Resources for an unlicensed designer -- where to start


I'm looking for good resources to build a knowledge base regarding the processes of taking a design through construction.  My degree is in another field so I have virtually no knowledge of the design and construction process -- what type of construction drawings are delivered to whom and when, permitting processes, conforming to building codes, etc etc.  Looking more for sources on the actual logistical, construction, and legal processes etc.  I understand the design limitations impossed on unlicensed practitioners and that even then most plans will have to get stamped by a licensed architect but beyond that my knowledge is pretty low-level.  Looking to get a broad overview of the whole proccess and what all the steps are and then be able to dive down in-depth into each step.  Haven't had much luck finding any solid web resources or textbooks.  If sources relate specifically to building in California even better but any suggestions that can start to give me a good foundation are appreciated.

May 4, 17 8:05 pm
Non Sequitur
That's why you hire an architect.
May 4, 17 8:00 pm
Do construction, you'll learn a ton, and then eventually work for an architecture firm
May 4, 17 8:33 pm

Consultation starts at $150 an hr.



May 4, 17 9:09 pm

So my situation is...I'm 36 and have an established career in another field and have the expenses and responsibilities that go along with all of that.  Obviously, at some point if design is something I'm going to pursue that all has to be transitioned out of but at the moment I don't have the financial flexibility (or desire honestly) to start in an entry level position in construction, or intern at an architecture firm, or apply to architecture school etc.  That doesn't mean I'm looking for short cuts.  I'm not afraid of a long road of disciplined self-study and practice, it's served me well in life to this point.  Right now I'm just trying to build a basic knowledge of the industry to use as a point of departure.  To try and get a grasp on the magnitude of such an endeaver, on how long the learning curve would be, and the practical realities involved.

I know a lot of these "unlicensed designer" posts are favorite targets for people that can't resist the opportunity for snarky or dismissive comments, and if you really have nothing better to do with your time go ahead I'm all for free speech, but constructive advice is of course what I'm seeking and is very appreciated.

May 5, 17 2:15 am
Non Sequitur
You're looking for a short cut to something most of us here spent a decade training. It's not snark, it's a reality slap. Architecture is not a casual hobby. It's great not to want to start at the bottom, but that's not how things work when you have zero experience.

Take a envening building science course at a local college. It won't get you far, but at least you can start somewhere. From there, look up the course book list and syllabus of most B.Arch or M.arch.
May 5, 17 2:28 am


I agree with N.S. I am an unlicensed designer... building designer. At the end of the day, you are going to need to possess the knowledge and develop the skills that any architect is going to learn and develop and apply. It is true that you may not need all the knowledge and skills used for designing skyscrapers but there is a core set of knowledge and skills that you will need to have under your belt to be able to perform the work your client is commissioning you to perform. Being unlicensed is not an exemption from liability, being sued, and being held responsible for your work. You will be held because the client is depending on your expertise that you imply to possess by offering services. The act of offering to perform a service is a claim to having the knowledge and skills to perform the services. Consumer protection laws do prohibit any business from offering goods or services that the business can not follow through on competently. Competence is an entitled right of expectation of any consumer, client, or customer. As I said before, it is less of a concern how you gain the knowledge and skills needed but that you learn them and develop them. Of course, if you want to get licensed, you'll have to follow a prescribed path to licensure in any given state or country.

I have been in this business for over a decade and what I can tell you that N.S. is right, it takes YEARS even a decade or more. This isn't something you can professionally do buy buying some $20 program and spending a weekend. Professional experience takes a significant commitment of time and dedication. You can possibly learn enough to get started in 2-3 years but there is a lot more you can learn and will continue to learn. I suggest, taking some building science courses and some drafting classes. If a university with at least a 4 year architecture program, I suggest taking some courses from those programs as well. You'll probably need to learn some technical skills in preparing drawings.

A program that teaches CAD or BIM will be helpful in technical skills. Some programs you can self-learn such as learning about architectural history & styles and key characteristics of those styles. That's is to some extent important because if you don't know what a neoclassical style building is and the character defining features of that style, how are you going to design a house with those features that your client wants and is demanding?

You'll want to develop a personal library of books and PDFs. There are many older but still fundamentally valid books and PDF resources that I am familiar with. At some point, before you go opening up shop, you will want to learn and understand the building codes, zoning codes and other regulations as well as how to find that information for each place. It is less a thing of memorizing the building codes but learning how to find the information and how to be able to properly interpret the building codes. There is another skill set you will have to develop over time and that is working with clients.



