How do I become an architect?

To become a fully trained architect is a long process that lasts seven years – five years of academic training and two years of practical job experience.

An architect’s job is not easy; architects need to be creative but they rarely have free rein to design exactly what they want. They are constrained by the requirements of the client, the project’s budget and the limitations of the materials they are working with. On the positive side, witnessing your innovative design being built is, of course, extremely rewarding.


If you are creative, enjoy a challenge, can deal with frustrations and setbacks and are willing to work hard to achieve success, then a career in architecture could be ideal.

Architects need to be obsessed with the aesthetic quality of buildings, have an interest in sustainability, and want to make a difference in the world.

The path to being an architect

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) validates courses for architecture students. This starts with a three-year undergraduate degree. If a student decides after the three years that they do not want to continue, the three years will be counted as a standard university degree. Some who do not choose a career in architecture can gain related qualifications, such as urban design, planning and conservation.


After the three-year degree course, students gain practical experience by working in an architectural company. This is paid work and is usually for one year, though some may decide to work longer to either save money or gain more practical experience.

The second academic part is a two-year full time course that focuses on architectural knowledge and understanding projects. This course can be at the same university the student studied for the first part, but it can be done at any suitable university.

Often, students on this second part can be involved in research and specialised studies that could be done outside Britain.

The next stage is further practical experience in an architecture firm. Usually in this final stage of practical experience, the student is given more responsibility.

Finally, there is an assessment which is validated by the Royal Institute of British Architects. To pass this stage, a candidate needs to provide proof of at least 24 months’ practical job experience, write a case study, then pass both a written and oral examination.

After seven years of study and job experience, passing the final assessment stage means that the newly qualified architect can register with the Architects Registration Board. Only architects registered with this board are allowed to call themselves architects in Britain. The new architect is also eligible to become a Chartered Member of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

What you need before applying

To be accepted on architect training you should have studied at school a mixture of arts and science subjects. Although not a strict requirement, it is advisable to have studied art and hold an interest in drawing and design, especially 3D work.

Most architecture schools require a portfolio of work to be submitted. The portfolio should demonstrate that you can draw well, but can also include photography, paintings and models. A portfolio does not have to contain architectural work, but any work that demonstrates that the student has an appreciation of building design can be useful. The use of CAD software and drafting are skills needed by architects, but the student is not expected to demonstrate these in the portfolio.

Studying architecture will also involve making 3D models. It can help, but is not required, to include 3D models in your portfolio.

The architecture schools look at a portfolio to assess whether a student has the potential to be an architect.

You will be expected to have a minimum of 5 GCSEs, including English and maths, and have at least two A level passes at A level marks, or three passes – one at A and two at AS levels.

Mature students may be admitted with fewer qualifications if they show aptitude or have a portfolio of art work that impresses the university.


Most architecture schools will also hold an interview designed to access the candidate’s motivations and goals in wanting to be an architect. Be sure to subscribe to architectural journals so that you can demonstrate that you have an interest in the latest architectural trends.

It may be worth considering travelling on a gap year before applying to study architecture. Experience the architecture and environments of other cultures for inspiration about the subject.


In addition to course fees and living expenses, architecture students need to budget for field trip travel, printing and materials. Some architecture schools have bursaries that cover a portion of the costs involved in training.

A number of architecture practices will sponsor students. Many large firms where students spend their work experience part of their course will contribute towards student costs. This may be conditional on future employment offered by the company.

Which school should I apply to?

There are many choices of architecture schools within Britain’s leading universities. All schools of architecture are validated by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). The RIBA does not grade schools or provide a guide on which schools to apply for. Many schools have open days in which potential students can get a sense of whether a school suits them.

The website rates courses. In the North West of England, Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Liverpool are both rated highly. Other notable courses are at the University of Central Lancashire, Salford University and Manchester Metropolitan University.

The alternative routes

The five years’ study and two years’ work experience is the standard route to becoming an architect, but there are alternatives. For people working in an architectural firm, the academic stages can be done through distance learning.


There are part-time study options available for people to learn architecture whilst also working. It will take longer to qualify on a part-time course.

If someone has qualified to be an architect outside of Britain, then their qualification will need to be assessed by the RIBA in order to practice in Britain. Overseas students who have studied but not completed their architecture training may be eligible to start on the second part of the architectural training.

What happens on an architecture course?

