Registered or Licensed Architect vs Unlicensed Architect

Great article on the lunacy of using the term “architect” in Texas or many other states.

Architect. Designer. Job Captain. Intern.

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What does a person who received a degree in architecture and works in the profession call themselves? It is an age-old question that still plagues the profession, causing rifts, dissension, distrust, and anger while leaving both sides bewildered and disillusioned.

Some professionals aggressively engage the subject, spewing malicious opinions based on nothing more than a bruised ego. Others enter the scene cautiously, hoping to point out facts and offer their two cents. Still others remain silent on the sidelines, content to keep their nose out of others’ business, since ‘it doesn’t concern them’.

I would posit that it is an epidemic that needs to be addressed, and that all of us are involved, whether we want to be or not. If you hold a degree in architecture, this matter affects you. If you are a young professional, this matter is often a passionate topic in which you may feel you have no voice. For aged veterans holding a license from their state, it can be a bitter pill to swallow as countless other professions use the term ‘architect’ to describe their work.

It is time to address the elephant in the room; to challenge the status quo; to question the purpose of the rules. It is time we ask not only ‘what do architecture graduates call themselves?’, but add the ‘and why?’.

When making a case for or against a position, we must first define the terms. Only then can we establish a solution or law based on those definitions. For the purposes of this article, I will use the Merriam Webster dictionary for my definitions.

The problem is what to call an architecture graduate with any number years of experience that has not yet obtained a license and may or may not plan to. Well, what is an architect, by definition in the English language?

ar·chi·tect noun ˈär-kə-ˌtekt

Definition of ARCHITECT

1: a person who designs buildings and advises in their construction

2: a person who designs and guides a plan or undertaking

<the architect of American foreign policy>

Examples of ARCHITECT

  1. <the architect of the economic plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II>


Middle French architecte, from Latin architectus, from Greek architektōn master builder, from archi- tektōn builder, carpenter

First Known Use: 1563

Contrary to popular belief, an architect is defined as someone who designs; either a building or an undertaking. There is no mention of education requirements, legally recognized licenses or other prerequisites. It is very simple: architects are those who design buildings and/or ideas.

What is architecture, then? Perhaps it will provide a more narrow understanding of the profession.

ar·chi·tec·ture noun ˈär-kə-ˌtek-chər

Definition of ARCHITECTURE

1: the art or science of building; specifically : the art or practice of designing and building structures and especially habitable ones

a : formation or construction resulting from or as if from a conscious act <the architecture of the garden>
b : a unifying or coherent form or structure <the novel lacks architecture>
3: architectural product or work
4: a method or style of building

5: the manner in which the components of a computer or computer system are organized and integrated

Architecture encompasses the art or science of building, whether an inhabitable physical structure or a digitally created infrastructure.

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At this point, I’m sure many registered architects will find fault with these definitions based on the argument that ‘the law defines an architect as a licensed professional’. Lets address this in the same way; before any law can be established, a set of definitions must first be provided on which the law will be based. For example, you cannot have a law establishing consequences for murder if you do not first define what murder is. Likewise, you cannot create a law that regulates architects if you do not first establish what an architect is. Herein lies the first problem: the law does not abide by the English language definition of architect. Laws are essentially rules; they do not create definitions, but rather they create an enforceable procedure via a governing authority. The law must first be based on definition of the terms or the law will eventually fail its intended purpose. It is much like the matter of truth vs. fact; the definition of a thing must exist outside the law, otherwise the law can be abused to fit the will of the enforcer simply by changing the definition.

This is the current issue which plagues the architect’s profession. Regulation is an authority asserting ownership of a title in an attempt to assert control over an organization or system. In our case, the NCARB established a national test in 1965 to provide a standard by which all architects’ skills could be measured and verified. In this way, they were able “to assess a candidate’s ability to safeguard the public’s health, safety, and welfare.” A necessity that few will argue with. However, over the years, this necessity for protecting the public has turned into a battle over the use of the word ‘architect’ to the point that licensed architects threaten to report anyone who uses the word ‘architecture’ to describe their work or ‘architect’ to answer the question of, “What do you do?”. We have strayed very far from the original intent of a license and miss the point completely as we bicker with each other over the use of the word ‘architect’.

