Another Case for Licensure and Regulation

Last week I had an experience that makes another good case for the licensure of architects and the regulation of use of the word “architect” and its derivatives.

I was chatting with a parent outside our kids’ after-school activity. She asked what I do for work and I gave my standard brief initial answer, “I’m an architect.”

She immediately told me her story. Her family is building an addition on to the house they recently bought. But they’re months behind with getting going on construction because of the first architect they hired.

After 3 months of working with the first architect, the drawings that they received for bidding to contractors couldn’t be built from – one bidder after another said he couldn’t build from those and needed other drawings. The night before the architect was planning to submit for permit, she checked the code, and found that the addition she’d been designing extended 5 feet into the setback. They’d have to redesign. My acquaintance went back to her with what the contractors said, she replied defensively that she “could do this,” she could submit the drawings and get a permit, this is what she does.

They fired her, and began looking for another architect.

Do the services provided sound like the services of someone who has worked for at least 3 years under the direct supervision of a licensed architect?

Not to me. But imagine the confusion of someone who has never hired an architect before.

Many single-family residential architects and designers draw more-constructible details, and are more familiar with building codes than many commercial architects (who have much more to learn about, and often, much bigger buildings to work on). They learn from working with experienced residential architects or designers, and from time spent on the jobsite. Less documentation is required for residential builders – contractors who do houses are used to building from pretty sparse documents. If they couldn’t build from what my acquaintance had given them, then those documents were pretty bad “construction documents.”

The services provided to my acquaintance sound to me like those of an unlicensed designer who hasn’t done any building envelope work, only interiors, and had no idea that she wasn’t competent enough to design an addition. She probably hadn’t worked under a licensed architect for very long, if at all.

(Only if you’ve worked for at least 3 years under the direct supervision of a licensed architect, and have passed your licensing exams, can you legally call yourself an architect.)

Knowing that my new acquaintance had moved to Colorado recently, I figured she didn’t know that in Colorado, you don’t actually need an architect for single-family residential work. Many Colorado home designers are not architects. Unfortunately, some of them imply to the public and to their clients that they are architects. Many of them did go to architecture school, and have degrees in architecture. However, a degree in architecture means only that you learned a lot of design and theory, and not much of the stuff you need to know in order to get buildings actually built. That’s why you have to work for at least 3 years under the direct supervision of a licensed architect (and pass your exams) before you can go out and offer architectural services to the public on your own. It’s actually possible that the designer my acquaintance hired is an architect, but just a really incompetent one. In my opinion, it’s much more likely that she’s not licensed.

I feel bad about the money and time lost by my acquaintance. But even more than that, I’m embarrassed to be associated with this “architect” in the mind of my new acquaintance, and in the mind of all consumers who have similar experiences. I’m embarrassed for all architects. People who are not competent at architectural services, and who call themselves architects, bring down all architects in the eyes of the public. Incompetent practitioners in all professions create a bad name for those professionals, of course. But in Colorado, we have a lot of people who are not competent at architectural services simply because of the fact that they do not have enough experience working under someone competent to actually take their exams – but they go ahead and call themselves architects anyway.

Why does this matter, beyond my personal embarrassment? I believe that consumers should be protected, and so do the people of Colorado. That’s why the profession of architecture in Colorado is regulated by the Department of Regulatory Agencies. That’s why the Colorado Revised Statutes (our laws) require that a person be licensed to practice architecture in Colorado in order to be able to use the titles “architect,” “architects,” “architecture,” “architectural,” or “licensed architect.” In addition, our laws require that a person be licensed to practice architecture in Colorado in order to use the words “architect,” “architects,” “architecture,” “architectural,” or “licensed architect” in any offer to the public to perform architectural services (this includes marketing materials and websites). (A person who is working under the supervision of an architect and is in the process of completing required practice hours in preparation for the architect licensing examination is explicitly allowed to use the term “architectural intern.”)

Residential designers are perfectly within their legal rights to design houses and additions to houses. Many of them are very good at what they do. But unless they’re licensed architects they’re not allowed to imply to their clients that they are architects. Licensure does not guarantee competence, but it sure can weed out the least competent.

 

Specs, Lost in Translation

Do you ever see funny notes in completed construction drawings? I’ve seen notes on CDs out to bid that said things like “Match Lakeview storefront” (when Lakeview must have been an old project), and “Complete sill detail” (pointing to an incomplete sill detail). These notes simply make no sense to the people using the drawings (the contractor and subs). But you and I know that what happened is that a brand new architecture school grad was given sheets of drawings that were marked up in red, and she just incorporated the redlines verbatim as if they were drawing notes to add, instead of instructions to the person picking up redlines, and then her work never got checked before issuing.