In California, you will be required to work on wood frame residential construction and some projects you may work on would need an engineer and sometimes an architect.

Keep in mind that, you don't have to strictly design to California. You can practice as an unlicensed designer in most states of the U.S. Some states will allow you to design more sophisticated projects than California even if you are based in California. You just have to research the laws and rules of the state where the project is intended to be located. Do that before you start drawing or designing for a project or getting into a contractual relationship. You want to do your legal homework.

This is a crash course of professional practice. I'm up in Oregon to the north of you.

May 5, 17 4:54 am

There are additional resources:  (American Institute of Building Design) - a professional association that represents building designers (unlicensed designers.) - California society of building designers. - National Council of Building Designer Certification - If you look at the ncbdc certification and the reading list resources in the ncbdc certification exam candidate handbook, those will help guide you on some basic subject areas to study and books to study. There are colleges that also offer courses in these subject areas but they can be difficult to get enrolled in because some colleges reserves them to majors / degree-seeking students.   (NCBDC Candidate Handbook)

The NCBDC candidate handbook will not be teaching you to design or draw or draft. There are additional books I can point you to. Look to pages 22 & 23. 

A book: "Architectural Drafting & Design" by Alan Jefferis & David A. Madsen

There are other similar books as well. There are some more contemporary books geared toward programs like Revit and other BIM based software. 

There is a lot more out there. It is just a primer on getting some basic knowledge and skills. I also recommend what N.S. said about reading the syllabus and course book lists from various programs in Bachelors & Masters level architecture programs.

For concept & design development phase sketching skills, I recommend books authored by Francis d.k. Ching and other books like them. 

I hope this gives you some areas to start.

Remember, studying and learning is a life-long learning process. Don't be afraid to constantly study. 

Another resource but it takes some level of architectural understanding but here:

and particularly:

It is acceptable that you don't understand it entirely the first time you read it. It takes times and through other architectural studying, you'll learn and understand the concepts better over time. 

May 5, 17 5:23 am
Go to CSI and search for the tests that they offer. CDT test would be a great start for you.
May 5, 17 10:49 am

Start anywhere.  First, You are not an "unlicensed designer", you are a "designer".  No need to attach a negative to a positive.  Designer is a positive word and also a very broad one.  Second, look at what others have done.  Ando is self taught. He is pretty great.  Second, read and observe everything of interest and sketch until you develop blisters (seriously, blisters should be a goal) .  Third, begin to design anything.  Fourth, begin to focus on a specific typology that interests you (housing, gardens, furniture, etc) know your legal limits, and the limits of your skills and resources.  Start small and work up. Start with a coffee table.  Build stuff.  Have fun.  It will take about 10,000 hours to become any good, but self study can be the most potent form of learning for some people. 

May 5, 17 3:18 pm

jla-x, Good Point there. I agree, start somewhere.


buy & study all the a.r.e. material. more specifically, construction documents & services, building design & construction systems, & site planning & design.keep studying & taking practice quizzes & test till you score about 70%. keep in mind tho, according to ncarb, it takes people wit college degrees in architecture & sum work experience roughly 3-4yrs on avg jus to pass all 7 exams

May 7, 17 12:38 am

The person isn't necessarily pursuing taking the ARE. You're assuming the person is choosing to become license. I agree that it can certainly help through studying the ARE and various practice & study resources.


I study the AIA Emerging Professional's Companion. It is a great source for understanding a wealth of information that combined with the CDT and a host of other things I feel confident I can complete a project.


To Westcoast.....

I second the MyDream but I think the cumulative references from all of us so far will give a good range of resources. I think it all works together to help make a person A) a better designer (or architect) and B) a competent professional capable of delivering on the promises that you commit to by agreeing to provide services to a client. All of the resources is half the mile. The rest of the mile is in you committing to learning and developing the knowledge and skills through studying & practice (experience) and following through on it. I don't say specifically how to get the knowledge or skills. How is less important than doing. Sure, if you want to become license then there is prescribed methods of how you need to get the education and experience that would be recognized for obtaining a license. If licensing is not being sought then, don't worry about how.


Ricky, op said they want fast comprehensive material on architecture, specifically the business side, contracts, delivery methods, etc..., in my mind a way to get up to speed is study the a.r.e. material; it basically covers everything one needs to know! I think its obvious at this point without an accredit degree one cannot sit for actual exams so you dont hav to fear the addition of another architect to the pool

May 7, 17 12:19 pm

Those would be useful but there would need to be some supplementary points to be made such as not using the architect title or use terms such as 'architectural services' for describing services. Building designer and building design services would be appropriate terms as well as residential design services and title residential designer.


