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How to Become an Architect

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We often think of architects as artists, but they are so much more. While a great deal of their focus is on the way buildings and other structures look, they are just as interested in their function and safety. In designing structures they must also be attentive to the needs of the people who will use them and the projects' budgets.

Do You Have What It Takes to Be an Architect?

Successful architects need certain characteristics. They must, for example, be creative. Architects must be able to come up with new ideas. They need to be able to visualize how something will look after changes are made because a lot of their job involves adjusting and then re-adjusting designs based on clients' input. In addition to these abilities, architects need good listening, problem solving and critical thinking skills. Honestly assess whether you possess these traits before you begin to pursue a career in architecture. Ask yourself the following questions: Do you easily understand what others say to you? Can you find alternative solutions to problems, evaluate them and then implement the most appropriate one?

While architects aren't expected to be fine artists, they should have some background in design. If you want to become an architect, it is a good idea to take at least a couple of semesters of studio art classes in high school. In addition you should also take trigonometry, geometry and physics.

Should you become an architect?

Required Education

To work as an architect in most states in the US, one must earn a professional degree from a program that has received accreditation from National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB). These professional degrees include the Bachelor of Architecture (BArch) and Master of Architecture (MArch) degrees. Which one you choose depends upon your educational background.

  • BArch: The Bachelor of Architecture degree is awarded to students who have studied for five years at an accredited architectural school. High school graduates who have not yet earned an undergraduate degree apply to these programs. In addition to taking classes to fulfill general education or core requirements, for example math, social science, science and humanities, students enrolled in these programs take professional coursework.
  • MArch for Students With a Non-Architecture Bachelor's Degree: Students who have undergraduate degrees in other disciplines don't have to get another bachelor's degree if they want to change careers to architecture. They can earn their professional degree in a MArch program that takes about three to four years to complete.
  • MArch for Students With a Pre-Professional Bachelor's Degree: Some students decide to earn a pre-professional degree in architecture, for example a Bachelor of Science (BS) or Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in Architecture or in Architectural History. These students can then apply to MArch programs to get their professional education. They can usually earn a degree in about two years. These are commonly referred to as four-plus-two programs (four years to earn a bachelor's degree plus two years to earn a MArch). Some students who graduate from pre-professional programs decide not to continue their education in architecture and instead go on to work in related occupations.

While actual coursework varies by school, professional architecture coursework may include the following:

  • Architectural Design
  • Environmental Systems
  • History of Architecture
  • Building Science and Technology
  • Calculus for Architecture
  • Visualization

Some graduates of professional programs decide to take their education even further. They enroll in post-professional masters or PhD programs for highly specialized study in areas not covered in professional programs. Examples of these areas are ecology, urban studies and applied research. Post-professional degrees are not required nor are they NAAB-accredited.

Getting Into a Professional Architecture Program

If you are applying to undergraduate professional architecture programs you will go through a process that is the same as what you would go through with any other undergraduate degree program. You will have to submit SAT or ACT scores, high school transcripts and teacher recommendations. The only difference is that you might have to submit a portfolio with your application. Not all schools require it, but many do.

When applying to master's degree programs, in addition to following the requirements of the college of architecture you want to attend, you will typically have to follow the general graduate school admissions requirements for the university. This includes submitting an undergraduate transcript, GRE scores and letters of reference which can be from professors or employers. Many schools will also ask for an essay that explains why you want to enroll. Some schools call this a statement of purpose or a letter of aspiration. It is very likely that the school will ask you to submit a portfolio as well. If you have a pre-professional undergraduate degree, for example a BS or BA in architecture, you will probably be asked to include material that represents your college coursework. If your degree is in a discipline other than architecture, your portfolio will have to demonstrate your interest in architecture or an aptitude for design.

What You Must Do After You Graduate from a Professional Architecture Program

Whichever route you take to earn your professional degree—either a BArch or MArch—you will have to get licensed by the architectural review board in the jurisdiction in which you want to practice. Jurisdictions include all states in the US, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the US Virgin Islands. The architectural review boards are all members of The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), an organization that, according to their website is "responsible for establishing, interpreting, and enforcing national standards for architectural licensure."

In addition to your education, all jurisdictions will require you to get practical experience, usually in the form of an internship, before they will issue a license. Most mandate that graduates of accredited architectural programs complete the NCARB-administered Intern Development Program. Architectural interns, also called intern architects, work under the supervision of licensed architects for a period of time established by the individual architectural registration board. You can find more specific information in the Intern Development Program Guidelines.

To get licensed you must also pass a test called the Architectural Registration Examination (ARE). The ARE, which is made up of seven divisions, is used by all 54 US architectural registration boards as well as by all Canadian registration boards.

Architects can also become NCARB certified. Although this certification is not mandatory, it could, according to the organization, facilitate your ability to become registered in multiple jurisdictions. You can apply for this certification after completing the Intern Development Program, passing all divisions of the ARE and getting licensed by a state registration board.

Many jurisdictions' registration boards also require that one participate in continuing education. They will renew licenses only for those who provide evidence that they have completed this requirement.

Getting Your First Job as a Licensed Architect

Armed with your degree, practical experience and license, you can now apply for professional jobs. Employers will be looking for candidates with certain qualities in addition to your technical skills. The following has been excerpted from job announcements found in various sources:

  • "Advanced knowledge of project design and construction documentation and construction materials."
  • "Intermediate computer and software skills to include the use of word processing and email as well as the intermediate use of spreadsheets."
  • "Excellent written and oral communication skills."
  • "Must possess strong time management and organizational skills with the ability to manage several projects concurrently."
  • "Ability to successfully manage the internal staff."

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