Architects Income: Mastering the Paycheque

There is no doubt about it, architects are poorly paid. Last week’s BD conference, How Architects Can Maximise Their Income and Profit, was based on the presumption that we all could do better if only we knew how.

Within the current model of getting fees as a percentage of building costs there are clearly ways of structuring agreements and managing change, as well as of managing job teams, which can enhance income and profit without antagonising the client or impoverishing staff. That’s practice management skill, and many architects need their skills developing.

But the conference took off on a different tack, looking at how architects can break out of their self-imposed box. The profession has defined itself as progressively less central to the creation and management of the built environment over generations. Where once an architect was master mason and responsible for everything, including lifetime maintenance, now some see themselves as an endangered species, specialising in what some clients see as the optional extra of “good design”.

Yet architects are still the skill-holders without whom everyone else can’t move. We identify and define the benefit of the scheme, which determines its viability and value. We then suffer the depredations of other members of the team whose job we often feel we are doing for them.

Why do UK architects tend to see themselves as specialists in a single-discipline practice when our US counterparts increasingly see themselves as problem solvers, adding services and skills as customers ask for them? We refer the client to others; they take on the others.

The American Institute of Architects reports the proportion of member staff who are architects has fallen to 29%. Other professions, specialists and managers are joining US firms to broaden and deepen the services offered. This trend is carrying US architects back towards the master-mason position: advising, developing, masterplanning, designing, managing projects and construction, and providing building products. And it’s not just done by architects hiring people outside their skill area. Architects themselves can diversify into related areas, as many have done in the UK.

At a rough estimate, UK architects in consulting practice are earning twice as much as they would if they got 5% on all the relevant new building done in the country. Clearly we already do studies and provide services alongside the core ones.

The final leap is to be paid for value added, not in relation to cost. We need to inform ourselves better to play the value-based income game, although in commercial work it is not complex. Let’s put ourselves on the customer’s side of the table, taking some risk but exposing ourselves to rewards less grudgingly given. We would also straighten out our motivation, learning what really works to create value. Then as building costs begin to fall compared to income expectations, we shan’t be dragged down with them. Architecture is a big subject and needs a big-thinking profession.

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