Be a Professional Building Designer

Architecture Careers and Alternatives

Architectural elevation drawing of a wooden house on a table with pen, ruler, rolled-up blueprint, and cup of coffee
You Can Become a Professional Home Designer. Dieter Spannknebel/Getty Images (croppped)

If you dream of designing homes and other small buildings but don't want to spend the years it takes to become a registered architect, then you may want to explore home design careers in the field of Building Design. The path to becoming a Certified Professional Building Designer® or CPBD® is achievable and rewarding for many people. As a building designer, you could be invaluable in assisting people not familiar with the construction and home remodeling business. Although you are not legally required to pass the same registration exams demanded of architects, you'll want to become certified in your own field. Even if your state doesn't require certification, you'll be more marketable with professional certification, just like medical doctors become "board certified" in a specialty after medical school.

Key Takeaways: Becoming a Building Designer

  • Learn to be a professional building designer through schoolwork and on-the-job training.
  • Professional building designers in the U.S. often take a test to earn National Council of Building Designer Certification (NCBDC).
  • The American Institute of Building Design (AIBD) is a supportive professional organization.
  • Building designers are generally more limited than registered architects in the kinds of structures they can build.
  • States regulate who can design and build structures. Know the regulations before you begin.


A building designer is not the same as an interior designer — a building designer is concerned with safe structures that won't collapse. Building design also is different from what is known as Design-Build. Although they are both types of processes, Design-Build is a team approach to building and design where the building contractor and building designer work under the same contract. The Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA) promotes and certifies this type of project management and delivery system. Building design is an occupation — a field of study taken up by a person who becomes a building designer. The American Institute of Building Design (AIBD) administers the certification process of building designers.

What is a Home Designer or Building Designer?

A Building Designer, also known as a Professional Home Designer or Residential Design Professional, specializes in designing light-frame buildings such as single- or multi-family homes. In some cases, as state regulations permit, they may also design other light-frame commercial buildings, agricultural buildings, or even decorative facades for larger buildings. Having a general knowledge of all aspects of the building trade, a professional building designer can act as an agent to help the homeowner through the building or renovation process. A building designer can also be part of a Design-Build team.

A designer who carries the title Certified Professional Building Designer has completed training courses, practiced building design for at least six years, built a portfolio, and passed a rigorous series of certification exams. Receiving National Council of Building Designer Certification (NCBDC) commits this type of building professional to standards of conduct, ethics, and continued learning.

Each state determines licensing and certification requirements needed to practice architecture. Unlike architects, home designers are not required to pass the Architect Registration Examination® (ARE) to receive a professional license. Completing ARE, iwhich is administered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, is one of the four steps to a life in architecture.

Certification Process

The first step to becoming a professional building designer is to set your goal for certification. What do you need to do to apply to become certified?

  • Fill out an application and pay the nonrefundable application fee
  • Have three letters of verification from professionals in the field of building and design
  • Have six years of experience — a combination of education (documented course work) and supervised on-the-job training (your supervisor will have to fill out a form)

It's best to have some experience and learn the craft of building design before you even apply to become certified. So, to begin your quest, start with the six years of experience requirement.

Training Before Certification

Enroll in training courses in architecture or structural engineering. You may take classes at an accredited school of architecture or at a vocational school — or even online, if the school and the program are accredited. Look for courses and training that will give you a broad background in construction, problem solving, and architectural design. Instead of academic training, you may study architecture or structural engineering on the job, under the supervision of a building designer, architect, or civil engineer. Working as a civil engineering technician or drafter, for example, will help you understand how structures stand up and fall down — important things to know when you strike out on your own as a building designer. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is another great place for hands-on training before you seek out certification. Throughout architectural history, apprenticeship has been the way building designers and architects have learned their craft. Today's working world provides many more opportunties.

On-the-Job Training

On-the-job training is essential to receive certification as a professional building designer. Use the career resources center at your school and/or online job listings to locate an internship or entry level position where you can work with architects, structural engineers, or building designers. Begin building a portfolio with working drawings for design projects. Once you have accumulated several years of training through coursework and on-the-job training, you will be eligible to take the certification exams.

model of a gabled house with a young woman in the background examining the model
Observing Building Design. Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Royal Institute of British Architects

Certification Exams

If you wish to find a job and build a career in building design, consider working toward obtaining certification in the field. In the U.S. professional building designers are certified by the NCBDC through the AIBD. You can download the CPBD Cadidate Handbook to learn about the process and apply to take the online exam. After you have submitted your application, you move through the process as an "applicant" to a "candidate" and finally to become "certified."

