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The Broke Architect? — Part 1

Throughout history, architects have played one of the most important roles in society; designers of places to live, work, play, learn, worship and so much more. Some might even go so far as to say, they have been instrumental in creating the identifying personality and general mood of individual countries.

Architects’ work can be so outstanding that they can become a catalyst for change, notably the architect Frank Gehry- creating a destination building for a once run-down industrial city of Bilbao, with his design of the Guggenheim museum. This building transformed Bilbao and put it on the world stage. The cultural impact was immense, the financial, even more so. Many cities followed this example using architects like Norman Foster and Zahid Hadid to use their talent of design to bring value to a place.

That’s why, understandably, the path to qualifying as an architect is not an easy one. It can take on average 7 to 10 years, sometimes even more. Common challenges that architecture students often encounter are financial, emotional and physical stress — with a culture of long hours in the studio and in a lot of cases, family and friends not being able to offer adequate support simply because they don’t understand the nature of the discipline.

Studying for a 3-year degree, a year out in practice, another 2-year postgraduate degree followed by another year in practice is required before you sit the final exams and interview to become a registered architect. Once you become registered you can become chartered by joining the Royal Institute of British Architect (RIBA).

The level of student debt to train to become an architect currently ranges between £50,000 — £75,000 and I’m sure it will only get worse. When you begin to earn a salary of £26,575 you begin to start to pay back the loan, albeit at a low amount but most in their career will be paying this money over the next 30 years in some capacity. I don’t want to scare people off, but I do believe one should be fully aware of the financial commitments before embarking studies in this field.

Other professions that take a similar length of time and dedication are lawyers (minimum of 6 years), chartered engineers (often 8 years) and doctors at around 10 years. But that is where the similarities end, once qualified- the professions offer jarringly different levels of financial recompense.

The British Medical Association (BMA) stated the minimum annual salary for a GP is £60,455 in England for 2020–21 (plus London Weighting). In 2018 The Law Society stated that qualified lawyers earn an average salary of £62,000 and chartered engineers (depending on the type of engineer you are range from £40,000 — £63,000 once qualified. According to the RIBA research in 2019 a newly qualified architect generally earns a median salary of £34,000, as you can see it is often lower than the other professions.

So why is it that an architects’ salary is often much less in comparison to other professionals? This is a question I have heard architects ask more times than I can count. And seeing that I have been in this profession for 20 years; in private practices, regional and governmental committees and lecturing halls at various Universities, that is a lot of times. The common responses that I have heard vary from the belief that the majority of the general public do not necessarily understand what it is that architects do, to the notion that architects do not add real value to the building process. Another recurring one and most popular by far; architects are too expensive.

As a Fellow of both the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and Royal Society of Arts (RSA), I wanted to try and find some answers to these questions. With a network of over 28,000 followers on LinkedIn comprising of professionals from all walks of life and a unique insider view of chartered architecture, I was in an advantageous position to do just that.

This article aims to explore what the general public think is a fair salary for trainee and newly qualified Architects and why. It then explores reasons why their salaries can be lower than other professions which take a similar duration of time and dedication to attain. To explore this subject, I ran several polls on LinkedIn over a 7-day duration and the results are presented within this article.

The first poll posed the question “Why do we value lawyers, doctors and engineers more than architects? Four options were offered as a response based on the common themes that I have personally encountered.

Although the poll was viewed well over 19,000 times only 162 people actually voted. A further 110 independent comments were received.

The majority who voted were architects and 60% of them chose the, “don’t understand what they do” option, 16 % voted that “Architects are too expensive” and 15% voted that “Architects don’t add value”. It seems from the people who voted that the view is that the public/clients don’t fully understand what architects do.

The idea that people don’t understand the true value of an architect was bolstered by comments that architects often undercharge for the full value of their services, for fear of putting clients off. Some comments actually suggested lobbying the government that design professionals should hold some additional proof of competency following Grenfell to someone suggesting architects are not needed anymore as there are already millions of designs to choose from!

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. The poll seemed to have caught the attention of some notable members of the profession, in fact RIBA president, Alan Jones took part in the poll and voted with the majority, that people don’t understand what architects do.

