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Salary

The money is pretty nice relative to many jobs but pay is at the lower end of the professional scale for most, given the many years of education and the very low pay for early architects. An intern might make $35k a year for a few years and advance slowly to $50-$60k as an associate but with high variability based on what kind of building is being built. Vanilla residential homes are perceived as relatively easy to create, and there the core skill is working with difficult clients who have no clue what they really want. So based on skills, pay is at the low end, but based on salesmanship the pay gets better. Most new homes are part of large developments now, so if a large real estate developer needs 150 homes built to a basic spec—think: Early Tuscan Style—then he will hire a firm with a dozen architects who bang out those 150 homes over three-four years and then move on. If the architect can refer other buyers to the developer to sell more homes, then the architect is thrown some love in the next project the developer does by being granted more homes to design, providing a nicely lucrative virtuous circle as long as lots of homes are selling.

At the other end of the spectrum are architects designing bridges or military buildings or airports. The client here is an educated buyer, usually a G-man wearing a short-sleeved white shirt and narrow tie. The buyer buys based on "low-bid" contracts—i.e., the cheapest bid usually wins. And the architecture is often complex and highly skill specific. Building a runway may seem like putting just a flat piece of asphalt on the ground but it is waaaay more complicated than that. It has to have 1.5 degrees of slope, room for the ground to heave, alert wires and mesh that talk to the plane built into the edges of the runway, and emergency generator lights to provision for storms and earthquakes. In other words, architecture is very skilled work with no forgiveness. If the architect messes up in a residential home, the hall lights don't perfectly light the entire area. Nobody dies. If the architect messes up the airport, people die. The costs can run into the tens or hundreds of millions. That kind of architect usually gets paid more on a given job, but the jobs are scarce. How many airports get built any more anyway? Wooing clients isn't as much of an issue because it is likely there are three firms in the world that can handle a job like that and the G-men will call you; you don't need to go out and make sales calls. As a result, it is hard to ever really make big money there.

Go back to the residential designer. It is reasonable that you could own a firm after a decade or three where you handle 250 homes a year, build five developments in a given area, and have 30 core architects and a few dozen associates/helpers working for you. Your job is selling to developers and, in that setting, if you sell well, you could easily clear a few million bucks a year. This job isn’t building the next Louvre roof or fine art work for the Venice town square. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit and like to design things, being an architect is a decent way to go. If you design the most awesome building ever, you probably get your picture in Architectural Digest. We'll get you started: It needs to have a roller coaster on the inside.

Probably not the best place for a cocktail bar.

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