You and I know what happened with those redlines because we made the same mistakes when we were intern architects, and later, we saw the same sort of thing show up on redlines we prepared for someone else.

In my work as an independent specifications consultant, I prepare the architectural specification sections for the architect, based on the drawings and the architect’s design decisions. I ask some questions. I make some decisions based on my experience and technical knowledge. I give the specs to the architect for review.

I partially prepare the structural-related sections based on the drawings, and pass them on to the structural engineer for editing, completion, and review.

I receive the completed Mechanical/ Electrical/ Plumbing (MEP) engineering spec sections from the engineers and incorporate them into the project manual with the other sections.

At the MEP firms, I sometimes deal primarily with administrative assistants. Sometimes the project engineers prepare the sections in Word and give them to the assistant to turn into PDFs and send on to me. Sometimes the assistant prints out the office masters on paper, the project engineers mark them up with red pen (or red pencil, for some reason), and the assistant does the word processing, turns them into PDFs, and emails them to me. And sometimes… I’m not sure exactly what happens over there.

This practice of handing off specs to an administrative person to process has been going on forever. Sometimes, in the olden days, the secretaries in an office were the only people who knew how to type, so this hand-off of specifications preparation was a very natural practice. Also, people used to actually cut (paper) and paste (with glue) to produce construction documents, including specs. It would be silly to have a project architect spend time doing this type of work for specs, so secretaries used to do this work. After many years of doing this, some assistants gain an incredible amount of technical knowledge.

There’s nothing wrong with this hand-off practice, when you have a careful engineer and a good assistant, or you have an extra-conscientious engineer and a decent assistant, or you have a decent engineer and a truly fantastic and experienced assistant. There’s nothing wrong with this practice when an experienced design professional is reviewing the work. Sometimes, I think, we have less-ideal situations, though.

Sometimes, the MEP specs have funny mistakes in them – things the engineer would know weren’t right, but an administrative assistant wouldn’t. Whoops – looks like the engineer didn’t do a final review after the assistant did the word processing. This is kind of like the situation with the intern architect and the redlines. When someone without technical knowledge (an emerging professional or an administrative assistant) is inputting markups, the person who created the markups ought to be reviewing the final document before it’s issued.

An administrative assistant may or may not have any idea what’s going on with the markups on the MEP specs. With specs, maybe even more than with drawings, if you mess up one word, you can totally change the meaning of the document.

As I heard an engineer say last week in a presentation, “If you’re only looking at the drawings, you’re only looking at half the project.” The contract for construction, a legal document, is made up of the owner-contractor agreement, the drawings, and the specifications. Who prepares your architectural specifications, which are half of the contract? How much time is spent on them? Are the right people working on them, or reviewing them? If you’re not giving input, and answering the specifier’s questions, are you at least reviewing the specs? Are experienced people with technical knowledge (and knowledge of the project) making the decisions and preparing or reviewing the final specification documents, or… not?

Minor incorrect items in drawings can be funny (“complete sill detail” pointing to an incomplete sill detail). But minor incorrect items in specs have the potential to cause major problems. There’s greater risk when your spec redlines get lost in translation. Review them, like you review your drawing redlines, or have them prepared by an experienced specifier who will know what all your markups mean.

Shoegnome Hit the Nail on the Head

Jared Banks (you might think of him as Shoegnome, as I do) hit the proverbial nail on the head in his blog post yesterday. His post “You graduated from Architecture School and want to be called Architect” illustrated for me the main reason that I am so displeased by the formal use1 of the word “architect” to describe people who are not licensed architects.

Jared points out in his post that the question in the profession about who gets to use the term “architect” may be “just the symptom, not the illness,” and that “Perhaps the real problem isn’t who should be allowed to be called an architect. It’s actually that the value of architects has eroded.” Building owners are finding architects to be less valuable than they used to find them. I hate to be reminded of this.

When “architect” doesn’t mean much anymore, because architects provide less value than they used to, there are fewer objections to broadening the field of people who are eligible to call themselves architects.

Compounding yesterday’s displeasure, that morning I had read the text of the National Design Services Act, which was written by the AIA and the AIAS “to try to help alleviate this massive accumulation of debts for architecture students.”  It’s being sponsored in the House by Ed Perlmutter, a Congressperson from my state, Colorado.

