Architects utilize many different physical and digital tools in their design work, but their universal goal is to build safe, sustainable and functional structures.
How to become an architect
If the idea you have of an architect is someone hunched over an unfurled blueprint on a drafting table, you wouldn't be that far off from reality. That said, architects today utilize many different physical and digital tools to design structures, but their primary goal has remained fairly consistent: create buildings that are functional, safe, accessible and aesthetically pleasing.
Just about every single home and building you walk by was once the brainchild of an architect. It's no wonder, therefore, that architects must possess skills that are seemingly diametrically opposed: science and mathematics, as well as art and design.
Architects are professionally trained building designers responsible for designing our homes, shopping centers, healthcare facilities, restaurants, skyscrapers, schools, factories—the list is practically endless. In order to practice their trade, architects must be licensed by their state's architecture licensing board. Each state's licensure board has its own requirements, meaning the process of becoming an architect can be a little different depending on where you live.
How long does it take to become an architect?
Read about the degrees and licensing available for architecture students.
Although the requirements to become an architect vary between states, the three primary components of earning an architect license are the same everywhere:
- Complete an approved education program
- Accrue real-world experience, typically several thousands of hours
- Pass the Architect Registration Examination (ARE)
Between the architecture education and experience requirements, it takes most people at least five years to earn their license, but often it takes even longer.
What to study
It's never too early to foster the skills needed to become a successful architect. High school students who have their eyes set on a career in architecture should take classes in mathematics, physics, art and design. Doing well in these classes could make it easier to excel in the college-level courses you are guaranteed to take in these subjects.
In most states, you need to earn a degree in architecture from a program accredited by the National Architecture Accrediting Board (NAAB) to get your architecture license. The NAAB accredits the following types of architectural programs:
- Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch)
- Master of Architecture (M.Arch)
- Doctor of Architecture (D.Arch)
If a B.Arch degree is sufficient for licensing, they why would anyone bother getting a master's or doctoral degree? People who pursue M.Arch degrees usually get their undergraduate degree in another subject or get a bachelor's degree in architecture from a program not accredited by the NAAB, of which there are many. There is actually only one D.Arch degree program in the entire country, and this program is mostly for those who wish to teach at the postsecondary level and/or conduct architectural research.
Keep in mind, however, that not all states require that you graduate from an NAAB-accredited program.
Licensing and certification
Simply put, you can't be an architect in the United States without a license issued by your state. It's incredibly important, therefore, that you thoroughly research the licensing requirements of your state to find out exactly what you need to qualify for a license.
...you can't be an architect in the United States without a license issued by your state.
After completing your education, the next two steps on the path to licensure are completing the experience requirement and the examination requirement. For most states, this means you must document your real-world experience through the Architectural Experience Program (AXP). The AXP identifies 96 key tasks across six practice-based areas—you must record a certain number of hours in each practice area in order to complete the AXP and qualify for licensure. In total, the AXP requires 3,740 hours of experience. Some states may have additional practice requirements on top of the AXP.
After that, you must pass the Architect Registration Examination (ARE). The ARE 5.0 is structured around the same six practice areas as the AXP. These six practice areas are actually six separate exams that together make up the entire ARE. Assuming you satisfy the eligibility requirements to take the ARE, you can take the exam for any of the six practice areas at any time, in any order. The combined testing duration time of all six exams is 19 hours and 50 minutes.
Once you've completed the three components of earning an architecture license—education, experience and the examination—plus any state-specific requirements, you should be ready to apply for a license.
Architects, like many other licensed professionals, must continually learn and stay current on the latest techniques and best practices by earning Continued Education Units (CEUs). CEUs are required as a condition for license renewal. Individual states determine the continuing education requirements for their jurisdiction, meaning they can vary from location to location.
Essential skills and specialties for architects
What skills help future architects and where can they apply them?
An architect is, in many ways, a jack of all trades. After all, they need to have laser-sharp technical and mathematical skills, an eye for design and creativity, and even project management know-how when it comes to working with a team of builders, engineers and other professionals.
An architect's job duties may vary depending on their particular role, scope and specialization, but the skills needed to be a successful architect are generally ubiquitous:
|Technical skills||Artistic skills||Soft skills|
|Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and Building Information Modeling (BIM)—(creating 2D and 3D digital representations of physical objects)||Conceptualize 3D structures and translate them into 2D drawings||Effective communication|
|Advanced knowledge of mathematics and physics||Sketching and drafting||Project management and ability to work on a team|
|Legal knowledge of building and zoning codes, safety regulations, etc.||Creativity and originality||Problem-solving abilities|
Specializations in architecture
As an architect continues to gain experience and exposure to the different types of architectural niches that exist, they may choose to specialize in one or several areas of architectural design.
