How to Become a Lead Architect: Career Guide

Learn how to become a lead architect. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements, and find out how to start a career in architecture.

Should I Become a Lead Architect?

Lead architects are upper-level building professionals who head design projects for public and private buildings, including homes, commercial sites and industrial structures. Their duties may include meeting with clients to discuss budgeting, structural specifications and contracts. Lead architects also draw up building plans, incorporating systems for electricity, climate-control, plumbing, ventilation and communications, and they may supervise other architectural, engineering and construction professionals.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Professional bachelor's degree (required), master's degree, and doctorates
Degree Field Architecture
Licensure and Certification All states require licensing; optional certification is offered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards
Experience Varies widely; employers require or prefer at least 7-15 years of architectural experience
Key Skills Creativity, ability to think analytically and make decisions, knowledge of zoning regulations and building codes, engineering science expertise, strong math skills, advanced computer skill with computer-aided design software, project management and graphics
Salary $74,520 (median annual salary for architects, 2014)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Institute of Architects job board listings, O*Net OnLine.

Step 1: Earn a Professional Degree in Architecture

Lead architects typically must hold professional degrees in architecture from schools accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB). The most common educational path is a 5-year Bachelor of Architecture degree program, which is designed for students without prior training in architecture. Another option is earning a Master of Architecture degree. Students may take 1-5 years to finish a master's degree program, but this varies with the amount of their prior architectural education. Doctor of Architecture programs also are available.

Step 2: Complete an Internship

Graduates of architecture programs must complete an internship, which typically lasts a minimum of three years. State architectural registration boards mandate serving an internship under the supervision of a licensed architect as a precursor to taking the licensing test. Internships are usually served at architectural companies, but some internship training might also take place at engineering firms or general contracting businesses. Some of the time spent during college internships may satisfy part of the internship training requirement.

The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) runs an internship program with standards that are used by most state registration boards. NCARB requires that interns gain a total of 5,600 hours of experience in project management, practice management, pre-design and design.

Step 3: Take the Architect Registration Examination

Licensing boards in all states require that aspiring architects pass the Architect Registration Examination (ARE), which gauges whether the applicant possesses the building design and project planning skills to work as an architect. The test's seven sections have no set order for completion, and testing centers across the United States offer the computerized exam. To be eligible to take the ARE, applicants must meet the standards established by their state's licensing board.

Success Tip:

  • Use study materials to prepare for the ARE. Individuals may download free guidelines, test guides and practice programs from the NCARB. These downloads can provide aspiring architects with information about the testing process, sample questions and study suggestions.

Step 4: Get Licensed and Begin Working

Every state requires licensing for architects. After earning a professional degree, completing an internship and passing the ARE, prospective architects become eligible for a state license. Licensing requirements depend upon the individual state.

After becoming licensed, architects may find entry-level employment with architectural or engineering firms. Due to the increasing amount of architecture students, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects keen competition in the job market, particularly for positions with prominent firms. For this reason, new architects may benefit from starting out at smaller, less prestigious firms and working their way up to more desirable positions by showcasing their creativity and design skills. Individuals may have to work in the field for years before advancing to lead architect status; job listings show that employers often require lead architects to have a minimum of seven years of experience.

Success Tip:

  • Fulfill continuing education requirements. In the majority of jurisdictions, licensed architects must meet continuing education standards throughout their careers to maintain licensure. Such continuing education may be in the form of workshops, conferences, college courses and approved self-study. The BLS reports that employers often pay continuing education costs for architects.

Step 5: Consider Obtaining Certification

Many architects obtain optional certification from the NCARB. The BLS reported that NCARB certification was held by about 33% of all licensed architects as of 2011. To be eligible for certification, candidates typically must have received a professional degree from an architecture program accredited by the NAAB, finished internship training, passed the ARE and obtained a license. The NCARB also offers certification programs for American architects without a professional degree from a NAAB-accredited school and for foreign architects.

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