How to Become 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.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

David Businelli

Studio 16 Architecture – Partner

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the Industry:
  • Company:
  • Twitter:
  • David Businelli
  • Staten Island, NY
  • 20+
  • Studio 16 Architecture
  • @DLBAIA

I got interested in Architecture back in elementary school and kind of made the decision to be an architect before even getting into high school. I had some architecture books, but I only leafed through them a bit and just thought that I’d study it when I went to college. I went to City College of New York’s School of Architecture and Environmental Studies. I got what was a good solid education in how to be a professional architect. I started working for a firm here on Staten Island in 1988, Nicholas J. Salvadeo, AIA, P.C, before I graduated, and that’s when I got the dose of reality and I just thought to myself, ‘I’m not going back for a fifth year degree. I’m not going back for a Bachelor’s Degree of Architecture,’ because I didn’t think it necessary. My boss had gone through an apprenticeship program, and he didn’t even have a degree. So, I never did my fifth year degree – what is known as a Bachelor of Architecture. In 1996, I wound up buying the firm after I got my license; back then the firm was Salvadeo Associates Architects. Nick Salvadeo retired in late 1996 and passed away in 2005. I rebranded it in 2008 as Studio 16 Architecture PLLC.

One thing I didn’t do is go to Europe. The conventional wisdom is that you have to go to Europe. You have to go to Italy. You have to see all that stuff; you have to sketch it out. You must do it. You have to go to grad school. You have to have the fifth year degree. I didn’t do any of that, yet I got the cover of Contract magazine in February of 2003. And I’ve had many, many awards, and my work has been published, and I’ve written published articles, and on and on. So the non-conventional path is what I chose. I’m doing the kind of work that some of the heavy-hitters are doing, and I didn’t do any of the stuff that they did. I guess, initially, buildings were kind of fascinating to me, and now it’s just that whole creative process that gets you going and the bottom line is that without buildings, we don’t have society. So as far as a profession that’s vital to society, its architects and physicians, and lawyers. You can’t function without the three of them, and we’re the only ones that create space, and when you create really cool spaces and fun spaces and stuff that people love, that impacts their lives. That’s what drives everything.

Advice

Make sure you choose an accredited program
You definitely have to go to an accredited school if you have any hope of licensure. Now you can take the path of going and getting an undergraduate degree, and then going on and getting a graduate architecture degree – like they offer at Columbia and Harvard, and several other places, but definitely go to an accredited program – it’s the best way to ensure that you have the career you want. Going the route of the apprenticeship and all that, it’s a lot more difficult, and I’m not sure how many states will even allow that anymore.

Try to work in the field
It’s important to get your feet wet and work in your chosen profession. If you can get a job – even if it’s not as an architect – in an office, do it. Also try to vary your experience between small firms and big firms. The more architecture and work environments you can expose yourself too, the more you will learn about the profession. By working at big firms and small firms, you get to see both worlds.

Don’t go into an interview or job worried about demands/perks
Don’t go in there thinking about what time you’re going to leave every day or asking about vacation or demanding a certain salary because likely, none of that is going to happen. You’re going to work for a low salary like everyone else starting out of school and you’re going to be stuck with the general drafting tasks. But you look for the firm that will give you the most responsibility, whether that is doing the drafting and some field measuring or whatever the case may be.

Don’t be too picky about job offers
You will have a little flexibility, but you’re looking at the job market – if there’s not a lot of jobs out there, you have to grab what you can get. Hopefully, it’s a good fit and if you don’t have any experience working in an office, you don’t know whether it’s going to be a good fit until you walk in the door. I didn’t – my first job I worked for an architect and develop and I started doing drafts and it turned out to be a good fit and I was there for two summers, but when I walked into Nick Salvadeo’s office, I didn’t know what to expect. When I would tell people I applied, they’d say ‘oh that’s a very tough office; it’s going to be hard to survive.’ I was scared to death. But I’m still here. I’m five feet away from the place I first sat.

Carl Handman

Eyerman, Csala, Hapeman & Handman, LLC – President

Quick Look Bio

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  • Carl Handman
  • Forty Fort, PA
  • 30+
  • E, C, H & H, LLC

I attended Syracuse University, where I got my Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture. I spent my fourth year of the five-year program studying at The Architectural Association in London. It was a great year, and I learned a lot from not only from my classes but also from traveling around the British Isles and Europe. After I returned, I spent two summers interning in a small firm in Wilkes-Barre called Bohlin & Powell Architects and I worked for them after graduation. I stayed at the firm for six years until I opened my own firm at the age of 29 in 1980. After ten years of being the sole proprietor of my own firm, I joined Eyerman, Csala, Hapeman & Handman, which is where I still work today. In 2011, I joined the faculty at Marywood University’s School of Architecture as an adjunct professor. I am still an adjunct professor there today, and I teach third-year design studio as well as other upper-level classes.

What I enjoy the most about my job is when I have a “good client” who not only understands what they are trying to create but is also willing to listen to feedback and let me be the professional. I also get a lot of satisfaction out of learning that the client and I are pleased with the finished product. It is always nice to know when you have done a good job meeting the needs of the client and creating a lasting structure. When the profession gets tough is when you have clients that don’t want to listen to your reasoned advice and when you work with contractors who think they know more than the architects about building design and structure.

Advice

Don’t wait to explore until it’s too late
Make sure to travel while you are still young, and if you have the opportunity to visit a new city, state or country, do it. Don’t wait for ‘next year’! Also, make sure to keep your eyes open during your travels and daily life. There might be interesting architecture in your hometown!

Be detail-oriented
A ‘great’ design can be ruined if your architectural details are sloppy, while an ‘ordinary’ and ‘low budget’ project can be made special with some carefully considered & executed details. A good architectural program should offer both academic/formal education in the history, theory and design of architecture, as well as non-academic/practical education in the art and science of actually constructing buildings.

Don’t start sketching on a computer
It’s always better to start sketching with your hands instead of a computer program. You may use a computer program a lot during your time as an architect, but if you spend all your time on the computer program, you won’t understand how to sketch with your hands and really start from scratch on a project.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become an Architect?


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.