Who's a Starchitect? Comparing Firms

February 2015

Architecture firms are often described as "corporate," "specialist," or "starchitect," but what does this mean? Major firm and compensation reports from the AIA and DesignIntelligence often hold back from categorizing firms in these ways, because labels are slippery. For example, is a corporate firm one whose ownership structure is that of a corporation? Or is it a larger firm that serves major clients, primarily in the private sector? Similarly, the distinction between a boutique and starchitect firm depends on one's point of view: Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry, two of the world's most famous architects, have both resisted the "starchitect" label. And the distinction between a specialist firm and a practice with strong expertise in certain areas can also be gray.

But if you ask an architect to describe where they work, or ask for career advice on where to look for a job, these are the kinds of terms that are used. So it can be useful to better understand what these terms refer to, even though they are not absolute.

Archinect's Architecture Salary Poll asks respondents to identify what kind of firm they work at, using these categories, and the data is revealing. On this page, we'll look at firm characteristics such as size, pay, and primary market, to understand what characteristics lead people to describe a firm as "boutique" instead of "corporate" or "specialist," and how firms described in these ways differ.

The other pages in this series are Job Titles and Licensure; and Focus on Gender, which considers experience, salaries, and satisfaction through this demographic lens. You can also browse individual career stories here.

Firm Size, Salary, and Satisfaction


Size matters. In this first chart, green indicates higher earnings and red indicates lower earnings; while bar length indicates average satisfaction. Clearly, larger firms tend to pay better. This is a trend also found in the 2013 AIA Compensation Report, and you can explore this data for a range of job titles in an interactive produced by Architect Magazine.

The other most striking thing in this chart is the difference between one employee and 2-5 employees. Sole practitioners reported the highest average satisfaction overall and have moderate earnings, whereas employees at 2-5 person firms reported lower values for both. With the small salaries typical to smaller firms but without the independence of sole practitioners, 2-5 people may be a difficult scale to manage.

Describing Firm Types


"Corporate" can describe firms that are incorporated in terms of their ownership structure; or larger firms that serve developers and other large clients. Here you can see that firms with over 50 people are most often described as corporate. The world's largest architecture firms, such as Aecom and Gensler, employ over 1,000 architects each.

"Specialist" refers to firms focusing on a particular market, program type, or technical or creative aspect of architecture--such as lighting, scientific laboratories, historical preservation, or visualization. Firms of all sizes were described as specialist.

"Starchitect" describes firms led by internationally renowned designers, and in this poll the term was used in reference to firms of all sizes. While large firms such as Herzog and de Meuron and Zaha Hadid Architects have hundreds of employees and may come to mind most quickly as "starchitect" offices, Glenn Murcutt has stated that he rarely has employees and Peter Zumthor has around 30 staff members.

"Boutique" firms are most often fewer than 30 people, our data shows.

"Sole proprietorships" are firms owned by a single principal and are usually--but not always--very small. Sole practitioners, or one-person firms, account for 26% of firms, according to the AIA.

Most architecture firms work on many types of projects, but in this survey respondents were asked to identify their firm's primary market.

Unsurprisingly, firms described as "Corporate" most often work on large project types including education, healthcare, and government.

Firms focusing on commercial work could be of any type, but are much less likely to be described as "starchitect" offices--these offices instead most often work on cultural projects.

Offices who work primarily on hospitality projects were most likely to be described as "boutique."

Comparing Firm Types

Firm types also differ in terms of their employees. The median salary among the poll's respondents is highest in corporate and starchitect firms, but corporate firm employees reported over two years in experience more, making starchitect firm compensation seem more generous.

Despite this higher pay, starchitect firm employees reported the lowest average satisfaction. Overall, boutique firm employees reported the highest satisfaction.

This map shows poll respondents' locations by self-reported firm type. New York and Los Angeles had the most respondents and above average median pay, which is to be expected based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and differences in cost of living.

BLS data on architecture wages shows that Chicago is a large market for architects, with only New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington D.C. employing more; and that architects in Chicago earn less than their counterparts in these other major cities. This is consistent with this poll's findings, and again, with the more moderate cost of living in Chicago.

In other dimensions, this poll is clearly not representative of the U.S. market as a whole. For example, San Francisco is the third most common city for poll respondents, whereas according to BLS data it should be seventh.

To the extent that this poll represents the North American architecture market overall, there are some geographic differences based on firm type. For example, this poll's responses indicate that starchitect firms are heavily concentrated in New York, while sole proprietorships are much more spread across mid-sized and large centers. 

Comparing Primary Markets

We can also compare firms according to the primary market that they serve. 

Firms focusing on cultural, design-build, and civic projects have happier employees than those focusing on corporate, government, and healthcare projects. That may not seem surprising--but it's notable that employees of developer-focused firms were also much happier than those focused on education.

Often, higher salaries were reported by those with more experience, which is unsurprising. But take a look at the exceptions: firms focusing on cultural projects have a relatively high salary and satisfaction despite the lower years of experience reported by these respondents. On the other hand, firms focusing on design-build have employees who earn lower salaries despite greater than average years of experience.

The geography of respondents by primary market largely mirrors the distribution of architects as a whole, as well as the U.S. population more broadly.

But there are some trends to notice. Entertainment-focused firms are concentrated in Los Angeles, and the pay is higher there. Firms focusing on sports and industrial projects are more often in smaller centers and away from the coasts. Corporate and commercially-focused firms can be found across the U.S., while the vast majority of respondents working at culturally-focused firms are in New York.
If you want to see more from where this came from, you can also take a more analytic look through charts and maps at how job titles and licensure and gender make a difference in architecture careers. Or explore individual's stories on this section's main page.

Comments, questions, suggestions? Contact Kendall Nicholson, ACSA's Director of Research + Information.

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