What does an architect do? It’s more than designing buildings.

Architect is one of those words, like curator, that is often applied outside the profession where it originated. Does it matter? Yes. Professionals able to use the title architect have completed specific training, a rigorous licensure process, and meet ongoing professional development requirements. Why? Because their mission is to ensure the design of our built environment is safe for everyone who occupies it.

What do architects do?
Architects design buildings of course. But more than that, they solve problems in the built environment.

“Architects meet with a client and interpret their vision, developing a design,” says Ali Hubbard, Associate AIA, with the Huseman Group and on the board of the Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati. “That design is refined as the architect drills into the details then communicated through construction documents to the contractors. Finally, an architect ensures that the structure being built meets not only the code requirements but also the intent of the client’s vision.”

Imagine you want to build a house. It needs to have three bedrooms, a home office, and an in-law suite for grandma, plus a kitchen, bathrooms, and living spaces. There are hundreds of ways to arrange those spaces. In theory, you could stack each room on top of the other or you could spread them all out and build to the allowable edges of your lot. Architects understand the zoning code (what is allowed to be built where), building code (what is required for a safe structure), and the context of the site (the topography and how the surrounding buildings interact). They take that information to develop a solution that meets the client’s needs.

“There’s a stereotype that architecture is only about math and technical drawing,” says John Weigand, AIA, Associate Dean at Miami University Department of Architecture + Interior Design. “While those subjects are important, we want smart, creative, flexible, problem solvers, and critical thinkers.  In design, there is not one right answer, there are many right answers.”

If architecture schools aren’t recruiting math geniuses or the next Rembrandt, how does someone become an architect?

Learning to look
“Young people are already involved in architecture,” says Edward Mitchell, AIA, Director of the University of Cincinnati School of Architecture and Interior Design. “You’re always in architecture — at home, school, or work, and even often outside — but you’re not conscious of it most of the time. You’re not thinking who designed it, why it looks the way it does, how it was built, or the context.”
University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning
We are all shaped by the places we inhabit, whether we realize it or not. Children seem to grasp this intuitively, perhaps because most spaces where children spend their time — their homes and schools — are designed to fit the adults who share them. Is it any wonder then that children often gravitate toward toys and games that let them build their own worlds like doll houses, Legos, blocks, and Minecraft?

Not every kid who plays with Legos will become an architect, but introducing children and young adults to the profession has benefits no matter what career path they choose.

“There is power in introducing architecture to kids at a young age,” says Angela King, AIA, with the City of Cincinnati and board president of the Cincinnati Architectural Mentoring Program (C.A.M.P.). “They can see how their lives are shaped by architecture. Architectural programs give them language about the built environment and the value of design. They get a broad understanding of why architecture is important and the role the built environment plays in all our lives.”

Encourage children to consider their relationship to architecture by showing them different types of spaces and architectural styles, and encouraging them to think about how those places make them feel to create awareness of the built environment. In addition to these casual interactions, our region is fortunate to have several formal programs to introduce youth to architecture as a subject and profession.

Design LAB (Learn and Build)
The Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati’s Design LAB goes into kindergarten through eighth-grade classrooms for a 17-week program led by architects and designers. Participating classes are introduced to architectural concepts, then students design and build a model for a specific client that responds to the needs of a theme — the 2022 program is focusing on learning spaces. At the end of the semester, the models are brought together for a public exhibit where students present their solutions.

“Design LAB is this refreshing insertion into their curriculum,” says Hubbard.

“Design LAB leads you to the ability to problem solve and think critically. It teaches a lot about soft skills like communication and compromise. You can see the leaders emerge in the student groups: the kid who sells their idea to the team and convinces them it’s the path forward then negotiates who does what work on the project. There’s a level of collaboration in Design LAB that kids figure out, which is so necessary for life in general.”

Cincinnati Architectural Mentoring Program (C.A.M.P.)
Established in 2005, the Cincinnati Architectural Mentoring Program (C.A.M.P.) was developed to encourage minority middle school students to explore architecture. Instructors from DAAP work with students for a week on a real-world project while introducing kids to architectural history, vocabulary, and drawing.

“Many in the profession have a family member who was an architect, but I didn’t meet an architect until college,” says King. “I didn’t see myself represented in the field, and representation is important, specifically when designing for communities. Without a diverse group of people at the table, your voice isn’t heard. C.A.M.P. and National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) Project Pipeline help students connect and see themselves here. Through mentorship we stay connected with kids so they’re prepared and feel supported to enter an architecture program.”

