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How to Become a Principal Architect

If you are an architect who has a strong sense of design, you are an excellent leader, and you have a meticulous eye for detail, a career as a principal architect is a great opportunity where you can put your exceptional skills to work.

Principal architects oversee and lead an architectural team. They typically work for an architectural firm where they are responsible for all the design projects for buildings and other structures. They need strong interpersonal skills as they work closely with clients to assess objectives and requirements, negotiate contracts, and review building plans. They also deliver plans and schematics to construction engineers and building contractors, ensure that they understand the requirements, and work with them to resolve any problems that may arise. 

Excellent management skills are required to guide the architectural team, and to keep them on track, on time, and motivated. Principal architects must stay up-to-date about all relevant building codes and need to comply with all applicable rules and regulations. To excel as a principal architect, you’ll need to be creative, have an in-depth understanding of architectural design, and advanced technical proficiency in using computer-aided design and drafting (CADD) technology.    

Sample job description

During a construction project, there are many different roles performed by many different professionals. Despite their differences in roles, each colleague has the same end goal in mind:  completing a successful construction project. We are looking for a principal architect with excellent communication skills who will be able to coordinate details with those whom they report to, as well as those they manage. You will oversee construction design and details as the project begins and progresses. We are looking for someone who is able to be aware of time and deadlines and who can keep others on track with those deadlines. You will be asked to develop budgets for those you manage and create policies to ensure builds are according to appropriate specifications, so attention to detail is necessary. We are looking for someone with a bachelor’s degree and at least five years of managerial experience.  

Typical duties and responsibilities

  • Design and execute the strategic vision and plan for a firm’s direction and work output
  • Develop and maintain client relationships
  • Negotiate contracts
  • Help establish, coordinate, and implement a firm’s objectives and goals
  • Oversee and manage design and production work
  • Collaborate with team members
  • Oversee and mentor junior architects and construction engineers

Education and experience

This position requires a bachelor’s degree in architecture or a related field. Employers often prefer that candidates have a master’s degree, and five to 10 years of experience as an architect. Before practicing architecture in a jurisdiction, applicants must meet the requirements for licensure established by that jurisdiction.

Required skills and qualifications

  • Experience with project management
  • Ability to define agency goals, and develop and lead teams to meet them
  • Knowledge of AutoCAD and all related drafting software
  • Excellent written and verbal communications skills
  • Strong collaborative and problem-solving skills

Preferred qualifications

  • 4+ years working as a principal architect
  • Strong interpersonal skills
  • Engineering or architectural degree

Typical work environment

Most principal architects spend time both inside and outdoors. They will be in their office working on plans, meeting with clients, and budgeting, as well as on construction sites to oversee the progress of their projects. While on-site, principal architects will need to be able to follow appropriate safety protocols for construction sites, including wearing hard hats and protective gear.  

Typical hours

The typical work hours for a principal architect are from 9 AM to 5 PM, Monday through Friday, generally in an office setting.  

Available certifications

Companies look at certifications as a way to ensure their future employees are well qualified as principal architects. Here are a few options: 

  • Project Management Professional (PMP). This certification is awarded to those with successful project management skills. You are required to have two or more years of experience before applying, and the certification can be renewed every three years. This exam covers six topics regarding project management: Initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, closing, professional, and social responsibility while completing those projects. 
  • LEED AP Building Design + Construction (LEED). This certification is for those working on green construction projects. This tests your knowledge of the LEED rating system and your proficiency in sustainable design, construction, and operations quality.

Career path

Becoming a principal architect typically requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in architecture or a related field, with a master’s degree and five to 10 years experience preferred. Before practicing architecture in a jurisdiction, applicants must meet the requirements for licensure established by that jurisdiction. To become a principal architect, a job candidate needs to demonstrate ability as an architect, but also the talent and drive to guide a firm’s vision and nurture its members to achieve that vision. 

US, Bureau of Labor Statistics’ job outlook

SOC Code: 17-1011

2020 Employment126,700
Projected Employment in 2030130,700
Projected 2020-2030 Percentage Shift 3% increase
Projected 2020-2030 Numeric Shift3,900 increase

As in many careers, those at or nearing senior levels in this field can be expected to wear leadership hats — including overseeing junior team members and playing the role of client liaison as needed — in addition to completing their own work. Principal architects, while still architects, are often expected to take on management duties as well.