There is a huge mismatch between how the architectural profession is perceived and the reality, writes Aylin Round

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Having been involved with the UK architectural sector for many years, I am fully aware of the challenges professionals face, such as low pay, unpaid overtime, student debts, cost of living, and more. However, I wondered what outsiders thought of the architectural profession. Is it valued or not? There’s only one way to find out.

So, I started asking my friends and family, “How much do you think an architect earns in the UK?” To my surprise, the usual response was in the range of around £70k-£80k per year, indicating they perceive it as a valued and well-paid profession.

However, once I told them the truth - that in reality, an architect earns on average £37,000 per year - they nearly fell off their chairs. They looked at me in disbelief and said, “Don’t architects study for seven years? Why are they being paid so little? How is that even possible?”.

It made me wonder: Why do people outside the industry often value the profession more highly than the industry itself? How is there such a gap between expectations and reality in salaries? How can we improve or, even better, solve these issues?

From experience, I am aware that many architectural professionals blame the low fee structures and the practice of undercutting each other to win projects. When I posed these questions to my LinkedIn network, it became clear that low fees were only the tip of the iceberg.

Modern procurement routes limit the architect’s role, university courses focus too much on conceptual design rather than teaching project management and construction, and senior staff resist adopting agile methodologies and new technology. All this alongside grueling long hours and practices offering to do free work.

The fact that Part 1s are being paid close to the National Minimum Wage, combined with the rising cost of living and increasing student fees, is mind-boggling to me

Adding to the pile of unrealistic deadlines, poor management, increasing workload, and unpaid overtime, it’s evident that the ones who suffer through these poor decisions are the employees.

When staff want to prioritise a healthy work-life balance, it is seen as laziness and a lack of passion. Staying late is considered a badge of honour. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In my opinion, if practice owners/directors properly manage incoming workload, submit fee proposals that make a profit, stop doing free work, negotiate realistic deadlines, and don’t guilt-trip their staff into staying late most nights (mostly unpaid overtime due to budget constraints), practices would do far better and could pay their staff higher salaries.

This raises another interesting point: Should universities equip every student in the architectural sector with fundamental business management skills?

Imagine a profession where everyone in a practice understands the basics, from strategic to financial and organisational management skills. Wouldn’t this help to showcase the value everyone brings to a business and demonstrate how even the smallest changes can make a practice more profitable?

>> Also read: Architectural graduates can earn more at McDonald’s. That’s bad for diversity and the profession

This brings me to my next question: Why does the architectural industry not have fee guidelines? As I recently learned, if every practice agrees on a minimum fee percentage, it’s classed as price-fixing and a criminal offense (whoopsie-daisy). Would creating fee guidelines be a step in the right direction?

From discussions with professionals worldwide, I know this is not just a UK problem. With the rising cost of living, registration fees, and stagnating salaries, it makes you wonder when enough is enough, and if we will see real changes happening.

The fact is that there is a lot of misinformation and a lack of transparency, and I anticipate that more people will leave the profession and take on Project Management/Design Manager roles as these offer better salaries. The fact that Part 1s are being paid close to the National Minimum Wage, combined with the rising cost of living and increasing student fees, is mind-boggling to me.

It is clear that the expectation vs reality of the architecture profession are two different stories. Given the increasing cost of studying architecture and the stagnation of salaries, it is becoming increasingly unviable as a career choice and students are not aware of this. To improve the situation for the current and future workforce, we need to raise awareness of the issues and come up with solutions.

>> Also read: A new generation of architects and developers works hard and demands more – that’s something to be celebrated