We interviewed architect Matthew Gaul about his path to licensure, his inspiration, and his ARE study secrets.
Why did you want to become an architect?
Like any kid of the 90s who grew up on watching Seinfeld, I think I’ve always wanted to fulfill George Costanza’s dream of becoming an architect.
As a child, I loved how books like Stephen Biesty's Incredible Cross-Sections showed the inner workings of everything from trains to opera houses. This led to hours of imagining and reimagining how the places around me—like my school or grocery store— were composed and how they could have been better designed for efficiency of space and ease of use.
Now, I recognize architecture’s profound impact socially, economically, and environmentally, and I’m excited to play a part in making our world a better place. As architects and designers, I think we all share a passion for shaping the world around us in a more ideal way.
How long did it take you to complete your experience and exams? What was your strategy?
Completing the experience requirement took me three and a half years, and the ARE (which I took concurrently) took me a year and a half.
I started out in a small firm with a lot of projects in design, but only a few small ones in construction, so it was a challenge to practice some of the required experience. I am fortunate to be working in San Francisco, where AIA SF has an ARE Pact program. The ARE Pact is designed to help you take all of the ARE divisions in one year by assigning you to a study group and providing weekly classes. To participate, you put down a thousand-dollar deposit, which is refunded if you take (pass or fail) all the divisions in one year. The ARE Pact gave me a robust order and timeline to take all of my exams, something I would have had to develop on my own if I didn’t have access to the program.
California also requires candidates to pass the California Supplemental Exam (CSE). So my end goal was to have completed the ARE and spend six months studying for the CSE by the time I completed my experience requirements.
Do you have any ARE study secrets?
I knew what study habits had worked for me in college, so I adapted and improved upon them for my current life as a married, full-time employee—and I made them a little more fun. I read the study guides like textbooks and took notes that I would later study exclusively—usually at my desk at home. I also studied in my “found time,” such as commuting on the train.
I started studying for each exam early (four to eight weeks out) and really ramped up in the final week or two so that everything was well-set, but fresh in my mind. I also set all of my tests for the same time and place. This gave me more consistency, and I made a few friends at the testing center, since they saw me so often for about a year!
You started earning experience while in school. What’s your advice for architecture students looking to do the same?
Internships are a perfect opportunity to explore your future career and discover what is really important to you in terms of project type and firm culture. Plus, having experience at a firm will help you find the best possible job match for you upon graduation.
It is also your opportunity to supplement your portfolio with paid work created for real clients while working for a paying boss. Once you graduate, potential employers will be looking at your experience as an indication of what you are capable of doing for them right away. While your school work is vitally important for a number of reasons, paid work is more like what you’ll be doing once you graduate.
How did you stay motivated to complete the path to licensure?
I knew that as long as I didn’t have my license, I had unfinished business: I wasn’t an architect yet. I’ve always been about working on “the next thing” and leaning into opportunities for self-development and improvement, which is why I’m currently pursuing LEED credentials. I would argue that the ARE is a valuable opportunity to learn more and discover things about architecture that weren't covered in school or might not have come up in your career.
The CSE—which is heavily focused on state specific regulations—was also a huge learning experience. However, I had the benefit of a cohort of coworkers studying for it at the same time, and we met regularly to share insights and information. It was especially motivating to see every one of them pass prior to my own exam date.
Why was earning a license important to you?
I believe licensure is the cornerstone of credibility and value, both for the profession and the professional. Being able to stamp and take responsibility for your work is what makes you an architect. When you’re an architect, you’re on a more level playing field with your coworkers—both in the firm and other disciplines. Additionally, the more the public, clients, and government officials see us as fully licensed and capable professionals, the more they will value and expect of us.
What advice do you have for licensure candidates?
Get really good at asking for whatever will help you advance your career. Your licensure is a mark of value for you, your firm, and the profession. If you need AXP hours in certain areas, ask for them. If you’d like support in paying for your tests, ask for it. If you need time off to take tests or an adjusted schedule to study, ask for it. These kinds of questions are, to varying degrees, going to be negotiations. But the better and more comfortable you become with negotiating with your employer, the better you will be at negotiating during your employee reviews, future job interviews, and meetings with potential clients.
Matthew Gaul, AIA, is an architect at BAR Architects in San Francisco, CA. He is currently serving a second term as AIA SF’s Associate Director, is a member of the new Public Policy and Advocacy Committee, and is a long time member of Equity by Design.