An essential element of the architecture course is the ‘crits’. Students create designs then must put forward an argument to support the ideas behind the design. These ideas will be challenged by tutors, fellow students or visiting experts. Students need to deal with harsh criticism and be able to defend their ideas with clarity and eloquence. An architecture course is an opportunity for students to experiment with design ideas.

One of the reasons for the five-year study length is the large range of subjects that students study. Architecture is much more than simply designing a building. The theory and history of architecture is covered, as well as design and engineering. Knowledge of building materials is needed. Politics is introduced too, as buildings are subject to political ideas and influences.

Architecture students need to learn about environmental systems and how heat, water and electricity are distributed in a building, as well as how air quality and lighting is utilised.

A building project involves many people, so students need to learn how to collaborate with others.

There are legal issues to know concerning matters like building codes, contract law, environmental regulations and preservation laws. Financial issues need to be understood too, because a great design will be rejected by a client if it cannot be built for a prescribed budget,

What jobs can graduates do?

The newly qualified architect has gone through a long, thorough training and has gained a wide range of skills, be they creative, visual, technical or design-based.

Many recently qualified architects will want to work for an established company. Often, the firm where a student gained work experience will offer the new architect a job.

It is possible for an architect to work on their own as a self-employed architect, though it is hard work to gain a reputation that brings in enough work.

A low degree grade does not prevent a successful architecture career. Building skills and a solid work portfolio as you work in an architect firm can result in rapid promotion. Many famous international architects did not do well at architecture school.

Some newly qualified architects choose other building related careers. After doing the three-year undergraduate architecture degree course, many decide not to spend another four years to become a qualified architect. An architecture degree can be the entry qualification for a number of careers, and a graduate may decide to take further vocation-related qualifications.

Some architects are drawn to becoming an interior or spatial designer who is responsible only for the interior of a building. This requires a high degree of design skills, but also knowledge of the most efficient way to use interior space. An interior designer can work on office, retail, leisure or residential spaces. An interior designer may not be involved in buildings at all, since shipbuilders and aircraft manufacturers require interior designers.

Architectural technologists take an architect’s design, and using knowledge of construction, make sure that the building will perform successfully.

Housing managers supervise housing estates operated by either local authorities or housing associations.

If you have an interest in conservation, then landscape architecture could be an attractive career. Landscape architects design environments for wildlife and create sustainable infrastructures for humans.

Architects after working for a number of years may pass on their knowledge by becoming teachers in architecture schools.

Architectural training can be a route into working in town planning, and historic building inspectors and conservation officers are responsible for the conservation of historic buildings. An architecture degree is a recognised qualification for people wanting a career in conservation.

The theatre, film and televisions industries employ production designers who are responsible for the visual look of a production. Production designers manage set design, locations, props, lighting and costumes. A large scale production will have a team of people working under the leadership of a production designer. An architecture degree can be used as an entry qualification to work in production design. It usually takes many years of working within a production design team before you can become a production designer.

What do architects earn?

Architecture is a great vocation. If you are creative, with a passion for the design of buildings, then it could be the career for you. Architects can, after all, affect people’s lives for the better.

Architects are paid a reasonable salary. The average pay of a recently qualified architect is £35K, while an experienced project architect earns around £42K. The project director will be on a salary of about £65K and a director of an architecture firm will earn £85K. These are average salaries, with many earning considerably more.

Self-employed architects should expect to earn around £30K a year, but many top self-employed architects working on large projects will earn a lot more.


The future

Many architects work on innovative and creative projects when training, but the reality of the first job as an architect may be a lot less creative. A newly qualified architect could find themselves designing toilet partitions or something similarly mundane.

Fortunately, the public’s perception of architecture has changed to the extent where unusual and groundbreaking designs are widely accepted. An ambitious new architect, after a few years’ hard work, could find his or herself working on innovative and creative designs that change lives.

With the threat of global warming, the building industry is developing new technologies to conserve energy and build sustainable structures, and this will open new opportunities for creative architects to design environmentally friendly buildings. To cater for this trend, the Centre for Alternative Technology runs a postgraduate degree course in sustainable architecture in Machynlleth, Powys in Wales.

The architect’s role is evolving as new construction techniques arise. Architects can work on a wide variety of projects from small scale housing conversions, to large retail and commercial complexes.

Training to be an architect is long and expensive, but can lead to a fulfilling and long career for people passionate about building design.

Posted by Mark
May 23, 2016

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