How to Become a Professional Home Designer and 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. Photo by Dieter Spannknebel/Stockbyte/Getty Images (croppped)

Architects don't have a market hold on construction, but what or who is the alternative? In Europe there may be no alternative—architects there have warned us about "unqualified charlatans." In the United States, however, there are alternative routes to residential home design.

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 career opportunities in the field of Building Design.

The path to becoming a Professional Building Designer 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 required 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 certification, just like medical doctors become "board certified" after medical school.

Read on for more details, including a top-notch reading list at the end.

What is a Home Designer or Building Designer?

A Professional Building Designer, or Home Designer, 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.

Unlike architects, Home Designers are not required to pass the Architect Registration Examination® to receive licensing.

Completing ARE® is one of the 4 Steps to a Life in Architecture.  Instead, a designer who carries the title Certified Professional Building Designer® or CPBD® 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.

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 fees
  • Have three letters of recommendation from professionals in the field of building and design
  • Submit a a portfolio of at least three projects
  • Have 6 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)

To begin your quest, start with the 6 years of experience requirement.

Training Courses

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 is 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 structural engineer.

To find courses, workshops, seminars, and other training programs, see the listing of Official Continuing Education (CE) Providers on the website for the NCBDC Website.

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.

Certification Exam

If you wish to find a job and build a career in building design, you should work toward obtaining certification in the field. In the United States, Professional Building Designers are certified by the NCBDC through the AIBD. You can download their CPBD Cadidate Handbook to learn about the process and apply to take the online exam.

When you apply for certification, you will be asked for letters of reference and a portfolio. 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—70% is a passing grade—but you have to know a little about subject areas that are not directly related to building, like 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.

If you are considering a career as a building designer, you may find it helpful to look at sample questions from the certification exam.

These questions will show you the types of courses and training you will need to obtain in order to find work designing houses. Sample questions might be similar to these:

  1. What are the four basic ingredients in concrete?
  2. What Roman building type was used for early Christian churches?
  3. A mechanics lien should never be part of a contract. True   False
  4. If there are 16 risers in a set of stairs, how many treads are there?
  5. What does ASTM stand for?
  6. What is Filippo Brunelleschi known for?
  7. What is a hip roof?
  8. What is the Pythagorean Theorem?
  9. Explain how GFCIs work.

If these questions seem difficult, do not be discouraged. The NCBDC offers a study guide that will help you prepare. You will also find the material you need to know in these books, many of them classic textbooks:

Book List for Building Designers

  • Architectural Graphics Standards, 12th Edition, American Institute of Architects, Wiley, 2016
    Buy on Amazon
  • Architectural Graphics Standards, Student Edition by Harold Reeve Sleeper and Charles George Ramsey, Wiley, 2008
    Buy on Amazon
  • The Professional Practice of Architectural Working Drawings by Osamu A. Wakita and Nagy R. Bakhoum, Wiley, 2011
    Buy on Amazon
  • Construction Materials and Processes by Donald Watson, 1986
    Buy on Amazon
  • Olin's Construction: Principles, Materials, and Methods, Wiley, 2011
    Buy on Amazon
  • A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia McAlester and Lee McAlester
  • American House Styles, A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton
    Buy on Amazon
  • The Annotated Arch; A Crash Course in the History of Architecture by Carol Strickland
    Buy on Amazon
  • Simplified Engineering for Architects and Builders, Parker/Ambrose Series of Simplified Design Guides, 12th Edition, Wiley, 2016
    Buy on Amazon
  • A Visual Dictionary of Architecture by Francis D.K. Ching, Wiley 2nd edition, 2011
    Buy on Amazon
  • 2015 International Residential Code (IRC) for One- and Two-Family Dwellings
    Buy on Amazon
  • The Elements of Building: A Business Handbook For Residential Builders & Tradesmen by Mark Q. Kerson, 2014
    Buy on Amazon

Sources: Certified Professional Building Designer Candidate Handbook, NCBDC HB.01, January 31, 2012; American Institute of Building Design [accessed April 6, 2016]