Thanks for clarifying. With that, I see the value in it whether or not the OP will ever pursue licensing. It is still good study material.


public projects are often required to be available to the public in a city office somewhere, so if you want to see construction documents and get a quick idea of what the legal process and submittals look like, you can try to find a local public project and follow it for a little while.  ask the clerk questions, find out who the plans reviewer is and ask them questions while you're there.  seems to me those people are usually fairly congenial if you don't take up too much of their time.

read rick's posts and keep in mind he is basically what you are aspiring to be.

my last thought for you is that you don't get shortcuts.  everybody starts at the beginning, unless you were born into significant influence.

May 7, 17 1:06 pm

I second what curtkram says aside from not worrying about whether the OP aspiring to be me. I would recommend he aspires himself to be like John Yeon and Jim Lucia and some others who either have done well (John Yeon and Cliff May) and those who have in recent times or is currently doing well and represent the higher quality end of the building design profession. I'm just suggesting some information resources as with others. I recommend also reading various resources on the business side of things such as what s=r*(theta) said. Therefore, I suggest also watching and listening to "Business of Architecture" podcast/mediacast and also "EntreArchitect" podcast by Mark LePage. Both sources can provide some useful information that is applicable to all building design professionals.


How about client relations? How do you know if a client is serious? How do you know if your client is dumping you? If a client does not reply does that mean they will not hire you? I mean I have had a lot...a lot of projects just slip thru my fingers, big 5 figure projects as well as smaller 4 figure projects. The biggest was a 6 million dollar home. Will these projects come back? I am however starting to understand if you want to survive get with a contractor and I have two of them pretty close to me just haven't got me working yet. I also have a meeting scheduled with a local designer(how am I going to afford to pay for lunch when I am unemployed?ahhhhhh).

What gives

May 7, 17 1:24 pm

I don't know if there is a good book but if the person doesn't seem excited or sold on your 'pitch' (okay, over expression but I think you get the idea) they are likely just trying to be polite when they leave and then pursue someone else. This is kind of a psychology study and looking to body language and reading the emotion expressions. If they are not that excited then they may continue shopping around. There is still the possibility of a client coming back but it may become slim if they find someone they like better. This is kind of an art form. Getting with a contractor is a good thing for basic bread and butter work. Getting with a contractor does not mean you necessarily work as an employee for them but establish a business relationship where they become repeat customers but working with a contractor is different then working with the client directly. Finding a solution where you work with the client for design specifics where you are working with the client for the design and they are working with the client for construction and working together to resolve design intent with construction methodology. The relationship should be as a team not you being subordinate to the contractor and contractor not subordinate to you. I'm confident that you already know that but I understand the frustration.


Thanks for the response, that is where I am at though, trying to convince someone who is willing to hire me . Finding that client who is excited seems to be the missing link to my success. Looks like I need to create a elevator pitch that best represents my talents. If I would have won half of the projects that have came to me I would have 5 figures in my bank account easy, looking to get into the next step to complete my lofty ambitions. The contractors that I am working for, one I have known since kindergarden who took over his dad's business and the other was a cold call that responded and asked for a pricing proposal. The relationship I think should be a professional one with respect to each others profession. Seems like I should just keep tweaking pitch and being patient, and just keep going to college.


I hear you. You know my pain at times. I know what you are going through. Part of what I learn is to not be too rigid. Try to fair and accommodating while still standing firm on making sure you don't get screwed. Not all clients can afford big. I have noticed that you mentioned some pretty well to do prospectives that are looking for the best deal. I agree with you between contractors that there should be a mutual professional respect of each other. Finding those will be great for the bottom line. As for "End-User" clients (to distinguish from contractors) should be flexible to the goal, conscientious of the clients project goals and needs. I know from experience that often you'll only get a fraction of prospectives becoming actual clients. One suggestion I would be 'preaching' that I should be doing more is having a consultation fee even if they don't select you. If as a profession, we charges a little fee at the very least, it would at least break even some hard cost associated with the cost of talking to prospective clients that are 'quote shopping'. One possible benefit is fewer of them will contact you unless they are serious. There is a method to this. I believe Enoch Sears of Business of Architecture had a suggested method on this. - for some other stuff. Whatever you can glean from just the free portions of the program, let it help you at the very least. 

A goal is to qualify the client so you spend less time talking and meeting with non-serious prospectives that accrues cost out of pocket when you can get at least a little bit of $$$ to cover cost out of pocket and little for your time. Be fair and reasonable. Just some thoughts.


