Architects may be driven by the creative side of the profession, but there's a lot more to running a design firm than indulging the solitary genius. Every talent, no matter how brilliant, needs a supporting cast to shine. It takes organization to make it all work. And organizations require people: not just architects, engineers, and interior designers, but professionals in human resources, marketing, I.T., and other areas. The time and effort to manage human resources is not an impediment to good design—it's an enabler of good design.
Firms need talent if they want to develop top-quality work. To hire and retain that talent, they must offer competitive salaries and bonuses and invest in ongoing staff training. People are far and away the most important—and costly—asset in a design firm, accounting for more than 50 percent of all expenses, on average. Managers who want to stay competitive have to know how their firms' salaries and benefits measure up.
This annual salary survey draws information from architecture firms considered to be in the top 30 percent of the profession—in other words, the best-practice and near-best-practice zone. These best-practice firms come in all sizes, from small (fewer than 20 employees) and midsize (fewer than 50) to large (more than 50) and extra-large (150+). The survey represents more than 460 separate offices with headquarters in 61 cities. Firms becoming less relevant, or that we believe to be performing below best-practice standards, have not been included. In essence, the firms included in this study have earned peer respect and admiration. (For more on the methodology for this study, see page 65.)
The majority of firms in our research base reported more than 20 percent growth from 2005 to 2006 (those figures are not yet available for 2006–2007), and the second-largest group had 12 percent to 15 percent growth. Just over 10 percent of the firms we polled reported no growth.
Salaries for intern architects have again increased in each region of the country, our survey indicates. Last year, intern salaries were up between 4 percent and 9 percent; this year, they have risen another 6 to 12 percent. For the survey, we define interns as recent graduates who have completed an accredited degree program in architecture and who are working toward licensure.
The typical time frame for an intern to pass all categories of the Architecture Registration Exam is three to five years. During this period, an intern's salary can rise dramatically. Here are the mean salaries, on a national basis, for the first five years following graduation and prior to licensure: Year 1: $34,543 to $39,810; Year 2: $37,354 to $42,706; Year 3: $41,004 to $47,003; Year 4: $44,511 to $52,653; Year 5: $48,138 to $58,614.
Interns today are almost always paid on an hourly basis, with overtime calculated into the total annual compensation. Some firms guarantee recently graduated interns enough overtime to achieve an annual salary of $50,000, plus benefits. Competitive recruitment for top interns is becoming commonplace in best-of-class firms.
As the baby boomer population ages and some of its architects delay retirement, “young saplings” are being shaded by “old growth”—in other words, interns are not given adequate financial incentives to enter and stay in the field. Entry-level incentives in architecture firms are trailing other enterprise professions, effectively cutting into the supply chain of future talent.
Architects with five years' experience (including the internship period) can expect an average starting salary of between $51,709 and $64,519. For 10 years' experience, the base compensation level increases significantly to an average range of $62,608–$79,919; that range reaches $72,678–$96,928 for architects with 15 years' experience.
The mean high salary for licensed architects with 15 years' experience (typically aged 38–42) is $96,928, while the mean high salary for engineers with equivalent experience was reported as $112,754. But a number of top-performing firms pay higher salaries to experienced non-principal architects—some offer between $130,500 and $220,000 in base compensation of for highly talented younger professionals below the age of 45.
Some firms suffer from cognitive dissonance, rationalizing low salaries with the blanket generalization that “architects aren't paid well”—which is inaccurate, except within marginal and part-time practices. This common blind spot in management has prompted top talent to migrate toward better-managed, higher-paying firms. Leading firms are increasingly moving to pay-for-performance and meritocracy systems that tie compensation closely to specific performance goals. While paychecks have gotten bigger across the board, there has been notable growth in a few job categories.