Specialized Architecture Programs

Many students interested in an architectural career already know that they want to focus on a particular area of the field and seek out architecture schools that offer programs in these specializations. Practicing architects sometimes choose to concentrate in a specific area mid-career, after several years of working in the profession and developing a particular interest. In these cases, further education in a master’s degree program can prepare an architect to branch out in a new direction.

Areas of specialization in architecture can include:


The field of general architecture involves the designing and building of physical structures. It requires obtaining a license from the state in which you wish to practice through earning a professional degree from an accredited architecture school, participating in an internship or other practical work experience, and passing the Architect Registration Examination.

Architects most commonly design and build structures such as homes, schools, churches, hospitals, office buildings, and bridges. The profession involves detailed knowledge of basic design, design and planning theories, construction methods, building materials, and drafting of blueprints and specifications, as well as a general background in structural engineering, ventilation, heating, lighting, sanitation, and other related fields. In order to protect the interests of the client, architects also exercise overall supervision over the general contractors who actually construct the building. They therefore also require an ability to handle the organizational details of building, such as scheduling, cost estimating, budgeting, and construction administration.

Architects need five-year bachelor’s degrees in architecture from architecture schools with an accredited program, although many go on to earn a master’s degree in order to qualify them for teaching or to specialize in a particular area. Architects can also earn a four-year pre-professional degree followed by a two-year master’s degree in architecture, or a three- or four-year master’s degree in architecture after earning four-year bachelor’s degrees in other fields.

Architecture History

Shelter has been a basic need of mankind since the world began. The first man-made structures used for shelter in prehistoric times were constructed with whatever natural materials were available in the local vicinity. For example, Neolithic people in Mesopotamia and Central Asia used bricks made of sun-dried mud to build their villages, while Paleolithic hunter-gatherers in the Ukraine in Europe built circular houses from mammoth bones.

Rudimentary construction progressively evolved into architecture on a trial and error basis. As human cultures learned from experience what made a successful building and what didn’t, architecture gradually became a formalized craft. The principles and practices of successful architecture were first passed along through oral tradition. Written records, such as De Architectura by the early first-century Roman architect Vitruvius, eventually replaced verbal instruction as human civilizations developed writing.

Specialized Architecture Programs

Some ancient agricultural societies quickly grew into large urban centers, such as Memphis in Egypt and Babylon in Mesopotamia. The architecture of many of these ancient cities reflected their constant interest in interaction with supernatural or divine forces. For example, ancient Egypt is famous for its colonnaded temples in which to worship gods and its massive limestone pyramids used as tombs, while the ancient Babylonians and Sumerians in Mesopotamia worshipped in ziggurats and shrines made of sun-dried clay bricks.

The architecture of the classical Greeks and Romans was inspired by the new importance of municipal life rather than religion, such as the public theaters, stores, and temples of Greece and the baths, bridges, aqueducts, and forums of Rome. Marble from nearby quarries became the predominant building material for the Greeks in addition to timber, clay, and stone. The Greeks also developed distinct architectural styles such as Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, which the Romans later adapted and modified. The main architectural innovation of the Romans was their use of the arch and the vault to build immense structures in stone or concrete.

With the decline of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity, religious buildings again gained importance in Europe, and new architectural styles such as Byzantine and Gothic came into favor. Islamic architecture also emerged in the seventh century CE (Common Era) from a combination of Egyptian, Persian, and Byzantine influences. The medieval period also saw the first formation in Europe of guilds or associations of craftsmen belonging to specific trades, including architects.

During the Renaissance period in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, more emphasis was placed on the newly-rediscovered humanities instead of religion. The Renaissance building style, which borrowed from classical Greek and Roman architecture, featured proportion, symmetry, geometry, and systematic arrangements of columns, pilasters, and lintels. The Renaissance was also the period of history when buildings began to be attributed to specific architects such as Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, and Palladio, in keeping with the age’s cult of the individual.

The early modern and industrial eras were marked by new building materials and technologies as scientific knowledge increased. This period saw the emergence of “gentleman architects” (such as Christopher Wren) who had no formal training but possessed a talent for design or theory. During the nineteenth century, however, architecture became a genuine profession with the formation of the first architecture schools and organized architectural societies.

The twentieth century saw the Modernist architectural styles come into vogue, characterized by the use of simplified geometric forms, lack of ornamentation in favor of functionality, and use of new building materials made available by the Industrial Revolution, such as steel-frame construction. Today, architecture has seen a trend toward more people-oriented and environmentally friendly designs.

