5 Factors Affecting Your Architecture Salary

Architecture salaries are an issue I deal with regularly when coaching employment candidates. This also happens to be a common complaint among many in the profession.

Let me begin by stating that this is not going to be a discussion on the broad issue of compensation in architecture. Rather this is a close look at what does affect your salary and how you can position yourself to build the best income, given your qualifications and skillset.

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The 2015 NCARB by the Numbers report outlines a very promising trend in the profession in almost every metric.

“This year’s NCARB by the Numbers explores the behavior of aspiring architects on the path to licensure in an entirely new format, allowing for a more comprehensive picture of the profession. The latest data indicates progress in several key areas, which all lead to a single, positive conclusion—the architecture profession is not simply healthy, but thriving.”

Obviously this is great news for architects. We are currently in the best market in many years. As a result, the industry is hiring extensively, giving architects everywhere an opportunity to get a great job with a great income. With that in mind, there are many variables when it comes to salary, as with any career there are a variety of factors in play.

Here are the 5 Factors Affecting Architecture Salaries

1. Firm Size and Specialization

I have worked in both large and small firms and when it comes to salary it is difficult to paint it with a broad brush, but I am going to try anyway… Generally speaking a larger firm hires more people on average, this leads to a greater understanding of the market conditions. Thus they have more data points by looking at a larger pool of candidates. This isn’t necessarily positive or negative.

The larger firms will often pay what you are worth, no more, no less. The one exception might be the “starchitect” office which will be on the low side, especially for entry level positions. However, there can be a huge salary upside at the top of these offices.

Smaller offices are even more difficult to summarize. Typically a smaller firm (under 50 people) will have a larger salary range. This does not necessarily mean a higher range. They generally have less information to work with so are more flexible on the compensation. Keep in mind that “compensation” doesn’t just refer to base salary.

There are a lot of factors that contribute to your overall compensation: healthcare, bonuses, 401k, profit sharing, vacations, PTO, etc. all play a role in your income. Keep all your options open, as small firms are usually much more likely to negotiate all the variables compared to a large office.

2. Region

As a general rule the region plays a significant factor in the salary range. The cost of living is very high in cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Coincidentally (or not) these are now some of the hottest architecture job markets in the country.

If you are up for a move I would absolutely recommend relocating for at least a short time. Just make sure you have a position lined up before you pack your bags. Often by lowering your standard of living you can get a substaintial raise by relocating. Ultimately it is down to the individual to decide what personal goals are a priority.

The region or city you are working in also as an effect on your salary because often the type of projects dictate the compensation. The larger more competitive projects will carry larger fees and can translate to larger salaries for the architects on the project, of course there are exceptions to this.

I briefly worked in a region that was well known for extremely high end custom homes ($1000+ per square foot). The principal architect had found his niche and was able to capitalize on the demand. The same can be said for applying for a role, if you align your experience as a career track rather than just a job you will be in a better position when it comes to negotiation.

3. Skills and Qualifications

The standard architecture resume lists the degrees conferred and that’s usually it as far as the qualifications typically go. This may be fine if you graduated last year but if you are to thrive in the profession you need to be constantly updating your qualifications.

As an American and Canadian architect, as soon as you graduate you need to be working towards your license. Begin by visiting the NCARB website and enrolling in their Intern Development Program. (IDP). Please do this sooner than later, I see many architects put it off for years and it really hinders their career track. Just get it over with.

Over the last ten years software in the architecture profession has really taken off. Fortunately, there are many programs available for free for download including free tutorials. You do not want to be left behind. 

Here are just a few:

Free Revit download for students and educators

Free Adobe Indesign and Photoshop 30 day trials

Sketchup (non pro) is free

There are also countless free tutorials on Youtube and forums to answer just about every question you could possibly have. You need to be proactive with keeping your skills up to date. This is one of the biggest factors in becoming indispensable.

If cuts have to be made at some point, who do you think they will let go first? The person with extensive software knowledge and design expertise? I doubt it.

While management roles use the above mentioned software less, it can still be advantageous. At the very least having a basic understanding how it can be used effectively in the right context is of great value to the design team.

4. Market Conditions

As I mentioned above the market for architecture is the best it has been in years. Whether your focus is on small scale residential or large scale commercial, most sectors are seeing excellent growth.

This is definitely a market that is advantageous to the architect who is looking for his or her first job, a seasoned veteran looking for a change, or someone in their existing role looking to renegotiate their salary.

Let me be clear on that last point. Just because you are sticking around longer than anyone else in the firm does not mean you deserve a raise. This is somewhat controversial as most people believe they should be given an annual “cost of living" raise.

I disagree with this for two reasons.

  1. The typical cost of living raise is anywhere from 1% - 3%. Your goals should never involve single digit raises. This is not an acceptable career track and given inflation it is essentially a stagnant salary.

  2. You need to make yourself so valuable to the company that you become a linchpin. When you become indispensable and go above and beyond your title, they will have no choice but to give you substantial raises to keep your talent around. In this market 10% - 20% annual raises should be your target.

Career coach and "48 Days to the Work You Love" author Dan Miller often discusses a 10x raise.

Rather than aiming at incremental salary increases get in the mindset of creating multiples of your current income and plan a path to get there. Start to build a client base on the side? Visualization work? Consulting?  

Think of your area of expertise within architecture and how you can leverage that into additional income both within your current organization and outside.

If you aim at nothing you will hit it every time.
~Zig Ziglar

5. Your Role

Are you taking a drafting position because you are just starting out? A design director in charge of multiple projects? In many ways your salary will be tied to your position within the company. This is a difficult topic on which to speak broadly as there are many different hierarchies within architecture firms.

However, as a general rule the more people you manage, the more salary you will generate. There are exceptions to this, such as having very specialized knowledge, for example some BIM (Building Information Model) managers can earn more than the average design architect.

Perhaps more than anything, being indispensable is vital to securing a great salary and growing it exponentially throughout your career.

For further reading on salary negotiations, applications and interview preparation see The Complete Package.

Thanks for reading, see also my posts on:

The Top 5 Architecture Interview Questions

Where To Apply For Architecture Jobs Online

The Two Page Architecture Portfolio

Good luck!

Brandon Hubbard, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C

Have a suggestion for a future blog post? Please let me know in the comments below.