Educating Architects

Posted on November 3, 2014


I don’t pretend to be an expert on education or licensing, but I am someone who has recently gone through the whole process. While I did find it adequate for my professional life as an architect, it was frustrating, confusing and challenging at many points and can most definitely be improved upon.

I’d like to preface everything that follows with a BIG disclaimer. I have done literally zero research into educational systems or how architects are trained in other countries, but I do happen to be a licensed architect who went through what I would describe as the “standard” route from schooling to licensure. So while I’m definitely not qualified to be the leader of any kind of reform movement, I think I have some good ideas which would translate well into improving the current system.

When it comes to my schooling (a Bachelor’s of Science in Architecture and Masters of Architecture degree) I have mostly positive things to say, and I have had the pleasure to work with some great architects in my professional life. That doesn’t mean the current system is without its problems. In fact, I believe the way we educate and bring architects to licensure has been in dire need of restructuring for a long time.

The primary purpose of architecture school should be to prepare students to become licensed practicing architects. Currently, schools do a great job of teaching critical thinking and a whole host of other subjects necessary to becoming a successful architect, but they leave nearly all of the practical aspects of architecture to the firms who hire these students out of school. Eventually, these architecture school graduates get the on-the-job training which fills in the gaps of what they didn’t get taught in school. After they have been trained to a certain level, they individually go out and complete their licensure. This system works, but it is not ideal.

We need to create a transparent system of education for architects that creates a clear path from high school student to licensed architect.


A person wanting to become a licensed architect currently has three steps to obtain their goal.

1. Go to an accredited university and get a Master’s of Architecture degree or 5 year professional degree.
2. Complete IDP (Intern Development Program, which takes approx. 3-5 years).
3. Take and pass the ARE (Architect Registration Examination, which adds at least another year).
How long does it take to become an architect
Image Source: ACSA

This all adds up to (at a bare minimum) 8 years. The average is actually 11 years according to NCARB. It took me 9 years and I was the first in my graduate class to become licensed and one of the first from my undergraduate class (if not the first). If I was put in charge of the system (the worst mistake “they” would ever make) I’d combine all three and streamline the whole process.


Let’s start at the beginning of a future architects career, the university. 6 years of schooling isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but with the rising costs of higher education and the fairly low pay offered to those beginning a career in architecture, we need to maximize the value of the university. Those six years should be packed to give students all the tools they need to become a successful practicing architect. Currently, the biggest missing piece is the real world application and business acumen needed to practice architecture.

On the other hand, you could argue that a master’s degree in architecture is unnecessary. I loved my masters program, but it was basically an extension of my undergraduate degree. I become a better designer, learned more rigorous research methods and improved my writing skills in the form of a research thesis, but did it really make me a better architect than my classmates who didn’t get a master’s degree and went straight into practice? Probably not. Many masters programs are more geared towards giving architects the tools to become teachers at universities. Unless the masters degrees required to become licensed become more like Rural Studio (focused on practice and the craft of building things), maybe a 4 year degree is enough.

glass chapel

Image Source: Rural Studio


For many, the architectural internship never ends. When you obtain your professional degree and move into the world of practice, you start your “internship” and enrollment into the Intern Development Program (IDP). There are 17 experience areas with varying minimum hours requirements totaling to 5600 hours to complete the IDP. If you are able to perfectly line up your day-to-day activities with your required hours, this takes three years. More than likely it will take you up to five years.

The problem is that the majority of architects don’t need a license to practice, don’t have any financial incentive to get one, and there is no time frame or other encouragement after graduation to go through the exams. Only one person puts their stamp on the drawings, so unless you are a single practitioner or partner in a larger company, chances are, you will never have to put your stamp on any drawings. So this means the only people who actually need a license are those who want to run a company, whether their own or with partners. If you don’t ever plan on being a boss, you have no reason to become licensed.

Can you imagine a world in which lawyers don’t have to pass the bar exam to practice law? Bonkers!!

I wonder how many people who graduate with architecture degrees actually go on to become licensed, and then how many of those people actually use their license. Maybe 50%, and 20%? I really have no idea. What do you think?

So the problem is that being a licensed architect has value, but only for a percentage of trained architects. We could either leave the system as is and let it be a choice or fold in licensure with our education model so everyone becomes licensed as a part of the process. If you want or need to get licensed to practice, then it’s on you. Go ahead and figure everything out on your own and go through the process or if you don’t, no big deal. Or, everyone becomes licensed in which case you probably still won’t need to use it, but it would greatly ensure students are achieving a higher standard because of the need to pass the exams.

Another problem is that if we accept that everyone coming out of school will need years of training before they have the knowledge necessary to complete IDP, pass the ARE and become licensed, it’s putting the burden of all this training and experience on whoever their first employers are. Every student will have totally different experiences, some being much more relevant to becoming licensed. It is also incredibly easy to “cheat the system” to report experiences you didn’t actually have.

Take these two examples:

Student A goes to work for a sole practitioner with a small office. Because of the nature of the small practice, Student A is required to participate in all activities pertaining to that practice. Student A is required to go to client meetings, network to bring in new work, create and review drawings, run construction meetings, complete punch lists, write specifications, etc.

Student B goes to work for a huge international company. They spend their time doing renderings for presentations, building models, and creating toilet room details.

One of these people will be ready to take on the responsibilities of putting their stamp on a set of drawings. The other will not.

The Exams

At the beginning of the ARE, it was a four day event only offered once a year in certain cities across the US. It was a comprehensive test of nine divisions including written and graphic portions. If you failed, you had to wait until the next year.

