Professional architects say there is something marvelous about imagining a structure, putting that idea on paper or into a computer and then converting that vision into a reality.
“Most buildings are not temporary structures; they’re usually around for tens if not hundreds of years,” Marc Teer — a licensed architect who is the founder and CEO of Black Spectacles, a Chicago-based organization that helps aspiring architects obtain their licensure — wrote in an email. “Knowing that your work has a long legacy is a rewarding thing.”
Jingyi Emma Luo, who graduated with high distinction from a five-year undergraduate architecture program at the California College of the Arts in December 2019, says that she was conflicted about whether to specialize in the fine arts or in architecture. However, a book about the ways in which excellent architecture can improve quality of life for the everyday person convinced her to pursue a degree in architecture, says Luo. She is now an architectural designer with the California-based Page & Turnbull architecture, design, planning and preservation firm.
Visionaries who have original ideas about how to create buildings where people are healthy and happy can thrive in the architecture field. Here is a guide on how to attend architecture school and become an architect.
The Two Types of Accredited Architecture Programs
People who want to receive an architecture degree that will facilitate their licensure as an architect have two options: either a five-year undergraduate degree in architecture known as a B.Arch. or a post-college master’s program known as an M.Arch., which usually takes two or three years to complete.
Though there are four-year bachelor of science, bachelor of arts and bachelor of fine arts programs in architecture, they usually are not nationally accredited. Someone with one of these undergraduate degrees may need to attend a master’s program in architecture in order to qualify for state licensure.
So, before attending an architecture program, any aspiring student should investigate whether that program is accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board, or NAAB. A list of all the accredited architecture programs in the U.S. is available on the NAAB website.
College hopefuls who are determined to become architects should know that the fastest and least expensive path into the architecture profession is via a five-year undergraduate program, architectural industry experts say. However, those who are unsure about whether they want to pursue this career may prefer to pursue a four-year college degree in architecture or another field, knowing that they can later supplement their undergraduate education with a master’s in architecture no matter their college major.
Doctoral programs in architecture are available, though that extremely advanced level of architectural education is not at all mandatory to be an architect. It is advantageous, however, for a future academic.
In some U.S. states, it is possible for someone to become a licensed architect without a professional degree in the field if they spend many years apprenticing for a credentialed architect. However, someone who attends professional architecture school is usually able to qualify for licensure more quickly than someone without a formal degree, experts say.
Experts observe that pursuing an architecture degree can be costly and sometimes deters qualified aspiring architects of modest means. However, numerous architecture scholarships are available.
The cost of attendance at architecture school varies widely, with in-state students at public schools paying far less than their out-of-state public school peers and their contemporaries enrolled at private schools. If someone pursues a five-year undergraduate architecture degree, the total tuition and fees can range from around $50,000 to about $175,000 depending on the school and whether he or she is an in-state student, according to a comprehensive cost estimate by the design industry professional education provider Designer Hacks.
Thus, a career in architecture usually involves five to eight years of higher education — sometimes more — depending on which path a person chooses.
Training and Testing Required to Become an Architect
Individuals with professional architecture degrees note that architecture professional programs are demanding and that students often pull all-nighters. Because architecture students submit projects that are critiqued by professors and peers, they need to be able to process criticism without allowing that criticism to crush their confidence, current and former architecture professors say.
Victor Body-Lawson, an adjunct architecture professor at Columbia University in New York City, suggests that prospective architecture students look for academic programs that emphasize computer-aided design, since that is a skill necessary to work in the modern architecture industry.
A quality architecture program will also cultivate team-building and communication skills, and provide a supportive learning atmosphere, says Body-Lawson, an architect and principal with Body Lawson Associates, a New York-based architecture firm. “While schools teach students, they should also build them up psychologically so as to encourage them while they are also criticizing their work, so you see that at the end of the day, they feel good about themselves, they feel good about their work, and it encourages them to continue to work.”
Having a professional architecture degree is not sufficient to qualify for licensure as an architect who can sign off on architectural projects and work on those projects without supervision. Becoming a licensed architect usually requires completion of three years of training that often includes an internship in the field. Passage of the six-division Architect Registration Examination is mandatory for licensure, and the cost of taking all six portions of this exam is $1,410.
What Types of People Thrive in the Architecture Profession
If someone loves problem-solving, they may enjoy a job as an architect.
“Because there is never one right solution to an architectural problem, students can expect to spend long hours exploring options along their path of discovery,” wrote James Simeo, an architect and principal with the CO Architects firm in California.
Joshua Zinder — president-elect of the New Jersey chapter of the American Institute of Architects, commonly known as AIA — says many people walk around spaces without appreciating the work that went into creating those spaces. He suggests that a future architect is the type of person who notices those details.
“If you’re a young person and you walk into a room and you go, ‘Wow, that’s a great space,’ and if you are a young person walking down the streets of a city and you have to pull out your camera because you see how buildings are aligning and how the banners on the buildings are aligning and how the sun is setting on the edge and you have to take that picture, well then architecture is something you should consider,” says Zinder, an architect and managing partner with the JZA+D architecture firm in New Jersey.
What Architects Do and What Their Job Is Like
Architects are master craftspeople capable of designing private dwellings and government or commercial properties that are open to the public. They often collaborate with experts in related fields, such as interior design, city planning and structural engineering. Their goal is to construct homes, offices, stores and leisure spots that are both beautiful and functional.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median compensation among U.S. architects was $80,750 per year in May 2019. The bureau predicts that the number of jobs in this field in 2029 will be only 1% higher than in 2019, significantly slower than the projected average job growth rate of 4% among all occupations during the same time frame.
Some architects take on a variety of construction projects while others specialize in creating specific types of buildings, ranging from houses of worship to secular cultural centers, from single-family homes to apartment complexes, from suburban malls to cosmopolitan skyscrapers. A few architects focus on renovating, restoring, preserving and enhancing historic buildings. Others concentrate on environmentally friendly and nature-based construction projects.
Teer says that architects can do good for society as a whole if they create buildings where people feel comfortable, noting that he once worked on a building that received the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, Gold Certification. This certification is the “most widely used green building rating system in the world,” according to the U.S. Green Building Council, and it signals that a building has been constructed in an environmentally friendly way.
“A building employee who has asthma told his boss that the new structure improved his breathing and made his life healthier and better,” Teer explains.
Architects note that their industry is heavily influenced by economic downturns since the amount of construction decreases, so resilience and patience are important. They also caution that architecture is not as lucrative as other professions that require a comparable amount of education or training, such as law or medicine.
However, architects say that the lifelong learning involved in their profession makes it a fun field to work in, and note that they appreciate the fact that they have a tangible work product.
Sarah Holstedt — an associate vice president with the CallisonRTKL global architecture, planning and design firm — says her job allows her to travel to all kinds of interesting places and to explore new cultures. She suggests that the architecture profession provides a wonderful variety of opportunities. “Every day presents this new form of actual problem-solving.”
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What an Architecture Degree Is and How to Become an Architect originally appeared on usnews.com