In architecture, there are so many different roles and sub-roles that it can be hard to separate one from another. A particular area of confusion is interior architecture.
How is it different from just architecture, since an interior can’t exist without an exterior? Why are interior architects necessary? Are they even real architects? Are they just practicing interior design under a new name?
In this article, we will look in detail at the roles of an interior designer and an interior architect, and explain why the latter term is sometimes rather controversial.
We’ll look at the routes to qualification for each job, as well as the salaries you can expect in each. Finally we’ll answer some FAQs, and hopefully make the muddy waters of ‘interior architecture’ run a little clearer!
What does an interior designer do?
Interior designers plan the best way to lay out and decorate rooms. They choose suitable furniture, fabrics and fittings, but their job is not – as some people assume – just shopping for nice things! Interior designers also have to ensure that indoor spaces are safe and healthy for people to use.
Like architects, they go through a complete design process that involves research, sketching, discussion with clients and/or stakeholders, ordering materials, creating cost estimates, carrying out site inspections, and much more.
They may have to use CAD and BIM software. More senior interior designers may also oversee small teams of contractors.
Some interior designers are general practitioners, but others specialize in particular areas, for example residential or commercial buildings, kitchens or bathrooms. You can read more about interior design on the websites of the BIID (British Institute of Interior Design), SPIB (Society of British and International Interior Design) and ASID (American Society of Interior Designers). You may also like to read our article: Architecture vs Interior Design: How are the Two Careers Different?
What does an interior architect do?
Interior architects do similar work to interior designers, but they have additional knowledge about building materials and structure. There is a particular need for interior architects when a building is to be adaptively reused, which is to say that the outer structure already exists, but the interior must be repurposed.
Interior architects understand how to work with the ‘shell’ of a building and give it a second life inside. Like regular architects, they need a thorough understanding of building regulations and will be expected to use CAD and BIM software.
Their plans include things like plumbing, electricity and ventilation. Interior architects also tend to have expertise in sustainable design, and may be called upon to advise on environmental issues. In theory, an interior architect is just an architect who specializes in interiors, but see below for an explanation of why this isn’t always the case!
More information about the role of an interior architect can be found on the website of the IFI (International Federation of Interior Architects/Designers).
Why is the job title ‘interior architect’ controversial?
‘Interior architect’ is a relatively new and much debated term. By law, the word ‘architect’ refers to a person who is fully qualified and licensed in architecture – a process which takes around seven years – and should not be used by anyone else to describe the work they do. However, there are people who sometimes describe themselves as interior architects without meeting the right criteria.
To some extent this is understandable, particularly in the UK and Australia, since some universities there offer three-year Bachelor’s degrees in interior architecture.
But graduates of these courses should call themselves interior designers, not interior architects. In the UK, Australia, the US and many other countries, for someone to legally call themselves an interior architect three years of study is not enough.
What are the major differences between interior design and interior architecture?
The jobs may involve a lot of similar skills and day-to-day tasks, but they are not the same. Interior designers have a more aesthetic focus, whereas interior architects must consider both aesthetics and building structure.
Qualified and licensed interior architects, who have the right to use the term ‘architect’ in their job title, are paid more than interior designers to reflect their longer training period.
People calling themselves interior architects after an undergraduate degree in Interior Architecture earn, on average, the same or slightly more than interior designers (see below for more information).
On a practical level, interior architects tend to be involved in construction or renovation projects at an earlier stage than interior designers. The former provide input on structural matters, whereas the latter consider the appearance of an indoor space once it is built.
How do I become an interior designer?
The route to qualification is quite straightforward. Most interior designers have an undergraduate degree in interior design.
These courses are common all over the world, but some well-regarded examples include those at Chelsea College of Arts (in the UK), New York School of Interior Design (in the US), or RMIT (in Australia). In some American states interior designers are required to apply for a license, but this is the exception rather than the norm.
Some interior designers have additional, postgraduate qualifications in the subject; others have no qualifications at all, but many years of practical experience. Unlike in architecture, there are no restrictions on the job title you can give yourself; anyone who’s reorganized their living room can technically call themselves an interior designer!
In unusual circumstances, you might find yourself able to learn interior design as an apprentice – but remember that later you’ll have to compete for jobs with a lot of equally talented graduates.
How do I become an interior architect?
This question is a little harder to answer, since it depends how you see interior architecture. In the UK and Australia, if you just want a degree in interior architecture, you can qualify in three years (or four with a sandwich year in industry).
However, when you graduate, you cannot legally call yourself an interior architect. You can work as an assistant in an architectural firm and you can call yourself an interior designer, but you can’t give yourself a job title with ‘architect’ in it. Remember, even people with seven-year architecture degrees but no licensure call have to call themselves ‘architectural designers’.
So describing yourself as an architect, even casually, with just a three-year degree is very likely to ruffle some feathers! In the UK, to legally become an interior architect, you need to graduate in architecture which takes seven years (five of study and two in industry) and then apply for a license to practice.