Architectural Technology

Architectural technologists are trained in applying technology to architecture, building design, and construction. They perform such services as preparing design proposals using CAD; preparing specifications for construction work; investigating technical information and factors that can affect buildings such as user needs, site and building surveys, and regulatory requirements; monitoring health and safety in design; and making site visits.

Architectural technology degrees are most typically offered at the associate level, which usually takes two or three years to complete. These degrees allow students to gain immediate employment in architectural or construction related jobs, such as project coordinators, estimators, project inspectors, and plans examiners. These associate’s degrees can also prepare students to transfer to accredited programs at architecture schools in order to work toward a five-year Bachelor of Architecture degree and eventual licensure as an architect.

Four-year bachelor’s degrees in architectural technology are also available. Although they do not qualify graduates to sit for the Architectural Registration Exam, they can lead to careers as assistant architects who act as a liaison between the architect and the construction team, as well as jobs such as building inspectors and architectural drafters. To become licensed eventually as architects, holders of these degrees must earn a Master of Architecture degree from an accredited program.

Coursework for this degree usually includes a combination of architectural, technical, and administrative courses, including architectural drafting, computer-aided drafting and design, construction methods and materials, environmental systems, building codes and standards, structural principles, construction law, contracts and specifications, cost estimation, planning documentation, visual communication skills, display production, and architectural office management.

Graduates of an architectural technology program display knowledge of basic construction principles and materials, including concrete, steel, and wood; an understanding of architectural and engineering drawings; the ability to design various architectural projects and conduct architectural presentations; and proficiency in computer software programs such as spreadsheets, word processing, basic programming, mathematical computing, and CAD.

Environmental Design

Environmental design in architecture is the practice of taking the surrounding environment into account in the design and construction of buildings.

Although the term environmental design has recently expanded to include the concept of “green” or eco-building, eco-building is actually only one aspect of environmental design. Green building involves using sustainable materials and technologies such as solar and wind energy in order to make the least possible impact on the natural environment. Environmental design is a much broader field that encompasses both indoor and outdoor settings and can involve the input of many other disciplinary fields besides architecture, such as interior design, landscape architecture, urban planning, and historical preservation.

Although the modern environmental design movement began in the 1940s, architecture has actually been practicing it since ancient times. For example, building houses that face south in order to take advantage of the seasonal position of the sun; using glass windows to allow light in while retaining heat; and laying stone floors to help cool off in hot climates are all environmental design ideas that originated with the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Modern architects now regularly situate buildings to take advantage of the sun, bodies of water, and other natural features, and place windows in ways that will minimize climate control costs. Environmental design also applies to outdoor settings as well, such as planting large shade trees (or using existing ones) near windows to cut energy expenses and using native plants in landscaping to discourage non-native species invasion. Environmental design is also used in large-scale projects that attempt to integrate technology with nature, such as highway systems that utilize noise barriers and air dispersion modeling to reduce traffic sounds and minimize the effects of vehicular air pollution.

Approximately 500 architecture schools in the United States offer bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs in architectural environmental design, according to the database of U. S. College Search. Coursework in these programs covers the fundamentals in environmental design such as ecology, energy management, ventilation, lighting, noise control, CO2 emissions, and other environmental health issues. These degrees can lead not only to careers in architecture but also to careers in fields such as landscape design, urban planning, climate-control engineering, and environmental consulting.

Interior Architecture

Interior architecture is the application of architectural principles to the design of safe, attractive, functional indoor spaces. It has some aspects in common with, but is also not quite the same as, interior design or interior decoration. Although all three professions deal with the habitable spaces inside buildings and have a place in industrial and home design, there are educational and practical differences.

Interior decorators specialize in one aspect of what interior designers do. They help choose fabrics, furnishings, wall coverings, paint, and art objects to re-do the look of an existing room or create a feel for a new one. There are no formal educational requirements for this career, although some decorators earn certificates in the field after one year of study. There are also no licensing requirements for interior decorators.

Interior designers work with the spatial aspects of interiors, often in collaboration with architects, and design the whole overall look and feel of the entire interior. This can include traffic flow, partitioning, fixtures, fittings, lighting elements, the integration of fire safety and other code requirements into the design, as well as decoration aspects such as furnishings and wall coverings. Although interior designers can suggest structural changes to walls, windows, and partitions, they usually must call on structural engineers to perform the actual work. They usually hold associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degrees in the field, and might also need licensure or certification, depending on the state in which they practice.

