Professional Edge: Prioritizing Architectural Licensure

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In the United States, the title architect and the practice of architecture are strictly regulated. Unlike many other licensed professions, there is an alternative legally unlicensed form of practice available. The limited conditions for the alternative mode are few, and the quantity of the work is abundant. This may seem to undermine the licensed professionals’ practice, but the historical evolution of the profession originated from this unlicensed variety.

Many small architectural firms survive exclusively on this kind of work, this does not recommend avoidance of licensed architects. Does the amount of training required for licensure render them a superior designer over someone that lacks the technical training? This questions the need for strict regulation of the title. The phrase unlicensed architect is legally an oxymoron because an architect is licensed by definition. Conventionally defined, however, architect is a more generously descriptive title for an artist-designer involved in the practice of shaping space and contributing to the character of the built environment.

Much heralded work is the work of such an artist-designer. Numerous print and online resources are dedicated to essentially this kind of work. Even if an architect is mentioned, the assumption that it was required, nor is it adequate to assume one was not required. Some argue that an architect is inherently a better choice, more competent and trustworthy, as a result of their training and professional ethical standards. However, this cannot be proven. The final word must come from the clients, from those that work alongside these individuals, architects, and their informal counterparts. Certainly, photographs are no metric. They can be deceptive and cannot indicate experiential aspects of the project. It can easily be understood that good architecture is not inherently photogenic. How well the project actually works, how easily it is maintained, the difference between estimated time and materials, and other important aspects are factors largely determined by the experience of those involved.

This does not suggest architects only be used if legally required. The layered value architects add is the result of rote training and the development of an unquantifiable aesthetic sense. There are small renowned projects by unlicensed art-designers along with larger forgettable licensed architect-designed constructions. The success of a project is irrelevant related to the use or non-use of a licensed architect because of the numerous variables involved. Each has a responsibility to public/user safety. The question that remains is what value a licensed architect adds when one isn't required. More importantly, what would make one decide between licensure and non-licensure?

Factors that contribute to choosing an alternate mode of practice as opposed to licensure are the complications related to excessive demands in license acquisition compared to other licensed professions. Medicine and law, for example, each use strenuous but reasonable tracks of fewer years. There are numerous opportunities to practice architecture, or what is essentially architecture, without a license. So what factors would need to be considered if it seems easier to not become licensed?

Several additional aspects of architectural licensure will be discussed in this paper. A review of relevant literature and coursework will summarize the history of architectural licensure and how the creative nature of architectural practice has always struggled with regulation. Discussion with two U of W Master of Architecture graduates illustrates two common paths that many take after school. Each makes a case for or against acquiring a license. Finally, professional adaptation options are considered for the challenges of licensure in contemporary practice.

Becoming Professional

The regulation of architectural practice is relatively young in the United States. The first licensing law was established in Illinois in 1897, and the profession has only existed in its current form since the mid-19th century (Woods 4). Prior to the use of apprenticeship, in a building-related craft like carpentry, was the precursor to the practice of architecture in the U.S. (Woods 4). Architecture was historically a gentleman’s profession where practitioners were expected or assumed to act honorably and presumably with competence, so licensure was not deemed necessary. When the Western Association of Architects initially proposed licensing bills for several states in 1886 it was misunderstood as a ploy for architects to establish a monopoly over the design and construction management and planning process. Regulation was not first recognized as a strategy for ensuring public safety and initially was opposed by even the AIA, themselves founded in 1857 (Cuff 41), who regarded it as “demeaning.” Prominent architects of the period like Frank Lloyd Wright felt the same and voted against licensing in the early years of the 20th century (Woods 4).

