The Price We Should Pay

The Price We Should Pay

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Nunzio DeSantis
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Nunzio DeSantis

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The Price We Should Pay

Architects have never been more involved, more visible, or more engaged in moral conversations that confront our world than now. It is our opportunity to work in fellowship to showcase architecture as the profession of understanding, care, and principle. It is our opportunity to work as a united profession to find ways to raise the perceived value of the services we provide our clients and the compensation for our service. It is our opportunity to establish architecture as the profession of creativity, of sustainability, of equity, and of responsibility to those who have just entered the workplace as well as those that have worked hard for many years.

Today, and looking toward the future, incredible opportunities abound for young people as they navigate the diverse and varied options for their career trajectory. I think back on when I was faced with making my career decision 40 years ago. The world seemed a much smaller place. Today, we live in a complex and engaged world. I can’t imagine how hard it must be for a high school student today to consider career options, given the extraordinary possibilities, the innovations taking place every day, and the recognition of new promising fields that currently don’t even exist.

With this in mind, I thought through some of the questions I’d like students and their parents and counselors to consider about a career in architecture:

  • Is it a stable profession? Most of the time.
  • Is it relevant? Yes—often extremely relevant.
  • Does our work make a positive impact on our communities? Absolutely! Every day and moment.
  • Do we respect the environment? We should and we mostly are.
  • Is it a creative profession? Incredibly!
  • Is our work fashionable or visible? Yes, most buildings are on display for decades.
  • Is our work necessary? Certainly!
  • Is our work emotionally rewarding? Yes, when individual expression is encouraged.
  • Is a career in architecture financially rewarding? No … Not so much … not really!

At first glance, it looks like architects and architectural firms are doing a good job, and in many areas, we are. However, as far as compensation and benefits go, we owe it to our profession to take a serious look at the fact that we are falling short in one of the most critical areas that impact career decisions. If our salaries are keeping us from attracting the best and the brightest, then we all suffer in the long run.

Digging Deeper

To prepare for this article, I did a little research into the levels of compensation for various professions to determine how architecture compares. I must say I am disheartened and a bit embarrassed by what I learned. Our profession must do better.

According to a PayScale survey, a bachelor’s degree in architecture ranked 120th in compensation for professional degrees, with an average starting salary of $45,100. If that is not alarming enough, the average mid-career salary for practicing architects is only $79,300. To me, this seems astoundingly low.

What was also clear was that virtually every profession that works with architects earns more than the architects. We have a responsibility to educate clients about our value and the return on investment we provide.

Let’s reflect again on the students and their guides trying to wade through today’s career decisions. Architecture is a standout option regarding its contribution to society and the excitement, creativity, visibility, obligation, and responsibility it brings us; but students want and need to be certain that, once out in the working world, their compensation will be adequate to provide for a good and balanced life. When you compare architecture salaries to other professions, we simply fall short. As a result, we’re probably losing many talented potential architects to more lucrative career options.

A related concern is the repayment of student loans. Starting salary decisions could and should take this cost into account. According to AIA National’s research, the average architecture student graduates with $40,000 in federal student loan debt plus $1,500 a year in training-related expenses. AIA contends that debt is a primary reason why graduates are leaving the field.

This realization led AIA to develop the National Design Services Act, H.R. 2938, bipartisan congressional legislation that would let architecture graduates pay off student loan debt through community service. In their H.R. 2938 policy brief, AIA states, “The federal government has provided student loan assistance for medical, legal, and veterinary school graduates who work in underserved areas. Architecture graduates can provide design work to help underserved communities with much needed public projects. This work will put economy-boosting redevelopment plans, historic rehabilitations, and other projects within reach for cash strapped localities. By enacting the National Design Services Act, Congress can help accelerate the economic recovery of the design and construction industry and move valuable public projects forward by including architecture school graduates in the same kinds of programs that offer other professional graduates loan assistance if they donate their services to their communities.” If this bill becomes reality, architecture firms could further assist the students by allowing them to fulfill their debt repayment obligation during company time. This step would promote work/life balance while helping the young architects to meet their financial needs.

Balancing Work, Life, and Money

This issue of low compensation also applies to the compensation of architects who have served society and the profession well for years. They too should have the ability to earn more take-home pay, enhance their quality of life, and achieve better balance between work and personal time. The architectural profession has to consider such things as vacation time, flexible work time, controlled overtime, parental leave, cost toward continuing education and professional growth, cost for conferences and leadership training, cost and time associated with preparation and taking the Architectural Registration Exam, subsidized public transportation, paid parking, and much more.

Here’s an example of how one of those considerations is being addressed. Imagine the challenges and stresses faced by young architects who are immersed in entry level jobs, paying off student loans, and starting a family. A recent article by Caitlin Reagan for AIA Architect documented the success of a program at Perkins+Will. The firm offers a month of paid parental leave for all new mothers and fathers who work in their U.S. offices. The policy provides the same benefit to employees who adopt or engage in foster care. Within the first six months that the policy was in place, 44 employees used the benefit; 54.5% were moms and 45.5% were dads.

How Do We Even the Compensation Playing Field?

Who is responsible for determining the compensation rates for young architects? Other architects; you and me; AIA members in big and small firms alike. We, as architects, control the destiny of compensation rates. We, as architects, need to understand that, as leaders in society, we must begin to tackle this problem together for our profession’s viability in the future. It should be our responsibility to work together to make the compensation for graduating students, thus attracting and more importantly retaining this talent.

Architects can do this. Architects should do this.

How can we not do this?


Nunzio DeSantis, FAIA is with Nunzio Marc DeSantis Architects and is president of AIA Dallas.