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Becoming an Architect

I had no one educate me on the steps necessary to become an architect. All I knew is I wanted to be one. As a result, I made a lot of mistakes early in my architectural pursuit. Eventually, I got on track and have since enjoyed the successes of a budding career in architecture and urban design. The intent here is two-fold. First, to educate consumers of architectural services on the effort, money and time it takes to become an architect. Secondly, to provide a general guide for kids who have interests in pursuing a career in architecture - especially kids in black and minority communities where architecture does not receive enough promotion as a viable career path.


Three stages of becoming an architect. 


Before steeping into a design studio and diving into the details of becoming an architect, there are few prerequisites that potential architecture students and practicioners should become familiar with. Start reading about the subject. Introduce yourself to some of the "gods of architecture". Learn about the tools of the trade. Architecture is an intense profession. The more you can prepare yourself before formal study the better. Now. Let's get into it!

Becoming an architect requires a candidate to complete three vetting phases: Education, Apprenticeship, and Testing. As a disclaimer, know that these three phases only represent the institutional requirements potential architects must meet. But more importantly, becoming an architect requires a mental and emotional toughness, something that needs to be found within the individual. This essential personal attribute is what most new architecture candidates are completely unprepared for. It is absolutely paramount. I’ll touch on this topic at the end. First, there are a few organizations to be familiar with.

Organizations to Know

NCARB (National Council of Architectural Registration Boards) - NCARB’s mission is to ensure architects uphold their legal duty to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public through ethical and competent design. They test aspiring architects on required skills, award architectural licences, and keep record of an architect’s professional status.

NAAB (National Architectural Accrediting Board) - sets the requirements that schools of architecture must meet in order to receive and retain accreditation status.

AIA (The American Institute of Architects) - The primary professional membership association for licensed and aspiring architects. Its focus is to support the profession of the architecture through advocacy, education and fellowship.


NCARB requires that candidates for licensure hold a professional degree in architecture from an NAAB accredited program. There are three types of acceptable NAAB professional degrees...

Bachelors of Architecture (B.Arch) - This is a 5 year undergraduate program

Masters of Architecture (M.Arch) - 2 year or 3 ½ year program

Doctorate of Architecture (D.Arch) - 3 years+

There are also pre-professional degrees like the four year Bachelor of Science (or Arts) in Architecture and the 1-2 year post-professional Master of Science (or Arts) in Architecture. These are NOT accredited degrees but schools of architecture will often combine these programs with accredited degrees they do offer. This allows students the opportunity to get their professional degree or simply focus on a specific aspect of architectural study. For example, a school that has an accredited M.Arch graduate program will often offer an undergraduate pre-professional B.Sc.Arch degree. 

If you’re absolutely sure that your end goal is to become an architect, there are a few degrees to steer clear from. Degrees in Architectural Technology, Architectural Engineering, Architectural Studies, and Architectural History. These are noble degrees. But they are incomprehensive in educating future architects on all the things they need to know. Recipients of these degrees find respectable careers as draftsmen, building systems experts, tradesmen, construction managers, historians, inspectors and professional builders, but not as architects. Obtaining one of these degrees will still require one to receive an accredited degree and potentially additional courses to compenstate for gaps in previous education. As college tuition costs continue to escalate, this can be a very expensive path to take. 

For those that do commit to architecture late, there is the “Path B” or “+3 Master of Architecture” option. This option is for individuals holding any type of degree in a non pre-professional architectural field or a completely different field altogether. Essentially it’s an accredited ‘crash course’ M.Arch degree that takes about 3 ½ years to complete.


Apprenticeship is the second phase of becoming an architect. 

Before architecture became a field of study in universities, it was taught exclusively through apprenticeship. Apprenticeship still exists, but has been formalized as a prerequisite for attaining licensure. AXP (Architectural Experience Program) is the official architectural apprenticeship program managed by NCARB. It’s a completely digital system where aspiring architects can log and track of their training hours.

AXP is broken into six main categories that contain subcategories representing the skills architects must gain experience in. Each main category has a prescribed amount of hours required for completion, totalling 3,740 hours between them. These hours are then divided among the sub-divisions skill sets. Below are the main categories and their hourly requirements...

The six apprenticeship categories for training architects under the NCARB (AXP) program.

