Lindsey Wagener, a recent graduate of Clemson University, interns at LS3P Associates in Charleston, S.C., and earns less than $40,000 annually. Wagener, 22, chose the firm because of its location, the people, and its focus on sustainable architecture, a field that appeals to her. She gave up an offer for a higher-paying internship at another firm so she could learn more about sustainable design at LS3P. “Everyone knows you don't make millions as an architect,” she explains. “Money is not the No. 1 priority.”
The architectural internship, which marries the dreams of architecture school to the realities of day-to-day practice, is an institution. It has long shaped the talents and ambitions of newcomers to the profession and ignited their passion for design and building. That passion is evident among the latest generation of new architects, who describe themselves as committed to learning the craft of architecture, despite low salaries.
According to ARCHITECT's salary survey, compiled by Greenway Communications for the Design Futures Council, mean salaries for intern architects currently range from $34,543 to $39,810 in the first year following graduation, increasing to a high of $47,003 after three years. In the fifth year, interns can expect to earn between $48,138 and $58,614. By comparison, first-year lawyers in private practice earned an average of $80,000 in 2004, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and computer software engineers had median annual earnings of about $75,000, that agency reports.
Interns can quickly progress from architectural grunt work to more-advanced projects. “When you start, they put you on easy things, like presentation drawings, and then move you to one project under a senior designer,” recalls Aki Shimizu, 33, who interned at DMJM in Los Angeles from 1996 to 2000. Shimizu says she was lucky to work with a good mentor “who took me under his wing and taught me a lot, which was important coming right out of school.”
Eric Heidt, 35, interned at Kostow Greenwood in New York and had a similar experience. “You log a lot of hours and initially draft other people's corrections,” says Heidt, who got his license last year and now works at Design Collective in Durham, N.C. “Then you get more responsibility and end up running smaller projects.” Heidt wonders if the term “internship” is misleading. “It's a job, whether you are registered or not,” he points out. “At the end of the day, you are functioning like an architect.”
The good news for interns is that salaries are increasing at a steady pace. ARCHITECT's salary survey indicates that pay was up between 4 percent and 9 percent last year and has increased by another 6 percent to 12 percent this year. Moreover, salaries rise significantly over the three-to-five-year period during which interns—defined for the survey as recent graduates who have completed an accredited collegiate program in architecture and are working toward licensure—prepare for the Architecture Registration Exam.
Executives at architecture firms both large and small try to make up for the low pay at the intern level, worried that it might deter the best and brightest from entering the field—or compel them to leave it later for morelucrative work. Tim Reedy, chief executive of Miamibased Arquitectonica, says his firm helps compensate for low salaries by offering generous benefits and perks—such as paying for interns' licensing exams, holding prep classes, and giving them time off to study.
According to Reedy, the firm's intern architects are integral members of project teams and are given considerable responsibility—and can tap in to a bonus program. “You can become financially successful at our firm,” he insists. For example, Robert Aitcheson, 28, an intern at Arquitectonica's New York office, earned $42,000 when his internship began a year and a half ago and now makes $50,000 plus a bonus. “At first, I would have liked to make more after eight years at school,” Aitcheson says. “But after showing what I could contribute, my salary was re-evaluated, and I received a reasonable increase. They valued the contribution I had made to the office.”
Even so, Reedy believes that what drives most young architects is creativity, not money. “Architecture is such an artistic profession. Either you want to be one or you don't,” he says.
Compensation can sometimes take unexpected forms. At KlingStubbins' Cambridge, Mass., office, which usually has between 10 and 15 interns who earn around $45,000 a year, there are parties and a “friendly, inviting environment” that is part of a “mutually supportive office,” says Scott Simpson, senior principal and the office's managing director. “We can't pay them $100,000 because they aren't worth it. But we try to make it up to them,” Simpson adds. “We invest in their careers and would like them to stay on with us.” (About 25 percent to 30 percent do stay at the firm.) More-tangible benefits at KlingStubbins include a 4.5 percent 401(k) match, in-house training programs, and a chance to work on a variety of the firm's projects, ranging from skyscrapers to university buildings.