Resistance to licensing was overcome as many realized it was a reasonable means of ensuring public safety, especially as the scope of the urban built environment increased in ambition and pushed the limits of materials and structure. The National College of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) was founded in 1919. Its primary role was to oversee the standards of licensing among individual states and ensuring public health, safety and welfare were protected through the regulation of architectural practice through licensure standards and credentialing. They administer the Intern Development Program (IDP) and the Architect Registration Exam (ARE), each required prior to becoming licensed. IDP established in the mid-1970s after decades of debate about what constituted “acceptable experience” for an architect-in-training. First ARE administered in June 1983 (History 19). Now that the history is established, this leads to discussing the current protocol for establishing oneself as a licensed architect.

“The path to becoming a registered architect in the USA involves four steps: education, internship, examination, and registration” (Marjanovic 75). Once these requirements are satisfied, one may use the title architect. The term “architect” is defined by RCW 18.08.320(3) Washington is “an individual who is registered under this chapter to practice architecture” (RCW 18.08.320(3)). There are benefits to obtaining licensure as well.

Benefits of licensure, in addition to the use of the title architect: regulates profession by establishing quantitative standards of practice that protect public health, safety, and welfare; can design and oversee the building of structures of any type or size; sealing, and seal drawings of those they have “responsible control” over; and more money: some evidence that in addition to experience a license is more valuable (Design Intelligence).

Even with the list of benefits, some still choose to utilize the exemption rules that follow under practice without a license. So under what circumstances can one practice architecture without a license? Evolved from the separation in the profession's early history those who build small, often residential projects of relatively limited scope from those of nearly every other type can practice under the exemption rule. The separation presumably minimizes risks to public safety for buildings under a certain size. Options include working under or alongside a licensed architect in an architecture office. What is permissible in WA state (Section 18.08.410 of Chapter 18.08 RCW) - “residential building of up to and including four dwelling units… farm building[s]… [and] building[s] of any occupancy up to a total building size of four thousand square feet,” (See NY exemption flow chart). Anyone new to the profession may find exemptions at odds with the strict regulation of the title architect, but it seems to be an accommodation that's evolved naturally from the separation in the profession's early history of residential projects of relatively limited scope from those of nearly every other type. For those who have been practicing unlicensed, there is a transition practice that enables the ability to avoid any penalization that falls outside of state exceptions. Hurley (2009) found that the level of complaints was increasing. “Joe Vincent of Washington state has noticed a fair uptick in complaints, which he attributes to the board’s newfound ability to take substantive action against offenders” (Hurley 43). Enforcement has increased over recent years which may not be of consequence. Washington’s board did not have the authority to send cease-and-desist orders until 2002 (Hurley 43).

NCARB promotes a 3-legged stool model of preparation that includes education, experience, and examination. States can allow experience in place of education. “In 1987, less than half of all states required a professional degree for registration.” (Cuff 2). Thirteen states still accept a high school diploma (in addition to between 6 and 13 years of on-the-job experience) to substitute for an academic degree. The potential imbalance created by allowing experience in place of education seems to compromise the integrity of the foundation for practice. It's a peculiar distinction at least: if NCARB values the model then why are exemptions permitted? Due to this ongoing challenge, it seems fitting that there should be a transition into utilizing adaptive practice from the very onset of one’s practice.

Parallel Paths

Graduates of architecture programs primarily take one of two paths. The first is to work for an architecture firm, and the second is to work alongside the profession a closely related field like construction or interior design. The following offers insights into different experiences in the field.

G. H. (2012 March graduate, currently self-employed General Contractor)

G.H. feels that the profession has strangled itself with its own identity crisis. He feels that the sudden exclusivity and desperation to remain relevant as the architecture disciplines and responsibilities diversify splinter off, this need for licensure has crippled itself through petty arguments about moral and ethical responsibilities over the significance of licensure. Regarding the issue of liability and legitimacy, he feels attracted to the broad applicability of the education and understands that licensure could be used as another credential. He sees it as an additional means of validation as perceived by potential clients. The only reason he'd subject himself to the licensing process is practical purposes only: for taking on bigger projects. He is “not going to subject myself to the process if I don’t have to” (G.H.).

