With around $218.4 billion worth of work having been done on the construction of houses, commercial buildings and civil infrastructure over the year to March, Australia’s building sector has plenty of money up for grabs.

Given this, one would think the sector’s 1.174 million workers and business people (May 18, ABS data) would be handsomely rewarded. This, you would think, would be especially the case for the professional side of the industry.

This is not so much so, however, for architects and designers. According to data provided by job search web site Seek, architects and designers earn less than professionals in engineering or construction project delivery across almost every category.

Over the 12 months to May, average salaries for roles advertised on Seek came in at $88,500 for architects, $83,200 for landscape architects, $78,500 for interior designers and $76,300 for industrial designers. Over that same period, project engineers, civil/structural engineers, building services engineers and electrical engineers raked in $117,200, $108,300, $107,600 and $104,500 respectively. In construction, forepersons took home $117,100 whilst health and safety professionals made $109,500 and contract managers earned $109,200. Managers and project managers earned even more.

In short, architects and designers are at the bottom of the food chain.

Several points must be acknowledged.

First, these salaries are not dreadful. Depending on where they live, most architects earning these amounts would be able to support a family and maintain a modest but comfortable lifestyle.

Second, the data above reflects averages across all levels of seniority and experience. In fact, architects and designers who reach higher levels can earn good money. According to the latest Hays Salary Guide, senior architects with seven or more years’ experience in Sydney can earn anything between $100,000 and $150,000. A Sydney-based BIM/CAD manager, meanwhile, can make $100,000 to $140,000 whilst a senior interior designer with seven or more years’ experience can bring home $85,000 to $130,000.

Finally, architects and designers still out-earn many of the sector’s blue collar workers. Labourers, gardeners and landscapers and painters earn only $54,000, $56,000 and $59,000 respectively. Carpenters and cabinet makers earn $68,000.

Amongst most white collar professionals, however, architects sit at the bottom.

This raises questions about why this is so, whether it matters and what, if anything, can be done. For answers, Sourceable spoke with Rita Avdiev, an architect who diversified and is now a remuneration consultant and the managing director of remuneration services firm The Avdiev Group; and Robert Peake, a former architect and now director of architecture and engineering financial and business consulting firm Management for Design (M4D).

According to Avdiev and Peake, architects’ pay position reflects shifts which have happened over several decades.

These started in the 1960s, Avdiev says, when caps on architecture places at universities were removed.

More significant, however, was the emergence of specialised project managers in the 1970s. This spawned a phenomenon whereby tasks previously performed by architects such as project management, construction management, contract administration and quality assurance were taken over by others specialising in these areas. Builders and engineers saw opportunities to move into these fields as well.

As a result, a profession which would once have led and managed projects has seen the scope of its tasks diminished to the point of being ‘just another consultant’ whose role is now largely restricted to core design and documentation functions.

Even within design and documentation, the architect’s role is also diminishing. Significant parts of the documentation work are being outsourced to other professionals, Not only that but quite often the quality of this outsourced work is higher than that produced in-house. Peake says. In the residential sector, the portion of new houses which are designed by an architect currently is as low as five per cent, he adds.

Accordingly, the scope of the work performed by architects on projects is diminishing notwithstanding the fact that the number of projects coming online is currently very high. This is impacting the volume of work for which architects are needed.

In many industries, this would lead to existing staff moving to greener pastures and fewer graduates coming through. In architecture, Peake says this is not happening. Architecture, he says, continues to offer many rewards in non-financial ways. These include the ability to innovate; to create the places where we live, work, learn, eat, socialise and relax; to contribute to cities, economies and societies; and to do this in a profession which enjoys high levels of community respect.

For many, this means architecture remains a satisfying vocation despite relatively low remuneration levels. As a result, he says the supply of architects available to perform the diminishing volume of work is actually increasing.

All this is holding down remuneration for three reasons.

First, it means a plentiful supply of architects is competing for a diminishing volume of work. Accordingly, basic supply and demand is a restricting the price which architectural firms and staff are able to charge for their services.

Second, the capacity of architectural firms themselves to offer large pay packets is restricted by downward pressure on the firms’ and industry fees.

This should not be underestimated. In a recent article published on the Architecture AU web site, Shaun Carter, principal architect at Carter Williamson Architects (CWA) and past president of the Australian Institute of Architects, describes a recent situation in which fees charged for the winning bid to design a 150 apartment development were as low as 1.55 per cent of the overall project value. Not long ago, he said, fees as low as three per cent were considered cause for concern.

Finally, not only has the role of architect been diminished, the tasks the services being offered have been compressed and these are are less lucrative compared with the other roles which have been performed historically. As can be seen from the data above, tasks which architects once did in terms of project management and delivery sit at the higher end of the construction pay scale. The design tasks to which architects find themselves now confined are significantly less well-remunerated.

A further dimension to this is a disparity between earnings working in traditional roles for professional service firms as compared to what Avdiev refers to as ‘transitional’ roles working for other companies such as property developers or principal construction contractors. Drawing on 2014 data from her own firm’s Avdiev Property Industry Remuneration Report in that year, Avdiev published an article in the Australian and New Zealand Property Journal in 2015.

According to that, a senior architect earning $115,000 in an architecture firm could pull in as much as $169,000 by instead working as a building design manager for a developer or builder. A BIM or CAD manager who could earn $117,000 working in an architecture firm could instead bring in $173,000 by working as a Building BIM Manager for a head contractor. Whilst this data is four years’ old, Avdiev says similar gaps remain today.

This means the relatively low levels of earnings are primarily concentrated among those who work in professional service firms.

Does it matter if architects earn less?

In one sense, no. Whilst not highly paid, architects on aforementioned salaries earn enough to make ends meet. If they are happy to forgo greater remuneration to practice in an area which offers personal and professional satisfaction, one might question what the problem is.

Thanks to those personal and professional rewards which it offers, meanwhile, Peake says the profession attracts the graduates it needs. Thus the relatively low salaries are not, at least for now, jeopardising the supply of suitable workers.

Where it does matter, Peake says, is that architecture is no longer attracting graduates who want careers which expand beyond design. That in turn, is reinforcing the diminution of the profession’s expertise in terms of services which it is capable of providing in the future.

For some individual firms, as well, Avdiev says, it creates the prospect of people being poached by deeper pocketed employers such as property developers or construction firms.

Of course, it could also be argued that there are equity issues at play. The comparatively poor amount which architects are being paid, it could be argued, does not reflect their contribution to society.

What should be done?

Ideally, Peake says architecture courses should incorporate greater emphasis on the complete building cycle. This would include areas such as procurement, contract management, facilities management, construction management and even design management.

This, he says, may help the profession to claw back ceded ground. Having said that, he says that “ship has likely sailed.” Nowadays, these spaces have been filled by others. Winning them back could prove difficult.

Beyond that, Peake sees an inevitable shake up and a reduction in the number of firms and people providing architectural services.

Avdiev would like architects to reclaim some of their lost ground but is not optimistic that this will happen.

Through designing the buildings in which we live, work and relax, architects make an enormous contribution to society.

In terms of construction professional pay scales, however, they are stuck at the bottom of the pile.