How to Become an Architect
Getting Started as an Architect
Architecture dates back to at least the first century, making it one of the oldest professions in the world. And while the profession has changed drastically in the last century, and even in the last 10 years, it remains one of the most prestigious and important professions in modern society. Everything from the gleaming cities of New York and Chicago to the green/living roofs on museums is a testament to architecture and architects. It would be very difficult to imagine a society or community without the profession and the people who practice it. The responsibilities of architects and the characteristics of architecture are changing as technology continues to evolve and people make more of an effort to be environmentally conscious. Aspiring architects now need to not only know common design theories, methods, and practices, but they also need to understand environmental sustainability and how that be achieved during the building. It’s also a profession that requires a tremendous amount of people skills. The very basic part of an architect’s job is communicating with the client or partner and understanding the needs and desires of everyone involved in the project. Any architect worth his salt makes sure to listen carefully when a client or potential consumer outlines what they are looking for in the design, and the best architects understand how to work with these people to create an aesthetically pleasing and functional structure.
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there are more than 107,000 professional architects employed across the country, and they also estimate the number of jobs will increase 17 percent between 2012 and 2022. Despite that rosy outlook, many within the profession feel that the profession is struggling to stay relevant. Automated design processes, critique on the profession’s culture, and do-it-yourself-design have made basic architecture less of a specialty and have also put pressure on trained architects to adapt to the transitions in the profession.
It’s not easy to become a successful architect. The industry was competitive to begin with thanks to its prestige and the excitement of building design, but now architects have to deal with changes in technology and changes in the way the profession is understood publicly. All of that said, the profession is still considered popular, and it should be. All of the experts we spoke to admitted that the job can be a grind and that it can take a long time to get the big break in the industry. But they also all truly enjoy their profession and strongly defend the future of architecture as well. We asked these experts to share their experiences and advice with aspiring architects in the hopes that this information would help those on the fence with such a large decision. We also created this visual to give readers an easy-to-digest overview of architecture today.
The BLS says that earning a professional degree in architecture is the “typical path to becoming an architect in all states” and our experts tended to agree. David Businelli even went as far as to say that without a degree or certification from an accredited program, you have little to no hope of obtaining licensure as a professional architect. A bachelor’s degree program in architecture spans five years of education and many students choose to earn a master’s degree in architecture, which can take between one and five years to complete depending on a student’s previous education. As Carl Handman pointed out, good architecture programs strike a balance between academic knowledge like architectural history and practical knowledge like construction methods and professional practices. Students will, of course, be exposed to a math and science-heavy curriculum, and almost all architecture programs now train students in computer-aided design and other software programs that are becoming more and more prevalent.
Aspiring architects not only spend a lot of their class time in the design studio where they get to put their knowledge and skills to the test, but all state architectural registration boards require graduates to complete extensive internships before they can even sit for the registration exam. The variety of education an architect receives as an intern depends heavily on the firm where the intern works, but common responsibilities can include building models, preparing documents, and helping on specific designs. Interns in architectural firms may help design part of a project. Most states also require continuing education in order for architects to keep their licensure up to date. These requirements can range from additional workshops and classes to conferences, lectures, and group practices. Architects can also seek certification from the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards which can make the licensure process simpler. The BLS also points out that, currently, 35 states require that architects hold a professional degree in architecture from one of 123 schools of architecture accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board.
WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE IN ARCHITECTURE?
- Cornell University
One of the hardest schools and programs in the country to gain admission to, Cornell’s architecture program has been widely considered the best undergraduate architecture program in the country for the past five years. It’s award-winning and diverse faculty, with incredible resources and collections, works to provide students an unmatched program. The program will teach students all about the history, practices, methods, and theories surrounding the subject, while also offering students many connections for jobs down the road.
- California Polytechnic Institute, San Luis Obispo
Although not as prestigious an institution as Cornell, one of the areas where Cal Poly does match the Ivy League school is in its architecture program. Commonly considered one of the best architecture programs at any school, including polytechnic institutes, Cal Poly’s architecture school is a haven for aspiring architects on the West Coast thanks to its world-class facilities, track record of success with recent graduates, and dedication to maintaining an accurate and up-to-date curriculum to ensure graduates can compete for the best jobs in the industry.
- Pratt Institute
Pratt is one of the leading art and design institutions in the country, and its ideal location in New York City makes it a hub of activity and potential for aspiring architects and architectural designers. As an art and design school, students receive a very focused and intensive architecture education that allows them to focus specifically on the industry and carving out a career in the field. Pratt is dedicated to maintaining its reputation, and as such provides students with a wealth of resources as well as leading facilities and faculty to help its students continue to make a difference in the industry after graduation.
- Virginia Tech University
Unsurprisingly, Virginia Tech is another polytechnic institution with a sparkling reputation and track record when it comes to architecture. The school is known for its engineering prowess, and that carries over and blends nicely with the architecture program. A well-funded state institution, Virginia Tech has world-class facilities and resources as well as some of the leading experts in the field on its faculty. The program’s track record for producing competent and outstanding graduates helps give students a leg up in their job searches, and its connections across the country offer a support network for students looking for advice and mentorship.
- Rhode Island School of Design
Wouldn’t you know it, but one of the most well-known and well-regarded design schools in the entire country is home to a world-class architecture program that has produced some of the industry’s best and brightest. RISD is extremely competitive to get into and it is also quite pricey, but for that headache, students are also exposed to one of the most diverse and respected faculties as well as every resource and facility imaginable.
GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR
Our experts had a lot of advice for aspiring architects looking to break into the industry, but three pieces of advice kept coming up and stuck out. The first piece of advice from our experts was to make sure to take any chance you can to work in the industry. David Businelli suggests students should be willing to get exposure by working at a firm or an office, even if the responsibilities aren’t ideal. He said that students should be willing to look for any and all jobs in the field and be willing to experiment with different firms, different types of design, and different architectural communities so they can really understand the industry and impress potential employers.
The second piece of advice was to set expectations low and be willing to work hard. Businelli and Carl Handman both agreed that graduates from architecture school shouldn’t expect to become lead designers at renowned firms right out of the gate. They should understand that as the low man on the totem pole, they will be worked hard and won’t receive much compensation for their work. But they also mentioned that the best way to work your way up the totem pole is to start at the bottom, even if the firm or work isn’t exactly what you are looking for. If you are willing to take any job in the industry, it will help you get the job you want in the industry down the road.
The third piece of advice was to make sure to get an internship as quickly as possible and to treat that internship as an audition for a potential job. Handman advised students not to wait until their third or fourth year of school before investigating internships because, he said, the earlier you can get started on practical experience the better. Even if the internship doesn’t turn into a job with that specific firm, the hands-on experience and industry connections are irreplaceable.