Becoming an Architect

Invaluable advice from an architect whose journey might be just like yours

Michael LaValley Michael LaValley

Michael LaValley is a registered architect, a career strategist and the blogging entrepreneur behind Evolving Architect. His website acts as a guide to fellow professionals looking to improve in every aspect of architectural practice.

About this time last year, I was eagerly waiting for a very particular email. I would refresh my browser (to the point of borderline obsession), hoping for my inbox to be a little less empty. I had already passed six of my seven exams and desperately wanted to know that my own path to become a licensed architect had finally come to an end.

The Morning That Changed Everything

On one of the last warm mornings of Fall 2015, I woke up, turned straight away to my phone, as I had done so many times before, and quickly realized that NCARB had sent me the email I had been waiting for. A link directed me to their website where my account had been ‘updated.’ Gotta love NCARB for how much they love their automated emails.

I sifted through the login, the first few pages, and ended up at the only one that mattered — “My Examination.” If you’re unfamiliar with the My Examination page, the list of exams you’ve taken (complete with a Pass or Fail) appears after a moment for your review. Unfortunately, it loads a bit slower than the rest of the screen, not helping the anxious A.R.E. candidate’s nerves.

As you may be aware from other things I’ve written about, I failed my first exam on the first try. NCARB doesn’t wipe away that fact. I have to remind myself each and every time that the top of the list will always be a FAIL. But it didn’t matter. In that moment, somehow I knew this would be different. I knew something had changed.

I was right. I was done. ‘PASS’ never sounded so sweet.

Via Conquesta Construtora

One Year Later

Time really does fly. It doesn’t feel like much has changed, but one year later, I know in my bones that I am really an Architect. There is still so much for me to learn, but the way I learn it is now supported by the confidence that I completed a journey that few attempt and even fewer complete. In commemoration of that anniversary, I wanted to share a piece I wrote for AIA Buffalo/WNY as part of their 2016 Winter Newsletter:

Becoming an Architect

Even as I write this, the idea that I have crossed the finish line and emerged as an architect is surreal to say the least. As a kid, it was simple. I could gather small, colored blocks together and create fantastic sculptures, cars and buildings. I may have considered myself so at the time, but I was not an architect. Years later, my professional journey became more arduous and real. Like most high school juniors, I searched for an educational program that would lead me into a successful college experience. After careful consideration, I knew that the architecture program at Syracuse University was the right choice for me. I felt prepared and ready to begin my university adventure, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

No one can explain to you what the experience of studio will be like. My first days were particularly intense. These moments are intentionally crafted to separate students from the program that aren’t cut out for its rigorous and taxing workload — the initial rite of passage. We were asked to complete a single task — create a perfect 6-inch cube out of museum board. Then we were even given three days to complete it. You could tell right from that moment who was going to make it and who was not.

At the end of three days, we had our first critique. It was brutal to say the least. Several of my friends were even brought to tears.

“Work on your craft!” “What is this?” “You all have to start over!”

Architecture Studio at Syracuse University; via Archinect

Rather than deter my confidence, that first critique stirred a fire in me and left a lasting impression on my life.

Beyond school, some graduates jump straight into their exams, eager to complete their licensure as soon as possible. My own trajectory was a bit different. Upon graduating, I was given several opportunities to gain experience in other areas of my career, and my exams were essentially put on hold. In retrospect, these opportunities — becoming an associate director for AIA Buffalo/WNY, achieving status as a LEED Accredited Professional, entering several design competitions and participating in the Buffalo Architecture Foundations’ Arch + Ed program — helped me prepare for the exam in ways that aren’t necessarily tangible or direct. They are, however, responsible for actively developing my professional relationships, experiences and character — highlights I personally hold as invaluable to my career. They are the pieces that form who I am today.

At some point, though, I knew I had to make my exams a priority. In late 2013, I started my first exam. Thirty-two testing hours and seven exams later, I completed my final exam section in September 2015, made my dreams into reality and became a registered architect.

Being an architect is not something I take lightly. Not long ago, I received my registration certificate from the State of New York in the mail. As I held it in my hands, I was filled with both an intense sense of gratification and a profound commitment of responsibility to the culture that I now serve. In every sense of the word, ‘architecture’ is a profession and its architects exist, in part, to protect the welfare of those who enjoy the comforts of the built environment. In many respects, architects are the keepers of this constructed world, the advocates of our culture — recording our time in history for the next generation.

I still have my old museum board cube. It’s slightly dusty and a little worn around the edges, but I keep it as a reminder where I came from and what I have achieved.

I am an architect.

© Ed Gregory

© Ed Gregory

Via BayUX

Weekly Evolution

If you are currently taking your A.R.Es, remember that you are not defined by the test itself. If you study efficiently and consistently, you’ll get there. It may feel like a mountain that you have to traverse, but I assure you that the feeling you’ll have at the peak will be well worth the effort. If you’re not currently taking your A.R.Es, I bet you know someone who is. Give them some encouragement. Let them know that they have what it takes to become an architect. Help them understand that everything they’ve worked for is already a great achievement.

We need to support others in their endeavors to get licensed. For me, it’s not about the license itself. Rather, I want to share the positive outlook I’ve gained from it. My license is a tangible representation of my professional efforts. It reminds me of how much I’ve sacrificed, how hard I’ve worked and how much freedom I have now that I’m looking back from the other side. Although some may disagree, I’m of the opinion that not everyone has to be licensed to be an architect.

Some of the best architects I know may never hold a license, but that won’t diminish the respect I have for them or the projects they’ve worked on. All I know is that being a licensed architect is one of the highlights of my career and of my life. It brings me a sense of closure to the childhood dream I imagined so long ago. I hope you come to know the same sense of accomplishment.

Thanks for being awesome!

This post first appeared on Evolving Architect.

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