How to Become an Architect & Designer in California

Books of architecture at the office of Paul Halajian Architects
Author: Adriana & Shaunt

If you are passionate about design, have an appreciation for detail, and like to look at obstacles from every angle, you might have a future as an architect. Architecture is the design of things that make up the built environment around us. Learning how to become an architect requires an interest in—design—how things look, how things are made and how things can be used. Creating a building that is unique and conveys emotion, all the while solving problems, is the most gratifying feeling for architects.

Architecture is design. However, design can also apply to many other fields, including fashion design, industrial design, interior design, and furniture design. October (or as architects like to call it, Archtober) is National Design Month, so we’re sharing a helpful guide on how to best pursue a career in architecture and design in California.

Books of architecture at the office of Paul Halajian Architects

What Architects and Designers Do

Architecture can be viewed through the lens of creative problem solving—in some moments, an architect is immersed in physics and mathematics, while other moments are spent in abstract thought. Architects pursue the creation of buildings or spaces that serve people and processes. This is the iterative and creative process of design.

While clients may not have a vision of what a structure will look like, they often know how they need a space to function. These needs become the “program” of the building, which guide the designer through every decision in the architectural design process.

The architectural process takes these knowns and develops a design that pays close attention to:

  1. The context – the environment, site, and setting
  2. The quality – for example, how a space will feel and sound, and what feeling a texture will evoke

Architects think quantitatively and qualitatively, striving to see a project through the lens of the people for whom the design will serve. In the end, the goal is that their collection of ideas will lead to a cohesive and useful design that provides a positive impact on the lives of those who experience the end product.

Five Things to Know About Being an Architect

  1. Each Line Truly Matters.

As an architect, you have the ability to make an impact in someone’s life. You are changing someone’s life by creating a design unique to them.

By setting someone near a window, you’re giving them more comfort. By using a natural surface material, you are providing a bit more comfort for the client.

  1. A Jack of All Trades Is a Master of None, But Oftentimes Better Than a Master of One.

Architects wear many hats and learn something new on every project, always making their career interesting.

  1. Every Project is Unique.

The process may sometimes be repetitive, but the design solution is always unique to the needs, time, and location.

  1. Architecture Is a Living Thing.

Architecture is always changing and adapting to current society.

  1. You Will Meet Interesting People.

Relationships in architecture are abundant. Architects and designers are often working with people who know a lot about something and its incumbent on us to get to know them and understand how they work.

The Path to Becoming an Architect

There are many paths that can lead you to a future in architecture in California, with each one providing different experiences that will shape your design career. All the paths towards a license in Architecture can be broken down into three categories:

  • Education
  • Experience
  • Examination

Here is our recommended path to becoming a licensed architect in California, starting from high school.


How to Prepare to Be an Architect in High School

If you’re in high school and architecture in California seems like a possible career option, the following list is some of the classes and extracurricular activities you can take or join to start your path to becoming an architect.

  • Art classes
  • Wood shop classes
  • Drafting classes that teach hand drafting and AutoCAD
  • Clubs related to art, design, and building things

High school is a great time to start following architecture and design organizations and get exposure to the profession, including but not limited to:


Selecting and Attending a College to Become a Licensed Architect

Obtaining a Bachelor’s of Architecture or Masters of Architecture degree is the most direct path to start the licensure path to architecture in California.

Finding a college or architecture program that can lead you to an architecture license is an important step. While researching and applying, check if a college has an accredited architecture program with the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB). Colleges on this list are accepted by licensing boards in all 50 states.

In the Central Valley of California, these three institutions have pathways to help you transition into a NAAB accredited program and may be worth considering:

  • Fresno City College’s partnership with NewSchool of Architecture & Design (NAAB-accredited) lets you get a 2-year Architecture Associates of Science Degree from Fresno City College. You can then transfer to NewSchool for three more years to earn a Bachelors of Architecture (B.Arch) degree. This particular partnership grants transitional support and tuition reduction, but Fresno City College students are able to transfer to a multitude of architecture programs, including Fresno State’s program mentioned below.
  • The architecture program at College of the Sequoias also has a partnership with NewSchool of Architecture & Design (NAAB-accredited) that allows you to get a 2-year Associate of Science in Architecture degree and transfer to NewSchool for three more years to earn a Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch) degree, with transitional support and tuition reduction. Similarly, College of the Sequoias students are able to transfer to a multitude of accredited of institutions with the completion of their associate degree.
  • Fresno State recently started a pilot program for a Bachelor of Science in Architectural Studies. This four-year program prepares you for a two-year architecture master’s program at an accredited institution.

