Architecture: Career Overview


Architecture is the art and science of designing buildings and other spaces to be occupied or used by people-science, because architects have to understand the physical characteristics of the building materials they include in their designs, as well as the physics of the structural designs themselves; and art, because architects typically try to utilize aesthetic principles at the same time as they’re trying to meet human needs via their designs. Indeed, some of the most prominent cultural landmarks in the world-the Duomo in Florence, the Taj Mahal in India, the Empire State Building in New York-first found their form in the minds of architects.


falling waters - x
falling waters – x
semi-detached terrace apartment - Lagos, Nigeria
semi-detached terrace apartment – Lagos, Nigeria

Some of the glamour is warranted. Architects are, after all, in the business of dreaming up new structures. But design is only part of architecture. And, in the vast majority of cases, due to cost and time constraints, aesthetically pleasing design is only a minor consideration for the projects architects work on.

Once a design has been selected, architects draft the final construction documents and oversee the actual construction. In these detail-oriented stages, architecture seems more like engineering than a creative venture. As one architect puts it, “One of the biggest things we do is coordinate.”

Architects must understand the science behind the design, down to the strengths of various materials and the benefits and limitations of competing designs. They also absorb stacks of building codes and zoning requirements. Before construction can start, a licensed architect must sign off on all documents.

To deliver projects on time and under budget, architects must grasp the big picture and sweat the details. Communication skills and managerial skills are paramount-architects work closely with clients, contractors, and other architects.

Few architects are given the freedom or money to design the next Guggenheim Museum, but that doesn’t deny them the basic satisfaction of seeing their ideas transformed into lasting structures.

Architects need to be detail-oriented. They also need to be excellent account and project managers, as they deal with a wide range of people in the course of any project.

Finally, they need to be talented designers: They’ll be creating spaces, both public and private, in which people will live, work, and interact. In no small way, architects give shape to the environments in which people live, so they need to understand the effects their designs and buildings will have on people.


What separates a regular office building from a work of art may be intangible, but what keeps buildings standing safely isn’t. All professional architects must be licensed in the states where they practice. You can’t sign off on a project, set up your own practice, or even legally be called an architect until you’ve passed a state exam.

Most architects complete three distinct steps: getting a degree in architecture from an accredited university, interning under a licensed architect, and passing the registration exam administered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB).

The first step in the process, choosing a university, takes some forethought. The National Architectural Accrediting Board currently approves only around 100 universities in the United States. In most states, attending one of these schools is a prerequisite to taking the Architect Registration Examination, which you must pass to become a licensed architect.

Some schools on the list offer five-year programs. Others combine a four-year undergraduate program with a two-year master’s degree program. One less year of school may seem like a good idea, but five-year programs usually make it harder to switch to another major. If you’re sitting on the fence, it’s wiser to try a four-year degree program or a three-year master’s program.

With school out of the way, the next step in almost every state or other U.S. jurisdiction is to complete an internship, during which you’ll be required to meet the training standards outlined by the Intern Development Program to be licensed. (The exceptions are Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Arizona.) Those standards call for a three-year work period under the supervision of a licensed architect, and completion of work in various areas of architecture.


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the number of architecture positions will grow at the same rate as the average for all occupations between 2004 and 2014. But remember that the industry is heavily cyclical. When the economy is good, there’s more money for construction, and firms scramble to find enough architects. The slightest economic downturn, however, can freeze construction budgets.

Even in good times, architecture is a highly competitive field. Landing an entry-level job can be difficult, especially at the more prestigious firms. To get an edge on other candidates, it’s wise to seek summer internships while you’re still in school.


Architects are involved in every stage of design and construction. Generally, the stages break down into conceptual, schematic, design development, and construction documentation. Some firms use a ladder structure, in which different architects specialize in different stages of development and construction.

Many smaller firms use a team approach, assigning one group of architects to one project from start to finish. Responsibilities and titles will vary depending on how an office is organized. The job functions described in this section provide a general outline of the different responsibilities and roles architects take on.

Design architects normally have years of experience. They create the overall aesthetic presentation of a building. They get the praise when a building wins an Aga Khan Award, and take the heat when a structure is criticized.

Design architects work on the schematic design stage-the initial scheme for a building’s design. The schematic design sets the parameters and provides a brush-stroke version of the overall design. Sometimes they also work on the design development stage, though often that responsibility falls to the project architect.

The schematic stage of design isn’t for solitary dreamers. In a process known as programming, design architects work with clients to decide what functions the building will accommodate. As Frank Lloyd Wright’s dictum goes, “Form must follow function.”

To some degree, design architects stay involved until a building is completed, but they don’t generally work on the details of a building. They envision the big picture, hook clients, and set the stage for the next round of architects, who create more detailed plans and oversee actual construction.

Project architects generally take over a project after the schematic design stage, though often the design architect remains involved. Project architects make sure a drawing is put together well and that a building can actually be built. Directly after the schematic design has been approved, project architects draft design development documents (often called a “DD set”), which are much more detailed than the original design schematics.

In the design development stage, project architects more carefully analyze the client’s functional requirements. They consider such details as what kinds of materials to use. They work closely with consultants, such as the engineers, to determine structural, mechanical, and electrical requirements. Most important, they make sure a proposed structure meets federal, state, and municipal building codes and zoning laws.

Once a client has approved the design development documents, project architects create the construction documents (or CDs) that the contractors will use in construction. After contractors have agreed to build a structure, project architects monitor the development of the building. (At larger firms, this task may fall to construction administrators.)

In many firms, and on bigger projects, project managers take responsibility for completing a project on time and under budget. They make sure a team meets its deadlines, and often work closely with clients. (WetFeet’s Project Management career profile provides more details about the role of a project manager.)

At architecture firms, project managers are often experienced project architects who are more responsible for managing and coordinating a project than designing the various parts of it. Bigger firms typically have project managers who are not project architects.

After all the documents have been created and the contractors have been selected, construction administrators oversee a building’s actual construction. Construction administrators (CAs) make sure contractors correctly assemble every detail of a building as specified in the building plans and documents.

Construction administrators are the point people throughout the rest of a project, working closely with both clients and the original design and project architects. CAs resolve problems involving document conflicts and make sure contractors get paid promptly. CAs don’t participate in design, but it’s a great job for those who like to leave the office and get their hands dirty.

At larger firms, design and project architects leave the work of entering the design into a computer to draftspersons. In a process called “redlining,” experienced architects mark changes or additions to documents on paper; draftspersons translate those changes to electronic documents.

While draftspersons help create preliminary design documents, the bulk of their work is the creation of construction documents-laying out every last detail of a building, from support beams to toilet placement. They also take care to meet federal, state, and municipal building codes.

Many architects who are just starting out or completing an internship obtain work as draftspersons. Firms also hire CAD technicians who have two-year technical degrees.



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