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How can I make the most money as an architect?

Question: 

“I want to be an architect, but people continue to tell me that there is no money in it. Why? And where can I work if I am set on it?”

 

Answer:

Christie: Salary is always a hot topic. To be honest, I’m not sure it’s the pay that’s the bad part, as the average salary isn’t shockingly different to other industries… I think it’s just the hours that are put into the job. I would be happy with a lower salary if I was working 9-5, but that’s not the reality.

Hannah: If there was “no money in it”, there would be significantly less architects. Everyone would like to make more money, that’s a fact that isn’t unique to architecture. Employers will calculate your salary based on things like your experience, how effective you are, and whether you need to learn on the job or not. It might take a few years of long hours and hard work, but if you’re a good architect, you can expect a comfortable salary.

Joel: Yes, architecture pays a very average grad salary. But young people don’t realise that they can negotiate! I actually encourage it. Yes, it can be scary, but the firm has received hundreds of portfolios and chosen you. It’s important to realise that you’ve become a coveted asset.

Unsuccessfully negotiating your starting salary can literally affect your entire lifetime salary, as it’s a baseline for every negotiation in the future. The difference between starting at $45k vs $55k is a million dollars over a lifetime.

It takes so much effort and internal agreement for a firm to issue a job offer, that rescinding the offer is pretty much unheard of. No matter what amount you counter with, the worst they can say is no – they won’t say “oh, that’s how much you want? Never mind, we don’t want you anymore.” A friend was offered $50k and he asked for $70k – he was ultimately offered $62k, which is much higher than what they offered him.

Average graduate salary: $55,996

Average registered architect salary: $81,922

 

Small firm vs. big firm:

Joel: 6 months ago, I switched from a large multinational consultancy (150+ architects) to a smallish architecture practice (15 architects). At large firms, you have a massive variety of projects, job security, everything is systematic and efficient, you get to work with different disciplines and contractors and there’s a higher chance for travelling and bonuses. But the work life balance is terrible.

At smaller firms, there’s better work life balance, it’s more relaxed in general, great for starting out and you work on everything from concept up to cost. However, there’s not as much job security (depending on the market), it’s more chaotic than larger firms and smaller projects means smaller budget.

Christie: I would say start at a smaller firm, find your feet and then move to a larger one. Don’t do what I did.

I spent 8 years building my name in a large multinational, working on mega-projects like artificial islands in Qatar, hotels in Ghana only to go back to square one with a small company. My project for the last 3 months was fitting out a school gym with a $50k budget.

 

Misconceptions:

Corby: Probably the biggest misconception is that architecture is all design based. Design is only the first 5 to 10% of a real project. After that it’s all technical… making things fit, building systems, code and regulations, etc.

If you don’t like technical problem solving, that’s fine, architecture just isn’t for you.

Any job is going to have a boring side. It’s not 100% fulfilling work all the time. You know what’s fulfilling though? That stuff you drew on CAD turns into a building that’ll last decades… that’s pretty crazy.

Christie: Architects who truly just work 9-5 are a rarity. We’re a client-driven field so to stand apart in this competitive industry, extra hours aren’t uncommon. There are some firms who try to hold to reasonable hours as much as possible, and firms who throw that out the window to rush, rush, rush. Especially big, famous starchitect firms will push people as hard as possible.

Joel: I’d say something people wouldn’t know is how aggravating council can be. They don’t feel the need to move things along and they definitely do things at their own pace. You want to push things to get done as fast as possible, but it all goes into slow-mo when you put it through council. But it’s just a part of the job.

 

People that have moved into higher paying role:

Corby: Moving client side is one of the best things you can do for your career, but that takes time. I’ve been in the field for 20 years this year and I have been making 6 figures for the past 2 years (just barely). I’ve been a project and team leader and I’m client facing.

If you show strong project and team leadership skills and are good with clients, you can make it to 6 figures around the 15 years of experience mark without having ownership in a firm.

Ben: I’ll start by saying that architects aren’t in it for the money. It’s an exhausting and gruelling career at times and it’s not a particularly lucrative profession. If money your main focus, you should reconsider your career.

