A Guide To US Architectural Salaries

Hollywood has a lot to answer for. From Jungle Fever to Inception, architecture has been presented in movies as a glamorous profession populated by workers who – when not pulling all-nighters in their glamorous offices with floor-to-ceiling windows – eat in glamorous restaurants wearing glamorous outfits, before going home to their starkly glamorous apartments. Where do these fictional architects get their cash?

Certainly not from their day jobs, which in the US attract salaries roughly equal to those of speech therapists, real estate brokers and high school language teachers. Architecture can be a hugely fulfilling profession, but only rarely is it a lucrative one.

In this article, we’ll give you an overview of the salaries you can expect to earn over a lifelong career, and suggest some concrete steps you can take to push your salary into the upper percentile. We’ll show you the cities, states and firms where architects’ paychecks are the highest (and lowest), keeping in mind that other benefits such as healthcare insurance and flexible hours can be worth their weight in gold.

And finally, we’ll address some pay-related gripes in our FAQ section.  

How much does an architect make in the United States?

Let’s kick off with the million-dollar question – although, sadly, that isn’t the answer! How much are you actually going to make as an architect? If you calculate the mean from various sources, the average salary in the US is somewhere around $76k. However, you could find yourself earning considerably more or less.

The website payscale.com offers the lowest estimate, suggesting American architects earn $61,177 on average, with the lowest salaries around $43k and the highest around $102k. On smartasset.com the figures are slightly more promising, with an average salary of $76,100 and a range of $46,080 to $125,520.

money.usnews.com ups the ante again, reporting an average of $79,380. The site suggests that the lowest-paid 25% of architects are taking home around $61,280 (roughly the same as the average salary suggested by payscale.com), while the best-paid 25% make $104,510. The Bureau of Labor Statistics plumps for $81,250, and indeed.com, state that $80,568 is the national average.

How much you get paid will be influenced by a lot of different factors such as your qualifications, experience, location and employer – read on to find out more on this. 

The cost of becoming an architect

Architecture has one of the longest training periods of any profession, which can prove expensive. A survey by the American Institute of Architecture Students found that their average debt after graduation was well in excess of $40,000 (taking into account course fees, exam fees, and other expenses such as books, software licenses and materials).

This compares to $29,400 for other subjects. The situation is not helped by the fact that architects are required to complete three years of internships, which tend to be unpaid or badly-paid, before full qualification. In short, on an average architect’s salary, you’ll be paying back your student debt for many years into the future.

What key factors determine an architect’s salary?

Research by forbes.com suggests that location within the US is likely to be the most significant factor in how much you earn. In the lowest-paying state, architects take home $67,540, while in the highest, they make $109,520 (for more on this, see ‘Ten best-paying states for US architects’ and related sections below). 

However, location is not the only factor that affects your salary. Different firms of course offer different rates, depending on their size, prestige and specialisms. Architects with more years of experience command higher salaries as they have established industry connections and are able to attract new business.

And you can also expect to earn more in certain kinds of position than others; for example, a contract administrator (who oversees building projects) will nearly always be better paid than a design architect.

Popular employer salaries for architects

payscale.com collected data on the salaries offered by eight architectural firms in the US, finding that Skidmore, Owings & Merrill paid the most, around $90,000 on average. Although Hks was in second place, their average salary was $15k less – which just goes to show that the firm you work for can make all the difference. The table below summarizes the data on all eight firms:

US Architectural Salaries - Popular employer salaries for architects.jpg

Architects’ earnings by seniority and experience level

In the US, your salary as an architect could increase 173% over the course of your career! That’s according to research by careerexplorer.com, which shows that starting-level earners take home $47,635, compared to top-level earnings of $130,167. The table below shows a breakdown of their data:

Stage of careerPercentileAverage salary starts atEquivalent hourly rate
Top level90th$130,167$62.58
Senior level75th$102,588$49.32
Mid-level50th$78,743$37.86
Junior level25th$60,440$29.06
Starting level10th$47,635$22.90

Meanwhile a study by payscale.com found that architects were paid slightly more at the bottom end of the scale, and slightly less at the top. The site estimates that entry-level design architects are paid $48,562 on average (including overtime and bonuses), while late-career architects with over two decades of experience earn $99,241.

