When will architects learn to value themselves properly?

It’s worth noting, too, that the recent anonymous Pay 100 architecture salary survey indicates that many practices, including some major commercial names, are paying graduates significantly less than this.

What underpins low pay is, ultimately, low fees

Perhaps those of us who are responsible for submitting fees could reflect on what we and our colleagues really need to earn to live a fulfilling life in the economy in which we live. Perhaps we could bring that spirit of solidarity that many of our younger colleagues are demonstrating and stop that race to the bottom.

This disparity in pay with other professions which have comparable education requirements is not restricted to those at the beginning of an architecture career. It’s a gap that appears to widen through the course of our careers.  

What underpins low pay is, ultimately, low fees. Or, at least, insufficient fees for the work we are committing to doing or are expected to be doing. When we started working on larger-scale housing projects, we were surprised at what was considered the going rate for designing a ‘unit’ (a house) to planning approval as part of a large scheme. 

You have to wait to become a salaried partner before you can achieve a £60,000 salary

Tim O’Callaghan is a founding director of nimtim architects



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We need to start recognising the value we bring and start setting our fees accordingly

The £26,000 was (it has since changed) indeed based on the London Living Wage. As well as our intentions to be a good employer, we are committed to paying this as part of our membership of architects’ collective the London Practice Forum. But you can earn the same, or more, working at our local pub or the coffee shop round the corner.

We should look critically at what we’re less good at and either get better at it or get someone else to do it. And we should also look to new markets and sectors to see where we could bring our vision and value. 

So how have we got here and how do we change it? Interestingly, the seeds of change appear to be coming from the bottom up. Campaign groups such as the Future Architects Front (FAF) and the Section of Architectural Workers (SAW) union have raised awareness of poor employment practices and low pay in the profession. They’ve helped usher in a new conversation around pay and the kind of exploitation that often lies behind perceptions of architectural success. 

Maybe this is a bit idealistic; but, ultimately, it is a problem the profession needs to solve together. Rather than join the race to the bottom, we need to start recognising the value we bring and start setting our fees accordingly.

A regular GP earns an average in excess of £130,000 a year – a figure that exceeds the average pay for partners in architecture firms employing more than 100 people. Every architect is painfully familiar with those depressing conversations when you find out how much money some non-architect friends earn.

Yet at the same time the architect’s role is also attracting ever more responsibility and liability. The obligations set out in the new Building Safety Act are very significant and include potential individual criminal prosecution. It describes a role that carries a large amount of personal liability. It is a role for which one would expect suitable financial recompense.

Perhaps the problem is epitomised by our job advert. Rather than looking sideways at what other Part 1s, architects, or directors earn, maybe we should ask ourselves what they are worth. 

Which is all true. But is it really liveable? Take-home pay on a £26,000-a-year salary is about £1,800 a month.

But when we put the advert up, to our surprise we started receiving comments suggesting that people couldn’t live in London on that wage and that the salary was ‘unethical’. 

So what about jobs with comparable levels of training? Graduate medics, with a longer degree and continuing their training in work, can expect somewhere between £32,000 and £37,000 (according to healthcareers.nhs.uk), with an additional £4,500 if they work in London. Graduates starting as trainee lawyers can expect anything from £32,000 to an astonishing £60,000 at Kirkland & Ellis, according to chambersstudent.co.uk.

These are important jobs which require skills and knowledge not everyone possesses and I’m not suggesting they are less valuable than working in an architecture practice. However, they do not require a three-year degree costing £27,000 in fees, typically saddling graduates with a considerable debt to service at the end. 

According to 9B Careers’ latest data and the RIBA Salary Guide, you have to wait to become a salaried partner before you can achieve that £60,000 salary for a law graduate starter.

According to online ads, a small room in a shared house in Zone 2 starts at £750 per calendar month, excluding bills. If you add in those bills, which are typically £250, and travel card (£150), it doesn’t leave a lot for things like enjoying the city, lunch (given the cost of a takeout sandwich these days) or even savings.

When our fee for designing a home to increasingly demanding standards – and accepting significant personal liability for doing so – is several magnitudes lower than the fees of the estate agents who sell them, it’s probably time for us to have a long, hard think about how we’re valuing our work.

What is the cause of this situation? Is it self-inflicted or are we pawns in a bigger game that we are powerless to influence? 

Rather than say we can design a ‘unit’ for £1,000, maybe we should think about what it would take to create a really good home and persuade the person building it of the value that might deliver.

From our own experience, we are noticing that graduates and younger architects in our own practice are much more aware and confident about what they should be earning and the boundaries of what we should expect of them as employees. This is promising to see and, hopefully, this generation can start to create change across
the industry.

Earlier this year we advertised for a new Part 1/graduate position in the practice. As is good practice, we listed the salary on the job advert; in this case ‘upwards of £26,000’ – a decent wage, we thought, for a graduate. 

It’s often as low as £1,000 … to design someone’s home! Given the importance a home plays in everyone’s health and happiness, this just doesn’t seem enough.

We need to do better, we deserve to do better.

Low pay can be miserable for architects on a personal level, but it’s also behind many of the broader problems the profession faces. I believe it’s the biggest contributor to the profession’s woeful lack of representation. It creates an exclusionary working environment that puts up barriers that prevent people from lower income backgrounds and under-represented groups from entering the profession.

‘How could this be? It’s London Living Wage!’ we protested. ‘It’s even more than the upper quartile of the RIBA 2022 salary survey.’