M. W. (2011 MArch graduate, currently intern-architect at Mahlum)

M.W. is new to the profession having just finished school while accumulating IDP hours and taking the AREs is a best-case, text-book example. He recently passed the final division of AREs; completed 18 months for AREs; and will get through IDP in the least amount of time: 2 years 9 months (roughly six months remain). He was reimbursed for his expenses since he passed exams and has a library of study materials. His feelings about licensure are clear. He feels that the reciprocal relationship, with each looking out for the other, is the best-case scenario. He believes that overall the accounting for the different kinds of experience could be more flexible though overall believes that jumping through the final few hoops of licensure is of value. He also believes that people should follow the path appropriate to their individual strengths, beliefs, and makes sense to them.

As observed from the interviewees, the rigor and breadth of architectural education are generally good preparation for multiple fields. However, the attraction to become licensed is diminished through the ease of following these other avenues (Waldrep 230-1). Attrition is high and statistically one has less than a 50-50 chance of becoming a licensed architect (Lewis 19). But it may be that many don’t have the intention of entering the professions, to begin with.

As Hurley (2013) points out, the self-guided direction with a clear roadmap helps to expedite the process, but it is still the student’s responsibility to complete the program (121). You may be lucky and find someone looking out for you, or you may work in an environment where you're exposed to the many different kinds of experience. For many, though, it is more challenging accounting for the experience hours.

Changing Direction

Before further discussion over business practice or definition of what an architect in the legal vs. exempt variation is, a more definitive understanding of what constitutes someone as an architect will commence. What is an architect? As mentioned in a previous section, the practice of architecture existed in its current form without regulation for decades, beginning in the mid-19th century. Historically the definition of architect is not a legal one, but a definition of responsibility.

Spiro Kostof explains that the architect’s focus is a communication of what the building is and what it should look like. The architect is the go-between from the builder and client, translating the vision so that both parties understand what should be performed and expected. In his introductory book to the profession, Lee W. Waldrep devotes six pages quoting forty-plus responses to the question, “What is architecture?” Answers range from “problem-solving at its highest level” to “beauty and function in form” to “the marriage of art and science” to “a dream fulfilled.” Recently, a British journal was called on to stop referring to renowned architect Renzo Piano because, despite international acclaim, he's not registered in Great Britain as an architect. Legally it may simply protect a title, but as previously mentioned some of the most revered architects from recent history could not be called such if name by today’s standards. Perhaps more helpful than restrictive definitions of architect and architecture is to recognize that not every situation calls for a licensed architect. It must be assumed that subjecting oneself to the rigors of academia makes one a more competent interior home designer, with a mixture of theory, history, and design studios. That doesn't prepare one for the profession very well and is only the first half of the education. The remainder of which depends entirely on where one works and the kinds of responsibilities one is exposed to. This is a field of unique professional acumen with unique challenges.

The profession of architecture is relatively small, and unemployment is high, which exacerbates the increasingly longer licensing period. The odds do not favor recent graduates looking for work, let alone those who wish to begin pursuing licensure as soon as possible. Rampell (2012) states that “the unemployment rate for recent graduates was highest in architecture." Additionally, graduates are under-prepared for the increasing demands of today’s increasingly complex construction and real estate industry. Rates of acceptance and graduation have remained relatively steady in recent decades despite decreasing demand. As a result, they are undervalued. Lewis (1998) stated that there was a need for fewer architects to be educated, but that they should be better architects.

Until 2012 it was unclear just how long the average licensing process was in the United States. Matt Arnold is an architect in Virginia. He released the results of a self-initiated investigation into the effectiveness of the IDP program and the length of the licensing process in 2008. His discoveries were surprising. His conclusion was that NCARB lacks transparency and should resolve the discrepancy between how long it’s said to take and the reality (5,400 hours does not equal the official estimates at the time of his research of between 3 and 5 years). Prospective students need to know the truth since internship accounts for “more than 20 percent of an architect’s career.” It seems there’s now momentum to address this discrepancy. As of 2012, NCARB is digitizing, mining and making public its collected IDP and ARE data. By their accounts, it takes an average period of 8.5 years between graduation and licensure. These statistics confirm Arnold’s estimation that it takes much longer to reach licensure than had been claimed until more recently, a time typically claimed to be around 3 years. Universities have responded with a desire to reduce the time-frame, with industry leaders advocating the same (Hurley & Dickinson).

