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Principal Architect Career Guide

What is a principal architect?

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. Learn more about how to become and be successful as a principal architect in this career guide!

Duties and responsibilities

Principal architects are responsible for designing and executing the strategic vision and plan for a firm’s direction and work output. This role will be developing and maintaining client relationships. Managing this relationship includes understanding the client’s needs and wants, communicating throughout the process, negotiating contracts, and getting sign-offs on plans. They will also oversee and manage all of the design and production work.

Another major role for the principal architect is collaborating with team members and overseeing junior architects and construction engineers. It involves mentoring and providing feedback to others looking to advance their careers.

Work environment

Most principal architects spend time both inside and outside. They will be in their office working on plans, researching, 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 work hours

Principal architects typically work from 9 AM to 5 PM, Monday through Friday. The work is split between an office and on-site. There may be some longer days if there are deadlines for a project, but most of the hours are pretty standard.

How to become a principal architect

In order to become a principal architect, you will need a combination of education, training, and experience. In this career guide section, we cover the steps you’ll need to take to achieve your goal:

Step 1: Get a bachelor’s degree

A Bachelor of Architecture degree is the first step to becoming a principal architect. It’s typically a five-year program that teaches a lot of the basic principles and sets graduates up for success in their internships. Find an accredited college or university with a good architecture program when applying.

Step 2: Complete an internship

Each state has unique requirements to become an architect, but an internship program is required. Most programs last about three years and provide an excellent experience. Find opportunities through the Intern Development Program, which is offered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards and the American Institute of Architects.

Step 3: Take additional courses as a refresher

Continued education is so important in a field like architecture because there are new discoveries and techniques to learn about. Consider taking some continuing education while gaining real-world experience. Here are a few recommendations:

  • A simple review of the basics can be found in the course from Udemy called Introduction to Architecture. This is a great option for people interested in architecture and a great refresher for people in the field. The course covers a wide variety of styles and historical periods. 
  • Check out Making Architecture from Coursera. This course offers a unique insight into the mind and work of an architect. You’ll review the basics of the profession and how these creative minds think and find inspiration from their environment. 
  • Functional design is important for architects. Take the System Design – Creating a Functional Design course from Udemy and learn component design and how to create a functional architecture for large platforms. This course is good for anyone looking to build systems.

Step 4: Become licensed

Practicing architects must be licensed in the state they will be working in. Once you’ve completed your undergraduate degree and internship, you can sign up for the Architect Registration Examination. The test is comprised of seven parts, and it’s a pass-or-fail exam. Make sure to study ahead of time and utilize the prep courses. 

Step 5: Gain experience as an architect

Principal architects will lead teams, so having experience as an architect for a few years is important. Build up your portfolio of projects and gain experience working with all kinds of different creatives and engineers. Work with the firm you interned with or find a new specialty to work in to gain experience.

Step 6: Earn professional certifications

Certifications are one way to show employers that you are well qualified and have additional skills that you are keeping up with. There are many options out there depending on which types of projects you work on. Here are a few options to consider:

  • 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, and professional and social responsibility while completing these projects. 
  • LEED AP Building Design + Construction – This certification is for those working on green construction projects. This tests your knowledge of the LEED rating system and proficiency in sustainable design, construction, and operations quality.

Step 7: Work on a master’s degree

Pursuing a master’s degree in architecture is a great next step for architects that want to advance their careers to become principal architects. Several programs are accredited by the National Architecture Accrediting Board.

How much do principal architects make?

There are many variables that go into determining how much a principal architect makes, from company size to experience to education just to name a few.

Highest paying industries

  • Nonresidential Building Construction – $161,480
  • Architectural and Engineering – $161,240
  • Residential Building Construction – $143, 610

Highest paying states

  • New York – $195,684
  • District of Columbia – $186,252
  • California – $185,830
  • Massachusetts – $180,198

Browse principal architect salary data by market

Top skills for principal architects

Principal architects must have strong technical skills and a understanding of the projects they are designing. Problem-solving skills are important because nothing ever goes off without some kind of challenge that you’ll need to overcome. Communication, collaboration, and leadership skills are critical in this position because the principal architect regularly works with a team and clients.