To find out more about becoming a legally-recognized architect, see our articles How to Become an Architect and How to Become an Architect in the UK. Or if you want to know the kind of things that are taught on a three-year interior architecture degree, you could have a look at these courses offered by UWE (in the UK) or UTS (in Australia).
In the US, the situation is a little clearer because there are no undergraduate degrees in interior architecture.
To become an interior architect, you’ll either need to take a B.Arch (which is a five-year combined Bachelor’s and Master’s degree, supplemented by two years of work experience), or take a Master’s-level conversion course in architecture after studying another Bachelor’s degree.
This conversion course is longer than a usual Master’s course and must be supplemented by internships. At postgraduate level, you can opt for a conversion course that specifically focuses on interior architecture (a list of examples is available here). For more information, see our article How to Become an Architect in the US.
Salaries in interior design and interior architecture
Interior architects (as legally defined) earn more than interior designers because the former have seven years of training plus a license, while the latter have only three years of training.
However, the difference in salary for these two jobs reduces considerably when both the interior ‘architect’ and the interior designer have only completed undergraduate degrees. Fairly or not, you may find that anyone calling themselves an interior architect also gets more respect, regardless of whether they are breaking the law by using the term!
Because interior architecture is a fairly new field, and it isn’t always clear whether people within it are fully qualified and licensed or not, comparing salaries between interior architecture and interior design can be tricky.
However, in the UK, payscale.com suggests an average salary of £25,539 for an interior designer and £28,128 for an interior architect, compared to £33,752 for a regular architect. glassdoor.co.uk suggests the salaries themselves are higher but the gap between interior/regular architects is lower, with interior designers taking home £30,180, interior architects £36,368, and regular architects £37,906.
In the United States, indeed.com estimates that an interior designer makes $51,564 while an interior architect makes $78,165.
This much larger gap likely reflects the fact that undergraduate courses in Interior Architecture are not available in the US, so there is very little room for someone with a Bachelor’s degree to wrongly call themselves an architect.
What skills do interior designers need?
Apart from the obvious artistic flair, interior designers need to be effective project managers who can see the whole picture. They liaise with clients and contractors on a daily basis, so they should be organized and adept at communicating.
They need to have reasonable numeracy skills in order to put together a budget and stick to it. Today’s interior designers also need to be confident using CAD and BIM software.
What skills do interior architects need?
Remember, under the law an interior architect is just an architect who specializes in interiors. They should have the same general skills as any other architect.
But specifically, interior architects need an understanding of aesthetics, structure and materials. They also need to keep themselves up to date on national and local building regulations.
Because they are often involved in adaptive reuse projects, interior architects may learn conservation techniques and technical skills like seismic retrofitting, i.e. making an old building earthquake-proof.
Which is harder to study: interior design or interior architecture?
Neither subject is ‘harder’ as such; it depends on what you’re good at, and what you enjoy. It might be better to ask which takes longer. Undergraduate degrees in interior architecture (not available in the US) and interior design take the same amount of time, i.e. three years, to complete; however, to become a fully qualified and licensed architect, so you can legally call yourself an interior architect, takes at least seven years.
Which career is more competitive?
Both interior design and interior architecture are highly competitive. Make sure you give 100% during your training; take every opportunity that is offered to you; always behave in a professional manner; and invest time in creating a knockout portfolio.
Do interior designers and interior architects work alone?
Very rarely indeed. They have to liaise with clients, contractors, architects and engineers, sometimes even with the public or other stakeholders. It is essential that their interior plans are feasible and appropriate within the building as a whole, so they can’t be lone wolves!
Do interior designers use blueprints, like architects?
They have to read them, but they don’t have to produce them. For example, if a client wants to extend their home, an interior designer might look at blueprints to see where walls could be knocked down or doors could be added. These days, ‘blueprints’ are more likely to be digital files.
Why can’t I call myself an interior architect if I graduate in interior architecture?
‘Architect’ is a legally protected term. You can use it if you graduate in architecture and get a license, which takes a minimum of seven years, but not if you complete a Bachelor’s degree in interior architecture, which can take as little as three. You have to call yourself an interior designer or something else without the word ‘architect’ in it.
But I can’t afford to study for seven years!
Architecture training is long and expensive. Critics have pointed out that students therefore tend to come from wealthy families, and that access to the profession is narrowing all the time. While this isn’t fair, it’s a reality that is unlikely to change any time soon. Completing a three-year degree in interior architecture will allow you to work in an architectural practice and undertake a variety of engaging work – you just can’t call yourself an architect.
Both interior design and interior architecture can be creative and fulfilling careers. Interior designers focus more on the aesthetic side and interior architects on the technical, but there is a high degree of overlap between the two jobs. Both need excellent project management and interpersonal skills.
It is easier to become a fully-qualified interior designer than interior architect, but there are ways to work in interior architecture without signing up for seven years of training. Make sure, if you opt for an undergraduate degree in interior architecture, that you understand what you will be taught and that you won’t be a qualified architect at the end.
But keep in mind that the word ‘architect’ on your business card isn’t everything; with the accelerating trend for reusing historic buildings, both interior designers and interior architects have excellent future prospects.