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. It extends to 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 the advanced study of complex urban problems and terrains. The program is structured around several academic, professional, and governmental partnerships providing diverse perspectives and opportunities. The curriculum includes a mix of required courses and directed electives, so 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 nation’s capital.

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

location of study

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 international student body, its robust sense of academic community, and its close working relationships between faculty and students. The Urban Design Concentration shares strong ties with existing VT DC area 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.


Admission to the Urban Design program requires a design background and a clear statement of interest in pursuing an advanced degree. Ideally, applicants will possess a professional degree in architecture or landscape architecture, but students with non-professional degrees may be admitted if one’s transcripts and portfolio demonstrate sufficient design education to pursue a master’s degree. Preferably, students will have a minimum of two years of prior experience in design, planning, or a related field. Applications for admission should include at least one letter of reference from someone outside of academia. For more information about application and admissions, please go to the Graduate School webpage:

The program offers a limited number of graduate assistantship positions, which provide a partial tuition waiver and additional stipend. Assistantships are awarded based on one’s application review, and are generally offered along with the initial acceptance letter. Urban Design students may begin their studies in either the fall or spring semester, but the program awards the most assistantships to those enrolling in fall.

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 competencies across the fields of design, planning, and public policy. Students should choose electives based on one’s own 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 might take a landscape architecture or natural systems elective, while landscape architects might take an architecture elective. At least one contra-elective must be in urban planning or a related discipline.

At the start of the second semester, students propose an Area of Concern around which their thesis, additional electives, and the Comparative Urbanism Seminar will focus. Comparative Urbanism allows students to study similar places in different cities. Recently, the course has included a special collaborative partnership with the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany, and we expect it to grow to include other universities, becoming the hallmark of the 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 Seminar (3 credit hours)
  • Cross-Disciplinary Electives (6 credit hours)
  • Representation Elective (3 credit hours)
  • Free Electives (6 credit hours)

Student Work