Architecture, when measured in economic terms, is not a terribly efficient profession. This is not in any way meant to imply that architects aren’t hard workers or that they waste their time on unimportant details. Rather, it has to do with their productivity—their output per hour of labor—or, more specifically, the historically low levels of productivity in the construction industry.
Over the past two decades, employment at architecture firms has been increasing at a rate of about 4 percent per year. However, over this same period, the volume of nonresidential construction being built has increased by a little more than 1 percent per year. There are good reasons why it takes more hours to design a square foot of space today compared with two decades ago: Buildings are more sophisticated; clients are more demanding; building codes are more complicated; there are a lot more products to choose from. But architecture firms by and large are not being compensated for these added responsibilities. According to the AIA’s The Business of Architecture, 2009, annual net billings per architecture firm employee averaged just $130,000, and for most small firms they didn’t exceed $100,000.
Obviously, a firm’s revenue per employee establishes the upper limit for the compensation it can offer, so firms with higher revenue per employee will likely pay higher salaries. More broadly, professions that bring in higher revenue per employee will likely have higher compensation levels. Lawyers, who on average bring in almost twice as much revenue as architects, also have compensation levels about 60 percent higher.
Hiring paraprofessionals is one important way to manage costs and increase staff efficiency. Paraprofessionals are typically trained to be proficient in a more limited set of functions than a full-fledged professional.
Other professions have made extensive use of paraprofessionals. In law offices nationwide, for example, paralegal and legal assistant positions total more than a third of the number of lawyers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In dentistry, there are twice as many dental assistants as there are practicing dentists. But medicine is the profession that has made the greatest use of paraprofessionals: from licensed practical nurses to registered nurses to physician assistants, there are many more paraprofessionals than physicians. The healthcare field is structured to efficiently leverage a physician’s time.
The Department of Labor projects that growth in paraprofessional positions will outpace growth in professional positions over the coming decade. In some professions, such as medicine, the supply of physicians can’t keep up with demand, so the growth is met through paraprofessionals. Using paraprofessionals is deemed to be a more cost-effective use of resources because these workers need less training and are paid only a fraction of a physician’s salary.
Some larger architecture firms have positions for CAD and BIM specialists that are not filled by licensed architects. However, the use of paraprofessionals for technical design tasks is not widespread in the architecture profession. In fact, at many small and midsize firms, nonarchitectural functions such as information technology, graphic design, and marketing are commonly performed by professionally trained architectural staff, usually interns or recently licensed architects.
Design paraprofessionals are so uncommon that the Department of Labor hasn’t even published estimates or projections. We shouldn’t be surprised that revenue per employee and compensation is so low in architecture when we have professionals performing functions that could be done by paraprofessionals.
In addition to increasing compensation in the profession and allowing architects to concentrate on those things they were educated and licensed to do, there is another benefit of expanding the use of design paraprofessionals. Architects work in a unique industry. Both residential and nonresidential construction are among the most cyclical sectors of our economy, meaning that there is an inherent boom-or-bust nature to them. It is not uncommon—in fact, it is almost expected—that years of strong growth will be followed by years of steep declines.
Architecture firms are constantly struggling to match staff resources with fluctuating workloads. Given the cyclicality in the construction industry, a period of being understaffed, when a firm is struggling to meet project deadlines, is likely to be quickly followed by a period when a firm is overstaffed and needs to go through the destructive exercise of salary freezes, furloughs, or downsizing. Think of 2007 and 2009, and how quickly we went from boom to bust.
How have we coped with this downturn? The way we always have, by eliminating a lot of our “paraprofessional” positions: interns and recently licensed architects who perform these more standardized design functions.
If there were true design paraprofessionals, they could move more fluidly into and out of a broader range of positions in the design and construction industry as needs changed—working with engineering firms, construction companies, developers, facility managers, and building owners, in addition to architecture firms. This would allow architects to pursue the creative design careers that they envisioned when they made the decision to invest so much time and money into becoming an architect.
But when we use emerging professionals to manage the ebb and flow of the construction cycle, we also risk eliminating the future leaders of firms, as well as the future leaders of the profession, in hard times. To this day, the profession has not fully recovered from the early 1990s construction downturn, which forced a lot of younger architectural staff out of the profession, never to return.