I studied architecture and worked in a large firm for a few years before following my gut and moving into the business side of it. Transitioning into marketing or business development for architecture firms is a great way to get paid more.

Another option which a colleague of mine did is to start working for a developer. It’s doubtful that architecture will provide you with enough satisfaction if money is your primary focus. But if you’re set on it, cop the salary and go for it.

Joel: Architecture is a wide field, so you will find a niche: I have architect friends who are now programming robots, I know people who are loving site supervision and construction work, some love management or cost planning. Once you’re an architect, you aren’t necessarily ‘stuck’, so if you’re set on it, I think you should go for it. There’s always wiggle room in the construction and property industry if you stop enjoying it or want more money.

Tim: I studied architecture, worked for two years in the field and went back to study a Master of Engineering. I’m now a civil engineer.

If someone asks whether they should pursue architecture, I say, “is there anything else you’d like to do instead?” If their answer is “yes”, I recommend that they don’t do architecture. Uni is longer than average (remember, you have to do a master’s as well), pay is not great, the hours can be very long, the stress can be high, the job security is lower than average, and the amount of actual designing you do is low.

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I always tell people to look into civil, structural, or mechanical engineering, as the money is definitely there.

Hannah: I was fortunate enough to carry some clients with me from my former firm – I didn’t quit, it closed – and I decided to go out on my own. I went from making $75,000 to $134,000 in my first year as a sole practitioner. Much of that salary came from two decent projects and scrambling on a dozen others of various sizes. To be honest though, I’d give up a good chunk of that salary to get my weekends back.

Jess: In my job in health architecture, I was working with a lot of project managers and that’s what got me interested in commercial construction. I wouldn’t have even considered the job in high school, nor did I know what it was. Project management is about organising all of the moving parts of a build – from the client, to the architect, the engineer and then the actual tradespeople. You need to make sure a job gets done on time and to cost.

Architecture is not a traditional way into commercial property project management so I needed to talk a lot about project management skills – rather than design skills. This was actually easy because architecture jobs are really about managing stakeholders 80% of the time.

I applied for a job in junior project management and got it. I started on $80,000, then got a pay rise 12 months later.

 

Advice:

Alex: In terms of applying for jobs, I’m a recent graduate and I interviewed at about a dozen firms just before I graduated. Only 4 even asked to see my portfolio, which really surprised me. The rest wanted to see what experience/software knowledge I had and wanted to know how useful I could be to them from day 1.

In the end I got 7 job offers, getting one of the highest rates of offers in my class. My portfolio was pretty weak, but it didn’t matter, because they wanted me for the skills I have and the other ones they knew I could develop.

Your average run of the mill architecture firm doesn’t really care about how nice your portfolio is, at least in my area.

Guy: I did ‘work experience’ 2-3 days a week for three and half months for a firm, all unpaid, and while it was really rough juggling that with my other paid work and full-time university, after that 3+ month period they offered me a paid contract. I am now with the firm, working 4-5 days a week during the holidays and hopefully will be on 3 days a week when uni is back. The whole time I was working for free everyone was telling me how they would never do that, I was being exploited etc.

The reality is now, in my degree, I am the ONLY person with a paid job in a firm.

Working unpaid sucks, and there is always the risk of some degree of exploitation. But I say cop the un-paid experience, because even if you don’t get a job out of it, at least you will have some industry experience on your resume.

 

Jess: I think to be a good architect, you have to be a lot more than a good designer. You have to be a good communicator. You have to be a good listener. Possibly most importantly for me, you have to be good at making other people’s problems your own, and then solving them. In the end, that’s what it’s like working with clients; if you like working with them and take ownership of the problems, that’s where the value comes in from their standpoint as the client.


Your step one:

You need at a minimum your Bachelor of Architecture, which is a 5-year degree. In some cases, you can combine your bachelor with your master’s and get them both done at the same time. In NSW, you need to be registered to be able to call yourself an architect, which means studying an accredited bachelor and/or master’s degree. You will also need to complete an exam, logbook and interview to become registered with the Architects Accreditation Council of Australia.

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