Becoming an architect is a little like building a skyscraper — it involves a lot of steps. This article will explain the general process of becoming an architect in the United States. If you are hoping to become licensed in a particular U.S. state or territory, then you’ll want to follow up this article with the relevant entry from our “How to Become an Architect in …” series for more specific details about the process you’ll have to complete.
Becoming an architect in the U.S. is a long process — taking an average of 13 years, including specialized education, years of experience, and an extensive professional examination — but the exact steps can vary significantly based on where in the U.S. one is seeking licensure. This is because the architectural profession in the U.S. is regulated independently by each state, meaning that each jurisdiction (including states, territories and the District of Columbia) has the authority to grant architectural licenses based on any criteria they see fit.
However, the licensure boards of all 55 jurisdictions participate in the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) — a national organization, which establishes standards for licensure that each board voluntarily adopts or modifies in setting their own requirements. By understanding the standards established by NCARB, we can gain a general understanding of the requirements one must meet to become an architect in the United States.
NCARB’s standards establish three key components to qualify for licensure:
Below, we will summarize NCARB’s standards for each of the three key components and provide links to their guidelines for more detailed information.
The first key component of architectural licensure that NCARB identifies is education, which is intended to ensure that licensure candidates have the foundational knowledge that’s required to fulfill the responsibilities of a licensed architect.
In most jurisdictions, the education requirement is satisfied primarily by completion of a professional degree from a program accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB).
For individuals who are educated outside of the U.S., many jurisdictions will alternatively accept a degree from either a program accredited by the Canadian Architectural Certification Board (CACB) or any program deemed substantially equivalent to a NAAB accredited professional program to satisfy their educational requirement.
NCARB also maintains the “NCARB Education Standard”, which roughly describes the components of a professional degree from a NAAB accredited degree program. This may be helpful as a guideline to understand what is generally included in the education component of the path to licensure. However, not all NAAB accredited programs will follow it exactly, nor would all programs matching that description necessarily be considered substantially equivalent to one that is NAAB accredited.
For more information about typical education requirements and standards for architectural licensure, you can check out the following resources:
- NCARB Education Guidelines
- Accredited Programs (naab.org)
- Education Evaluation Services for Architects (EESA) (naab.org)
The second key component of architectural licensure is experience. To satisfy this requirement, licensure candidates must spend time engaged with the practice of architecture or related tasks in order to learn how to fulfill the responsibilities of a licensed architect through first hand experience.
The gold standard for the experience requirement is NCARB’s Architectural Experience Program (AXP). The AXP requires licensure candidates to log a minimum of 3,740 total hours of experience divided into the following six experience areas:
- Practice Management (160 hours)
- Project Management (360 hours)
- Programming & Analysis (260 Hours)
- Project Planning & Design (1,080 Hours)
- Project Development & Documentation (1,520 hours)
- Construction & Evaluation (360 hours)
For each of those experience areas, NCARB identifies a handful of specific tasks that candidates should know how to perform once they’ve completed the AXP, and those tasks can also be used as a guideline to understand what types of work should be counted toward each of the six experience areas.
For more detailed information about the Architectural Experience Program, you can check out NCARB’s AXP Guidelines (ncarb.org). For tips on how to complete the AXP as quickly as possible, you can read our “How Long Does It Take To Finish NCARB AXP Hours” article.
The third and final key component of licensure is examination. In order to become licensed, a licensure candidate must complete an examination to demonstrate that they possess the knowledge and competencies required to fulfill the responsibilities of a licensed architect, and all 55 jurisdictions use NCARB’s Architectural Registration Examination (ARE) as the primary method of satisfying that requirement.
The ARE has gone through many iterations in the past, with the current version being the ARE 5.0. This version is divided into six divisions, which are designed to focus on different aspects of the practice of architecture:
- Practice Management
- Project Management
- Programming & Analysis
- Project Planning & Design
- Project Development & Documentation
- Construction & Evaluation
In order to pass the ARE 5.0 and complete the examination component of the licensure process, a licensure candidate must successfully pass all six divisions of the exam within a five-year period. You can find more detailed information about each of the exam divisions–including the format, specific content and learning objectives covered in each one–by checking out NCARB’s Architect Registration Examination 5.0 Guidelines (ncarb.org).
Ultimately, while the architectural licensure requirements in the U.S. vary from one jurisdiction to the next, NCARB sets national standards that can be used to understand the most common requirements. If you’re interested in pursuing licensure in a particular jurisdiction, then you should also read the appropriate article from our “How to Become an Architect in…” series to learn where your licensure requirements will vary from NCARB’s standards described here.