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A principal architect serves as one of the owners in an architectural design firm. In a single-person firm, the founder not only serves as the principal architect, but also handles all business and design decisions on his own. Large firms may have multiple principals, and the responsibilities for each of these individuals can vary from business to business. In some companies, each principal architect is responsible for a specific task, such as marketing or finance, while some firms split these responsibilities among all company leaders. The principal in an architectural firms fills a similar role to partners or principals in other professional businesses, such as legal firms or medical offices.
Unlike staff architects, principals at a design firm are responsible for decisions related to business management. They must plan the direction of the firm, and determine what types of projects the company will focus on. These professionals come up with strategies related to budgeting, marketing, and financial planning. They also have the final say in all decisions relating the business, and are responsible for resolving disputes or disagreements between other staff members. Principals also handle hiring and firing, and make decisions regarding company policies, training, and work environment.
In some companies, a principal architect may still oversee certain types of design work, particularly in small firms. He may take the reins on large or important projects, or advise other staff members when design questions arise. Principals are also asked to represent the firm at meetings related to project design. These professionals can act as consultants and play a small role in the design of a building, or handle the entire design from start to finish. Many architects who enter the field because of their love for design are eager to find ways to continue this work as they take on managerial responsibilities.
For small and medium sized firms, principals often play a dual role in both design and leadership. They can act as senior project managers, overseeing new or inexperienced staff members as they complete a project. They may also be needed to train or advise unlicensed architects as they work to earn their architectural license. The rest of the principal architect's time is spent making managerial decisions, evaluating financial documents, and marketing the firm to new clients.
In large architectural companies, architects may take on several roles as they advance to the managerial ranks. A junior principal, or junior partner, is someone who has recently been promoted to the level of partner. Mid-level principals often take on titles such as executive or senior vice president. The senior principal architect is typically the firm's founder or one of its chief officers. Most principals have some form of ownership in the company, whether through their role as founders or as more recent investors.