Since there are so many different types of architecture—from the more general fields of residential versus commercial architecture to more specific niches like creating structures to withstand extreme weather conditions—most architects end up naturally gravitating towards a particular specialization within their career.
Check out these common architecture specializations and a few examples of the kinds of structures they design:
|Residential architecture: homes, apartment buildings and other residential units||Urban design (may require additional education): layouts and the spaces in between buildings that make up town and city centers||Landscape architecture (requires a different license): parks, gardens, golf courses, and outdoor spaces on college or corporate campuses|
|Commercial architecture: skyscrapers and other corporate office buildings, malls, hospitals, hotels, restaurants, schools and government buildings||Interior design: interior structural elements of a building, including furnishings and décor||Sustainable or green design: sustainable and eco-friendly structures, both residential and commercial|
Many firms, Osolin said, specialize in projects within these large umbrella categories. His firm, RHO Architects, mainly designs single-family homes and some commercial projects. He said that it seems like smaller firms tend to specialize more. For example, a firm might work exclusively on educational projects such as colleges, universities, daycares and K-12 schools.
Work environments and opportunities
The vast majority of architects work for architectural firms in an office setting. Some architects may also be able to find work at government agencies, construction companies or even be self-employed.
No matter where they work, architects are almost always collaborating closely with numerous other professionals that help turn a blueprint into a tangible, functional structure, such as:
- Urban planners
- Civil engineers
- Mechanical engineers
- Interior designers
- Landscape designers
- Construction managers
- Tradespeople including electricians and plumbers
Architects who desire a little more control over their careers may decide to start an architectural firm of their own. This can provide a level of autonomy that you may not find anywhere else, but it also brings the challenges of running a business like any other. Architects who start their own firm must be able to manage the business's finances, do their own marketing, hire other employees and more.
Future and evolution of the profession
The field of architecture has changed a lot in the past thirty to forty years alone. What was once a profession that used handmade drawings exclusively now relies heavily on various computer software programs like Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and Building Information Modeling (BIM). The field will only continue to evolve as new technological advancements in the field are introduced.
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are two such examples of newer technologies that are being introduced to architecture today and could one day become mainstream. By using computer-generated data to create an interactive, visual experience (either displayed on a computer screen or using a VR headset, for example), it could be accessed by all relevant team members—engineers, contractors and the like—for ease of communication and troubleshooting issues earlier in the process.
Trying to keep up with all the latest building technologies, Osolin said, can be one of the bigger challenges of the profession itself.
"When I started, I assumed it was maybe a little bit simpler. But now the different types of technologies you can put in your building to do different things, trying to keep up on that can be a challenge," Osolin said. "I don't know what's next. We still make drawings that are 24 by 36 inches, or sometimes 30 inches by 42. At some point is that going to go away?"
Sustainability within the field will likely become even more important in the years to come. As climate change continues to accelerate, the need to mitigate the carbon footprints of buildings and other structures will only increase.
Is architecture a lucrative career?
What could your earning potential be once you become an architect?
Architects have the potential to earn a strong salary. According to the 2022 Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics from the BLS (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), the median annual salary for architects—excluding landscape and naval architects—is $82,840.
There are a lot of factors that can affect your individual salary as an architect. Your location, experience and even your architectural specialization could all impact your earning potential. Architects who choose to go into business for themselves by starting their own firm may be able to make great money, but they're also on the hook for all the expenses that come with starting their own business, such as rent for any office spaces they use and pay their employees' salaries.
Architecture is a dynamic career field with numerous specializations and niches to match anyone's professional interests. As an architect, you get to have a hand in the creation of the structures that make modern life possible. The mathematical, technological and design skills needed to succeed, however, take years of education and practice, and the learning never truly stops. Architects must adapt to new methods, tools and science as the profession evolves over time, which requires a commitment to being a lifelong learner.
To get started, begin by researching architecture education programs and familiarizing yourself with the licensing laws where you live. You'll need a bachelor's degree at minimum followed by years of practical experience to eventually get licensed, but all that hard work could lead to a fulfilling, lucrative and lifelong career.
Published: October 25, 2023