In an op-ed piece by a recent UW graduate,“Many responders admitted that... licensure isn’t a top priority anymore. While being a licensed architect is a prerequisite to owning your own practice, and can be an asset at small firms, there is little financial or professional incentive to become licensed while working at large firms, which often have well-developed processes in place that involve select licensed individuals signing drawings for the entire company." (McKeever).Consideration of regulation regarding function might be more beneficial with the evolution of the field as it stands now.

Practicing modern architecture-like design and building without a license through exemptions, for many, is sufficient; as advocated by Build LLC. In a post on their renowned blog, Build advises young architects-in-training “to get out on your own as soon as you can… Doing small architecture projects does not require a license in most states either. Don’t let the long process of licensure stop you from starting your business.” P. C., Professor of Architecture at UW admits that despite holding a license he’s only done residential work that falls within the rules of exemptions.

An unlicensed form could become an opportunity to reclaim the supposed significance of the license by establishing tiers of practice, for example. At the lower end could be the unlicensed form, then licensure as it currently stands and at the upper end is PR’s extreme of the master builder. For the profession to re-establish itself as necessary and valuable it must reclaim responsibilities that have been co-opted or taken over by other industries. This approach is advocated by Josh Prince-Ramus of REX Architects, who for the last several years, has advocated for architects to assume more liability and eliminate the artificial schism that currently separates creation from execution. With liability comes control and if architects want a more significant seat at the table they need to arrive better prepared. He doesn’t suggest how to achieve this goal but the implication must be that architects would face more thorough training in diverse fields like engineering, law, and real-estate.

Blogger and designer Brinn Miracle suggest the most realistic solution to address some of the discrepancies: there can be "licensed" architects and the title “architect” for those currently and paradoxically known as “unlicensed architect” or “designer.” The distinction would be a valuable one for consumers, not as a means to take away business from licensed architects, but to use the best service for the job as is reasonable, like with when deciding between using an accountant or CPA. Whether a recent graduate or professional veteran, the profession has ambiguous and sometimes demeaning titles for an architect-in-training like intern and designer (see illustration).

Moving Forward

It's been shown that architecture is unique among licensed professions in the U.S. Challenges of the licensure sequence are currently under fire and being considered for revision, which offers a positive outlook for those entering the field now. Additional positive changes related to the variety of ways one can practice within or on the edge of the profession without a license. For those who choose to practice more conventionally and seek licensure the challenges of licensure are still quite daunting and time-consuming beyond the years of training required even of medical practitioners. The choice is individual and one may discover that licensure isn't a primary concern after all, if designing within the limits of exemptions is acceptable for their professional goals.

In conclusion, the decision to pursue licensure in a profession like architecture is ultimately a personal one, though the process and alternatives should be well understood. It is troubling for the regulated practice of architecture that architects-in-training increasingly feel that the compromises of pursuing a license aren't worth the benefits of having one. Whether one deems the path to licensure unreasonably long and expensive compared to those of other established professions or is dissuaded by the large number of those pursuing architectural education outweigh the demands of a relatively small profession. The expanding scope of contemporary practice will likely preserve the need for licensed architects, but the historic responsibilities of the architect are increasingly the domain of parallel industries and professions. Design exemptions and the option to substitute experience for education in some states suggest the preparation and capacity of an architect are more flexible than strict regulation implies they ought to be. Liberating the title architect and making it available for all who practice building-related design would benefit the profession. The title licensed architect could be used for the demand that will certainly remain for such work that is currently limited to licensed architects.

(Figures 1-7 omitted for preview. Available via download)

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