Architectural Specializations and Career Paths: A Comprehensive Guide
Architecture is a varied field. The types of projects that an architect designs can include a wide range of buildings and structures, from private homes to industrial facilities to public spaces like parks and other outdoor areas. For students of architecture, deciding what specialization you want to focus on is an important first step to finding the right role that will further your career progress.
The first few steps to starting an architecture career are the same regardless of specialization. It starts with earning an architecture degree and passing the Architect Registration Examination (ARE) in order to gain licensure. It can still be helpful for students to know what specialization they want to focus on, however, allowing them to tailor their classes and learning to the types of jobs they want to work on. Graduates from architecture programs can also use this knowledge to choose the right internship and hands-on experience, or to choose additional certifications that will have the most impact on their success as candidates.
Wherever you are currently along your architecture career path, understanding the different specializations in the industry can help you find the one that best aligns with your interest and passion. In this article, you’ll get a brief overview of the major architecture specializations and the typical career path for each.
A commercial architect designs and oversees construction projects of spaces that are used by businesses. This includes properties like office buildings and government buildings, as well as retail spaces like stores and malls. These are also the professionals called in to design healthcare facilities like hospitals and clinics, or buildings for the hospitality, leisure, and entertainment industry, such as hotels, resorts, museums, or concert venues.
Because they design buildings to be used by the general public, commercial architects center functionality and accommodation in their designs. The goal is to create spaces that are inviting and easy for people from all walks of life to navigate and use. The creativity and aesthetic appeal of the space are still important, too, but need to be balanced against more practical elements, like public building regulations that ensure a high volume of people can use the space safely and efficiently.
Typical career paths for commercial architects
Commercial architects work on large projects, and this often means that clients hire an architecture firm rather than an individual to oversee it. Getting an internship with a firm focused on commercial construction is a common first step. Many architecture schools offer Master’s degrees specifically designed for commercial architecture. Earning one can be a smart move to jump start career progress, giving students additional training in concepts like business expertise and building code regulations that are necessary to design and build commercial structures. There are also ongoing education options from professional organizations that can similarly fill in any gaps in your knowledge.
Once someone is finished with college and has passed their exams, they become a licensed architect. From that point, career advancement is typically gained through experience. As an architect builds their portfolio of successful projects, they can move up into roles like Senior Architect, Project Manager, and other leadership positions within an architecture team.
Industrial architects also design places for commercial use. The main difference is that this specialization focuses on business-only spaces, such as warehouses, factories, refineries, transportation centers, and manufacturing facilities. Like commercial architects, a successful industrial architect needs to have expertise in building codes and regulations. Their goal is to develop a building design that workers can navigate efficiently and safely while going about their day-to-day tasks.
Aesthetics are usually less of a concern for industrial architects than other specializations. How the structure looks is often one of the least important details for clients. Instead, design aspects like efficiency, safety, and accessibility are more pressing concerns. An ideal industrial space is one where employees can use the equipment easily and have the right work environment.
The typical dimensions of an industrial space are larger than other types of architecture. Whether it’s a space for making products or storing them, they typically have a fairly open layout with high ceilings and bright lighting. An industrial building project often also requires features like cargo elevators, loading bays, and similar things that serve a specific function for the business. To design an industrial space correctly requires knowledge of the industry, its typical equipment, and what building layouts best promote an efficient workflow. The design process often starts with research to gain understanding about these critical factors.
Industrial architect career paths
After completing their Bachelor’s degree in architecture, industrial architects are required to go through the Architectural Experience Program (AXP) to complete their education. This is a three-year internship under the supervision of a licensed architect in an active practice. Through the AXP, new architects get hands-on instruction in key aspects of the profession, including design, practice management, and project management. After completing the AXP, students can take the seven exams of the ARE and earn their license.
Many industrial architects also hold certifications in specific aspects of industrial design and construction. The most common include Certified Facility Manager (CFM), Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH), and Certified Construction Contract Administrator (CCCA). Having a certification on your resume can open up additional opportunities with architecture firms, construction companies, and other organizations that hire industrial architects.
