To Be an Architect by Ashleigh Walton

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an artist. I was pretty sure of it too; after all, this was a return to a dream job after my brief marine biologist phase that captured the ages of 10-12. An artist was the first thing I wanted to be. My mother in her wisdom calmly told me, "Ashleigh, there is a word that usually goes with artist: 'starving'. Could you pick something that has a regular paycheck?"

While I could debate her with more eloquence now, at the time, I figured she was rarely wrong (this is still true). I didn't think much about it after that until I made the decision to be an architect while gazing up in awe at the University of Tennessee Knoxville's architecture students as they worked on projects in their studio (more on that in another post.) After that, my course was pretty well set.

I started the path to an architectural license when I opened my initial record during an AIAS Grassroots convention in 2013 when I sat on the council of presidents. I was thrilled at the prospect of earning hours while still in school. I eagerly signed up and spent the next three years racing ahead on my path to licensure.

I say racing ahead because that's exactly what I did. I knew that being licensed was something that I wanted to get done as soon as possible. I was tired of the mindset that licensure was a mid-career goal; I wanted it to be my starting point. There will never be enough experience. There is always more to learn and more ways to grow. Why should I let anxiety about an exam (or 7) hold me back?

I worked during school, gaining hours through Architectural Missions Group, Andrews University's in house mission related architecture firm. The summer after I graduated with my bachelor's degree, I worked with Little Diversified Architectural Consulting. I squirreled these hours carefully away in my NCARB record, mindful of the ticking clock that soon meant I would be paying $75 a year to keep my record up after the initial three year period had passed.

When I got my first job after graduating with my masters, I would full of optimism that I would begin studying for my exams right away, just as I had planned for years. However, something curious happened; in spite of all my talk, I was terrified. What did I know about being an architect? Shouldn't I work for awhile, a long while, before even considering beginning the exams?

This indecision held for a year until I met Cate Black at the farmer's market she had started in Galveston, Texas. I liked Cate immediately. I had done my 4th year final project on food and architecture  and here was Cate, a designer a few years my senior, who had made it happen in her community. Cate was also on her path to licensure. Her hours were complete and she had just started testing. She suggested studying together, and I excitedly agreed. To anyone reading this to get tips on the exam, I offer you this: get a partner. Without Cate, there is little chance I would have pushed ahead when I did.

With Cate as my study partner, I began the process of testing as I carefully logged my hours. My job with its very small staff forced me into positions to do a little of everything, great for both my AXP (then IDP) hours and for my own personal development. I decided to start with the Structural Systems exam in ARE 4.0, purely because it was the exam that terrified me the most. Armed with tools like the Young Architect Blog, Jenny's Notes, a host of notes from structures class in school, and countless print outs and guides, I studied structures like it was my job (and with the wind speeds the buildings I designed had to withstand on a daily basis, it really was my job to at least know the basics). 

I don't really have words to describe the joy of seeing that "Pass" come up on the screen. It's pretty comparable to the horrible sinking feeling of seeing the "Fail" come up when I took my third exam, Programming, Planning and Practice. It took me just under a year to pass all 7 exams, including my retake for PPP. I finished my hours about two months after that final pass (Building Systems, for those who are wondering) and received my license in July of 2016. 

It's not the end of anything, but the beginning. It opened unexpected doors, including a new position at Urban Design Associates, a job that I love. It was more than worth the struggle of that year. I like to joke that a large part of the reason I went for licensure was to simplify telling people what I did. Words like "designer", "intern" and the like were frustrating; I wanted to be clear and concise. Almost exactly three years from starting my NCARB record, I got my wish. There's nothing like answering the question of "what do you do?" with "Me? I'm an architect."