Practice Management - skills required to run, manage, and market an architectural firm: 160 hours total

Project Management- skills relating to completing projects according to contractual requirements including budgets and scheduling: 360 hours total

Programming & Analysis - skills relating to the analysis and research into the client, legal, and regulatory implications of a project : 260 hours

Project Planning & Design - skills relating to the schematic design and layout of a building: 1,080 hours

Project Development & Documentation - skills relating to the refining of schematic plans, coordination with consultants, the creation of technical construction documentation and specifications, and refining project cost and time estimates 1,520 hours

Construction & Evaluation - skills relating to the post design phases of a project like meeting on construction site with contractors, responding to submittals, check completed work of the builder, and making field reports, and accepting the finished project: 360 hours.

It is important to note that AXP hours are baseline requirements. Some state jurisdictions require more hours, experience and/or testing before granting a license to practice. The architectural licensing board of Michigan requires 1,900 more apprenticeship hours in addition to the 3,740. Virginia’s board requires more hours and 3 years minimum working experience. California requires additional testing because of seismic conditions unique to the state. Be sure to research specific state requirements for states you’re seeking licensure in.

There are several ways to gain these hours. Visit NCARB’s website if you’d like to familiarize yourself with all of them. However, the primary method is to work in the office of a licensed architect who will oversee your work and validate your apprenticeship hours. An efficient benefit to this process is being able to log apprenticeship hours while taking your ARE exams. They can be completed in parallel.


Testing is the third phase of becoming an archtiect. 

The completion of APX hours is not required to begin testing. But aspiring architects must hold one of the three acceptable professional degrees (B.Arch, M.Arch, D.Arch) before their first exam.

The ARE (Architect Registration Exam) is a set of exams that test candidate architects on the basic knowledge, skills and abilities required to successfully provide architectural services. In November of 2016, NCARB released ARE 5.0 which will phase out the previous version 4.0. This version will have six exams corresponding to the six APX apprenticeship categories. Here are the exams and there durations.


The six exams of the ARE (Architectural Registration Exams). Each test is at a minimum four hours long. 


Practice Management Exam: 80 Questions - 3 hours and 30 minutes

Project Management Exam: 95 questions - 4 hours

Programming and Analysis Exam: 95 questions - 4 hours

Project Planning and Design Exam: 120 questions - 5 hours

Project Development and Documentation Exam: 120 questions - 5 hours

Construction and Evaluation: 95 questions - 4 hours

NCARB changes the testing format around every ten years to insure exams reflect current developments in the architectural profession. ARE 5.0 exams will cost $210 and will escalate to $235 in 2018 when version 4.0 is completely phased out. There is no specific order the exams must be completed in. But a popular strategy is to test according to the apprenticeship hours you are gaining through working.

A few housekeeping notes about ARE testing. If a test is failed, one can re-test after 60 days. However, you can only take the same test three times in one year. There is also a Rolling Clock rule which states that upon passing an exam you have five years to pass the rest of them. If you don’t you will lose credit for that exam and will have to re-test all over again. Lastly, there are a few study guides to help examinees prepare. The two most common study guides are published byBallast and Kaplan.

Once all three phases are complete, one will legally be able to call themselves an architect.

"Don't be fooled/[this] game is Mental"

For those thinking about pursuing architecture as a career, I urge you first to ask yourself, “Why?” It may not be what you think. For most it won’t be. For me it wasn’t. Whatever your answer is, I pray it touches you at the core of your soul. The answer to this simple question will need to have enough substance to motivate you through some very trying and frustrating times. This profession is not forthe faint of heart. I mean that with sincerity, not to discourage but to be honest and transparent. Being an architect is tremendously rewarding. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. The process it takes to become an architect is an arduous one. Architecture school in particular requires a certain mental resolve. At the core of any architectural education is the infamous studio course; a series of 6-7 credit, 5-6 hour long classes where students apply theory to a design problem. It will test your emotions. You might experience succesive all-nighters. You will face blunt and vulgar criticism from professors and peers. You will need tough skin. You will struggle with ideas. You will fail. Failure is good though. Get used to it. You might cry. You will need to control your feelings. It will demand a certain level of sacrifice of self, family, and friends and it will be up to you to manage that. Does this all sound loathsome and unwelcoming. Well it is. Like I said before, architecture isn’t for everyone. This 25 minute documentary, “Archiculture”, gives a good summary of what architecture students endure on the regular. And it’s pretty entertaining.  

Most architects would say all the stress and struggle was worth it. Afterall, architects are responsible for the successful execution and beauty of the built world. We have the ability to shape lifestyles. We should endure rigorous vetting. I remember asking myself the “Why?” question for the first time right after my worst project presentation ever. After some slices of college cafeteria pizza, a few rounds of Rock Band, some serious thought, and some sleep I answered myself. Why? Because I love it. To those future architects, you will too.

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