Residential architects design the spaces where people live. This can range from a single-family house to planned communities to multi-story apartment buildings. Because of this variety, the size, scope, and nature of residential design projects also varies widely. In some cases, it will be a collaborative process with an individual homeowner who wants to create a custom residence designed to their exact specifications. Conversely, a housing development or apartment building may use skills and principles similar to commercial design, aiming to make the space appealing and functional for the broader population rather than based on the ideas of a single individual.
While the projects vary, residential architects typically work with individuals as clients, whether that’s the person who will live in the home or the real estate developer overseeing the project. Along with developing the blueprints and plans in accordance with the client’s requirements, a residential architect’s responsibilities may include estimating the budget and timeline of the project, choosing the right building materials, or securing and overseeing the contractors who will bring the blueprints to life.
Building a career as a residential architect
In the early stages, a career as a residential architect starts the same way as the two paths outlined above. Students gain a Bachelor’s degree then complete an internship and earn their license. In residential architecture, many early-career professionals start out as a residential designer. Designers plan and design the interior of apartment buildings, houses, and other structures, estimate the total costs, and determine which materials are the best for the project.
From there, the career path of a residential architect can vary depending on their ultimate goals. Some people advance their career within an existing firm, moving into job titles like Project Manager or Director of Construction as they gain experience. Others start their own practice as an independent architect who works directly with clients, often homeowners or real estate developers, to design and construct projects.
Also called green architects, these individuals specialize in creating spaces that are energy efficient and make use of environmentally friendly materials. This could mean designing a sustainable space from scratch, or suggesting improvements to existing spaces that can increase their sustainability.
As concerns over climate change mount, sustainable architecture is becoming increasingly common in both residential and public spaces, including industrial facilities, offices, and community spaces like schools. Whatever type of location the architect is designing, the goals are the same: to maximize energy efficiency and reduce waste and pollution. This means understanding concepts like aerodynamics, the use of shade and sunlight, and insulation materials. Sustainable buildings may also use high-tech features like Building Information Modeling (BIM) to monitor and improve their energy efficiency.
Career paths of green and sustainable architects
In addition to the topics covered in an architecture degree program, green architects need to have additional expertise in areas like energy efficiency and sustainable materials. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program from the U.S. Green Building Council offers multiple levels of certification for green building professionals.
Green architects can work on any type of structures, and this creates a lot of potential career paths in this specialization. They may work for a firm that does residential or commercial construction, or work independently designing structures for clients. There are also niche roles in this sector, such as energy auditors who study buildings to identify efficiency improvements, or retrofit architects, who develop strategies to make existing structures more environmentally friendly.
Historic preservation, restoration, and conservation architecture
Where most architects focus on drafting and building new structures, a conservation architect is focused on preserving historic buildings and landmarks. Their goal is to recommend maintenance and repair options that will preserve the site’s original structure as much as possible.
Because of this, conservation architects often face unique challenges. A renovation project often starts with assessing the existing property’s structural integrity to determine if it needs additional support and the ways that can be provided with the least possible alterations. They’ll also often research the history of the property to determine what materials and techniques will be the best fit for the job. While restoration architects think about the past, that doesn’t mean they’re stuck there. They’ll frequently employ cutting-edge technology to inspect hidden or underground parts of the building as part of their planning process for renovations.
Typical career paths in historic preservation and restoration
Solving those unique challenges mentioned above often requires niche knowledge and skills that aren’t taught in a typical architecture degree program. Because of this, many architecture firms that offer restoration and preservation services look for additional certifications from candidates. Many universities with architecture programs offer Historic Preservation Certification (HPC), often in a fully-online format. The Restoration Industry Association also offers a Certified Restorer (CR) designation.
Along with architecture firms, restoration architects are often hired by government agencies, cultural institutions, and nonprofits focused on the preservation of history. They may also work for universities and research institutions as architecture historians, roles that often focus more on teaching and research than on the physical work of restoring buildings.
Urban design is a broad field that brings together a variety of professionals, including transportation engineers, surveyors, landscape architects, and city officials. An urban planner is the person who pulls all of that information together to design the infrastructure and layout of towns and cities. This can include everything from the layout of roads and bridges to the placement of public spaces like hospitals, universities, playgrounds, and stores.
