Loan Relief for Architecture Grads, in Exchange for Pro Bono Work? Ok… But How?

We need architects in the world.  Architects are, and should continue to be, the interpreters of building owners’ needs, the problem solvers of the construction industry, the people who communicate their design solutions to the people who build the solutions.  Architects, and future architects, are critical to our built environment.   

Right now, unemployment and underemployment among architects in the U.S. is high – very high.  Student loan debt from architecture school is astronomical.  Architecture firms’ billings and architects’ salaries are, well, not very high.  And they rarely ARE very high.  Architects are part of the construction industry.  The fortunes of architecture firms rise and fall with the economy.

Yesterday, there was a call by the American Institute of Architects and the American Institute of Architecture Students “for Congress to pass legislation that includes architecture school graduates in the same programs that offer other graduates loan debt assistance if they donate their services to their communities and elsewhere.”  Here’s the press release from the AIA. 

The press release compares recent grads in architecture to recent grads in medicine, law, and teaching. 

Everyone needs doctors, and we have a shortage of doctors in rural areas across the country.  All children need teachers, and we have a shortage of teachers in underperforming schools across the country.  We don’t have a shortage of lawyers, but we do have a shortage of available, affordable legal help for many disadvantaged people who need legal help, and can’t afford to pay the types of rates that many attorneys charge.

I don’t know much about this, but my understanding of the types of programs that offer loan relief for recent grads entering the types of professions mentioned in the press release (medicine, law, teaching) is that, in exchange for some loan relief, the new doctors go work in rural areas, or the young lawyers go work in low-paying public interest positions, and the freshly-minted teachers go work in underperforming schools.  These medical and legal positions are lower-paying than positions in different medical arenas and different kinds of law firms.  These teaching positions are much, much harder than positions at other types of schools.  These positions are hard to recruit for.

We don’t have a shortage of architects.  We don’t have a surplus of people who are in need of the services of a design professional, but who just don’t have access to one.  We don’t have easier-or-harder types of architecture jobs for emerging professionals.  We don’t even have huge differences in pay for intern architects at big firms vs. small firms, or firms in big cities vs. firms in small towns.

We also have the internship factor to consider.  If they wish to become licensed someday, architecture grads must work for a number of years under the direct supervision of a licensed architect.  They must become licensed in order to practice architecture on their own.  If they are to be the design professional in responsible charge of the construction documents for a building, they must be licensed architects.  In this country, nobody, not even an architecture school graduate, can call himself or herself “architect” unless he or she is actually licensed.  If they pass the board exams given at the end of school, doctors are M.D.’s when they finish medical school, and can practice medicine on their own.  Lawyers are licensed, and can practice on their own, once they pass the bar exam, which they usually take a couple months after graduation from law school.  

Many architecture grads and architects already give away, or nearly give away, their services, whenever they participate in a design competition.  Sometimes these design competitions are for non-profit organizations, or for governments, but sometimes, these design competitions are for for-profit businesses. 

Some interns are willing to work for free for big-name starchitects – although this practice is absolutely NOT condoned by most of the profession, including the AIA.  But this is the mindset of some emerging professionals, and a very small number of architects (work for free for the sake of the portfolio – the portfolio will lead to future, paying, work.)

This breaks my heart, but I have to say that I just can’t imagine how a loan relief program like this for architecture grads would work. 

What do YOU think?  Do any of you problem solvers out there have solutions to this problem? 

15 thoughts on “Loan Relief for Architecture Grads, in Exchange for Pro Bono Work? Ok… But How?

  1. The “problem” in my humble opinion is that through past industry practices, it has become acceptable for architects to compete for work based (not solely, but to a great extent) on fees. We have become our own worst enemies! When is the last time you walked into a lawyer’s office and we’re told “I’m not very busy right now, so instead of charging you $350/hr I’m only going to charge you $275/hr for this job.” Probably as often as you have heard from a client “I don’t see how you can survive on those low fees you are proposing, so I am going to pay you 4% instead of the 2.5% you are offering to do this project for.” I’m guessing…ohhhhh…NEVER!!!

    This has a ripple effect. Now that the precedent has been set over the past number of decades and clients expect that architects will compete on fees! What they don’t seem to understand is that this reduction in fees affects the level of service architects can afford to offer. Like any other business, we have to be profitable to survive. This diminished ability to offer high quality service affects the construction documents created, and ultimately, not only he cost but the quality of the building the client gets in the end. They are initially happy that they saved 1.5% on the 6% fee they were anticipating paying. At the end of the project they are furious that their building cost them 7% more than what they expected.

    For some reason they don’t seem to make the connection between all the problems they had during construction being the direct result of the consultants inability to give hem a good set of construction documents due to having been beat up for fees wayback at the beginning of the project! All they see is that they paid all this “good” money to the architect and they still had all these problems and extra costs.

    And what is the net result of this “dance” we do? Poor service and additional costs do nothing but further undervalue the image of he architectural profession to the public.

    Unfortunately, until architects stand up for themselves and the profession by stopping the practice for competing for work based on their fees, the vicious circle will continue! Equally unfortunate is the fact that I remember having his same conversation with one of he partners in the first firm I worked for 20 years ago, only a couple years after graduating. All this time later, the same discussion is still going on!!

    • Paul, good comments, thanks.

      It’s not only for-profit businesses that hammer on architects to lower their fees. Even governmental entities such as public school districts do this. Yes, they’re managing taxpayer dollars, but sometimes they’re being pennywise and pound-foolish with those taxpayer dollars. As Paul mentioned, there’s a direct relationship between hammering on architects to lower their fees, in the beginning, and paying more in change orders, by the end of construction.

  2. Here is one point of view, that could solve the student-loan-debt problem (over time).

    Many people will not like this point of view. My own mom will not like this point of view.

    Here’s an excerpt: “…the academics will not let architecture escape the university prison…”

    It’s “Why Architecture Should Leave the University.” It’s something to think about, something to discuss. I want what’s best for the future of the profession. It’s my future, too.

    • is recommended reading. Some architects think the author is wacky, but he makes many interesting points about architecture. A lot of interesting stuff about other subjects, as well.

      • Oh, yes, he’s wacky. He was actually my “Intro to CADD” professor freshman year in college. It was more like an intro to graphics on the computer. In 1990, college freshmen didn’t really have uniform computer experience, so there was not much CAD that could actually be taught to us.

  3. While I agree and am also uncertain how these loan-forgiveness programs might work, I do know this: everytime a media outlet like NBC or NPR includes architecture on their list of “useless” majors in college, our damaged profession suffers more irrepairable harm.

  4. When I attended CCNY many years ago, there was an office in the school run by one of the professors which provided architectural services to community organizations for free or reduced fees. I support loan forgiveness for employment in such a capacity. At CCNY, it was part of the work-study program, I believe, but if I could have had some of my loan forgiven for working there, I probably would have devoted more effort to doing it. As it was, I needed to support myself while in college and so I was looking to do things that resulted in a higher income level. I also was advised to get a job in architecture while I was still in college to avoid salary shock when I finished. I took a $20,000 cut in salary to accept my first position in the architecture profession…I was a cab driver prior to that.

  5. I think Mr. Marvin is on to something here; at U Mich there was a similar program embedded in a community in Detroit. The students in that program came out architects, not just architecture school graduates. And that’s the underlying difference between the legal and medical professions and architecture. Law and medical grads are equipped to make a living; most architecture school grads are employed at a loss by firms while as interns they prepare to actually practice.The grads mostly know this, however, and the ones I’m encountering are aggressive learners who want to go beyond mastery of Revit and the conceptual framework they built in school.

    All architectural interns should have work boots by their desk with some mud on them. If they don’t their firms are failing them and they should leave and go somewhere else.

  6. My school (Washington U) required two summers of work in architect’s office or for contractor back in my day – don’t know what current policy is. I believe a few schools carry this further – think U of Cincinnati is an example where quite a bit of work is required along with school, but this type of program is the exception.

    Still think a quick way to help alleviate this problem is for CSI to make building technology education available to interns. Major changes to the current education/internship programs are not going to happen anytime soon.

    The cost of higher education resulting in significant graduate debt has become a major overall problem in this country and something needs to be done to solve it. The whole country is going to suffer for it. Med school graduates are the only ones who can afford it. One of the reasons I am still consulting is to put the money in my grandchildren’s college funds so that hopefully they will not have any debt coming out of school.

  7. Analogy: I graduated with my MBA in 1998. Between economic rough spells and other financial commitments (in two cases driving forbearance of my grad school loans), it took me until 2010 to pay them off. But I did it. I’m disinclined to suggest federal taxpayers should write off federal student loans in exchange for “community service.” I am inclined to require truth in lending practices including breakeven forecasting when students apply for financial assistance so they can better assume their responsibilities as opposed to evading them. I’m also inclined to discuss how federal loan subsidies affect the “price” of education to begin with.

    • John, thank you for commenting.

      I graduated in 1995 with a BArch, a professional degree (that means that I did not need to get a Master’s as a prerequisite to licensure in any state – I required no more “school,” just work experience – a minimum of 3 years of hours in the right areas of practice – and passing the licensure exams.)

      In the fall of 1995, I got a job in an architecture firm in Denver, and I was paid $9 an hour. I do not believe I was underpaid for the market at that time. 3 months later I got a raise, but I never made much working as a project architect. (Most architects don’t make much, ever.)

      John, I don’t remember what I was making in 1998, when you finished your MBA, but I’d guess it was about $15 an hour. If that were a salary, that would be about $31,000 a year.

      I was very lucky – I had no student loan debt. But I can’t imagine how long it would have taken to pay that off if I’d had it.

      Breakeven forecasting would be a great thing to require lenders, and universities themselves, to provide to students.

      For years now, whenever anyone tells me they have a friend who’s going to quit his job and get a Master’s in Architecture, I tell them to tell the friend to go down to the AIA office, and ask them if they can have a look at the latest salary survey, and figure out how much financial sense borrowing money to go to grad school in architecture makes… It’s pretty tough to feed a family on an architecture grad’s wages, even without student loan debt.

      Breakeven forecasts would probably lead to a dearth of architecture students in universities… What would happen next? Maybe some good changes for the profession.

  8. How do you find someone, if you are looking for an architect? I would be glad to find an architect as I don’t know if I can afford top fees, I have a very interesting, small and modern contemporary cabin/small house that I want to build. Thanks kindly!!

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