When you apply for certification, you will be asked for letters from professionals who can verify your experience. Once these are approved, you have 36 months (3 years) to pass all parts of the open book, online exam. You don't have to be perfect — in the past 70% has been a passing grade — but you have to know a little about subject areas that are not directly related to building, like some architectural history and business administration. The exam questions will cover many phases of construction, design, and problem solving. You will be permitted to refer to several approved reference books as you take the exam, but just like problem solving on the job, you won't have time to search for answers — you have to know where to look.

A word of caution: Before you give any money to AIBD, make sure you understand what is required of you before you begin taking the exams. Testing organizations are always updating their questions and processes, so go into this endeavor with eyes wide open and with up-to-date information. Although the current examination process is online, it cannot be taken anytime you want — the candidate must pay for and schedule each test, which is timed and monitored by a real person via the camera and microphone on your computer.

Like other certification-type examinations, the CPBD exams include questions that are multiple choice multiple answers (MCMA) or multiple choice single answers (MCSA). Past exams have included True and False, Short Answer, and even sketching designs and problem solving. Areas of examination may include:

  • Business Administration and Practices: Questions may include describing contract terms, showing your knowledge of mechanics liens and due diligence, the ethics of online publishing, and hiring practices basics, such as knowing the difference between employees and independent contractors.
  • Design Process: Questions about concept and construction development may include your knowledge of symmetry and proportion, about residential architectural styles in the U.S. or how Renaissance architecture continues to influence today's building designs.
  • Building Design: Most of the certification examination questions will concern the nuts and bolts of designing a building, including building codes and fire codes; types of roofs, foundations, and wall systems; the nature and use of materials like concrete, masonry, and wood; calculating footing sizes or joist sizes in different scenarios; using beam deflection formulas; energy efficiency and sustainability; thermal and moisture protection; and Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing (MEP).

    If all this seems over your head, do not be discouraged. The NCBDC offers guidance that will help you prepare and keep your career going. You will also find what you need to know from your employers, co-workers, and recommended textbooks used by professionals.

    Reading List for Building Designers

    Designing a house may seem like a task as easy as drawing an idea on a napkin or playing around with home design software. As a professional, the home and building designer should know what's behind "the look" of a new building. Here are some of the books that have helped CPBD candidates in the past:

    • Architectural Graphics Standards, American Institute of Architects, Wiley Publishers
    • Architectural Drawing and Light Construction by Edward J. Muller, Philip A. Grau III, and James G. Fausett
    • PDF Copyright Basics for Home Designers & Publishers by David E. Bennett
    • The Professional Practice of Architectural Working Drawings by Osamu A. Wakita and Nagy R. Bakhoum, Wiley
    • Construction Materials and Processes by Donald Watson
    • CPM Construction Scheduling Survival Guide: Strategies for Managing & Optimizing Time and Budget by Derek Graham
    • Dictionary of Architecture and Construction by Cyril M. Harris
    • The Elements of Building: A Business Handbook For Residential Builders & Tradesmen by Mark Q. Kerson
    • Get Your House Right: Architectural Elements to Use & Avoid by Marianne Cusato and Ben Pentreath
    • Green Building: Principles & Practices in Residential Construction by Abe Kruger and Carl Seville
    • ICC-ASHRAE 700-2015 National Green Building Standard
    • International Residential Code (IRC) for One- and Two-Family Dwellings, International Code Council
    • Keeping the Books: Basic Recordkeeping and Accounting for the Successful Small Business by Linda Pinson
    • Law for Architects: What You Need to Know by Robert F. Herrmann and the Attorneys at Menaker & Herrmann LLP
    • Marketing Metrics: The Definitive Guide to Measuring Marketing Performance by Paul W. Farris, Neil T. Bendle, Phillip E. Pfeifer, and David J. Reibstein
    • Olin's Construction: Principles, Materials, and Methods, Wiley
    • A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia McAlester and Lee McAlester
    • Simplified Engineering for Architects and Builders, Parker/Ambrose Series of Simplified Design Guides, Wiley
    • A Visual Dictionary of Architecture by Francis D.K. Ching, Wiley

    Continuing Education (CE)

    All professionals, whether architects or building designers, are committed to continuing their education after gaining licensure or certification. Professionals are lifelong learners, and your professional organization, AIBD, will help you find courses, workshops, seminars, and other training programs.

    Architects don't have a market hold on construction in most parts of the United States. In Europe there may be no alternative — architects there have warned us about "unqualified charlatans." In the U.S., however, there are alternative routes to residential home design. Follow your dream.

    Sources

    • American Institute of Building Design, http://www.aibd.org/index.php
    • Become Certified, AIBC, http://ncbdc.com/become-certified/
    • Certified Professional Building Designer Candidate Handbook, NCBDC HB.01, January 31, 2012 and NCBDC HB.1, June 2, 2017