is challenging, but without this progress, it will be difficult to convince the paymaster that the architect deserves higher pay.

Or, at least, not to reduce an already-paltry sum that some architects make relative to the work they produce.

Design is not a necessity for the broader population, but appropriate education and outreach can help forge a deeper understanding of how architecture fundamentally affects the way we live.

Higher awareness means better pay for the profession – hopefully.

3. The Difficulty Factor

An architect’s job scope is wide-ranging and challenging, but it is not beyond an average person’s ability to produce simple designs today.

Deciding on a window position, a door’s ideal width, or the favorite ceramic tiles for the kitchen is straightforward when you do not consider the detailing and practical implications impacting other design decisions.

The abundance of examples in readily-available architecture magazines and user-friendly design software an aspiring homeowner could learn in a relatively short amount of time contribute to the perception that I-could-do-it-too.

Everybody wants to save where they can, and that is understandable.

The general public values professions based on the difficulty factor.

You can cook or build a wooden chair to a broadly-acceptable standard, which is why chefs and woodworkers are not rich beyond dreams, except for the select few.

But you could not perform a surgery to save your own life or represent yourself in litigation, so you pay surgeons and lawyers any amount of money – no questions asked.

Until architects find ways to convince their clients that the world needs them, architectural fees would remain negotiable and architects dispensable.

4. Architects Aren’t Urgent Lifesavers

The need for specialist medical attention or access to legal representation is often critical.

Architectural services are a luxury clients and would-be homeowners can do without, unless the local building code requires one.

Clients typically pay whatever amount the doctor or lawyer charges, but if the architect asks for more, they can easily shop at the next firm.

Famous architects are an exception because large corporations and wealthy business people need their stamp for prestige and social status.

The general architect population does not have that designer clout.

Further, architecture is a form of delayed gratification.

Architecture provides a long-term but slower reward, thus more challenging to demand higher fees.

Humans need shelter, but the shelter needs no architect’s input to be habitable.

5. Clients Love Profits

Architects care about the architectural product:

  • Aesthetics – the interior and exterior,
  • The way users interact with it,
  • If the created space enhances its use and the occupant’s daily life,
  • How the design enriches the built environment, and
  • The endless details the average client cannot see.

Corporate clients share the love for architectural design, but only as far as it can generate a net profit for the real estate they sell.

Architects need to speak the business language of their clients without neglecting the various aspects that a good design must incorporate.

They can subtly and ingeniously convince the client that additional budgets can engineer an increased value and higher selling price for the property – plus the architect’s design fees.

6. Low Productivity Profession

Modern consumerism calls for mass production and efficiency to turn a healthy profit.

The approach to the processes is the same:

  • Research and develop.
  • Finalize and mass-produce.
  • Reiterate for subsequent versions, then mass-produce.
  • Rinse and repeat for the next product.

Unfortunately, architects are in the custom design business.

Architectural services do not directly reach the masses nor have economies of scale.

No two designs are the same – architecture is site and client-specific.

Two houses may have the same floor plan, but each location, site conditions, and market demand can differ drastically.

The necessary coordination work to turn each design on paper into a built structure is massive.

Architectural firms can increase teams and personnel to undertake more projects, but that may involve undercutting fees to feed the pipeline with more jobs.

The overheads increase, and the low % profit remains.

The non-repeatable nature of architectural work lowers productivity in the context of today’s fast-paced manufacturing technologies.

7. Design a Subjective Commodity

One plus one equals two, and a doctor prescribes medication for a set of diagnosed symptoms.

However, the outcome of a design is highly subjective.

An architectural work consists of two major components.

An excellent and functioning architectural design incorporates considerations and solutions that address various conditions and parameters; the result either performs, works adequately, or fails.

The aesthetics – a large part of any design work – is much harder to quantify.

Famous architects may produce excellent designs and can command high fees because their brand name determines so.

Other architects’ work is more constrained by their client’s willingness to pay and rely on the architect’s ability to convince.

8. Eroding Job Scope & Increasing Complexity

Is an architect still the master builder?

The architect’s job scope traditionally covers all aesthetic and functional aspects of a building. The engineers contribute in their respective structural, mechanical, and electrical domains.

The continued advances in building technologies and in-depth know-how of specialist systems increase the complexities of today’s building designs.

In the past decades, the industry’s development sees the farming out of an increasing number of design components that eroded the architect’s traditional scope.

They include:

  • Lighting systems.
  • Acoustics.
  • Energy efficiencyLEED
  • Renewable energy.
  • Façade systems.
  • Roofing.

The architect’s job scope may be less, but the growing complexity of building designs creates exponentially more coordination work that outstrips the scope reduction.

The architect remains the lead consultant responsible for the final work, and the same fees stretch to cover the additional time spent.

9. Most Architects Aren’t Licensed

An architect’s journey from undergraduate education to licensure is long.

It takes a minimum of 9 years – 5 to 6 years of a degree program, plus the minimum practical experience required by the Board, which amounts to 2 or 3 years.

Most licensed architects took longer, but many architectural graduates did not pursue or fail to obtain the license for various reasons.