Principal architect career path

Becoming a principal architect typically requires a maximum of a bachelor’s degree in architecture or a related field, with a master’s degree and five to ten years of 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 must demonstrate an architect’s ability, talent, and drive to guide a firm’s vision and nurture its members to achieve that vision. 

The field of architecture is constantly changing with technology, but there is still projected growth for architects. The demand for architects that are versed in sustainability and energy efficiency is growing.

Employment projections for principal architects

The job outlook for principal architects remains positive at just over a 3% increase over the next decade. However, this is slower compared to the average for all occupations.

Principal architect career tips

Soft skills and traits

Principal architects will need to have strong analytical skills and close attention to detail. A good eye for design and aesthetics is important when creating beautiful structures and designs. Strong communication and leadership skills are essential for principal architects leading teams and working with clients.

Commonly required skills and qualifications

To become a principal architect, you’ll need a strong knowledge of AutoCAD and other related drafting software, which you’ll gain from experience as a junior architect. Technical skills and knowledge are required, like design principles, programming languages, and development frameworks. Project management and leadership experience are also essential in this role because you’ll lead a team of architects and designers and stick to a deadline and budget. 

Develop a professional network

Networks are extremely beneficial when developing a career path. Principal architects should work to connect with other architects to collaborate and learn from each other. Here are few professional networks to look into:

  • American Institute of Architects
  • Association of Licensed Architects
  • Architizer
  • LinkedIn Communities and Groups
  • International Union of Architects

Where the principal architect jobs are

Top companies

  • Design Workshop
  • Gensler
  • Stantec
  • Turner Construction

Top states

  • California
  • Texas
  • New York
  • Virginia
  • Washington

Top job sites

  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • Dice
  • SimplyHired
  • Archinect


What does a principal architect do?

Principal architects lead design projects. They are responsible for budgets and timelines and help lead a team of designers, engineers, and junior architects to ensure everyone is aligned.

What trends do aspiring architects need to be knowledgeable in?

Sustainable design is growing rapidly in popularity, so having experience in sustainable architecture will be helpful for future career growth. Other trends include more technology and artificial intelligence assisting in the process.

Is the role of the principal architect stressful?

Principal architects carry more responsibility because they lead the team working on a project and need to ensure that all team members are aligned on the objectives. With the additional responsibility comes a higher salary and more control over the situation, so if you are prepared for that, it’s not as stressful.

What kinds of companies hire a principal architect?

Principal architects are needed for large projects. Architecture firms, engineering firms, real estate developers, and construction companies employ this position.

Are there any required certifications to become a principal architect?

There are not any required certifications unless specified by your employer. Some of the common certifications for principal architects include LEED certification or the Certified Construction Contract Administrator certification.

What is challenging about being a principal architect?

Running a project, or multiple projects, can be difficult because there are many different priorities and opinions to manage. Keeping your clients happy while also keeping the project on track and compliant may require juggling many different things simultaneously. 

How much education is required to become a principal architect?

To become an architect, you must earn your bachelor’s degree and complete an internship program. Experience is the best education to become a principal architect, but continuing with school and getting a master’s degree would help prepare you even more.

Do you need management experience to become a principal architect?

Principal architects often manage a team of junior architects, designers, and other administrative help. If you have experience managing people, it will help boost your resume; if not, having leadership and communication skills will help you develop a strong team.

What are the best ways to prepare to become a principal architect?

To become a principal architect, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree and an active license in the state in which you are practicing. Experience is also important to move up the ranks and advance your career.

How long does it take to become a principal architect?

The first step is earning your bachelor’s degree in architecture, which is typically a five-year process. After graduation, you’ll intern and take the license exam. Once you have several years of experience, you can start looking for opportunities to advance to a principal architect. Earning a master’s degree will add extra time but will boost your job opportunities.