Over the last 5 years there has been fierce debate and widespread consternation at the rising cost of third level education in this part of the world. Universities in England have advised that tuition fees will rise again in 2017 in line with inflation rates, which follows an extraordinary price hike in 2012 that nearly trebled the cost of attending college to £9,000 per year. In a series of resulting independent surveys, conducted by ZAP and the UK Architectural Education Review Group, the average cost of an architect’s training, over its full 7 years, was estimated to be now around £88,726. With the new increase this has been revised upwards to approximately £100,000. In the USA, the average tuition fees for undergraduate architecture programs are even higher again ranging from $19,791 a year to $26,252 a year. The path to qualification as an architect appears to be very expensive by today’s standards.

However, what if we did not judge the term “expensive” by today’s standards? What if we judged the cost of architectural education against historical standards? Just for pig iron. In the words of Dave Gorman, the English comedian, author, and general person of wit; “modern life is good-ish”. In this specific case, we submit that modern life as a practicing architect or architect-in-training is good-ish. And we’ll prove it here.

Every now and again you come across a piece of information that puts current circumstances into stark perspective. That piece of information, which I will refer to now to demonstrate how good we have things, is a fascinating pamphlet from 1842 which catalogues, in unexpected detail, every profession and trade that existed in early-Victorian England. The succinctly titled;

Complete book of trades, or, The parent’s guide and youth’s instructor.

is a tome written by one Nathaniel Whittock Esquire, not only is it an encyclopedia of all occupations and callings of the time, it also gives apprentice fees for each, and an estimate of the sums required for commencing business. There are profiles of everything from an agriculturist to an armourer, or an ear surgeon (an Aurist) to a sailor (and yes, it does have the butcher, the baker, and a candle stick maker in there too). It is a veritable goldmine for understanding the origins of the professions, which only began to coalesce and become fully distinct around this time, and it reveals the wherewithal, both academic and financial, needed to qualify as an architect at the time.

The relevant passage for the architect states;

“The youth desirous of becoming an Architect should be liberally educated, and in addition to the Latin language, he should be master of French and Italian; have some knowledge of mathematics, geometry and drawing. The premium required with a pupil by a respectable master is from two to five hundred pounds: the youth will also require a considerable sum for the purchase of books, instruments and drawing materials. He must, during his apprenticeship, learn to make architectural drawings from admeasurement, also to sketch picturesque buildings, columns, etc., he must be careful in observing the proceedings of workmen in every branch of business connected with buildings.”

So, before you even began studying you were expected to have command of three non-native languages, one of them dead, and a grasp of the basic technical aspects of the profession. The latter requirement is not remarkable but the former is far beyond today’s entry requirements. Acquiring instruments and materials for drawing is still expected today along with gaining familiarity during training with the working methods and business of construction. Admeasurement and sketching are also well within the scope of current study. However, what is striking is the cost of the apprenticeship. The upper limit is set at approximately £500. This might look like a nominal sum until you calculate relative value over time, apply inflation, and convert it to 2015 pounds. There are various methods of doing this accurately. We have used the relative output worth of £500 0 shillings 0 pence for 1842, which puts the cost of architectural training at £1,920,000 in today’s money!

The conversion is not straight forward. The context and relative economic power of the era must be factored in. For example, if we look at the earnings of barristers and physicians around a similar time, the “rising barrister” in 1850 could have an annual income of £5,000. The 2015 relative value of these earnings is £428,200 via a Consumer Price Index calculation, and £568,000 according to a GDP calculation. But this is not truly representative. The barrister’s earnings relative to the total economy loomed much larger in 1850 than in 2015 and this must be taken into account. It may cost £100,000 in 2017 to qualify as an architect and only £10,000 to qualify as a bricklayer but the wealth disparity was far greater in the Victorian era and access to the profession was less open, which significantly pushes up the value and cost of the training and earnings. When you use a relative value calculation the average earnings of the barrister in 1850 are closer to £3,870,000 in 2015 money. In comparison, “a doctor with a fairly fashionable practice” in 1850 might earn £1000-£2000 versus the £5000 of the barrister. Relative values for a physician’s income would correspondingly be 20-40 percent of those of the barrister. Therefore, it is more logical for us to apply a relative calculation than a direct Consumer Price Index calculation which will understate the value (see here for more detail on the conversion method, and for information on historical earnings see here).

Therefore, working off an approximate figure of £2 million pounds to qualify as an architect in 1842 makes current fees seem quite affordable obviously. But it doesn’t stop there. The complete book of trades then goes on to describe the next stage of learning required before an architect might commence business;

“When he is out of his pupilage… he should spend a few months in Italy, to study the remains of the ancient masters, and the works of masters of a more recent date.”