Compare the median annual salary of an architect against professionals with similar degree program duration:

  • Architect – $68,500
  • Mechanical engineer – $72,000
  • Civil engineer – $75,810
  • Robotics engineer – $90,000
  • Doctor – $106,000

A salaried but licensed Architect can edge towards the six-figure salary mark – a significant increase without striking out independently.

10. Not All Structures Require an Architect

Building laws, allowances, and restrictions differ between States and jurisdictions.

These limits typically determine if the engagement of a Licensed Architect is necessary:

  • Type of building or use – private single-family dwelling, agricultural building, warehouse, etc.
  • New build, alteration, or addition to an existing structure.
  • Number of stories.
  • Total floor area.
  • Total units in a building.
  • Total construction costs.

Small residential new builds and alterations, particularly those not affecting structural integrity, usually do not need an architect’s (or an engineer’s) stamp.

In those cases, a Licensed Contractor’s endorsement may suffice.

Such exemptions mean architects lose out on small residential and simple designs.

11. Slow Return on Investment

Architecture is a service industry with expensive labor.

The full scope of an architectural service includes design, documentation, and construction, and the fees are typically back-end loaded – a higher percentage of the fees paid during the construction phase.

More established firms can reverse that weightage, which is a better safeguard for their investments in design.

The entire duration can run from one year to several more with either option, depending on the type of new build.

It is a slow turnover compared with an interior design commission that covers months with a better return, considering the higher fees over a shorter period.

12. Poor Negotiators

Architects are a special breed of professionals.

They are talented people with an eye for design and can focus on and across multiple disciplines, trained to take impossible deadlines, and still keep the fight going from one project to the next.

However, most architects perform poorly at the negotiation table – due to or despite their nature of work.

Some architects give away free work easily in the hope it will net them the next big commission.

The need to survive is understandable, but appropriately tagging a price to their time and effort is crucial to educate the client that quality work costs money.

Driving a hard bargain given the right opportunities is an essential skill to capture the occasional wins that significantly improve the bottom line.

13. Not All Architects Are Star Designers

World-renowned architects can command fees that run into the millions of dollars per project.

Niche design architects receive a considerable amount of money for their expertise in specific types of building designs.

However, a large proportion of architectural firms are small to modestly-sized entities that target the local construction scene.

They undertake the bread-and-butter residential jobs and need to compete for the limited opportunities in the area.

Their fees are typically negotiable – downwards.

A smaller fee means less pay for the salaried architects.

14. Lack of Niche Specialization

Building designs are becoming increasingly complex.

Specialist system designers have a highly focused knowledge area and skillset and command higher fees relative to their niche.

Such specializations are an avenue available to an architect to limit liability exposure, reduce turnover time, and increase the return on investment.

Architects can specialize as niche building designers or expand to provide cross-disciplinary services under one roof to thrive.

A general Architect risks drowning in the competitive and evolving market.

15. Greed

The architecture business is not all doom and gloom.

It can be lucrative for business-savvy entrepreneurs and large international firms with starchitects.

Architecture firms are private businesses and, as any private corporation would, pay their employees as little as they can get away with.

Architects working for large firms are not immune and can still be poorly paid despite their companies’ larger profits.

Why do architects get paid so little?

Because the salary market dictates, and the employers can.

Decent bosses do exist, and the employee architects in those firms should count themselves lucky.

16. Cheap Foreign Labor

Globalization encourages young professionals to move for work opportunities, and the internet enables the outsourcing of jobs to foreign workers to reduce overheads.

The trend typically involves opportunities for developing countries to export talents, and employees in developed countries suffer.

Architecture firms undertaking more projects with low-profit margins look to replace higher-wage employees with cheaper staff to offset costs.

Globalization levels the competition and makes continued professional development crucial for architects to maintain a competitive edge.

An architecture degree opens doors, but architects need to continually improve to hold a job or increase their salary.

17. High Student Loan Debt Relative to Earning

An architect fresh out of college has a mountain of student debt that takes longer to repay or higher repayment in a shorter period.

A degree that takes 5 to 6 years to complete costs almost twice as much as the more-typical 3-year program.

If the starting salaries for graduates from both degrees are comparable, the salary earner from the longer-duration degree will have less disposable income – all things being equal.

The architect’s compensation is not commensurate with the education level and cost and job complexity and difficulty.

Aspiring architects need to learn design, architectural science, building technology, law, and practice, but an architecture undergraduate program is too lengthy for a profession that largely necessitates learning on the job.

Education is a massive and profitable industry with many stakeholders having an iron grip on the system.

You won’t see a lucrative 5 to 6-year study program shortened anytime soon.

Final Word

Architecture is art and science.

Aspiring architects with a passion and talent for the art of creating have the most crucial ingredient to thrive in the profession.

There are many signs you should be an architect, but getting rich is the wrong motivator to become one.

If you are considering architecture and want to make tons of money, choose another career.

If you are an industry outsider, you had a glimpse into why the life of an architect isn’t all that the media portrays.

The industry has its share of problems, and being underpaid is only one of them.