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Designing an Architecture Career: The Nuts & Bolts

For architects, getting your degree simply marks the beginning of a difficult journey of achieving the career and title of Architect. But many have crossed this path to come out better designers and project managers. Here’s a look with brand-spankin’-new architect, Adam Osterhoff, of Heartwood Architecture on what his experience getting licensed was all about - and how the field was different than he anticipated.

A proud Architect.
A proud Architect.

Becoming an Architect is a long, arduous process. When did you decide to get into this field?

There was definitely no one particular moment. It was more of a process. I was interested in architecture as a high school student and even interned with a firm in Providence, Rhode Island. That was a fun experience that led me to pursue a degree in Architecture at The University of Colorado at  Boulder. I had a mentor on the East Coast who encouraged me to get a job on a construction site. I think he wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting into because he told me that after a summer swinging a hammer on site in Colorado, I would probably choose a different major and find a different career path! It proved to be great advice but had quite the opposite effect. I had a blast building houses and was quickly taken under the wings of some great builders and carpenters. These summertime construction jobs were an ideal supplement to academic design studios.

After I graduated, I got a job at Design Network Associates working for Jim McCutcheon, the Architect that designed all the construction projects I worked on. Being part of a small firm and seeing both sides of the process really brought everything together for me and then, I was confident that this was an endeavor worth pursuing.

How did your time at the University of Colorado (CU) prepare you for your first professional design experience? How did it not?

I had some amazing professors and classmates at CU and I learned so much from all of them. But, like most professions, the knowledge learned and skills developed in the academic world provide only a foundation on to build a career. The curriculum of architecture school provided me with an education in subjects like history, theory, structure, systems, and materials. The design studios provided a place to weave those things together in a creative and expressive way to solve a problem.

Design is often just a problem-solving process. Although each project, site, and person is unique, a process can always be broken down into steps. The ability to approach complex problems in a methodical way using critical thinking and creativity is a lesson that immediately translated from academia to the real world.

"Design -- as it turns out -- is actually just a small part of the long process of getting a project built."

One thing I was not prepared for as I transitioned from the academic to the professional world was all the politics and personalities involved in taking a project from concept to reality. Getting a project built is an enormous effort that involves a huge group of people. It’s often the Architect’s responsibility to coordinate all the communication. That involves balancing personalities and egos, fostering relationships, and developing and instilling trust. The design actually turns out to be a small part of the long process of getting a project built.

Oh, and then there’s that whole business side you need to know about if you're interested in making a living.

What experience did you gain that gave you an extra leg up in your field?

Some of my most valuable experience was gained on the construction site. Especially the smaller jobs where I was on site participating in every phase of the project from demolition to the finished carpentry. Seeing how all of the trades are sequenced and what needs to be done -- and when -- to keep the project running smoothly. Clients appreciate hearing about the evolution of my career from education through experience, and I can see relief in the contractors’ eyes when I tell them I’ve paid my dues on site.

Heartwood Studio projects under construction.
Heartwood Studio projects under construction.
Heartwood Studio projects under construction.

Heartwood Studio projects under construction.

NCARB requires either a master’s degree or a whole lot of hours of professional work before you can apply to take your exams. How did you get your hours?

Now, you’re able to become eligible to take the exams earlier. But, when I was going through NCARB’s Internship Development Program, 3,740 experience hours were required in various practice-areas of the profession. I worked as a designer in a small residential firm, under the supervision of a licensed architect. At a small firm, it's often all-hands-on-deck, I was asked to do so many different tasks and played various roles on different projects that it wasn’t difficult to gain experience in all the practice areas. I ended up having nearly four years of professional experience before I sat for my first exam.

Adam's custom residential home project comes to life in Boulder, Colorado.
Adam's custom residential home project come to life in Boulder, Colorado. Photo by Dane Cronin.

Whoa, that’s quite a while to wait. Do you think it was helpful to have those working hours before testing began?

For me, absolutely. Mostly because it made me more confident that I wanted to pursue architecture as a career before I dedicated myself to what’s the most challenging and committing part of the process.  

SketchUp shows the full picture of Adam's project on a super steep lot in Colorado.
SketchUp shows the full picture of Adam's project on a super steep lot in Colorado.

In what ways were the actual exams surprising when you first began taking them?

For the first exam I sat for I was a little over-confident. I thought I could mostly rely on the knowledge I gained through my professional experience. The reality: I was seriously unprepared and out of practice with standardized testing strategies. The Architect Registration Exams (AREs) are about so much more than knowing the subject matter. Basic test-taking skills are vital.