The original intent of the regulation of the word architect was to prevent unqualified individuals from selling architectural services to consumers that would put them in danger. The word architect was protected to ensure that an under-skilled person off the street wouldn’t claim to be an architect and compromise someone’s safety. However, in protecting the word from misuse (i.e. intentionally misrepresenting credentials to a consumer), it also excludes those who actually practice architecture from using the word as a descriptor for their career. Individuals who perform the same duties and tasks as licensed architects are not allowed to say that they ‘practice architecture’, nor are they allowed to call themselves ‘architects’. They live in fear that they’ll be reported to the governing bodies for infringing on the protected title and fined for just describing their job at a cocktail party. Simple conversations of ‘what do you do for a living?’ turn into fumbled answers that dodge the question, go into a lengthy discussion about the legalities of using the title ‘architect’, and generally leave all parties confused. Even if an unlicensed architect were to describe themselves in the ‘approved’ terminology of ‘designer’, ‘drafter’, or even ‘architectural intern’, the layman would scratch his head and retort, ‘oh, so you’re an architect!’. Titles approved for unlicensed architects only serve to belittle their work, confuse the public and heighten the animosity between those with or without a license. Honestly, those titles seem to be afterthoughts once the issue came up.

design is ...

Design is knowing what to do in order to make a difference. Image by anikki* via Flickr

Think about it this way: if you asked someone what a designer did, you’d get a variety of answers. Things like graphics, fashion, art, and products would come up. If you asked someone what an intern was, you’d be met with a mixed response as well. Some would answer ‘student’, while others might say ‘recent graduate’ or ‘unskilled-worker’. These answers are both correct and incorrect; correct in that the term intern is ambiguously defined as both a student and a graduate, as well as someone who is experiencing supervised training. Now try to apply the term ‘intern’ to a person who has a masters degree in architecture, has twenty years of experience and runs multiple projects single handedly. Is this person a student? No. Is this person a recent graduate? Certainly not. Is this person inexperienced or under-skilled or in need of direct supervised training? Absurd. “Designer” and “Intern” are simply insufficient in describing what an unlicensed architect does and their respective knowledge base. Designer is overly generic, and unspecific, while intern gives no importance to years of training or acknowledges any advancements. Titles like ‘job captain’ or ‘project manager’ are also similarly insufficient in describing one’s work, as they can apply to any field. Not only are these titles insufficient, but they can create animosity by psychologically elevating the title of ‘architect’ above those with ‘lesser’ titles such as the aforementioned descriptors. This only perpetuates the notion that calling oneself an architect is an exclusive and elite rite of passage, only reserved for those who have bought into the bureaucratic system of paying to prove an existing skill set through a series of tests. It fuels the ego, and promotes a system in which tattling on co-workers is encouraged for the ‘sake of protecting the title’. My first question would be ‘how much money is collected annually from fines of misuse of the term architect?’ and second ‘what percentage of those fines are of professionals practicing architecture as defined by the English language?’. The law which sought to protect the public has degraded into a system that profits from those who seek to be a part of the profession and in good faith, use the word architect as defined in the dictionary to describe themselves. It is almost like trying to protect the word ‘man’ or ‘woman’. Restricting their use doesn’t make the person any less of a man or woman; it is what they are and no law can change that.

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We now have a generation of young professionals rising up in the firms who seem less eager to seek their license than previous generations. Carolyn Sponza cites the 2003 NCARB annual report which shows a significant decline in new registrants between 1989 and 2004 (up to 70% in CA). Although an increase was realized between 2006 and 2007, she suggested that perhaps it is due to an influx of recent graduates – a group to which I belong. She goes on to comment on hypotheses as to why this generation may be avoiding the licensing path. Though the suggestions are no doubt accurate for many young professionals, a key point is missing from most lists of this nature: the attitude of and towards architects. In eras past, architects were most often regarded with prestige and respect. It was a club everyone wanted into. Now, there is a perception among young professionals that it was all a facade; that the glitz and glamor of the architect’s profession was never what it claimed, and that the reputation of architects has turned into nothing more than a group of floundering whiners. Go to any architect forum and you’ll see a litany of complaints about engineers stealing architects’ work, IT professionals stealing the term ‘architect’, low wages (blamed on everyone but themselves), and a host of other ‘poor-me’ notes. Rarely will you find a constructive comment or suggestion for improvement. If you do stumble across a positive note, it will be met with criticism from the rest of the architects crying certain defeat due to some outside influence. We are poisoning ourselves from within. Why bother seeking a license, when one can’t even describe their work as ‘architecture’ without fear of retribution – talk about adding insult to injury! No wonder this generation is wary of joining in, especially when we have so many opportunities presented to us to make a difference using our skills without the buracracy and liability.