The bill currently defines an eligible participant in the loan relief program as an “eligible architect” and defines “eligible architect” as an individual who “has completed an accredited masters program in architecture; or is an intern architect who has completed an accredited masters program in architecture and is enrolled in the Intern Development Program of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.” Here’s the text of that bill.

In other words, the bill defines “architect” as a person with a masters degree in architecture. Even the AIA, this country’s primary professional organization for architects, misuses the word “architect.”

The AIA is writing legislation that misleads our legislators and the public by ignoring the fact that under state laws, a person can’t be called “architect” without a state-issued license to practice architecture. (Oddly, the AIA also doesn’t seem to believe that a person with a 5-year professional degree, a BArch, should be eligible for loan forgiveness – the bill currently only addresses masters degrees.)

How is THIS advocating for architects?

This doesn’t help with the perception of the value of an architect. If everyone who finishes school gets called “architect” by the AIA and our federal lawmaking bodies, while under state law only those of us who have licenses can call ourselves architects, mixed messages are being sent. “You just have to get through school!” “You have to get through school, actually get some experience, pass some tests, and be willing to take on some professional responsibility!” Which is it? State law is clear. I believe federal law is silent on the matter, but will no longer be if this bill passes.

As I wrote to my senators and representative, the profession has problems, and one problem is that many grads have huge debt, but this bill is a bad idea that may further the problems of the profession by allowing schools to continue to charge more tuition every year, and deliver less of value to architecture students every year. Schools turn out architecture graduates who are nowhere near equipped to produce construction documents that buildings can be built from, but schools seem to be telling their grads that they’re ready to practice as full-blown architects upon graduation. That’s simply not true, and it’s not how our profession is set up.

Internship, the years between graduation and licensure, is an essential part of our training in this profession. Schools teach lots of design and theory, and a tiny bit of building technology and construction documentation. We are supposed to learn these practical things on the job. Producing construction documents is absolutely essential to the job, to the profession, as described in state licensing laws. But schools gloss over that, and some lead students to believe that they can just hire someone to do technical things like construction documents for them.

This National Design Services Act bill indicates that people straight out of architecture school can do a number of things, including “Assessment of the safety of structures that are in disrepair or have been damaged as the result of natural or manmade disasters.” I don’t want people right out of school doing this type of assessment in MY community. They are simply not qualified. (I may not be qualified. I’m an architect [licensed for over a decade], not an engineer.)

It’s not too late to find ways to return value to our profession. And I know where to start. Architects need to get more technical, and architecture firms need to keep technical expertise in-house or under their umbrella. By “get more technical,” I mean that architects need more building code expertise, an understanding of building technology, comprehension of building science, and expertise in effective construction contract administration. These things are no longer emphasized in many practices, and are rarely addressed in schools, but this knowledge and these skills are where the value lies for owners, for communities.

This knowledge, these skills, and the responsibility and liability that come with a license are what separate competent licensed architects from designers, architectural graduates, and kids with software programs. And we shouldn’t all be called by the same name.

 

Notes:

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ 

1. By formal use, I mean use by newspapers, professional organizations, local government candidates, and architecture firms. I do not mean use during cocktail party conversation, or use by 19-year-olds explaining their college majors.

 

Illogical (part one)

I don’t know what to call this besides illogical:

  • The cost of a college education has been increasing more each year than the cost of living has.
  • Wages, particularly in the last few years, have not been keeping up with the increasing cost of living.
  • Therefore wages are falling way behind tuition inflation.
  • A college degree is becoming more essential to employment every decade, but the process of earning it seems to be teaching graduates less and less applicable knowledge.
  • A rule of thumb generally preached to prospective college students who need student loans is that they should borrow a total of no more than their annual starting salary after graduation.
  • So many college freshmen don’t actually know what they’ll be doing after graduation. But architecture students do.
  • So many college students have no idea how much they’ll be making after graduation. But architecture students can find this out pretty easily.
  • The 2013 AIA Compensation Report came out last month. Click here for an article about it, that includes some of the data.

What do entry-level architecture graduates make? I’m going to spell out some of that data from the report.

  • Nationwide, mean (average) compensation for an “Intern 1” position is $40,000. (“Intern 1″ is a person who has graduated from architecture school, works full-time in an architecture firm, and is on the path towards licensure.)
  • Compensation for these new grads a little higher in some places. (In the Mid Atlantic Region it’s $41,800.)
  • And it’s a lot lower in some places. (In the East South Central Region, it’s $34,800.)
  • Remember – these numbers are just averages.
  • According to the rule of thumb, architecture students should borrow a total of no more than $40,000 in student loans, since they’re likely to make no more than $40,000 in their first year after school.