I was also really surprised by the antiquated drafting software. Each exam I took had a vignette portion. The analogy I use when describing them to people is that they are like the big essay questions at the end of a test, except you have to solve them graphically, and to do that you have to use some software that no one should ever have to draft in. No SketchUp on the exams, unfortunately.

The Perks of being a licensed Architect: Designing a new patio for your favorite pub in Boulder, the Southern Sun!
The Perks of being a licensed Architect: Designing a new patio for your favorite pub in Boulder, the Southern Sun!
LayOut shows the details of a new patio at the local pub.
LayOut shows the details of a new patio at the local pub.

There’s a huge community of support and advice surrounding the licensing exams online. Where did you find the most useful information?

The ARE Coach forum was probably the most helpful for me. The wealth of information was invaluable, and the support community was just great. Sometimes you just need to know that there are other people putting themselves through the same grueling process as you -- failing, passing, all the while sharing those experiences and lessons.

There are also Facebook groups and local AIA support resources.

What assets could you have not passed these exams without?

Coffee and serious dedication. And friends and loved ones that kept me motivated and encouraged.

What was the most difficult exam for you? Why?

They were all challenging in their own way, but maybe Programming, Planning, and Practice (PPP) were the most difficult for me. It was the broadest in terms of content areas. Some exams focused on strengths I developed through real-world experiences, like Construction Documents and Services (CDS). Others were really technical, like Structural Systems. I had little experience with this area, but I found it interesting and almost enjoyable to study.

"I thought I could mostly rely on the knowledge I gained through my professional experience. Turns out, the AREs are about so much more than knowing the subject matter."
Hand sketches and 3D models
Working in all mediums is a clutch to having a well-rounded study session.

It is unheard of to pass all seven exams without a few failures. What did failed exams teach you about the process, and how did you shift your approach?

There are the myths and legends of those who pass them all in a matter of months, and I’m sure some of those stories are true. But, for most people, there are some stumbles along the way. I did not pass every exam on my first try. The ones I failed, it seemed like I usually defeated myself. I would overanalyze and think myself in circles rather than relying on my first instinct. The exams present plenty of opportunities to do that.

While studying for these exams, did you feel that you were learning things that would, in fact, benefit your career? In other words, did studying make you a better architect?

Absolutely. Similar to my internship, there were lessons along the journey. The exams are about so much more than their subject matter. They involve commitment, time management, focus, and process. Besides being an opportunity to deepen my knowledge of areas I did not have much direct experience in, the exams provided a chance to strengthen those soft skills that will benefit any professional architect in their career.

How did you balance working full time and studying?

Poorly, it felt like. I like to fill up my free time with travel, social fun, and relaxing with my family. So, it was difficult to balance life by siloing studying rather than equally balancing work and studying. But difficult things worth doing require sacrifice. I guess that’s another one of those hidden lessons.

The study grind: visualized.
The study grind: visualized.

In Colorado, you don’t legally have to be licensed to do quite a bit of architectural work. How has being licensed elevated your business as an independent Architect with Heartwood Architecture?

True, in Colorado you’re able to do residential projects of a certain size without a license. But, having an architectural license is absolutely important and beneficial. Just through the process of preparing and passing the exams and getting my license, I gained a wealth of knowledge that when combined with my depth of experience, makes me confident that I can provide the standard of care and quality of service that my clients deserve. I’m also able to take on larger projects and more varied project types, like commercial projects.

Achieving the architectural license is the culmination of the long process that, for me, started all the way back in high school. Now, it’s on to the next challenging process of pursuing a thriving career as an Architect.

What advice do you have for people who are getting ready to start taking their exams?

Make sure it’s something that you really want to do, and for the right reasons. Then, find the preparation process that works for you and stick with it. Whether it’s the time of day you like to study or if you like to use flashcards or any other aids. Just develop a strategy and stick to the process. Also, don’t be scared to invest in study materials. Spending $100 on a study guide is way better than having to pay to take a $200 exam twice.

Cheers to enjoying the fruits of your labor, Adam!
Cheers to enjoying the fruits of your labor, Adam!

Adam Osterhoff is an Architect living in Boulder, Colorado. He is the Principal of Heartwood Architecture, focusing on custom homes, remodels, and additions in the Denver Metro area.

About the Author

When she's not writing copy, analyzing numbers, or executing strategy, you'll find Michelle cooking from her garden in her 100 year-old cabin, logging alpine miles on ski and foot, or enjoying a craft beer and a burger.

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