University Summer Programs
The University of Cincinnati’s Department of Art, Architecture, and Planning (DAAP) Camp offers an intensive on-campus experience for high school students with a day-camp or residential option. Miami University’s Summer Scholars Program offers a week-long program for rising high school juniors and seniors to deeply explore an academic topic through experiential learning.

I want to be an architect!
“One reason I got into architecture is that it’s a broad field and I was interested in a lot of things,” says Mitchell. “Math, geography, structures, material science, history, writing, politics, economics, working with other people — all those things feed into architecture.”

“If someone is interested in the environment and sustainability there’s a role for them in architecture,” says Hubbard. “If you’re passionate about history and where we came from, architecture involves historic preservation. If you’re focused on the future, architecture is looking at new building technologies. Architecture is a means of responding to the economic, social, and environmental pressures we’re facing today.”

Admission into an undergraduate architecture program is usually a two-step process. First, admission to the college or university then admission into the architecture program. While the first consists of an application essay, GPA, and standardized test scores, the latter is typically based on a portfolio.

“Architecture is not just about book smarts, it’s a creative profession,” says Weigand. “A portfolio should show creative thinking and creative problem solving. We want to see how a student thinks.”

A portfolio consists of 10-20 images and brief descriptions (submitted digitally) that show a student’s technical skills, experience, and design voice. A sewing project might demonstrate an ability to create a 3D form. The ubiquity of iPhones means even a student who never set foot in a high school art studio can capture images of the lighting, textures, and compositions that speak to them. Drawings, paintings, set design, costumes, comic strips, graphic design, and choreography also demonstrate the student’s thinking and sensibilities. Design LAB or C.A.M.P. program participants can use those final projects as portfolio material.

“There are so many lanes in architecture — from technical to creative — kids can find their own lane,” says King. “College is the only time to develop your creative skills and think abstractly about architecture. The technical stuff you learn hands-on in the field. Academia is your playground for exploring creativity and developing your voice.”

Students, and their parents, should also be aware of accreditation for architecture programs. To qualify for licensure, you must graduate from a National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) accredited program. This could be a five year B.arch undergraduate program or a combination of a BA or BS in architecture (or another major) followed by an M.arch graduate degree.

Architecture is a highly regulated profession, starting with college programs. The buildings designed by registered architects must be safe. The college courses, practical experience, and licensure exams ensure architects have the training essential to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the people who will occupy their buildings.

College architecture programs are hands-on. In addition to institutional requirements, students may take architectural history, landscape, and urban design. They also get practical experience learning to use shop tools and through studio classes that get increasingly complex each year. Some programs also require co-ops where a student works in an architecture firm for a semester.

“Architecture is really different than other programs,” says Weigand. “It’s a broad based, integrative degree where you’re not being lectured at all the time. Instead, it’s a highly engaged, project-based learning.”

Graduates from a NAAB accredited architecture program must complete a professional internship of several years working under the supervision of a registered architect. Once they have amassed enough experience, they can sit for the Architectural Registration Examination (ARE), a series of six tests, and become licensed. Only then can they call themselves an architect. Most states require ongoing continuing education as part of the annual license renewal process.

The value of an architectural education
Architecture is a challenging career to pursue. Given the public trust that the buildings where we live, work, and play won’t collapse while we’re inside them, that rigorous education, training, and testing, is essential.

In the United States, there are only 121,997 licensed architects. For comparison there are 1.3 million lawyers and almost a million doctors. Although each year 6,000 students graduate from NAAB accredited programs, not all pursue a career in the field and even fewer get licensed. However, the skills learned in architecture programs — from kindergarten through college — of problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, and perhaps most importantly, how the built environment shapes our lives, are valuable in any career and as an engaged citizen.

“Not everyone can be an architect, but everyone can appreciate architecture and occasionally pay attention to it,” says Mitchell. “Slow your eye down and see what matters.”

Try it yourself. Look at the buildings — and the spaces between them — near your home, office, school, or playground. Consider the following:
  • How do buildings and spaces relate to each other?
  • How are color, texture, light, materials, and shape used?
  • How were they built?
  • What about ornament: are the buildings decorated or plain?
  • Is there a rhythm or pattern?
  • What attracts your attention?
  • Is there a variety of building types, styles, or sizes on your block?
  • How do you feel when you look at the building and when you’re inside?
  • What does the building say about the people who built it?
  • How are our cultural values expressed in the design?
Look. And keep looking.

The series, Architecture Matters, is supported by AIA Cincinnati. Learn more at aiacincinnati.org. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the American Institute of Architects or the members of AIA Cincinnati.
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Read more articles by Julie Carpenter.

Julie Carpenter has a background in cultural heritage tourism, museums, and nonprofit organizations. She's the Executive Director of AIA Cincinnati.