State of the Profession

This collage depicting architects in American, Canadian and British advertisements was assembled to illustrate a 1958 article in The Canadian Architect.
This collage depicting architects in American, Canadian and British advertisements was assembled to illustrate a 1958 article in The Canadian Architect.

TEXT Douglas MacLeod

Both Canadian Architect magazine and I turned 60 this year, and for almost half my life (28 years) I have written for this publication. Over the course of these six decades, the profession of architecture has changed dramatically. Computer technology, for example, has radically transformed our means of production and building information modelling will only accelerate this process.

The changes to our status as a profession, however, have been subtler. When I was growing up, an architect was something impressive to be. Arthur Erickson was emerging as the first Canadian architect to garner international recognition. Expo 67 displayed a utopian vision of the future where exotic architecture was front and centre. The best and the brightest wanted to be architects.

The booms and busts of the following decades had a way of dampening enthusiasm for the profession. So much so that, by 2015, we didn’t even crack the top 100 of Canada’s Best Jobs as ranked by Canadian Business magazine. Do registered nurses (#16), parole officers (#30) and underground miners (#32) really have better jobs than we do? Perhaps more disconcerting is the fact that many of the other players in the AEC industry did make the cut: construction managers were #44, civil engineers were #50, mechanical engineers were #57, crane operators were #63 and engineering managers were #5. Even bricklayers squeaked in at #92.

Wages are one way of measuring our status as a profession, although it is difficult to compare apples to apples when it comes to money. In 1961 (the closest census date to the founding of this magazine), the average employment income of an architect was $8,880. Using the Canadian Consumer Price Index, I converted this to 2014 dollars and came up with an average salary of $70,814. This is comparable to the average salary of an architect in the 2011 census, which was $70,528 or $73,646 in 2014 dollars.

But this only begins to tell the story. Averages, although a common measure, can be skewed by anomalies like a few architects who earn very large incomes. Median salaries are a more accurate measure of the income of a typical architect. (A median is the value that evenly divides a group into two halves: one-half of the group is lower than the median and the other half is higher.) The median salary of an architect in the 2011 census was only $56,622 or $59,125 in 2014 dollars, considerably less than the average. The median salary for an architect in 1962 was between $6,000 and $9,999, or between $47,847 and $79,737 in 2014 dollars—roughly the same ballpark as the 2011 figure. Either way you look at it, our wages haven’t changed significantly in the last 60 years.

Even within average salaries, there are distinctions to be made. After 1971, for example, the census began to distinguish between those who worked “full-time, full-year” and those who had any kind of “employment income” in the profession. 1971 was a banner year for “full-time, full-year” male architects, whose average employment income was $15,933 or a whopping $98,267 in 2014 dollars. The profession has never seen numbers like that again.

The reason may be that in 1978, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the mandatory design fee structure for various types of buildings (such as 18% for a hospital) constituted price fixing. Soon after, the same fee structures were dismantled in Canada as well. This may have been the single most detrimental change to the economics of the profession in the last 60 years.

The statistics reveal one of the most shameful aspects of our profession—women have been (and still are) grossly underpaid compared to their male counterparts. In 1971, “full-time, full-year” female architects made only 61% of what men did, with an average salary of $9,754 or $60,158 in 2014 dollars. Nor has this problem been rectified. While the gap narrowed to 18% in the 1996 census, it had grown again to 27% by the 2011 census. The numbers confirm that architects’ salaries are tied to the roller coaster of the economy. In 1991, the average salary for full-time architects (male and female) was $56,900 or $81,322 in 2014 dollars. By 1996, this had plummeted to $48,464 or $69,266 in 2014 dollars, due to a recession in the early part of that decade. It took another 10 years before our average salaries clawed their way back to $82,000.

The census data sheds light on another aspect of the profession: the self-employed architect. In the 1961 and 1971 censuses, self-employment was a separate subcategory, and these architects did very well for themselves. In 1961, their average income was $12,545—or over $100,000 in 2014 dollars! While this dipped to $87,862 in 2014 dollars by the time of the 1971 census, it was still some $10,000 more than the average for the entire profession. Male self-employed architects comprised 35% of the profession in 1961 and they comprised the same percentage in 2011.

To give these numbers some perspective, it is helpful to look at other professions. The average employment income of a male architect in 1961 was $8,800 while the average employment income of a registered nurse was only $2,711 (or $21,619 in 2014 dollars). Yet by the time Canadian Business ranked its jobs in 2014, nurses had attained a median salary of $72,800 while architects had a median salary of only $67,995. The fact that our wages have not kept up with other professionals may be one of the reasons for our slippage on the Best Jobs list.

This magazine’s first issue included an overview of the architectural profession in Canada, based on information from the membership lists of the RAIC and from a recent Department of Labour report.
This magazine’s first issue included an overview of the architectural profession in Canada, based on information from the membership lists of the RAIC and from a recent Department of Labour report.

We are also an ageing profession—although to some extent, we have always skewed older. In its inaugural issue in 1955, The Canadian Architect reported that 37% of the architects registered in Canada at the time were over 50 years old. The 2011 Canadian Architectural Practices Benchmark Study found that 47% of the architects it surveyed were 50 or older.

On the other hand, our profession has been growing. In 1961 there were 2,636 people in Canada who identified themselves as architects, or 14 for every 100,000 members of the general population. By 2011, there were 15,255 of us, or 44 architects for every 100,000 Canadians. Moreover, in 1961 that figure did not include any female architects. The census just noted that there were “under 250 individuals” and recorded no data about them. By 2011, 25% of full-time architects in Canada were women—a figure that had grown by 8% since the beginning of the new millennium.

Understanding the status of architects, however, is more complicated than our wages and ages. A 2012 Angus Reid poll attempted to measure the worth of jobs by asking people, “Generally speaking, do you tend to have a great deal of respect, a fair amount of respect, not much respect or very little respect for each of the following professions?” Eighty-five percent of Canadian respondents answered that they had a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of respect for architects. The corresponding percentages in the United Kingdom and the United States were 72% and 83% respectively. Once again, the nurses beat us hands down with the respect of 96% of Canadians. But at least we were in the top 10 most respected professions— although the engineers took the number 8 spot with the respect of 87% of Canadian respondents.

While this degree of respect is encouraging, it does seem that we need to pay careful attention to the relevance of the profession over the next 60 years. Gender equality and an ageing work force are certainly issues that must be addressed. But, as this data also suggests, we may have to redesign our business models if we are to compete with other occupations in the 21st century.

Douglas MacLeod, MRAIC, is Chair of the RAIC Centre for Architecture at Athabasca University. Special thanks to Statistics Canada for their help in compiling the information used in this article.