One Architect's Story:
R. Michael Cross, LEED AP
R. Michael Cross, LEED AP, earned his license to practice architecture in May 2007 and his NCARB Certificate in September 2007. Today he is the principal architect at rmichaelcross Design Group in Richmond, VA, and is licensed to practice in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC.
Cross talks about what inspired him to become an architect and how he completed his first step to becoming a licensed architect by getting a degree from a program accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB).
When and why did you decide to become an architect?
I grew up with my hands in a little of everything, from Lego bricks to rebuilding cars. During these years, everyone told me I would be an engineer, unaware of my interest and talent in art. I am not sure who suggested it first, but once the idea of becoming an architect was suggested it was never dropped.
What advice did you get about your career choice when you were in school?
I can’t say that I got much advice concerning a career in architecture from my high school, but I did get positive support from my college counselor. The summer before my senior year of high school I took an unpaid internship with the father of a friend of mine who was—and still is—an architect with his own practice. This experience was very beneficial because in helped me understand the profession, which allowed me to make a more informed decision when choosing where to apply to college.
How did you choose your college? At the time, did you know that you would need a degree from a NAAB-accredited program to become licensed?
I had been out west several times to hike and ski. After seeing a picture of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s beautiful campus hanging in the high school college counseling office, I was sold. The work hard, play hard mentality found in Colorado made for an excellent environment for college. Additionally, being three-quarters of the way across the country from my family served as a catalyst to becoming a self-reliant adult.
Like many high school seniors, my school selection process didn’t involve looking beyond college to how my intended degree would translate into a profession. I was aware that by choosing a four-year program I would be required to attend a NAAB-accredited graduate program in order to meet the licensure requirements in most states. But as an entering freshman, this did not affect my decision much because at the time my decision to become an architect was still a tentative one.
What did you like best about their architecture program?
The architecture program at University of Colorado was part of the College of Environmental Design. The program was a good mix of theory and practice, providing an excellent foundation for further studies and professional practice. While the program was not a NAAB-accredited five-year program, it was setup to dovetail with a NAAB-accredited two-year masters program at their Denver campus.
What type of degree(s) do you have?
I earned a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Design – Architecture Major in 2001 from the University of Colorado and a Master of Architecture from Columbia University in 2004.
The Environmental Design program at University of Colorado is a four-year program that can be a four + two program when paired with their masters program at the Denver campus. I decided to go to Columbia University to get my masters. They have a three-year NAAB-accredited masters program for students without a five-year professional degree and an 18-month NAAB-accredited program for professional degree holders. As a graduate of a four-year program, I was required by Columbia to enroll in their three-year masters sequence. I appreciate the four+ system. Doing my undergraduate and graduate programs at different universities not only provided a broader education due to the extended number of semesters, but it also allowed me to be influenced by multiple “schools” of thought.
Do you have any advice for young people considering a career in architecture?
Seek out diverse experiences, because education is not just that which you receive in school. Such advice could really be provided to all young people, but the skills and knowledge required of an architect are particularly broad. All aspiring architects should have some office experience as well as some construction experience.
Do you have any advice for architecture students?
Students interested in a career in architecture should keep in mind that to become licensed in most states they must have a degree from a NAAB-accredited program. This can be a five-year professional program, or they can do like I did and get a four-year undergraduate degree and then get a masters from a NAAB-accredited program. After that, they must also complete the Internship Development Program (IDP) and pass all divisions of the Architect Registration Examination® (ARE®). Becoming an architect takes dedication and perseverance, but it is well worth it!
I also think that having an office job while you’re in school is a great supplement to your education. It gives a point of reference to many of the more pragmatic courses like systems and structures. While working is very important, I don’t think students should let “real world” architecture influence their design work in school. In fact, I believe that work in a design studio can be most educational when unrelated to “architecture” as practiced. Students should learn how to design without embedded preconceptions.
Cross discusses the second step toward licensure, the Intern Development Program (IDP), and why it is important to focus on getting the diverse experience necessary to complete the process.
When and where did you do your IDP?
I could have registered for the IDP and started tracking my hours after my third year of undergraduate work at Colorado. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that at the time, so I didn’t get credit for the work I did for a year beginning the summer following my junior year until I left for graduate school. I registered for the IDP after I moved to New York and started working. Even then, while I did track my hours, I didn’t focus on completing the different training areas required for IDP. It was not until I moved back to Virginia and took a look at where I stood in the process that I started to seek opportunities to fulfill the various categories where I was deficient.
Interns now have the electronic Experience Verification Reporting (e-EVR) system, which allows them to go online at any time and see the training areas they have completed and where they still need experience. I think this will really help interns stay on top of the process and complete the IDP faster.
What factors did you consider when selecting your internship?
I began tracking my hours while in graduate school. At the time, selecting an internship was mostly based on who was doing the most interesting work. This made for a great work experience, but the office I worked in had little knowledge of the IDP and didn’t focus on the program. Consequently, I didn’t get the variety of experience I needed to complete the IDP. After that, I worked at a larger corporate firm that provided more structure and had a culture that fostered professional growth in terms of IDP and licensure.
