Breaking the Box: Explode out of Architecture School to a Successful Career as an Architect
What Architecture Firm is right for you? Consider the Size of a Firm
What size Architecture Firm is best for you?
Working in a 4-person office is going to be very different from a 400-person office. The architecture industry tends to group firms in three different buckets: Small, Medium and Large. For example, the AIA refers to small firms as 1-9 employees, medium firms from 10-49 and large firms as 50 or more.
For the purpose of this discussion, I am going to lump the medium sized firms in with the large ones. Therefore small would be 1-9 and large is 10 and up. This makes for a much easier comparison and I believe that medium and large sized firms have much in common. In addition, large firms are often organized into smaller groups of 10-15 people. In other words, a large firm can be thought of as a bunch of medium sized firms organized under one name.
The Difference in Salary between Small and Large Firms
If money is important to you than the size of an architecture firm should be a significant factor in your choice for employment. A firm that generates greater revenue will have greater potential to share that revenue and provide greater resources for their employees.
The statistics show that your earning potential is greater at a large architecture firm than at a small architecture firm. The 2012 AIA Firm Survey Report showed that the net revenue per employee for a firm of 100+ employees was $64,000 more than the revenue per employee at a 2-4 person firm. $64,000! That is staggering.
The best place to find an overview of architecture salaries is the AIA compensation calculator at: http://info.aia.org/salary/
According to the AIA compensation calculator, the average salary for Intern 1 level positions at a firm with revenue between $250-999k is $37,900 whereas a firm with revenue of $15 Million and up on average pays $43,000. That extra $5,100 per year would have bought me a lot of PBR’s back in 2006.
The income gap between small and large firms gets even bigger as experience level increases. For example project Managers at a firm with revenues of $15 Million or more will make on average $29,000 more than project managers at a firm with revenues between $250-999K.
Size matters when it comes to compensation. Now there could always be a couple of fat cats in a big firm hoarding all of those profits but the same could be true of a small firm. The more revenue a firm generates the more ability they have to share profit and create more robust benefit packages.
The Difference in Resources between Small and Large Firms
When I think of resources at an Architecture Firm I think of the People and the Toys.
A larger firm will have more people, therefore you will have greater access to human resources. At a large firm, you are likely to find a variety of specialists such as:
• Computer Gurus
• Building Detail Experts
• Specification Experts
• Building Type Experts: Hospital Designers, Hotel Designers, etc.
• HR Specialists
• A Marketing Team
At a small architecture firm employees are required to wear multiple hats. For example, it is common for the owner of a small firm to be the lead marketer, designer and the person who cuts the checks. People at a small firm are more likely to be generalist whereas large firms often have specialists.
Each situation has its strengths. Having more people to learn from could be a huge benefit but you could also find yourself pigeon-holed at a larger architecture firm. On the contrary, at a small architecture firm you may get a more comprehensive experience because you will have to do a little bit of everything.
How about the toys!
In addition to human resources, architecture firms also offer physical resources. Because larger firms typically generate greater revenues and profit, they are able to invest in more physical resources than a small firm. Things like:
• ARE Study Material
• Zooty Furniture: Stand-up desks, Treadmill Desks
• 3-D Printers, Laser Cutters
• Virtual Reality Technology
If that toy is a sound investment than it will provide a much greater payback than the initial expense. For example: upgrading from AutoCAD to Revit is a very expensive and difficult transition for many firms. However, Revit has the ability to streamline design documentation, which could translate into larger profits. Larger investments like this are easier to achieve at a large firm.
Your Ability to Make an Impact
At a small architecture firm, you have the ability to be a big fish in a small pond. You will quickly get to know your colleagues and make stronger connections. As a jack-of-all-trades, you are likely to gain a more comprehensive experience at a small firm. For example, new interns at a small architecture firm may work on a building project from conceptual design all the way through construction. Whereas interns at a larger architecture firm may struggle to gain construction administration experience.
At a large architecture firm, some people might not even know your name. As an intern, you are likely to be stuck on more entry-level work for longer periods. Remember, larger firms tend to be more specialized therefore; the newbies will specialize in the grunt work. Unfortunately, the stereotype of the intern architect getting stuck working on bathroom designs is more likely to occur at a larger firm.
Closing Thoughts on Size
You may have detected my bias towards large architecture firms. I think that larger architecture firms provide greater opportunities for emerging professionals. Just like architecture school, you should consider your professional experiences as a tasting menu. The bigger the menu the more likely you are to find your passion.
As an emerging professional in architecture, you should always focus on maximizing opportunities.
It is important to note that there will always be exception. There will be small architecture firms that offer exceptional salaries and there will be large firms that pay in peanuts.
You may also find that you just prefer the close-knit family atmosphere of a small firm or that you get excited by the energy of a large firm.
It is all about your personal preference.