The current version of the ARE is a seven part exam administered by Prometric (a testing company). The exams are multiple choice, fill in the blank, check all that apply and graphic vignettes. Each division is taken individually at your own pace throughout the year at one of Prometric’s, many, many locations.

It doesn’t make sense how we take the ARE. What other careers require you to learn material in your schooling and then at some unnamed point years down the road decides it will test you on it? There already exists a perfect environment in an architects education for the studying of material and test taking.

I took three semesters of structural math classes in college. The last being my last semester of my fourth year. I then went on to get a master’s degree and had work for three more years before I could take the ARE, which includes a structural exam. Add to that an additional year because I took the structural exam second to last. That’s five years from learning the material until I was tested on it. 95% of the knowledge I needed to pass the test had been learned in school and never used in practice, meaning it had been forgotten so I had to completely relearn everything.

Let’s Make It Better

Architecture is changing. It has been changing for a long time. The education of architects needs to change with the profession. So here’s my proposal:

Combine university, internship and examination into one overarching program with the end result being licensed architects entering the profession with the minimum skill set needed to take on whatever path they choose to go down and be successful.

How do we accomplish this? Glad you asked.

Step One:

Remove all unnecessary coursework from architecture school. Most of this comes in the form of General Education classes. I tried to find a reason why so much of an undergraduate degree is given over to these classes (Biology 101, Psychology 101, English 101, etc.) and the only explanation I found is that it makes for more rounded students. I don’t disagree that it is good to expose students to other professions, materials and ways of thinking, but a vast amount of the coursework that is required is useless filler. I spoke previously about what a time waste these classes can be.

If you want to give students this cross-disciplinary exposure, make it relevant to what their profession will be. For instance, business classes would infinitely more useful than European History for architects. Guess which one is on every undergraduate architecture syllabus and which is not? Learning about the past is important for any student, but in what world is that more useful than basic knowledge about how to run a business when your profession requires it on a daily basis?

If you’ve made it to college, you’ve already had your fill of coursework designed to make you a more rounded individual. If that’s the only goal of that type or coursework, then we need to completely reevaluate the purpose of high school (the exact place for those types of classes).

Step Two:

If we’re going to stick with a 6 year degree, focus on taking everything that is learned in the undergraduate degree and apply it to the real world. Studios should focus on designing and building actual projects with the students getting experience swinging the hammer themselves. There should be a heavy focus on community engagement and getting students involved in community projects. Schools can become incubators for student businesses which can take off after graduation.

Classes would follow this same progression from learning design thinking and problem solving early on to the real world applications towards the end of their schooling. Beginning studios would be taught by pie in the sky theorists, teaching students how to think outside the box and come at problems from unique angles. Later studios would be taught by licensed architects with real world experience forcing the students to ground their work in reality.

There should also be classes reaching out to other disciplines on campus. Send students to the Engineering program to learn about systems from the experts. Have classes on landscape design, anthropology, art, etc. all taught by experts in those fields. Have students collaborate with other programs with combined classes and projects. This would truly make for a more well rounded and capable individual.

Step Three:

The ARE should be divided up and taken at points that make sense in a students education. In the example given above, after completing the structural math courses, a student would take a comprehensive structural exam (just like the current version). These exams would be spread throughout the course of the six years so that the last exam would be taken right before or right after graduation (like the bar exam for lawyers). This would result in everyone leaving school to enter the workforce as a licensed (or soon to be) individual.

Step Four:

Create a better internship. This is the most difficult step. The internship is vital for creating architects who are ready to handle the daily challenges of practice. Dealing with clients and contractors in a real environment, where you are forced to think on your feet, react to problems, and deal with the consequences, is the final step in an architects education.

One way to do this would be to create partnerships with architecture firms to act as “teaching firms”. These firms would be given the tools and training needed to ensure students received the right amount of training. There would be certain goals to be met and tracked. These could be completing punch lists, interacting with clients, reviewing shop drawings, etc. The difference between this and the current set up would be in placing students at firms prepared to educate them and having a much more robust and effective metric for achieving and tracking goals.

This could occur as a part of a university degree or as a separate phase after graduation. If it’s part of the university degree, either it would take the place of the masters program or be an integral part of it. Students could work part-time in an office while attending class or have months where they would alternate between the two. In this path, when students graduate, they would have completed their schooling, internship and exams all in one place. They would step into the working world fully licensed.

If the internship stays separate from the university degree, students would enter into a set internship phase (two years long), after graduation, culminating in receiving full Architect status after requirements are met. While in their internship they could be called Associate Architect or some other appropriate title. As described above, a more rigorous system would be enacted to place students in the right learning environments and monitor their progress more effectively. If the internship is separated from the schooling in this way, it would make sense to include one or more exams into the internship phase. Possibly have the last exam (on the practice aspects of architecture) taken at the end of the two year internship. After completing the set amount of experiences and meeting certain goals, they would become licensed.

Easy, Right?

I did not feel like I was ready to be a stand-alone architect when I became licensed. If the day after I got my license, you gave me a client and firm to run on my own, I would have floundered big time. The system described above would set a baseline proficiency across a series of metrics (the basic knowledge and experience needed to be a successful practicing architect). After that, your chosen career will fill out your expertise in whatever direction you decide to take. Will you be perfect or not make mistakes, no, but it is unreasonable to expect that. It will however give you a more rounded education that prepares you for the realities of everyday practice and will increase the overall quality of architects out in the world.

I’m happy to hear your reasons why my idea is crazy stupid, or why I’ve stumbled upon the most brilliant idea in architectural education since the beaus arts was founded. Leave a comment, email me or start a conversation with me on Twitter. Thanks for reading!