Sumita Singha, who ran for the president of the RIBA in 2020 directed me towards an article she wrote in 2015 titled “Why pay an architect, when anyone can design for free? The article offers very interesting reasons citing low fees, too much time spent on preliminary work and lack of big projects being a reoccurring problem which can put even the best architecture firm out of business. Indeed in 2015 Awarding winning Malcolm Fraser architects fell into liquidation with the loss of 15 staff, with owner/director Malcolm Fraser stating he could not make his architecture pay, it didn’t stack up financially. To quote Mr. Fraser, “The work we did is beautiful and important. However, we have been unable to make it profitable.” Two years earlier RMJM one of Scotland’s biggest practices fell into financial difficulties and went into receivership before being rescued. In 2019, ADF and Glasgow based firm was liquidated when several large projects were delayed, and it could no longer pay its staff. The liquidator stated, “Unfortunately, the business cannot be sold as a going concern as it is not viable”.

Nick Moss of Manchester practice, Sixtwo also ran for RIBA president this year stated in an article in the magazine, Building Design that he was standing out of frustration and fear that architects had no future if the marginalisation of the profession was not addressed, his focus was on resolving the issues around procurement. One point of note is that he stated, “It’s becoming harder and harder to make the business model work”.

The public generally understand what doctors and lawyers do, but as one comment suggested- these professions are based on fear, (death and litigation) and a view that these professionals are a necessity whilst architecture is a luxury.

This brings us to the second poll: “What is the one main reason you are pursuing becoming a chartered Architect?” I posed this question so I could understand the main reason people are drawn to the profession.

From those who voted, it was clear that it wasn’t because of monetary reasons but more for the passion of designing.

To further explore why money wasn’t the most attractive factor, I set another poll asking people “what do you believe is a fair salary to pay a newly qualified architect in London and outside of London?”

Poll 3 attracted 185 votes and 43% voted that a salary of £40,000 — £45,000 +, with the rest voting for a lower salary. Poll 4 attracted 463 voted and 33% voted for a salary of £36,000 — £40,000 plus with the rest voting lower. From a combined total of 648 votes, most people voted for a salary lower than £40,000.

A point to note is that many who voted were architects themselves. I fully understand that we need doctors and lawyers, but architects are the professionals who design the very hospitals and offices that these professionals work in and yet the people who voted are of the opinion that architects deserve a lower salary.

I then wanted to understand further from my followers, what they felt was a fair salary to pay, at the various stages on the journey to become an architect. Polls 5 looked at the fair salary that people believe Part 1 students should earn outside of London it was around an even split between £20,000 — £23,000 and up to £26,000.

Poll 6 looked at the fair salary that people believe Part 1 students should earn in London and 48% believed a salary of £23,000 — £26,000 was the right figure.

I carried out yet another poll asking “what do you believe is a fair salary for Part II students to earn both inside and outside of London”. Poll 7 results were 47% in favour for a salary between £32,000 — £35,000.

Lastly, Poll 8 looked at the fair salary that people believe Part II students should earn outside of London. 50% believed a salary of between £26,000 — £29,000 was fair.

What conclusions can I draw from the results of my engagement using the polling data? The results suggest that architects feel that the public don’t fully understand what architects do and this may be a strong reason why the architectural profession is not valued to the same level as other professionals. If a profession is undervalued, then it goes without saying that people are less likely to want to pay a higher level for their services, but I understand that this is a complex issue.

Who then is to blame for architects being undervalued? My own institute, the RIBA is a global professional membership body which drives excellence in Architecture, not in fact the function of the architect. Could we, as the RIBA do more for our members with a change in focus on communicating better what architects do so the public fully understand their value to society? Perhaps we can.

However, architects must also take responsibility for not communicating better what we do, we must engage with communities in new ways that people understand using social media platforms, not just the reliance on a website. Many architects are engaging with the public through the creation of podcasting and YouTube videos. Architects also need to understand that lowering/undercutting other architects fees is a race to the bottom where no one benefits in the long term. Is part of the problem also that architects enjoy designing buildings so much so that that our business mindset is forgotten meaning we are willing to work for low fees? In my opinion the teaching of the business side of architecture is something that is sadly lacking in most schools of architecture. In fact the best resource on this subject is found within a recent book by Alan Jones and Rob Hyde, “Defining Contemporary Professionalism — For Architects in Practice and Education”, many subjects are covered including business, money, marketing and mentoring for architects. Over a 7 year education much more time and focus needs to applied to these critical skills in the architectural training so that architects can arm themselves with the ability to survive and leverage there value in the market, this is something I teach through 1-to-1 mentoring.

In conclusion I wrote this article inspired by the many diverse comments received on the polls to explore whether becoming an architect is still a risk worth taking. My own personal belief is that I love my profession and I love practicing as an architect, but I was lucky enough to get a full grant and my course fees were paid by the taxpayer, I had a free education. With the level of debts, you may encounter, a low outlook of a fair salary compared to other comparable professions do you believe the risk of becoming an architect still worth taking, I will let you decide.

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