Between these two extremes, they suggest that an early-career architect (one to four years’ experience) makes $53,269; a mid-career architect (five to nine years’ experience) makes $64,880; and an experienced architect (10-19 years’ experience) makes $79,088.

Ten best-paying US cities for architects

Research by payscale.com compared the average architectural salaries in seven US cities with the national average. The site found that those in San Francisco fared best, with wages 14% higher than the national average. Next came Washington (11% higher), Seattle (5%), Los Angeles (3%), Boston (2%) and Chicago (1%). Somewhat surprisingly, the study found that architects in New York were paid one percent less than the national average.

Ten best-paying US states for architects

Data collected by forbes.com on income by state presents a slightly different picture. Their research found that New York paid the highest of any state ($109,520), followed by Massachusetts and Texas.

It also showed that salaries did not necessarily correlate with the cost of living; overall, the states of Alabama and West Virginia have two of the lowest median incomes in the US, but their architects were among the most generously paid in the country.

The table below details salaries across the ten best-paying states, while information on all 50 states can be found by clicking the link above:

PositionStateAverage (mean) salary 2017
1New York$109,520
2Massachusetts$103,920
3Texas$99,580
4Arizona$95,220
5California$95,060
6Alaska$93,390
7Alabama$91,380
8New Hampshire$89,260
9West Virginia$89,200
10Minnesota$88,020   

Ten states with the best increase for architects’ salaries

forbes.com also investigated which states had the biggest increase in architectural salaries between 2016 and 2017. Arizona topped the chart, with a huge increase of 21.6%, followed by New York (19.6%) and Texas (17.7%). Wyoming, Oregon and West Virginia were next, with increases of 13.8%, 13.6% and 13.3% respectively. Seventh and eighth place were taken by Nebraska (12.7%) and Kansas (11.8%), while North Dakota (11.1%) and Tennessee (10.8%) completed the chart.

Ten states where architects earn the least money

It can be useful to know where pay is the lowest, as well as the highest. The state of Utah was found to have the lowest average salary, $67,540, followed by Arkansas and Maine.

As with the highest-paying states, there are some surprising inclusions; it certainly isn’t the case that wealthier states pay their architects more. The table below shows forbes.com’s data in full:

PositionStateAverage (mean) salary 2017
1Utah$67,540
2Arkansas$69,470
3Maine$70,470
4Idaho$71,190
5Vermont$71,770
6New Mexico$72,740
7Mississippi$72,780
8Colorado$73,090
9Kentucky$73,580
10Nevada$74,620   

Best paid skills and qualifications for architects

It should go without saying that registered architects, i.e. those who have passed the ARE (Architects’ Registration Examination), are paid more than those who haven’t. But a survey by 9B Careers also showed that digital skills can lead to higher salaries, too. In 2019, rates of pay in the UK for BIM coordinators increased by nine percent, while those for architectural technicians and technologists rose by nearly seven percent.

(Though a comparable recent study for the US is not available, there is no reason to suppose the needs of contemporary firms would be different there.) Basically, it pays to spend time perfecting your Revit skills. 

And don’t neglect soft skills like communication, flexibility and leadership. Being someone that others want to work with can sometimes help you rise to the top as fast as your technical abilities and certificates.

Most common employment benefits for architects

While your salary is important, it shouldn’t be the only thing you consider. The AIA Compensation Report 2019 discovered that benefits packages effectively increase architects’ base pay by an average of 18%, so spend time researching what each prospective employer offers. The AIA suggests you look out for the following:

Healthcare and dental insurance

Ninety-three percent of American architectural firms offer healthcare insurance. While it might be an understandable stretch for very small firms, consider whether your base salary would cover your expenses if you had an accident or fell ill.

If the answer is no, the only sensible thing to do is choose another company that will cover your healthcare costs. The AIA found that the proportion of firms offering dental insurance was lower at 75%, but this is still a majority of employers.

