The profession must consolidate and specialise to address challenges around low fees and pay, writes Matthew Lloyd

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There is much to celebrate about the success of the UK’s architectural industry. All the evidence suggests that the buildings we design today are better than ever. Indeed, our annual awards season, now just commencing, will demonstrate an enormous breadth of quality. In terms of pure architecture, we are most surely on a high.

It is no surprise then that architects’ dissatisfaction nowadays is not about our work. Instead, it is about our pay: ask any architect at an event or party and this is what they will say. Such a constant cry has arisen from systemic low fees, producing a lack of profitability in architectural firms, which in turn leads to low levels of remuneration.

The problem of low pay was described in an impassioned way by Aylin Round in a recent Building Design opinion piece, who despairs of this unhappy economic reality. What is the motivation, she rightly asks, of such a long education and working so hard, if the salaries of young architects are then so low?

There can be no doubt that architectural incomes are declining relative to other jobs. Traditionally middle-paid professionals, like nurses, teachers or the police are now better remunerated than architects, especially once public sector pensions are factored in.

In the distant past, architecture ranked equally in terms of income with the ‘senior’ professions of finance, accountancy, law, and medicine. Architects have fallen far behind. We are now seen by the outside world as a low paid profession – especially, people always say, when our training and responsibilities are considered.

Architecture is now solely a market-driven profession

In the past we were more respected: the relative decline in our pay has contributed to our diminished status. This is one of the reasons why the profession often struggles to make progress in terms of diversity. As architects become less valued in society, so aspirational young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to see architecture as an attractive and financially viable career.


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Low fees and low pay are seen as an increasing challenge amongst many architects

Here are some reasons for our low pay: 1) the supply of architectural firms has outstripped demand for their services, leading to dropping levels of architectural fees; 2) the fact that other people can design buildings almost as easily as registered architects; 3) our inability to work for every sector of the construction industry. Finally, 4) the complete lack of any regulation – or even advisory scales – for the level of our fees.

Architecture is now solely a market-driven profession – especially since public sector architect departments have all but disappeared. And this market place is an increasingly crowded one: just between 2014 and 2020 some 8,000 architects were added to the workforce. This is partly the result of greater numbers at architecture schools than in the past, and that so many of these students go on to become registered architects – rather than diversifying out of the profession with their architecture degree usefully in hand.

RIBA could have evaluated the industry’s needs prior to allowing such an enormous expansion of architectural education. It could have made Part 1 a general degree, a unique combination of the arts and sciences. It could have heavily restricted entry into Part 2, consequently bringing down numbers whilst raising standards at the same time. But none of these things happened twenty years ago, at the start of the university boom.

The resultant number of available architectural firms today has been seized upon and manipulated by our clients, who have honed the art of making us compete, to achieve a holy grail of high quality coupled with low fees. The only way we can survive is to undercut each other, in order to find enough work to keep subsisting hand to mouth.

Furthermore, as we compete in this way in the search for work, we become weaker: the costs incurred in looking for work are now a detrimental percentage of a typical practice’s turnover.

In the main, we therefore do not engage with clients whose taste doesn’t align with ours

We architects are generally selective about the work we choose to do. We revere modernism when the public in the main is sceptical of it. We side-step neo-classical architecture, even though it is liked by so many. In the main, we therefore do not engage with clients whose taste doesn’t align with ours. We have never had a good relationship with out-of-town housebuilders, who build so many of our homes. This avoidance by architects of certain sectors allows non-architects to easily grab the work we are turning away from.

future of the profession

Such pickiness comes at a price - that of the narrowing of our markets into more limited niches. There is nothing new in this form of selectiveness: we have always worked in a certain high-minded way. Perhaps uniquely, we are professionals who believe we have an unalienable right to serve a greater cause: high principles that lead to societal change. This is our natural stance and makes us who we are. But it doesn’t help our rates of pay.

The best buildings are no doubt designed by architects. Where architects are not present, new buildings lack refinement, or charm, distinctiveness, or joy.

But alone amongst the arts, architecture has an insidious competitor. Buildings, devoid of any architect’s involvement, are continuously funded, built and occupied.

The role of an architect in the production of a building has become an item of choice on a developer’s menu: our services are now a luxury rather than a necessity. This is evidenced by the extraordinary statistic that just 6% of UK housing today is designed by an architect.

It is natural for us to blame architecture’s governing bodies for letting us down about our pay. Not unreasonably, we ask them why they don’t regulate for higher pay by creating mandatory fee scales, or telling the outside world that architects are simply not allowed to work for low rates.

We do not help ourselves much by so often competing in inappropriate architectural sectors

But the world of development, which has lots of choice elsewhere, will not tolerate these institutions fixing our fees. All RIBA and ARB can do is fight hard for the brand of architecture – which in the main they successfully do – and rightly hold up the high standards of professionalism expected from us, especially in this complex regulatory world.

Our clients could take it upon themselves to improve our fee levels if they wanted to. The public sector could be forced, by law, to make procurement fair; the private sector might be shamed into following suit. But it is not in either’s interests to do so. And anyway, the last thing on this present government’s mind is to make sure that architects are better paid.

Alternatively the whole architectural profession could club together and refuse to enter flawed competitions; we could also point blank refuse to undercut another firm. But how are our young firms to create a portfolio of work if they can’t compete in an open market place?

We do not help ourselves much by so often competing in inappropriate architectural sectors. If large firms compete in small firms’ natural hunting grounds, those smaller firms are weakened. Likewise, why would a small firm try to take on a big project, when they have little capability to do so? This crossing of territories is harmful all around, pushing fees downwards and preventing the specialisation that every practice so badly needs to be distinctive and competitive.

Only the architects in the upper strata of our profession are reasonably paid, that is as long as they are business owners or established senior directors. However, the money at the top of the profession does not filter downwards very much. Our architectural foot soldiers, who make up most of this profession, remain lowly paid and in mid-life hit a glass ceiling that’s increasingly hard to penetrate.

In spite of the above, there is room for optimism about the future of our pay. The economics of the profession are already starting to change. Smaller practices are becoming weaker because of the difficulties of keeping up with salary expectations, coupled with increasing regulatory and insurance costs. This will see the strengthening of big practices.

This profession is without doubt rewarding, creative, flexible and can bring a whole lifetime of fulfilling work

Soon most architects will spend their careers within the relative haven of large firms. Like veterinary practices, who have become almost universally owned by large corporates, independent small architectural practice will decline and start to thin out, often to individuals working on their own from home.

Such a reduction in the overall number of practices will reduce the current repressive and damaging competition within UK architecture. A smaller number of larger firms will be a stronger force and have much greater power to insist on higher fees, so bringing higher salaries across the board.

Where small firms do survive, they will need to be tougher, more resilient. With younger staff prepared to work for lower wages, these practices will retain their vital role as architectural change-makers to push boundaries in pure design, technology, and social change.

Some of us are getting out of mainstream practice and using our architectural skills productively in other ways. This is reflected in the migration of architects to Public Practice roles within local authorities, moving to much needed planning and regeneration posts. Other architects now regularly go ‘client side’ or become developers themselves. Many of us are tutors, advisors and critics. These roles are an excellent and logical way of diversifying in a positive way.

This profession is without doubt rewarding, creative, flexible and can bring a whole lifetime of fulfilling work. These are unusual and not to be undervalued benefits in today’s jobs market. Architecture is a vocation about creativity and passion. But these privileges and freedoms come at the price of our comparatively low pay.

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