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How to Start an Architecture Firm

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Architecture is a rewarding profession, but after at least five years of specialized schooling, three years of internships and passing a challenging licensing exam, a newly licensed architect may find that attracting enough clients to open even a one-man firm and stay in business may be a challenge. The sharply lowered costs of setting up shop in the digital age have only worsened the problem by increasing competition for business.

Educational Preparation

In the U.S., you cannot practice architecture before you are licensed by the National Architectural Accrediting Board. The licensing process has three phases: the NAAB's consideration of your educational preparation for the practice of architecture; its consideration of your architectural internship experience; and your passing the Architectural Registration Exam administered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. All three requirements are relatively stringent. Fulfilling the educational requirement normally requires obtaining either a master or bachelor of architecture degree. You must then become a paid intern at a licensed architectural firm, usually for a minimum of three years. The licensing exam is relatively tough: The nationwide pass rate averages about 65 percent.

Architecture Without a Degree

You can design buildings without an architectural degree. Louis Sullivan, Corbusier and Luis Barrigan, three of the 20th century's most distinguished architects, were largely self-taught. Nevertheless, one way or the other, you have to become a competent architectural designer. You could begin by working as a draftsman in a residential architecture firm. After acquiring the necessary architectural knowledge and skills through study and your job experience, you could then work for yourself or for someone else as a residential designer. Note that although you are designing buildings, you cannot call yourself an architect until you are licensed. Once you have at least 10 years of design experience, the NAAB will consider your request to take the licensing exam without obtaining an architectural degree. For most aspiring U.S. architects, getting the qualifying degree is an easier path to the required license, but if you've already worked years in the field, the board does provide an alternative.

The One-Man Shop

In some ways, the digitization of the architectural office in the 21st century has made starting a one-man shop easier than ever. Jared Banks, a practicing architect who also writes about the profession and business of architecture, estimates that with a cellphone, a printer, about $2,500 to $3,000 for a fast laptop and $5,000 to $6,000 for a good architectural program, such as ArchiCAD, Revit or Vectorworks, you're ready to open shop.

You Knew There Might Be a Catch

The problem for architects starting their own business is getting clients. The sharply lower startup costs have worsened that problem, because it's not only easier and cheaper for you to set up your own shop than it was 25 or 30 years ago, it's also easier and cheaper for everyone else. A 2002 series in "Architectural Record" makes clear that even in 2002 the biggest challenge for beginning architects was getting clients. In this environment, some young architects have adopted unorthodox ways of beginning their businesses. Darren Joyce, a San Francisco architect, accepted a job as a construction foreman on a residential project before he had any commissions. The owner of the house, impressed by Joyce's ideas, hired him to design a rental house. That led to other commissions from the owner's friends, and soon Joyce had a clientele, a reputation and a track record. Other beginning architects have borrowed money to build inexpensive and innovative houses for resale, eventually making a profit and demonstrating in the process that they were both creative and capable.

2016 Salary Information for Architects

Architects earned a median annual salary of $76,930 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, architects earned a 25th percentile salary of $59,000, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $99,790, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 128,800 people were employed in the U.S. as architects.