What Is the Difference Between Studying Architectural Engineering and Studying to Be an Architect?

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Architectural engineering is one of the highest-paying bachelor’s degrees, yet the major may be unfamiliar and even confusing to many students. Architectural engineering isn’t just a fancier name for an architecture degree. It’s a separate field of study that prepares you to work in a different occupational. Accordingly, the curricula for these programs differ significantly, even though architectural engineers and architects often work together.

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Distinctions Between Architectural Engineers and Architects

Both engineers and architects design buildings (although engineers of different types also design many other things besides buildings). However, their areas of focus and the skills they bring to their work are very different.

Architecture is, generally, more concerned with the aesthetic appearance of a building or structure than the field of engineering is. Architects take more courses in the arts aspects of design than engineers do. They are visually creative and trained in theoretical thinking in their approach to design. For engineers, on the other hand, the emphasis is applying mathematical and scientific principles to design. Function, rather than aesthetic appeal, is an engineer’s chief concern.

These differences get a little muddier when it comes to comparing architectural engineers, not just engineers in general, to architects. However, that difference in focus still exists. As with other branches of engineering, the descriptor “architectural” refers to the area to which engineers apply the principles of engineering design. The role of an architectural engineer is to examine and contribute to the design of a building or structure to make it structurally sturdy, safe and functional, according to The Houston Chronicle. Architectural engineers have technical and mechanical knowledge of functional building details that include structural, plumbing, electrical, fire protection and heating and air conditioning systems that they use to develop an architect’s design of how a building should look into a full-fledged building plan.

Although architectural engineers and architects can fill some of the same roles, including serving as project manager for a planned building, they aren’t rivals. It’s not a matter of choosing between a building that looks good, designed by an architect, and one that is functional and structurally sound, designed by an engineer. Rather, architects and architectural engineers work together, on different aspects of a building’s design, to achieve the best of both worlds.

Architects earn a little less than architectural engineers, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reporting $80,750 median wage. Architectural engineering is a relatively new subfield of civil engineering, for which the BLS reported an $87,060 median wage.

Comparing the Coursework in Architectural Engineering and Architecture Programs

These two disciplines are so different in their areas of focus that it makes sense that they have very different curricula. The degree awarded in an architectural engineering program is usually a Bachelor of Science in Architectural Engineering, while undergraduate architecture degrees are called Bachelor of Architecture (BArch) degrees.

The differences between an architectural engineering curriculum and an architecture curriculum exist even in the general education requirements of programs offered by the same institution. To fulfill their university-wide mathematics and laboratory science requirements, students of architecture may be encouraged to take basic math classes, like data analysis, and basic science courses, like applied physics. Architectural engineering students, on the other hand, will take numerous higher-level courses in math and science, including multivariate calculus and three separate levels of physics.

Beyond their general education requirements, students of architectural engineering complete foundation requirements in science, math and core engineering topics like introduction to engineering design, thermodynamics, linear and dynamic engineering systems and the fundamentals of materials. Their major coursework revolves around studies in architectural engineering design, architectural illumination and electrical systems, introductory studies in HVAC systems and building envelope systems. Architectural engineering majors take some classes in pure architecture, like studies in architecture’s place in history and society. They also take classes from other disciplines of engineering, such as civil engineering and mechanical engineering. Students of architectural engineering programs may be able to choose an area of concentration, such as structural, building systems and digital building.

Studio courses make up a huge amount of an architecture student’s curriculum. These courses revolve around developing and using hands-on design skills to create hand-drawn and computer-aided sketches of your building design ideas. An architecture student also takes professional courses in architectural representation, materials and methods, building systems, structural systems, professional practice and architecture and society. Students can round out their architecture studies with electives in architecture history and theory and professional electives in topics like energy and architecture, advanced architectural drawing and computer applications in architecture.

Because architectural engineering is such a new and specialized field, bachelor’s degree programs in this subject are rare. As of 2020, ABET accredits the bachelor’s degree program in architectural engineering at just 22 distinct institutions in the United States.   

Additional Resources

What Degree Do I Need To Become An Architect?

What Is The Difference Between A Degree In Civil Engineering And A Degree In Architecture?

What Is The Benefit Of An Engineering Degree Vs An Architecture Degree?

What Will I Study In An Undergraduate Architecture Degree Program?

Architect vs Engineer: What Is the Benefit of an Engineering Degree Over an Architecture Degree?