What Whittock is referring to here is the notion of the Grand Tour. The New York Times in 2008 described the Grand Tour in this way: “Three hundred years ago, wealthy young Englishmen began taking a post-Oxbridge trek through France and Italy in search of art, culture and the roots of Western civilization. With nearly unlimited funds, aristocratic connections and months (or years) to roam, they commissioned paintings, perfected their language skills and mingled with the upper crust of the Continent”. A typical itinerary might take in France, Italy, Sicily and Malta, Egypt, the Western Nile Delta, Cairo and the Eastern Nile, the Holy Land and Cyprus, Turkey, Greece and the Balkan Coast, later Tours might include also Northern Italy, Switzerland and Germany. The Grand Tour’s primary value lay in exposure to both the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and to the intelligentsia of the European continent. It was viewed as an essential rite of passage for aspiring artists and architects of the time and the capstone of the education of an English gentleman. It probably requires its own entire piece to examine properly its role in shaping the profession, but I am more interested in its cost for now.

Putting a figure on a typical Grand Tour proves very difficult, purely because it is totally incomparable with anything that exists today. Some of the costs include travel by sea to France or to Italy depending on the route taken. Over land travel through 8-plus countries, including accommodation for 1 to 2 years. An arduous crossing of the Alps using a “coach” perhaps (but I have discounted the coach cost because these had resale value when the trip was complete). A French-speaking tutor for translation and introductions was standard. Lessons in dancing, fencing, and riding could be thrown in too. All of this with an entourage of servants and luggage in tow. Significantly, I have chosen to ignore, due to huge variability, any purchases of statuary, artwork, or other large souvenirs that were very commonly shipped home separately. The resulting, albeit very rough, estimate I have calculated is £8,000 for a Grand Tour in 1842 converted to £5,875,000 in today’s money.

You might think I am overplaying the requirement to undertake a Grand Tour or that there might be more economical means of obtaining the requisite knowledge-base to practice architecture in the Victorian era but Whittlock cautions against this. He goes on to indicate the chances of success for those unlucky enough to find themselves born into the middle-class;

“…it is almost impossible for a man in the middle walk of life to afford the money to enable a youth to work his way in this arduous pursuit. If he have not the advantage of a capital to live on till he succeeds in business, the pupil, after he is out of his time, obtains employment as a drawing clerk in an Architect’s office: and, during his leisure hours, makes plans and drawings for small builders, or is employed to measure and value their work. Some, by this means, get into extensive business. The brief sketch here given of the duties and acquirements of the Architect, will convince every reader that it is not a trifling profession, that can be acquired without study or labour, nor is it a profession in which a number of persons can stand much chance of succeeding to any great extent.”

The next item to factor in, if you did manage to get to the point where you might be able to obtain adequate training, was the cost of establishing and running a practice. In her book The Rise of Professionalism: A Sociological Analysis, Magali Larson sets the practice operating cost at approximately £200 per year and states that below that figure it proved difficult to keep up a sufficient appearance of gentility to attract clients.

All this edges our estimates to about £8 million for the training of the architect and an annual operating cost of around £800,000 by today’s standards. This kind of wealth expenditure is quite frankly astonishing. It also highlights that wealth distribution, in contrast to what the modern media would have you believe, is much more even across social classes nowadays. In 1842, the architecture profession, in fact any profession, was simply inaccessible to anyone below the upper middle or perhaps the lower upper class.

Another hardship, that should be mentioned here, is the sometimes exploitative conditions in which Victorian pupillage took place. A picture of this was vividly depicted by Charles Dickens in his 1843 novel The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit. Through the character of Seth Pecksniff, a greedy architect who swindles fees out of pupils and claims their work as his own, Dickens parodied a real phenomenon. It seems that some practices were prone to exploiting aspiring architects which became known as “Pecksniffian pupillage” with the apprentices paying for thorough training only to end up learning “the art of surveying the back garden”. Incidentally this Dickensian exploitation is not completely dead with a recent Pritzker Architecture Prize winning practice being named-and-shamed for similar infringements with interns).

The more pertinent argument to come out of the current debate on rising university fees has been whether architecture is becoming the playground of the rich and whether it is now wholly elitist due to exorbitant fee increases? The simple way to respond to this is to use another quote, this time from the well known architect-critic and agent provocateur, Phillip Johnson, who summed up the harsh reality of our situation. Johnson declared in 1983 that…

“The first rule of architecture is to be born rich, the second rule is, failing that, to marry wealthy”.

By no means should we dismiss the rising cost of higher education and the potential this might have for pushing the profession toward a far too homogeneous composition. However, it can be argued that architecture was born of privilege, patronage, political leverage, and Renaissance elitism. It has not just become so. In comparison to historical costs and conditions of study, modern life as an architecture student or practitioner does not seem quite so bad.

I encourage you to have a quick read through Whittock’s Book of Trades. It really is a treasure trove. It has been fully scanned and made available for download via the Digitized Internet Archive of Books and can be accessed here free of charge.

If you like the kind of information we present here and want to understand how architecture and construction can be approached in much smarter ways, get our expanded playbook on great building projects, faster, and cheaper. This valuable document outlines the latest research and thinking on the subject, and features clear imagery and tactics that show you how a successful project should be structured. This is the only report of its kind available free online.

Download it free by entering your details below.