The problem is that our profession is failing to adapt to the changes in our society, and instead of creating solutions, they only add to the downward spiral with finger pointing, name calling, and complaining. My title. Your title. My work. Your work. A country divided cannot stand; nor can a profession that tears each other down.

Like it or not, I design architecture. By definition of the word, I am an architect. I have not completed my legal obligations to receive my license yet, but the work that I do daily is architecture. The profession I work in is as an architect. The legal interpretation of the definition is failing us. I have a solution, but it is one that requires everyone to put their pride aside, check their ego at the door, and admit that being an architect doesn’t elevate you to god-like status reserved for the few and the proud (that’s for the marines). Architects are just people who design buildings and ideas.

The simple solution to the title game is to call anyone who practices architecture an architect (unlicensed). Anyone who has successfully completed their testing requirements and has acquired their official stamp with registration number may call themselves a registered or licensed architect. 

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The logic is sound. The general public will not be confused by these terms for they are completely unambiguous. The titles do not exclude those without a license from describing their education or work, nor does it diminish the work of a licensed architect. Rather, it accurately and fairly describes the type of work that each professional does along with their legal credentials that can be used on a given project. One rebuttal to this argument claimed that a negative connotation such as ‘unlicensed architect’ would erode public confidence in the profession as a whole, with the example of an uninsured motorist. To this I would say that what would happen in reality would be to the contrary. Clearly defining architects into two groups (licensed and unlicensed) would immediately establish an architect’s credentials for a project and give the consumer the utmost confidence that the person they have chosen is indeed qualified to work on their project. With the current status quo, there is much confusion as to how to identify a registered architect (do you use RA, AIA, NCARB? What is an architectural designer versus an architect? What is a junior architect, intern architect and project architect? What is the difference between an architectural intern and an intern architect? …see the current confusion?). In the case of an uninsured motorist, they can creep up out of nowhere and run into you, causing damage. However, in the case of architects, it would be immediately clear from the outset of a project as to whether an architect had the proper credentials: a state issue stamp. It is the same as going to a doctor’s office and seeing their certifications framed on the wall. Now, that doesn’t exclude those who will forge stamps or perform services at a sub-par standard; however, those perpetrators would be dealt with in the usual manner: fines and/or stripping of their license. I am addressing those who simply wish to call themselves (accurately, no less) architects, not those who seek to deceive the public for the purpose of financial gain. So why fine those who are not seeking to misrepresent themselves and are merely trying to describe their career path at a cocktail party?

The Texas State Board of Architectural Examiners already has a flow chart to educate the public on which projects require a registered architect and which do not. Note, too, that the chart even describes such architects as ‘registered’; not simply ‘architect’.

Tell me that this wouldn’t work. Ignore the current status quo, lay down your pride and tell me how this solution is ineffective.

In summation, the simple solution to the issue of titles is to revise the laws to differentiate between ‘licensed’ and ‘unlicensed’ architects.

Maybe once we are at peace with the terminology, the fights among us would stop and we can finally move on to bigger, more important issues and actually work together. I suppose the heart of the issue is that we all want to be recognized and valued for who we are and what we do. No title will do us justice, for we are defined by what we say and do.

How will you be defined?

(On a lighter note, IT Architects seem to have job postings in plenty, and starchitect isn’t regulated, so maybe we should consider one of these titles? I rather like the ring of it, “Brinn Miracle – Starchitect”…now where did I put my exclusive eyewear…)

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