Let’s get right to it: For most architects, 2009 was an annus horribilis, a year so rotten that previous bad years start to look sunny by comparison. But we’re not the ones saying so—you are, in the comments that ARCHITECT readers submitted as part of our annual salary survey. “Potential clients are now interviewing many architects just to get the lowest price. Very tough and strange times,” wrote one respondent. “We have been in the red for 14 months,” another architect wrote. “If [there is not] a dramatic recovery very soon, we will be out of business.” Many principals and owners report that they’ve taken pay cuts of 10 percent or more just to keep their firms afloat. One owner complained, “My gross income for 2009 was $7,404. I call this VERY GROSS INCOME.”

In January, we polled nearly 1,300 readers of this magazine, drawn at random from our subscriber lists. (For every completed survey, we promised to donate $2 to the nonprofit Public Architecture.) We did a screening to eliminate all respondents except those working at architecture firms in the United States with a portfolio of at least 50 percent nonresidential architecture. Our final respondent pool of 1,001 people spans all job titles and experience levels in the profession, although management-level architects and sole practitioners dominate: 77 percent gave their title as principal/partner/owner or president/vice-president/C-title, and the median age was 51.8. (Younger architects should keep this in mind, if the figures here don’t square with their experience.)

We asked Kermit Baker, chief economist of the AIA, to interpret our findings. He warns that conclusions are difficult to draw in a period of unprecedented volatility. “Our estimates are that 25 percent of positions at architecture firms were lost since the middle of 2008,” Baker says. “The finding is that those losses tend to be concentrated at the lower end of the salary spectrum.” In our Median Salary by Firm Size chart (p. 56), he points out, an apparent uptick in salaries at midsized and large firms might signify a compositional change, instead: A firm of 100 (which is likely to pay architects more than a firm of 50) would drop into the midsized category after a few layoffs, thereby pushing the median up.

With those caveats in mind, read on. And keep your fingers crossed for a better 2010.

Illustrations by Catalogtree