What Is an Architect?

The Space Specialists

Female and male architects examine and discuss an exhibit
Pritzker Laureate Alejandro Aravena (r) Examines Architectural Model With Other Architect. Photo by Awakening / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

An architect is a licensed professional who organizes space. The art world may define "space" differently than the scientific world (where does space begin?), but the architecture profession has always been a combination of art and science.

Architects design houses, office buildings, skyscrapers, landscapes, ships, and even entire cities. The services offered by a licensed architect depend on the type of project being developed.

Complicated commercial projects are accomplished with a team of architects. Sole proprietor architects—especially architects just starting out on their own—will specialize and experiment with smaller, residential projects. For example, before Shigeru Ban won the coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2014, he spent the 1990s designing houses for wealthy Japanese patrons. Architectural fees are based on the complexity of the project and, for custom homes, may range from 10% to 12% of the total construction costs.

Space Design

Architects organize different types of spaces. For example, architect Maya Lin is known for sculpted landscapes and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, but she has also designed houses. Likewise, Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto has designed houses in addition to the 2013 Serpentine Pavilion in London. Large spaces, like cities and entire neighborhoods within cities, are also designed by architects.

In the early 20th century, Daniel H. Burnham created several urban plans, including for Chicago. In the early 21st century, architect Daniel Libeskind created what is called the "master plan" for redeveloping the World Trade Center area.

Professional Responsibilities

Like most professionals, architects also take on other duties and special projects.

Many architects teach at colleges and universities. Architects organize and run their professional organizations, like the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Architects have also taken the lead in stopping climate change and global warming, moving toward the goal of new buildings, developments, and major renovations being carbon-neutral by the year 2030. Both the AIA and the work of Edward Mazria, founder of Architecture  2030, work toward this goal.

What Do Architects Do?

Architects design and plan spaces (structures and cities), with consideration for looks (aesthetics), safety and accessibility, functionality for the client, cost, and specifying (the "specs") construction materials and processes that do not destroy the environment. They manage the building project (large projects will have both a design architect and a project manager architect), and most importantly they communicate ideas. The architect's role is to turn ideas (a mental activity) into reality (the "built environment").

Examining the sketch history behind a structure often indicates the difficulty in communicating design ideas. A complex building like the Sydney Opera House began with an idea and a sketch.

The Statue of Liberty sat in pieces in a local park before Richard Morris Hunt's pedestal design was realized. Communicating architectural ideas is an important part of an architect's job—Maya Lin's Entry Number 1026 for the Vietnam Memorial wall was a mystery to some of the judges; Michael Arad's competition entry for the National 9/11 Memorial was able to communicate a vision to the judges.

A licensed architect is the only designer who can rightfully be called "an architect." As a professional, the architect is ethically bound by codes of conduct and should be trusted to abide by all rules and regulations associated with a building project. Throughout their careers, architects participate in continuing education and professional development, similar to medical doctors and licensed attorneys.

And You Call Yourself an Architect?

Only licensed architects should call themselves architects. Architecture was not always a licensed profession. Any educated person could take on the role. Today's architects have completed university programs and lengthy internships. Like doctors and lawyers, architects must pass a series of rigorous exams in order be licensed. In North America, the initials RA designate a registered, or licensed, architect. When you hire a designer, know what the letters after your architect's name mean.

Kinds of Architects

Architects are trained and specialize in many areas, from historic preservation to structural engineering and from computer programming to environmental biology. This training can lead to a wide variety of careers. Many opportunities are available to the college graduate with a major in architecture.

An information architect is a person who plans the flow of information on Web pages. This use of the word architect is not related to building design or what is known as the built environment, although computer-aided design and 3D printing may be specialties within the field of architecture. Architects often design buildings, but a "Building Designer" is not usually a licensed architect. Historically, architects are "chief carpenters."

The word "architect" comes from the Greek word architekton meaning chief (archi-) carpenter or builder (tekton). We often use the word "architect" to describe the artists and engineers who designed historic buildings or iconic towers and domes. However, it was only in the twentieth century that architects were required to pass tests and be licensed. Today, the word "architect" refers to a licensed professional.

Landscape architects often work closely with a building's architects. "Landscape architects analyze, plan, design, manage, and nurture the built and natural environments," according to their professional organization, The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). Landscape architects have a different educational tract and licensing requirements than other registered architects of the built environment.

Other Definitions of Architect

"Architects are licensed professionals trained in the art and science of the design and construction of buildings and structures that primarily provide shelter. Additionally, architects may be involved with designing the total built environment—from how a building integrates with its surrounding landscape to architectural or construction details that involve the interior of the building to designing and creating furniture to be used in a specific space."—National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB)
"The most basic definition of an architect is a professional who is qualified to design and provide advice—both aesthetic and technical—on built objects in our public and private landscapes. But this definition barely scratches the surface of an architect's role. Architects serve as trusted advisors, their role is holistic, blending diverse requirements and disciplines in a creative process, while serving the public interest and addressing health and safety matters."—Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC)

Sources: Commercial Architectural Fees at architecturalfees.com; Becoming an Architect, National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB); What is an Architect, Architecture & Architects, Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC); About Landscape Architecture, The American Society of Landscape Architects [accessed September 26, 2016]