So, as I wrote on a forum recently, if you have to borrow money to go to school, keep these things in mind:

  • To get a professional degree (a BArch or an MArch) in architecture, school takes 5 or 6 years.
  • My alma mater’s current tuition is over $44,000 per year, not including room and board. My alma mater has a 5-year professional degree (a BArch).
  • Tuition alone for the state university in my state is over $10,000 per year, and you’d have to go for a total of 6 years to get a professional degree (4-year degree plus a 2-year MArch).
  • In most states, you need a professional degree if you want to be able to pursue licensure.
  • A growing number of architecture firms won’t even hire you unless you have a professional degree. (According to the AIA report referenced above, 20 percent of firms do not hire employees without a professional degree in architecture, up from 15 percent in 2011.)
  • You might need to borrow money for room and board, or for living expenses, in addition to tuition. If, while in school, you have a job, or live with parents or a spouse who supports you and pays for living expenses, and you get in-state tuition in my state, you’ll likely borrow something like $60,000.
  • If you go to my alma mater, don’t have a job, live on campus, and borrow money for tuition, room and board, you might need something like $285,000, unless you get “gift aid” from the university, in which case you might be borrowing “only” $142,000.
  • You’d never make $142,000 in your field as an architecture grad in the first few years after school.
  • In fact, that figure is close to the mean of what architects top out at right now.
  • The mean salary for CEOs of architecture firms in New England (the highest-paid region in the country for architecture CEOs) is $151,500. That is the highest number on the whole survey.
  • And nobody gets to that compensation level very fast – the mean compensation for “Intern 3″ is $49,200. (“Intern 3″ is a person who has graduated from architecture school, has three to six years experience, works full-time in an architecture firm, and is working towards licensure.)

If you have to borrow money to go to architecture school, the math just doesn’t work out.

  • Check it out for yourself – figure out how much tuition and room and board and fees and books and supplies cost at the schools you’re looking at. Then figure out what you might make in each of your first few years in an architecture firm in the city you want to be in. (To do this, go to the local AIA office and ask to look at the latest compensation survey results for that city. Do not search online for “architect salary;” the internet thinks you mean “software architect,” or some other IT field, and they make more. ) Then use an online calculator to see if it’ll work. Here’s one.

Something’s gotta give. So what can be changed? I have some thoughts that will be in part two, later this week.

What is “Building Technology”?

I often mention “building technology” in my blog posts.  I’ve realized that I’m using a term that many people aren’t familiar with.

When I use the term “building technology,” I am not talking about information technology within a building.  I am not talking about the software technologies used to design buildings.  I’m not talking about only high-performance buildings.  I am not talking about only new technologies in building systems.

I am talking about “technology” in terms of its most basic, stripped-down definition: “1. The practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area. 2. A manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge.”  (Definition is from Merriam Webster.)

And I am talking about “building” as defined by Webster, too: “The art or business of assembling materials into a structure.”

When I use the term “building technology,” I mean knowledge of the technical processes and methods of assembling buildings.  Drawing proper construction details requires understanding building technology.  Identifying conflicts between the construction documents and the way things are being built on the job site requires understanding building technology.

Knowledge of building technology is an important part of the practice of architecture, but it’s an area in which many of today’s young architects are weak.  This is an area in which I was weak, until I started writing specs and suddenly had starting points for researching my questions (or rather, I suddenly realized what questions I ought to be asking).1

We hear a lot about high-performance new technologies in buildings, but somehow, we seem to have lost the basics of knowledge about detailing foundation, roof, and exterior wall assemblies that meet the minimum of the applicable code requirements.

Without an understanding of basic building technology, an architect cannot properly prepare construction documents for submittal to the authorities having jurisdiction for the purposes of obtaining a building permit.

From the 2009 International Building Code (which has been adopted by many municipalities), Chapter 1, 107.2.4 “Exterior Wall Envelope”:

“Construction documents for all buildings shall describe the exterior wall envelope in sufficient detail to determine compliance with this code. The construction documents shall provide details of the exterior wall envelope as required, including flashing, intersections with dissimilar materials, corners, end details, control joints, intersections at roof, eaves or parapets, means of drainage, water-resistive membrane and details around openings.” 

