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Master of Science in Architecture, Urban Design Concentration

MS. Arch, Post-Professional Degree, STEM Designated, Based at the WAAC

Program Philosophy

The terrain of Urban Design builds upon the overlapping disciplines of architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning and extends to include related disciplines engaged in urban issues such as geography, sociology and ecology. Urban designers benefit from these inter-disciplinary perspectives as they seek to understand the complexities of urban environments and how to intervene appropriately across many scales.

The Master of Science in Architecture, Urban Design Concentration is a three-semester program allowing students with professional design and planning degrees to engage in advanced study of complex urban problems and terrains. The program is structured around several academic, professional, and governmental partnerships that provide diverse perspectives and opportunities. The curriculum includes a mix of required courses and directed electives, so that each student can develop their own emphasis within the curriculum and a focused thesis investigation. Based at the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center, the program is embedded in the urban environment of Washington, DC and offers outstanding possibilities for immersion in the complexities of the capital city. It has particular strengths in pedestrian-scaled environments, landscape urbanism, and histories and theories of urban design.

The Urban Design Concentration at Virginia Tech is a STEM Designated program in Architectural and Building Sciences/Technology (CIP code 04.0902). The STEM Designation allows international students graduating with the MS. Arch degree to apply with eligibility for an additional 24-month extension of their initial 12 month-long Optional Practical Training (OPT). This allows for a total of three years of practical training in the United States.

Based at the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center, the Urban Design program leverages the unique assets of the WAAC, including its proximity to the nation’s capital, its diverse international student body, its robust academic community, and its close working relationships between faculty and students. The program shares strong ties with existing Virginia Tech graduate programs in Architecture, Urban and Regional Planning, Public Administration and Policy, and related subjects.

The WAAC was founded to provide an urban laboratory for Virginia Tech students, and after more than 40 years in Alexandria, the WAAC and its faculty have cultivated close and productive relationships with institutions and organizations focused on urban issues. These include several large design firms with urban design practice groups; research organizations such as the Brookings Institution and the Urban Land Institute; public planning entities such as the National Capital Planning Commission; and cultural institutions such as the National Building Museum, in addition to numerous embassies, federal agencies, and city and county governments. Our small campus is firmly embedded in the beautiful and historic setting of Old Town Alexandria. Thus, we are not just studying the urban environment but are fully immersed in it. The city is our home, not just our focus of study.

Ideally, applicants will possess a professional degree in architecture or landscape architecture, but students with non-professional degrees may be admitted if their transcripts and portfolio demonstrate sufficient design education to pursue the master’s degree. Students with professional degrees in urban planning are encouraged to apply and will be expected to take additional design studios to develop necessary design skills. Preferably, students will have a minimum of two years of experience in design, planning, or a related field. Applications for admission should include at least one letter of reference from someone outside of academia. A clear statement of interest is also required; it should articulate the applicant’s intended design and research focus.

For more information, contact Professor Paul Kelsch, program chair, at

The Urban Design Concentration requires a minimum of 36 credit hours, totaling three semesters of full-time study. (Part-time is enrollment is also permitted.) Required courses such as design studio and thesis give each student the opportunity to develop their own individual emphases and competencies across design, planning, and public policy. Students should choose electives based on their proposed focus or Area of Concern.

The first semester of the program is designed to refine the skills of incoming students in their own disciplines, while at the same time requiring cross-disciplinary coursework in the form of “contra-electives.” For example, architects will take a landscape architecture or natural systems elective, along with a planning elective. Landscape architects will take an architecture elective and a planning elective, while planners will take architecture and landscape architecture electives.

At the start of the second semester, each student will propose an Area of Concern around which their thesis and additional electives will focus. Comparative Urbanism allows students to study their focused interests in different cities, and in recent years, the course has included a special collaborative partnership with the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany. We expect it to grow and include other universities, becoming a hallmark of the degree program.

Required coursework is as follows:

  • Design Studio (6 credit hours)
  • Research and Thesis (9 credit hours)
  • Theory of Urban Form (3 credit hours)
  • Comparative Urbanism (3 credit hours)
  • Cross-Disciplinary Electives (6 credit hours)
  • Representation Elective (3 credit hours)
  • Free Electives (6 credit hours)