Enoch Sears of Business of Architecture is a god send I have been following him on YouTube. This is some great stuff man I find my self heart beating and all like "Hell Yeah its go time" only from them to say uhh hey I'll give you a call in a week with revisions... :( ....To be fair the developer did say the site plan was going thru revisions. Lastly after all of the extra courses on architectural visualizations I have paid for I should at least give this a try. Nice stuff (but is not free he asks for money at the end)


Wow ok thanks so much guys.  This is exactly what I was looking for, lots of great resources and ideas.  

Non-Seq: Don't worry I'm under no illusions as to the magnitude of work and discipline involved in this pursuit.  I guess if you define a shortcut as any amount of time less than the decade + you've spent training then maybe, yes, I'm looking for one, but I'm certainly assuming the length of that shortcut will be measured in some number of years (plus the lifelong pursuit of expanding a craft...)  Right now I'm just trying to comprehend as much of the endeavor's scope as possible so that I can weigh the amount of work to be done against my available time and come up with a suitable plan of attack.  Not afraid to start at the bottom, I'm doing that right now, my bottom might just look a little different.  Good advice on the building science course and the course syllabi/reading lists, thank you for that.  

s=r: Great advice re the A.R.E. material.  There's much room for improvement across the board for me but I did take a fair number of arch history courses in college and have meandered my way through a modest personal library on design and theory over the last decade and a half so I guess my inclination right now is to gravitate towards the largest gaps in my knowledge which is definitely the whole business/construction/documents etc aspect of the industry.

Rick: Awesome advice and resources.  Thank you.

Do you guys have any suggestions for Californian building designers that are currently producing good work that I could look up?  Would be interested to see what talented people are doing with the limitations imposed without a license.

May 9, 17 6:42 pm

Amarant Design & Build Center -

This is one example with a website. There are some others, I'll have to look up the information for. Many building designers works across state lines. 

One thing about California is under the exemptions, you're required to work on construction of wood frame construction for projects in California. That is largely platform and balloon frame wood stud construction. With that in mind, John Yeon's projects in the Pacific Northwest would apply well for even California. The works of Cliff May and also the works of Craig Ellwood and some others. Also, don't limit yourself to what California imposes. California exemption from Architectural licensing only applies to your work that pertains to projects intended to be built in California. If your project is in another state, it would be that other state's laws and exemption that applies. I'm quite aware of what people can do without a license. My suggestion for you is to do your best and develop your skills and aspire to the quality of work of past and present designers and do so competently with all the regulation in place such as the building codes. Find engineers that will complement your non-licensed with engineering licenses for some work that may require specialized drawings prepared by engineers. Do note: just because wood frame construction is required, you can use brick and stone and other materials for facade as well as reinforced concrete foundations or reinforced C.M.U. foundation.

Review that for California projects. 

May 9, 17 7:16 pm

Sound advice. There was quite a good Ellwood exhibit here in LA I saw a little while back.

Regarding the woodframe requirements I've seen that section of the APA before, I saw you talk about this on another thread recently, and I think I understand but basically you can design most anything without restrictions (maybe not hospitals/schools etc?) as long as you have an architect/engineer stamp/produce the construction drawings and oversee the construction? And obviously take a large chunk of your fee in the process. Do other restrictions, such as number of stories, 4 unit max on multifamily projects, etc remain in place?

Not that this is really a realistic concern for someone starting out, just curious.

May 13, 17 4:00 pm

Thats what foreign architects do. Peter Zumthors LACMA for example.



You can have an architect supervise the complete design process and the architect exercise direction and control over the project and then work on almost any project. 

As for the exemption, each state has it's specific exemptions. In Oregon, I can design an SFR of any size and any number of floors as far as the exemption for SFRs go. If I design a house in another state then that state's limitations apply. If you are basically the lead project designer exercising substantial independent decision making over the design then the rules and limits of the exemptions would apply to you on projects in that state where the project is located.

Fuck all that. All you need is a paying client. Competence won't necessarily help you get one. Neither will ethics. Start with marketing.

May 14, 17 7:08 pm

While that may be true but don't put the cart before the horse. What if he got a client and not able to fulfill the work he is contractually obligated by law to fulfill?


Architects Handbook for Professional Practice google it

Jan 19, 19 10:44 pm




Jan 20, 19 2:39 am


Jan 20, 19 2:39 am

Block this user

Are you sure you want to block this user and hide all related comments throughout the site?

  • ×Search in: