Which Architecture Firms to Work For

Learn about the varying types of architecture firms and which are the best architecture firms to work at.

Picking “what you want to do with your life” is hard enough, so congratulations on choosing architecture; literally shaping the world around you is both thrilling and rewarding. Now that you have the profession down, you can choose your working environment. There are plenty of avenues to take when selecting which architecture firms to work for so we break down the pros and cons by firm size, culture, and discipline.

By Size

Firm sizes are defined by the AIA as: 

  • 1-9 Employees (Small) 
  • 10-49 Employees (Medium)
  • 50+ Employees (Large)

We took a look into the AIA Firm Survey Report to see what the trends based on firm size are, and how that can inform your decision-making process. The majority of the market is small, as in micro. Of the 19,000 AIA member-owned firms in 2019, over one quarter were sole practitioners and 60% had fewer than five employees on their payroll. However, firms with over 50 employees account for about half of employment nationally and about half of the total billings. We must not forget about midsize firms, who have increased their share of billings from 31.7% in 2005 to 38.1% in 2019.

All that to say, each firm size group is jostling for a position in the market. Working at a firm with less than six employees is the majority experience, whereas working for a large firm demands a good market share in terms of revenue with midsize firms competing for a piece of the pie. Keep in mind what is most important to you; working with a close-knit team, striving for growth with a mid-size crew, or bringing in those high-ticket projects. It is possible to find success at any size. 

By Workplace Culture

In early 2020 we surveyed over 400 architects to determine what was the most important component to their career satisfaction and aptly named the results, The Black Spectacles Career Satisfaction Report. Given where we’ve placed this in this blog post, you can probably ascertain the number one quality architects look for in their job environment is workplace culture, overwhelmingly so. If you’re one of that 90% or so that believe workplace culture in architecture firms is vital, you'll want to see this data from the AIA Firm Survey.

Between 2008 and 2019, women’s share of architectural positions increased from 28% to 37%, while the share from a racially and/or ethnically diverse demographic group increased from 22% to 32%. We’re seeing a trend that this industry is opening up to groups of the population that normally were not seeing avenues to success. This is why we encourage everyone to pursue architecture if it is their passion, and why we partnered with NOMA to help make more opportunities available. As far as firms go, 90% of firms of 50 or more employees report having an internal equitable and inclusive practice in place, compared to 85% of midsize firms and 37% of small firms. A firm without a cohesive plan in place could be willing to dedicate the resources and haven’t done so yet, and you could lead the charge, so make sure to inquire about the firm's intentions during your interview process.

As with equitable and inclusive practices, we see larger firms are more likely to have an equal pay policy in place with 72% of them reporting having that established, with 66% of midsize firms and 23% of small firms. Use this data to drive where you put your efforts when you’re applying; if workplace culture and equitability are on the top of your list, filter for that during your job search and know the likelihood of finding it based on these statistics.

By Discipline

Perhaps you are focused on a specific discipline or project, you are not alone. 55% of architecture firms were single discipline in 2019, which is up five percentage points from 2017. Finding that concentration is easier now than ever. We spoke to the Vice President of Kirksey Architecture, a firm specializing in the healthcare industry on the Future of Architecture. He provided a wealth of information as a firm leader navigating a fluctuating market, which is not only specific to architecture in healthcare.

Aside from finding a specialty, other trends we’re seeing are retrofitting, and, of course, sustainability practices. In 2019, the share of architecture firms working on existing buildings climbed to over 49%. If you have ever thought about restoration or retrofitting, seize that opportunity. In terms of sustainability, 65% of firms reported having someone on their payroll who maintains special sustainability or resilience credentials in 2019. We can’t stress this enough, there is another huge opening if that’s an interest of yours. With the AIA Climate Action Plan and other pushes for a greener existence in this world, this number is sure to rise.

There is more homework to do when sussing out your potential future employer, but start by using these industry trends and the Black Spectacles published architect testimonials to get your gears turning on what architecture firm to work at, and where you can thrive.

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