Most architects are self-employed

Self-employed as an architect - this is how you get started

Are you studying architecture and considering starting your own business? Or are you faced with the decision to study architecture or something else?

A look at the realities of the day-to-day work of an architect certainly helps. The following is about the architect as a self-employed person. There are illustrious figures such as Lord Norman Foster or Buckminster Fuller, who became multimillionaires with their designs - but also the architects, of whom the “world” once wrote: “Architect - assembly line work for little wages”. Which extreme is closer to reality, and how do you even become an independent architect?

Self-employed as an architect - an inventory

Basically, self-employment as an architect has the same advantages and disadvantages as any other self-employment. Let's start with the advantages:

  • Free division of working hours, thus more flexibility z. B. for the family
  • Not bound by instructions, d. H. no boss tells you what to do
  • Free withdrawal of profits, no monthly salary capping of earnings
  • Greater independence in terms of creativity, as the jobs are selected and drawn ashore by oneself

Unfortunately, there are also downsides:

  • High workload: In Internet forums, independent architects speak of at best 50 hours a week, some of up to 90. The middle field is around 70 hours a week.
  • Full liability for mistakes
  • No income guarantee
  • High administrative effort in order acquisition and building permits, etc.

A question that is often asked is about the income of a self-employed architect. Thomas Welter, economic advisor at the Federal Chamber of Architects, says that half of the 40,000 freelance architects in Germany earned less than 30,000 euros gross per year; most of them would have a monthly net salary of 2500 euros. Many a caretaker deserves that. According to Welter, one-man companies could be more successful if they join forces, since the size of an architecture firm is decisive for its economic success.

This is how one often imagines architects: with a smile that is used to success when inspecting the construction site. (Image: © Andresr -

Requirements for independence in architecture

First of all, it should be noted that not every architect is an architect. How now? Quite simply: at least in Germany, graduates are not allowed to immediately call themselves “architects”. For this, membership of a Chamber of Architects is required. Depending on the chamber, this can only be obtained from a certain level of professional experience. Consequence: Most young architects work for a few years in architecture offices for often unworthy salaries after graduating, in order to be able to use the coveted title, which gives them the necessary standing in negotiations with customers.

A further complicating factor is that the architecture course has meanwhile been converted almost across the board to Bachelor / Master. According to a decision by the Federal Chamber of Architects, Bachelor graduates are not recognized as architects, only the Master’s degree enables this. Only a few universities in Germany still offer the “good old” diploma course. An international standard of five years of training for architects has also been agreed. First-year students should keep this in mind when flirting with the short bachelor's degree.

In Switzerland, the entry barriers are at least formally lower. There is no architects law here, which is why the professional title “architect” is not protected.

This is how you can start your own business

First things first: you are not alone. Architects' associations and, in Germany, the competent chamber of architects are happy to help with setting up a business. Architects who want to work in Germany have to deal with the local chamber for recognition anyway. Also very interesting for German architects: the Institute for Liberal Professions (IFB) in Nuremberg, which has lots of tips and suggestions about the rights and obligations of freelancers on its homepage.

As already mentioned, in Germany only membership in a chamber of architects entitles the holder to use the professional title “architect”. Although this is not mandatory for independent architects, it is highly recommended. Because without this you are not entitled to sign building permit applications, you will hardly get any orders directly from builders and in the end you are always dependent on supplies from other offices. The Chamber only assigns the job title if you can prove that you have worked in planning under the supervision of architects for at least two years.

This is what everyday architecture usually looks like: long working hours, tight deadlines, meager income. (© Dean Drobot -

This is how independent architects generate orders

Of course, it is important for a young, independent architect to first get orders in order to be able to make a name for himself. Here again networks such as associations of independent architects are ideal. A functioning, search engine optimized website is also part of the start portfolio.

You don't have to start alone either; maybe former employee colleagues have the same idea and you can team up? A similar route, which is hardly registered by many, is the entry into an existing architecture office. In Germany, of 71,000 small and medium-sized offices, 5900 were shut down due to a lack of successors. The advantages of such an entry are clearly the existing name and a customer base.

Another option that is often used is to work in an architecture office as a freelancer. However, a few basic rules should be observed here.

Freelance, self-employed or seemingly self-employed?

Real self-employment or freelance work is when you bear your own entrepreneurial risk, which also includes liability for incorrect results. In addition, a freelancer works for several customers and is not bound by instructions with regard to the type, duration, time, place and implementation of the activity. Such an employment relationship is z. B. given if there is a work contract between the architect and the office.

Another relationship is established by a service contract. Then the freelance architect has more the status of an employee, social security contributions also have to be paid. In order not to be “seemingly independent”, you should address the questions openly with your boss and regulate them accordingly for both parties.


Cover picture: © baranq -

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