Architect Spotlight: Leah Alissa Bayer

Recently licensed architect Leah Alissa Bayer, AIA, NCARB, shares advice for pursuing licensure and discusses her experience as a member of NCARB’s 2017 Think Tank.

Why did you want to become an architect?

I have so many answers to this question, and they’ve all evolved over time, so it’s really hard to pick just one that sums it all up.

I think it’s common for architects to look back and identify a pattern or path that led them to become what they are from a really young age. For me that’s meant a constant, life-long, inward reflection to understand why I want to be an architect. The day I stop asking myself why is the day I’ll stop practicing.

The best answer I have today is I’m insatiably curious—I love weaving a fabric of my understanding of life as I move through it. Architecture is essentially the largest, most complex, physical embodiment of that mental exercise I could find in a profession. And bonus: you can make a massive positive impact on the world in the process. Nothing else sounds more fun and rewarding.

But, you know, ask me tomorrow and I might tell you it’s because buildings are really pretty.

How long did it take you to complete your experience and exams? What was your strategy?

A professor of mine at Cal Poly drove hard the recommendation to become licensed as soon as possible after graduation, and I was anxious to finally call myself an architect after so many years of pursuing the career, so that’s what I did. I graduated in June 2014 and gave myself two years of practicing in a firm before taking exams so I’d have a baseline understanding of the profession. By logging my experience hours from day one, I was able to complete the Architectural Experience Program (AXP) in June 2016.

As I neared the end of AXP, I knew it was time to test, so I developed a strategic plan based on NCARB’s Architect Registration Examination® (ARE®) 4.0 to 5.0 transition credit model. Listening to stories from other licensure candidates also helped me confirm that testing quickly was the best plan for me—dedicating years of my life to studying for and taking exams was just not an option.

In the end, I finished the ARE in five months. I took three exams on three consecutive days in July, then enjoyed a mini vacation until ARE 5.0 rolled out in November. I transitioned and took the last two exams at the end of November, passing all five.

You tested strategically and passed the ARE in just five tests. What advice can you give licensure candidates who are thinking of transitioning from 4.0 to 5.0?

I had the pleasure of writing an in-depth blog post for NCARB about why I think everyone should consider the transition from 4.0 to 5.0, which I recommend reading if you’re unsure. The benefit of reducing the number of exams you’ll need to pass the ARE is obvious. But as a follow-up to that post, I can say that while 4.0 divisions are relatively known and predictable after so many years, 5.0 divisions are much better exams—they really test your ability to think and make decisions like an architect. Because of that, I think some experience in the industry will help for 5.0 more than it did for 4.0. Additionally, because 5.0 tests are structured around the process of professional practice (versus 4.0 subject-specific exams), it’s helpful to have a big-picture understanding of architecture going into each exam. Studying all content areas at once helps build a well-rounded grasp of the practice, and will greatly benefit you on exam day.

Do you have any study secrets or advice on staying motivated?

The best motivator is a deadline; schedule your next exam right now. Before I started studying or even bought study materials, I scheduled and paid for my divisions. That very real commitment was what I needed to kick into gear, and I think without a looming deadline I’d have made excuses and procrastinated myself out of testing for months, maybe years.

Also, trust yourself. There’s a lot of great advice out there and plenty of detailed success stories, but only you know what works best for you. For this reason, I don’t tell people how long I studied for each exam or exactly what materials I used. My methods were successful for me because I know myself. You’ve got to pick a strategy that works best for you.

Finally, reward yourself. It’s great to offset the pressure of those exam deadlines with the idea of a little treat for yourself afterward. Whether you pass or not, you worked hard and deserve to celebrate that.

You’re a member of NCARB’s 2017 Think Tank. What are you looking forward to working on this year?

The Think Tank is such a powerful strategy NCARB is leveraging to involve licensure candidates in the Council’s work, and I’ve enjoyed everything we’ve done together so far. I’m looking forward to developing tools with NCARB to improve equitable attainment of licensure for emerging professionals during their initial years of practice, so we continue to improve the diversity of our profession. Recently, our team reviewed previous research and conducted interviews to understand existing methods and challenges firms face with regard to ensuring equitable access to mentorship and experience opportunities. I’m excited to report our findings at our next meeting and begin to outline programs that will help firms with these challenges.

How has becoming licensed accelerated your career?

After working on multifamily projects for a few years, I was ready to move on, try something new, and expand my skillset. While I have a strong background in management, both project and overall business, I knew it would be difficult to land the position I wanted in a larger firm because I have relatively limited experience working in the architecture industry. With a license, though, I had a lot more negotiation power and ended up accepting a position as an architect for Perkins+Will. In this role, I’ve quickly taken on leadership responsibilities and am now exploring personal research interests. It’s really exciting, and my future career trajectory feels limitless, all thanks to my license.

What advice do you have for candidates going through the licensure process?

Licensure is freedom. Freedom from your long and arduous past as a struggling student and intern. Freedom from looming test dates and dedicating every spare minute to studying. Freedom from having to justify what you do for a living, and why you’re not an architect.

Licensure is the freedom to declare to the world that you’re a respected professional. It’s the freedom to pursue whatever you want and to have total power over your own career. It is the freedom to be an architect.

You’ve come a long way to get here, and when you’re licensed it’ll all be worth it.

Finish it.

Leah Alissa Bayer is an architect at Perkins+Will in San Francisco, CA.