Putting a price on an average architect

There are some interesting differences between ONS and RIBA figures on architects’ earnings

How much does the average architect earn and how are pay rates changing? That might seem a reasonably straightforward question, but it’s not.

The latest Office for National Statistics Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) puts the average annual pay of an architect at £43,332 for all employed, and £45,223 for all full-time employed. That fits pretty neatly with the RIBA survey which came up with £45,000.

However, the ONS figure for annual growth in earnings was just 0.8% compared with the RIBA survey’s 7% rise over the year.

For most architect looking to compare earnings within the industry it’s probably better to go with the RIBA survey. It sampled about 1,200 architects while the ONS ASHE survey takes a 1% sample from HMRC PAYE records, so covers nearer 300 architects.

The ONS survey does provide a useful comparison with average earnings across the UK and comparisons with other professions, for those who want to track that in detail. The data go back to 1997 and, if cautiously spliced to its predecessor the New Earnings Survey, you can track back to 1990.

Before looking at the data, it’s wise to recap on the paradoxes averages can throw up. For instance, average earnings could rise even if those employed found themselves all earning less. Why? Because the younger and the frailer are often the first tossed as sacrifices to the gods of recession, leaving more high earners in the mix – who feasibly might have taken a pay cut.

That doesn’t mean averages are worthless, but they are dangerous if misinterpreted.

In looking at the ASHE figures, to avoid fluctuating working hours, the figures used here are hourly rates of full-time (FT) employees. 

  • Chart 1
    Chart 1
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Chart 1 looks at mean and media pay for architects across the UK and London, where the mother lode of architects work. It presents a pretty unappetising and possibly slightly confusing set of numbers. Average pay over the past 10 years has stagnated. Add in inflation and things look quite gruesome.

But the reality might be less worrisome than the chart suggests. The apparent drop in earnings in more recent years is likely to be down to more young architects entering employment. This is a good thing. In time we should see average earnings rise as they progress to more senior positions.

That the fall in earnings seems more pronounced in London tends to support this view, as we might expect a higher proportion of the young recruits to the profession to start in London.

Even taking account of those quirks, the picture across time of architects’ pay is not a happy one, although the recent 7% rise in earnings found by the RIBA survey is encouraging.

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The effect of a change in the mix of younger and older architects also seems to be evident in the ASHE data when looking at earnings by gender. The hourly pay of architects by gender, not unexpectedly, shows a large pay gap, as we see in Chart 2.

The gender gap in average earnings over the past 10 years is about 24%. This fits roughly with the 20% found in the RIBA survey. On the face of it the gap appears to have grown in recent years as the industry expanded its numbers from a few years ago. Interestingly though, looking further back, the pay gap also appeared to swell for a period after 2004 when work was flowing well and recruitment was strong.

While the gender gap remains a matter of serious concern, a growing pay gap at times of expansion could, ironically perhaps, be a positive indicator. As the industry expands it is likely to draw in more young women and raise the proportion of women working as architects. This would skew the sample and reduce the average earnings for women. Certainly, the RIBA survey noted a rise in the proportion of women architects of late.

The real bonus of the ASHE data for architects probably lies in the ability to compare earnings with other occupations. Adding data from the New Earnings Survey – the predecessor to ASHE covering just Great Britain – we can gain an insight into the changing pattern of architects’ pay back to 1990. 

  • Chart 3
    Chart 3
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Chart 3 plots mean hourly earnings for male full-time architects compared with the mean hourly earnings of all male full-time employees. It also plots the differential between all males employed and those employed in architecture.

It shows a rapid decay in the differential (see the right hand axis) between those employed as architects and all employees in the early 1990s.

What caused this shift and what it means in practice is likely to be a complex of factors including, for instance, how architects receive their earnings, with growing numbers of companies replacing partnerships. But from the point of view of the earnings of architects as employees there has been a major shift over the past 25 years.

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If we look in more detail at just men working in London, we can get a slightly different take on what might be going on. In Chart 4 we see a relative increase in architects’ pay to all others through the early part of the 21st century as workloads improved and a rapid erosion in the differential as the recession bit. That seems to suggest the earnings of architects are very sensitive to market conditions.

We also see a growing gap between the mean earnings of architects and the median. This points to widening gap between the earnings of a ‘typical’ architect and the better paid architects, although as mentioned above we have to take account of varying proportions of younger architects entering the profession over time.

It is interesting to compare the earnings of solicitors with those of architects. Precise data is missing for 2002 to 2010, due to changes in what categories were recorded, but we can make some useful comparisons.

The average earnings of solicitors in 1990 and 1991 was about 20% more than for architects. This gap rose to above 50% in the late 1990s and remained above 30% up to 2011. But the average earnings of solicitors have been in decline since the recession and the gap is now below 20%.

If architects feel as a profession their pay is under pressure, they appear not to be alone. 

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