Retirement program

Retirement programs, for example a 401(k), are offered by 83% of architectural firms in the United States. However, they are offered by a full 100% of large firms, so look there first if this benefit is especially important to you.

Life insurance, long-term disability insurance and vision care

These things were offered by 60% of American firms. Nobody likes to imagine them as possible future necessities, but if the worst happens they can be a lifeline. 

PTO (Paid Time Off)

Uniquely in the global North, the US specifies no legal minimum requirement for paid time off for employees. Paid vacation days average just 10 per year for American workers.

However, the AIA found in 2019 that PTO (vacations, holidays, sick days and others) offered by architectural firms had actually increased in recent years, with 30 days – or six weeks – per annum now being the average offer. The AIA also found that larger firms tended to offer two or three more days a year than smaller ones.

Bonuses

Conversely, the AIA discovered that fewer bonuses were being offered today than in the past – but that 83% of firms maintained annual discretionary bonus schemes. Eighty-one percent of large companies (with 100 or more staff) offered signing bonuses, while performance and spot bonuses were offered by less than 50% of all firms.

CPD (Continuing Professional Development)

Specific data on CPD in US architectural firms are not readily available, but some employers will pay for training courses, licensure fees and AIA membership fees. It’s always worth asking when you apply.

‘Soft perks’

Benefits like flexible hours, a casual dress code and pet-friendly offices are just as important to some workers as remuneration. You’ll probably get the best feel for these things by visiting the office itself.

Architects’ salary satisfaction

The website money.usnews.com found that American architects rated their ‘opportunities for advancement and salary’ as average. (They had similar feelings about their work-life balance, but said their stress levels were frequently above average!)

In the UK, a 2018 survey by Hunter Dunning found that more than half of architects felt underpaid; 40% felt their salary was basically fair; and seven percent thought they were overpaid. Sadly, this suggests there’s a good chance you’ll feel undercompensated at some point during your career.

How do architectural salaries compare to those of other careers?

payscale.com offers data on how much those in comparable fields to architecture are being paid. Professionals making less than architects include graphic designers ($33-63k), interior designers ($36-70k) and officer managers ($34-69k). Those being paid roughly the same are mechanical, civil and project engineers ($51-99k), while those earning more include electrical engineers ($58-112k) and project managers ($49-112k).

money.usnews.com ranks eight ‘engineering jobs’ according to a number of criteria including salary, future industry growth and work-life balance, and places architects sixth overall, and also by salary. Only cartographers and environmental engineering technicians earn less – although both jobs place higher than architects in the overall rankings.

Mechanical engineers come out top overall while petroleum engineers were, unsurprisingly, found to have the highest salaries ($137,170 on average).

careerexplorer.com compares architects’ salaries with those of others in the creative and cultural industries, finding that they earn more than industrial designers ($67k), urban planners and multimedia planners (both $73k), but less than games artists ($90k).

What is the outlook for architects’ salaries?

In the US, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has suggested that the field of architecture will grow eight percent between 2018 and 2028, which equates to 11,200 new jobs. In particular, it predicts a rise in the number of jobs for architects who specialise in sustainable design.

A survey for Building magazine in 2019 found that British architects’ salaries had increased by an average of three percent over the previous year; this is higher than the 1.9% reported increase across all industries in the same period, suggesting the outlook for architects’ pay in the UK is equally favourable. 

FAQs

Do architects get paid a lot of money?

In short, no. Architecture is one of those professions that everyone assumes is paid well – not least as compensation for the very long training period required – but sadly this perception rarely matches reality. Most architects will earn a respectable wage but won’t become rich. 

To maximise your salary in the US, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recommends seeking out insurance carriers and electricity providers as clients, since they pay the equivalent of $127,000 and $109,570 respectively in architects’ salaries.

Land subdivision companies ($107,500) and hospitals ($103,730) also pay well. Moving to a high-paying state such as New York or Massachusetts will increase your earnings, as will specialising in sustainable design and having strong BIM skills.

Why are architects paid so poorly?