These are just a few of the partnerships established by institutions in the Central Valley, but students are encouraged to consult their architecture program advisors and refer to NAAB’s listings for accredited architecture programs nationwide!


What to do After High School to Become an Architect in California

  1. Attend an accredited five-year program to earn a Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch).
  2. Attend a four-year undergraduate program and an accredited two-year post-graduate program for a Master of Architecture (M.Arch).
  3. Attend a two-year community college, transfer to a four-year undergraduate program, then complete your two-year post-graduate architecture program.

While you’re in the architecture program, keep your eyes and ears open for internships at various architecture firms. Internships can offer great opportunities to get real-world exposure to the career.


The AXP Program – Working in the Profession with a Mentor

The Architecture Experience Program (AXP) is required for Architecture licensure and covers different experience tasks deemed necessary to practice architecture. These experience hours include 96 tasks related to the different areas tested in the ARE Exams and licensure candidates may start tracking them while in school through paid internships

It is important to find a mentor or a job in a firm that values mentorship. During this time, you have the opportunity to gain work experience that is valuable to your career learning.


ARE Exam – The Architecture Licensing Exams

The ARE exams, administered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), are needed for your licensure certification. There are six exams that cover different components of the profession, with an addition of a state-level test for California licensure. This requirement may vary in different states.


How Long Does It Take to Become an Architect?

It usually takes at least eight years from the start of college to become a fully licensed architect. This includes five to six years to get a B.Arch or M.Arch, along with two to three years of experience gaining enough experience to take the ARE Exam. However, the actual length differs from architect to architect.


Additional Guides

Here are some additional guides for students becoming an architect.

Skills Necessary to Be an Architect

Here are the four most important skills that aspiring architects need to learn as they go through the learning and licensure process.

  1. Curiosity – You should always be asking questions and be willing to learn about everything and everyone, whether it’s about design, construction, or clients. This will allow you to better understand a problem and have different perspectives to solve it.
  2. Creative Problem Solving – Creative problem solving allows you to think on your feet and look at many different options to solve a problem. This especially includes turning constraints into opportunities, which many times become the strongest points in a design
  3. Organization – The ability to be organized helps you adapt to multiple moving targets of a project.
  4. Collaboration – Knowing how to rely on and communicate with consultants and experts to provide the best perspectives as a project moves along helps deliver a strong, cohesive project

What Architect Tools Are Used

  • Visualization tools – Tools such as sketching, physical modeling, 3D modeling, and material samples allow you to convey your ideas to everyone else, allowing you to have efficient conversations with the clients, consultants, and builders to elevate your design.
  • Technical tools – Tools such as Revit, AutoCAD, Rhino, and Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator help you present and document your design ideas effectively.

What Are Some Resources for Aspiring Designers and Architects?

No matter where you are located, one of the most basic but effective ways to improve your creativity is to step out and look at the buildings around you—wherever you are! Note how your local architecture makes you feel.

Additionally, there are many local resources aspiring architects and designers can turn to for more inspiration.


1. Research and Explore Local Historic Architecture

Check out your local architecture through the National Register of Historic Places, or sites on a local level like Historic Fresno. You can also visit a local organization:


2. Frequent your Local Art Scene

Many cities have a local art scene that regularly displays current exhibits; locally we have monthly Art Hops in Fresno. You can find programs and exhibits through:


3. Join Local Chapters of Professional Architecture Organizations

Join organizations such as the American Institute of Architects, with our local chapters being AIA San Joaquin, AIA Golden Empire and Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) Fresno.


4. Follow or Talk with Local Architecture Professors or Other Academics

Follow professors in architecture programs such as Fresno City College, Fresno State, and COS—they would be the most involved in the local architecture scene.


5. Take & Participate in any High School Technical Education Courses

High Schools may offer career technical education/ROP courses such as Construction Technology, Construction Management, Building Trades, Art & Design like Fresno Unified’s ROP program or Clovis Unified’s CART programs.


6. Take Advantage of Local Workshops

Local woodshops or makerspaces, like Fresno Ideaworks’ workshops, can help you start creating your own designs.

Architect Shaunt Yemenjian and Designer Adriana Duarte-Dionicio discuss how to become an architect

At PHA, each of our architects and designers have traveled their own unique paths—our staff represents graduates from over twelve different universities. Meet our team!