How long did it take to complete the IDP?
If I do not count the time worked in college that was not used toward the IDP, it took me four to five years to complete the program.
How did your supervisor help you in the process?
Toward the end of the process my supervisors were all very helpful in working me into projects where I could gain exposure in areas that were not part of my regular role.
Did you have any difficulties completing the program?
I’d have to say that I was my own biggest obstacle. Even after failing to register for a few years after working and loosing that time, I was not diligent in tracking my hours with the attention required in order to move through the process systematically. Once I was committed and focused, the largest delays I had were getting signatures from supervisors who were focused on much larger issues.
Did you have a mentor?
I consider the architect for whom I worked those few weeks one summer in high school to be my mentor. He has continued to provide support and advice along the way. Additionally, I’ve stayed in touch with two former bosses who still offer their advice and support.
How did your internship prepare you for your career?
I am a huge advocate for diversifying one’s experience, and the IDP requires this type of diversity of experience within professional practice.
Are you now, or have you been, a supervisor? If so, how did completing the IDP make you a better supervisor?
I have only served as a supervisor for the past year or so. I check in with my intern regularly to see how he is progressing in the program and remind him often that filing frequently is critical to accounting for the time worked.
Do you have any advice for interns on how to get the most out of IDP?
Register early and stay on top of the program. All too often people get caught relatively far along in their careers with no IDP record and little time to devote to it due to increased responsibilities at home and work.
Cross talks about how creating a plan for taking the Architect Registration Examination® (ARE®)—and sticking to it—helped propel him through the final step needed for licensure.
When did you receive your Authorization to Test?
While a much-celebrated moment, I can’t quite remember the specific date. It was sometime around the beginning of the year in 2007. As preparation for the testing process, and to occupy myself while waiting for my authorization to test, I sought and received LEED professional accreditation.
When you started taking the ARE, did you have a plan?
Yes, my plan was to complete the tests before my wedding, approximately four months later. This probably wasn’t the most rational of goals, but as one who is familiar with working to deadlines it was just the catalyst I needed to buckle down and get the job done.
How did you decide what order to take the divisions?
I tested under ARE 3.1, which had nine divisions and the graphics and multiple-choice were separate. Because I wanted to complete the exam in a very condensed period of time, I decided to take the graphic portions of the exam first since it took longer to receive their results. After that, I grouped similar tests together and tried to take some of the most intensive ones first and leave the broader ones until the end.
How often did you sit for the exam?
I took an exam approximately every two weeks; however I took all three graphics portions on back-to-back days, and took both of the structures exams on the same day. By the end, I had completed the nine tests in roughly nine weeks.
How did you prepare for the ARE?
I have to give much credit to a coworker who was a few steps ahead of me in the sequence for pointing me to all the resources needed. The internet proved very helpful for working through issues with the graphics portion, as well as providing an overview of what to study for each test section. I would caution folks to use it as a resource, but not to get too wrapped up in some of the opinions some users post. The office I was working in had some older study materials that ended up serving just fine. They had a set of ALS study guides as well as those by Ballast. I ended up buying a used copy of Dorf’s guide as well.
What was the most difficult part of the exam process?
Finding time to study was probably the hardest part of the whole process, with figuring out exactly what to study being the next.
Did you have to overcome any obstacles to complete the exam?
The biggest obstacle to completing the exam for me may have been self-imposed as I did not attend any formal classes or seminars concerning the ARE. I didn’t purchase up-to-date study materials, so ensuring I was studying the proper material was hard to do.
What support did your firm provide to help you prepare for the ARE?
They had some study materials available in their library, and offered paid time off for the hours that were spent taking the exam.
Do you have any advice for someone taking the ARE?
Prepare to the best of your ability and take the exams in a confident mental state.
Cross talks about achieving his dream of becoming a licensed architect.
When and where did you get your initial registration?
I received my initial licensed from Florida in May of 2007. I’m currently licensed in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC.
Why was getting a license important to you?
Getting licensed marked the completion of a journey that was embarked upon the day I signed my college acceptance form 10 years earlier.
How has getting a license benefited your career?
Receiving my license has given me the power to choose how I wish to pursue my career. For me that has meant starting my own firm.
Cross talks about why he got an NCARB Certificate and how it helps his career.
What made you seek certification?
After the years of filing IDP forms, and the seemingly endless amount of paperwork associated with testing and licensure, getting the certification seemed pretty much like a no-brainer. I sought certification immediately upon becoming eligible.
How has your NCARB Certificate helped your career?
Being a practicing architect in the Washington DC area, the NCARB Certificate is essential, as this region requires a minimum of three licenses due to the close proximity of DC, Virginia, and Maryland. The NCARB Certificate allows you to maintain client relations even when their needs extend beyond your home state, which is important when you are a principal of a firm.
Did you find the process of getting certified difficult?
Certification was the easiest part of the entire licensure process.
What type of work do you do now?
I do a mixture of commercial and residential, and have a passion for sustainable design.
What is the most interesting project you’ve worked on?
At present, I am most excited having recently registered the first LEED home in Richmond, VA.