Interior architects unite creative and artistic ability (such as the ability to design a space and choose the furniture and accessories that work best within it) with technical construction skills such as seismic retrofitting (refurbishing old buildings to make them earthquake-proof). They deal with the safety and functional aspects of space as well as the aesthetic effects.

Coursework for a four-year bachelor’s degree in interior architecture can include instruction in architecture, structural systems design, heating and cooling systems, occupational and safety standards, interior design, furniture design, lighting design, and computer aided drafting. Graduates can go on to obtain master’s degrees at architecture schools or seek certification in the interior design field.

Landscape Architecture

Landscape architecture is the designing and building of outdoor or public spaces. It therefore combines structural and design skills with a love of nature.

Landscape architecture is exercised in many fields, including urban design, site planning, parks and recreation planning, environmental restoration, green infrastructure planning, and private residence landscape design. It involves knowledge of many different disciplines, such as architecture, botany, earth sciences, ecology, geology, horticulture, and industrial design.

Landscape architects might find themselves designing the settings of a broad range of sites, including the following: private residences or estates; arboretums, botanical gardens, and nature preserves; parks, playgrounds, and sports facilities; college campuses; housing sites, industrial parks, and commercial developments; dams, power stations, and reservoirs; storm water management structures such as rain gardens and green roofs; public infrastructure such as highways, bridges, and other transportation systems; and urban design or renewal projects such as town squares, waterfronts, or parking lots.

After initial consultation with the client, landscape architects visit the proposed site to take measurements and perform evaluations of soil, existing landscaping, and water management systems. The landscape architect then submits several designs to the client, often with projections of what the site will look like five to ten years in the future after the plants have matured. Upon approval of a design, an estimator determines the costs of the project and negotiates bids from contractors. The project then goes into the implementation phase, with the landscape architect exercising general supervision over the project until completion and final approval by the client. Many clients also request future follow-up visits by the landscape architect to ensure the project is developing as planned.

Landscape architects usually require a professional Bachelor of Landscape Architecture or Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture degree from architecture schools accredited by the Landscape Architecture Accreditation Board of the American Society of Landscape Architects. These degrees take from four to five years to complete, while master’s degrees can take an additional two years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 67 architecture schools offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in this field as of May 2009.

Courses usually include surveying, landscape architecture, design and construction, landscape ecology, geology, soil and plant science, site design, urban and regional planning, and general management.

Most states require landscape architects to be licensed by taking the Landscape Architect Registration Exam through the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards.

Urban and Regional Planning

Urban planners determine the best short- and long-term ways to use land for residential, commercial, institutional, and recreational purposes in cities and neighborhoods. Regional planners apply the same planning techniques to larger environments.

Urban planners prepare reports containing data on current land use and forecasts on the future needs of the population, making sure that these reports address all of the environmental, economic, and social health aspects of urban land use. They then propose solutions to these needs by recommending where to locate housing, schools, roads, or other infrastructure and giving advice and suggestions on zoning regulations.

Urban planners are very involved in the municipal life of the communities for which they work. They can be engaged in environmental and social issues such as the location of new landfills, the protection of wetlands, or the building of shelters for the homeless, and sometimes speak before legislative committees or help draft legislation about these issues. They often collaborate with land developers, community leaders, and public officials; arbitrate in public discussions about land use; perform public community speeches; and prepare material for public relations programs.

Most urban planners end up specializing in a particular area such as urban design, transportation planning, urban renewal, or land-use and zoning enforcement, although they must still consider long-term benefits for the community as a whole.

Most entry-level urban planning positions usually require at least a master’s degree.
Urban planners usually earn four-year bachelor’s degrees in such disciplines as political science, environmental design, geography, or economics, and then earn a master’s from an accredited program in urban or regional planning, urban design, or environmental planning. Two states also require licensure or registration as an urban planner, usually based on professional experience and examinations.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2009 there were 15 architecture schools that offered an accredited bachelor’s program in urban planning, and 67 colleges and universities that offered an accredited master’s degree program. Accreditation is through the Planning Accreditation Board.

Courses in these programs usually include related subjects such as architecture, economics, finance, health administration, demography, geography, law, and earth sciences, as well as in specialized areas such as transportation planning, development and redevelopment, environmental and natural resources planning, land-use or code enforcement, or economic planning and development.