Is the profession of architecture broken?
REQUEST: Before reading this article which was published to subscription only readership I ask you to instead donate to the Architects Benevolent Society through The Broke Architect Podcast's Just Giving Page, any donation will help.
This is an article which was published by Bdonline on the 14th of April 2023 and I want to thank editor Ben Flatman for supporting MY thoughts on MY profession. To those who want to question the contents of this article, I welcome it. Don't sit in silence, stand up as I did and help to sort out the bloody mess we find ourselves in. Architects are indeed superheroes and deserve respect, but let's get to a situation where our investment in education makes both emotional sense and financial sense!
So who am I? Well, I'm a Fellow of the RIBA, a Fellow of the RSA and an Ambassador of the ABS with 23 years of experience as a Chartered Architect. I lead the delivery of multi-billion-pound nuclear projects for the UK government and I also have a mentoring company The Global Architect Alliance.
Published Article in Full:
Architecture is often classed as a noble profession, but when your monetary foundations are already deeply unstable after years of loading university debt onto them, many find the starting salaries offered to young graduates to start building their lives rather offensive.
So why not go it alone and start your own practice? Risky decision with potentially big pay offs, one would think. But the reality is usually that the university didn’t prepare you with the skills to run a practice.
Over the years, times have changed and the economy along with it. But the challenges facing architects old and new to the profession, remain the same: a stagnant salary that often sees promising individuals and businesses going out of practice.
Each year a number of architects will either go personally bankrupt or run companies that go into liquidation or administration, often owing huge debts to their creditors. It’s for this reason that I set up the Broke Architect Podcast: to hear from architects who want to share their personal experiences.
In 2015 award-winning Malcolm Fraser Architects fell into liquidation with the loss of 15 staff. Owner/director Malcolm Fraser found that he could not make his architecture pay, stating: “The work we did is beautiful and important. However, we have been unable to make it profitable.”
So, I’ve been asking myself: is the profession of architecture broken?
Perhaps this is just an example of one sorry incident. But even when architects aren’t literally going bust, there seems to be a prevailing sense that fees are unrealistically low, and that it is becoming ever harder to deliver the level of service that clients and society deserve. So, I’ve been asking myself: is the profession of architecture broken?
When I first qualified, back in the year 2000, I recall coming across a job advert from a practice stating they were looking for an architect, to be located in Manchester. 10 years of experience was required and they were offering a salary of £40,000.
Twenty-three years later you can still find job adverts for similarly experienced architects in Manchester for £40,000. If you factored in inflation, this should be a salary of £70,380 in 2023.
The only conclusion is that salaries have not kept up with inflation and are stagnant. Is it that architects’ fees are not rising in line with the rising costs of constructing buildings because of the pressure to keep fees low? In monetary terms, something seems very unhealthy with the profession in 2023.
Most architects will begin their career in private practice, receiving a salary often set by the practice owners using the RIBA Annual Benchmarking Survey to guide them. It’s a vicious situation that feeds itself, with low average salaries pulling down the few higher salaries so that we all suffer.
With universities becoming more like factories, churning out architects on a yearly basis, we clearly have an oversupply of architects, but sadly only a few of them are equipped with the functionality to deal with the demands of the profession. I’ve interviewed architects who set up their own practice straight after qualifying, but then discovered that they didn’t understand anything about starting a business and in the end, it all ended in tears.
The current educational system does not prepare you to start your own practice, so you are often forced down a path of working in commercial or public practice, accepting the salary on offer, hoping that one day it will improve.
Many architects are busy working their way up the career ladder, putting in those extra unpaid hours, trying to understand the business, and hoping to win new clients so they can leverage this at their next pay review. The pressure of life in practice can lead to countless stressful situations.
My podcast guests have shared stories of poor pay, cash flow issues, and cancelled projects leading to redundancy. One of the worst examples was an architect who was told to leave a practice when she told her employer that she could only get four days of childcare a week!
After hearing a lot of these horror stories, I decided to create a safe space where architects can communicate and share their experiences and thoughts on the profession. The podcast is set up to bring together like-minded professionals to discuss and find solutions.
We have become our own worst enemy!
Through the podcast I have heard from architects who were heavily in debt. One was forced to sleep in a park, and he was homeless due to being made redundant. The level of debt that students of architecture rack up is only sustainable if they can pay it back in a reasonable timeframe, but sadly this is often not the case.
I also ask why we are still undercutting each other on fees when we all know this is a fatal race to the bottom. We have become our own worst enemy!
It’s these challenges and a desire to make a positive difference that saw me partnering with the Architects Benevolent Society (ABS) as an ambassador. Theirs is a vision I share. In 2021 the ABS funded charitable grants to architects of over £1,000,000 during that year. This was more than ever before and nearly £100,000 more than in 2020.
So, I’m raising money through my JustGiving page to support architects who are suffering. I have set what I thought was an achievable target of £1,500 for 2023, but so far, I’m only 11% of the way there. I ask you all to donate, as there is a high chance you will need their services one day.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom - the industry has some really successful people. While only a small percentage of those are well-remunerated partners and directors in successful architectural practices, many other successful architects now tend to work in alternative sectors such as tech and marketing, or have moved over to the contractor or client side.
After hearing from the architects on the podcast it’s clear that following qualification, the profession does not always provide a sustainable return on the years of investment that architects put in. Architects today need to think laterally and creatively about their career, so that they have the best chance to thrive, and don’t end up becoming just another broke architect.
Jason Boyle is an architect and sits on RIBA’s Membership Committee. He hosts The Broke Architect, a podcast focused on the personal and financial challenges faced by architectural students and architects. Please donate to the BROKE ARCHITECT PODCAST - JUSTGIVING PAGE
As of the 30th April 2023 the Podcast has had reaches 4400 listens!
The podcast has now been listened to over 4400 times, with the UK, USA, Australia, Belgium, South Africa and Canada the main countries where our listeners are. I want to firstly thank the guests who gave their time and were brave enough to share their stories with the world. This is a big milestone for a new podcast and many more guests are booked to appear.
Episode 21 is a recorded audio version of the Building Design article which also includes a story of an architect who needed the ABS's help. Again I encourage you all to donate to the ABS as a way of giving back to listening to the podcast.
The final two podcasts of season one are from Architects in New York, USA and Tirana, Albania, please watch out for them and give them a listen.
Thank you all again for your support.
Finally, should you be interested in holistic mentoring please contact me via my website, https://www.globalarchitectalliance.com/book-online and I offer a free 15min scoping chat which you can book via the website.
Thank you and stay safe!