In recent years, urban planners increasingly use sustainable design practices to create public spaces that are friendly to both people and the environment. While they may be called upon to lay out new communities or neighborhoods from scratch, it’s just as common for them to suggest improvements to existing spaces that make them more functional and comfortable for residents. Because these projects tend to have a very large scope, urban designers often work in larger teams, making effective communication a crucial skill for this specialization.
Career paths for urban planners or designers
There is a more defined career ladder for urban planners than other specializations on this list. The first rung is a role as a planning intern with a firm or government agency. Once an architect is licensed, they move into a role as a planning technician or assistant planner.
After getting 2-3 years of experience as a technician or assistant, a professional will typically move into mid-career roles like junior planner or Planner II. The career path culminates in positions such as Senior Planner, Planning Manager, Principle Planner, or Planning Director.
A landscape architect is focused on the design of exterior spaces. This could be a small-scale space like a residential backyard, or the design of public land like parks, golf courses, and playgrounds. These professionals apply architecture methods to natural environments, utilizing trees and gardens in conjunction with construction like decks, walkways, and pavilions.
Because they work with plants as well as buildings, many landscapers have expertise in horticulture as well as architecture. They also need to have awareness of things like the region’s typical weather conditions and what plants are native to the area Often, they’ll collaborate with other architects to ensure their landscape design is smoothly integrated with the buildings and enclosed spaces around them.
Common career paths for landscape architects
Like with residential architects, there are a plethora of career path options in landscape architecture. They may work within private sector architecture firms or as independent professionals designing and creating landscapes directly for clients. For this career path, individuals typically start out with an internship or entry-level role as a landscape designer within a firm, then advance into a role as a full landscape architect, and perhaps even into senior positions like Project Manager or Director of Landscaping, as they gain experience.
There are also public sector opportunities with federal agencies like the National Park Service, the Soil Conservation Service, the U.S. Forest Service, or the Bureau of Land Management. Job titles in this career path can include Parks Planner, Horticulture Manager, or Parks and Recreation Director.
Interior architects are similar to interior designers in that they focus on the spaces inside existing buildings rather than designing and constructing new ones. An interior architect’s work is a bit broader in scope, however. Instead of solely choosing the decor and furnishings, they also help to design or refine the interior layout, aiming to create spaces that are comfortable and intuitive.
Interior architects may be called upon to create the interior design of a newly constructed structure. Often, though, they work on buildings that already exist, focusing on adaptive reuse of spaces or changes to streamline the layout or integrate sustainable design practices. Like other architects, their work starts with sketches and drawings to show their concept. They’ll often stay involved throughout the design process, collaborating with other professionals like construction managers, lighting specialists, and structural engineering experts to bring their blueprint to life and transform the interior of project sites.
Interior architect career paths
Not all states require interior designers to be licensed, so where you live could have an impact on the steps in this career path. It still typically starts with earning a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree. From there, an internship with a design firm can provide the hands-on experience and professional connections that serve as the foundation of your career.
There are several niches within interior architecture. As professionals gain experience, they’ll often focus on a specific area, such as residential design, commercial design, corporate design, kitchen and bath design, lighting design, sustainable design, or exhibition design. This may mean gaining some additional certifications in those areas of expertise. Professional organizations like the American Society of Interior Designers, the Interior Design Society, and the National Kitchen & Bath Association offer education resources and certificates to help professionals advance their careers.
Choosing your ideal architecture specialization
The variety of architecture specializations gives students in this field a lot of options. That said, it can also be a bit overwhelming for someone who is just starting in the industry. The good news is, you don’t need to niche down right away. Many of these specializations share the same core skill sets and basic education requirements.
If you’re not sure which specialization best aligns with your skills and interests, working in the field can be a great way to figure it out. Take an internship or role with a firm in the area you think will be the best fit to get a sense for its day-to-day job duties and the typical issues professionals in this field face. This kind of real-world experience is often the best context for choosing the right specialization and taking those crucial first steps along your chosen career path.