‘Poorly’ is a rather subjective description, as architects tend to be paid more than other professionals such as nurses and teachers. But it is an acknowledged problem in the industry that many years of training, and high levels of expertise, are not rewarded financially in a way that seems fair.

It may be that architects are paid relatively little compared to, say, engineers, because supply outstrips demand in most urban areas and especially in New York. Another possible reason for low pay is that over time architectural firms have subcontracted the high-risk aspects of their work, such as engineering design, to outside firms.

Those who take bigger risks can ask for more money. And the recent economic downturn may also play a part; once clients realise they can get away with paying less, because architectural firms still need commissions, why would they pay more?

As depressing as this may sound, architecture has a low unemployment rate and you’re not likely to be on the breadline. If a big salary is important to you, apply to larger firms and never stop improving your skills. 

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How can I know if I’m being fairly paid as an architect?

The AIA offers a tool called Know Your Worth that lets you calculate what your salary should be, based on the size of your firm, its location, and other details. If you feel your salary is significantly lower than it should be, you might also like to read the AIA Code of Ethics and the government Fair Labor Standards Act which are available on the same web page.

If you’re a female architect, data suggest you can expect to be paid the same as your male colleagues at the start of your career but only 84% of their salary as your careers progress. Obviously, the gender pay gap is a complex issue, but it’s worth speaking up if you feel that pay is not handled fairly at your company.

How much are people paid in similar professions?

As Mark Twain once said, ‘Comparison is the death of joy’. In general, engineers are paid better than architects, while others in the creative industries such as designers are paid less. (See ‘How do architectural salaries compare to other careers’?’ above for more information.)

But the difference in pay between jobs that could be said to overlap, such as architecture and planning, tends to be negligible, so it’s really a matter of how you would prefer to spend your days.

If architecture is what fires your imagination, it makes no sense to pursue a similar but slightly less engaging job for the sake of an extra few thousand a year. What makes more sense is to become a specialist in your own field, so your particular skillset is harder to come by and therefore worth more. 

How much are architects paid in the UK?

As in the US, architects’ salaries vary widely in the UK. The BBC suggests a range of £27,000 to £35,000 ($33,874 to $43,912), which puts the American average in a rather more favourable light.

However, data from RIBA suggest the figure is more like £33,500 ($42,030) for an architect with less than five years’ experience and £39,140 ($49,106) for one with over five years’, and the website cwjobs.co.uk reports an average salary of £67,500 ($84,701)!

It depends very much on the firm, location and level of experience; those in well-known London firms, and those who are partners, directors or associates, can expect to make more than their peers.

Which architect gets paid the most?

The British architect Norman Foster is the highest-paid architect in the world today. His annual salary is reportedly £2m ($2,510,470) and he still owns a 45% stake in Foster and Partners, which he sold for £120m ($150,608,040) in 2007.

At the time of her death in 2016, British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid was also worth a whopping £215m ($269,832,525).

Can an architect become a millionaire?

Unfortunately, Foster and Hadid are exceptional cases. Although it is possible for an architect to become a millionaire, it isn’t very likely.

Irvine and James Sellar – who designed London’s Shard – and the Scottish practice RMJM are valued at £200m ($250,835,000) and £80m ($100,334,000) respectively, while ‘starchitects’ such as Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano and Rem Koolhaas command equally generous, if undisclosed, amounts.

The rest of us will probably make enough to put food on the table, a roof over our heads, and maybe even two weeks at the beach each summer. But who needs a private jet anyway right?

To conclude…

If you plan on becoming super-rich, architecture may not be the profession for you. The real life of an architect isn’t quite like in the movies!

However, there are things you can do to increase your chances of commanding a higher salary, including moving to cities like San Francisco, applying to large and well-paying firms like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and developing the most sought-after skills such as BIM and knowledge of sustainable practices. 

It’s also worth remembering that higher-paying careers such as management and medicine offer fewer chances to play and experiment.

If you just love creating things, perhaps it’s worth focusing less on your paycheck – which, after all, is likely to cover your basic needs and then some – than on the pleasure of designing beautiful and effective spaces.

Is Architecture worth it? …we still think so!

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