Without an understanding of basic building technology, an architect cannot demonstrate (to an owner, to a contractor, or to the building department) the constructability of a design.  A building is not made up of bits and pieces erected next to each other; a building is composed of interrelated systems and assemblies that work together to contribute to the building’s proper functioning.  If these components are not carefully selected, specified, and detailed, with the designer taking into account these components’ effects on all the other parts of the building, the completed building may not be able to protect its occupants from drafts, moisture intrusion, mold, condensation, cold, outside noise, or excessive heat.

When I worked as a project architect, I often put off the detailing of tricky conditions until the last possible time.  I know that some other architects do, too.  Drawing construction details is hard work.  There are other, more fun, more easily achieved, tasks that also must be accomplished before a set of construction documents is finished.  But waiting to detail the tough transitions is a problem – when we finally get into the meat of these things, sometimes we realize that the assumptions we’d carried all along were incorrect, and we need a taller parapet, or we need more rigid insulation in the cavity, or we need a building expansion joint.

This detailing work can be less tedious, less torturous, and less time-consuming when we have more knowledge and more understanding of these things.  We produce better construction documents, and help to get better buildings built, when we know more about building technology.

Without an understanding of basic building technology, we can’t contribute much to high-performance building initiatives, such as those by the Building Enclosure Technology and Environment Council (BETEC) of the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Building Technologies Program, the U.S. Green Building Council, and many cities and states.  Just as the IgCC (International Green Construction Code) is an overlay to the other ICC codes (such as the International Building Code), high-performance building technology does not replace, but enhances, basic building technology.

But… who’s teaching architects about basic building technology today?

Architecture school curricula have gotten heavier on design; architecture graduates are supposed to learn almost everything else they need to know during their internships.  But as more and more knowledgeable gray-haired architects retire, many of the mentors for interns and young architects know less about basic building technology than the mentors of the past.

CSI (the Construction Specifications Institute) recognizes this problem, and is currently exploring the concept of a Building Technology Education Program.  The task team for this program has been charged with formulating “the concept of a building technology education program for participants in the design/construction industry that will benefit the industry by raising the technical knowledge of the participants.”  I don’t think a program like this exists today, and I don’t think that any other organization is working on anything comprehensive like this proposed education program.2

This program is envisioned as being for everyone in the construction industry – not just for intern architects and emerging professionals.  (Architects, remember: we’re part of the construction industry.)  The more that everyone in the industry can understand the concept that all parts of a building are interrelated, and that a modification to one assembly may require modifications to other assemblies, the more effective all of us in the construction industry can be.

Notes:________________________________________________________________________________

  1. Here are some links to past blog posts of mine that discuss technical weakness in architects – including my own past technical weakness.  I have greatly increased my understanding of building technology – anyone can.
    1. http://lizosullivanaia.wordpress.com/2012/02/06/architects-take-back-the-reins/
    2. http://lizosullivanaia.wordpress.com/2012/05/30/the-fervor-of-a-convert-part-one/
    3. http://lizosullivanaia.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/the-fervor-of-a-convert-part-two/
  2. Here’s the roster of the Building Technology Education Program Task Team on the CSI website http://new.csinet.org/csi_services/committees.aspx.  (Scroll down to “FY 2013 Building Technology Education Task Team.”)  If you have suggestions for the team, please contact one of the members.

Perpetuating a Misconception

Do we have an obligation to stop perpetuating a misconception that we know is out there?  Or is it ok to keep it going, because it’s easier to gloss over it, instead of stopping conversation to correct the misconception?

Nope, I’m not talking about the girlfriend of a certain football player from my alma mater.  I’m talking about the misconception that someone who has a degree from an architecture school and designs buildings is an architect.

Now, there’s a difference between cocktail party conversation and written articles that reach a wide audience.  There are social skills and then there are conversation stoppers; there are manners on one hand and truth in journalism on the other hand.

I recently emailed with a newspaper writer.  He had written an article about the beautiful remodel of a home, and in it, he referred to the “architect” several times.  The designer of the remodel appears to be in the middle of taking his licensing exams, but does not appear to be a licensed architect.

I wrote to the writer that I felt compelled to inform him that a design professional cannot be called an “architect” in Colorado unless he or she is actually licensed as an architect in Colorado, and that although a licensed architect is not required for design work on a house, only a licensed architect is allowed, by law, to call him- or her- self an “architect.”

The writer wrote back that he knew all that, but in his mind, and in the mind of almost all readers, since the design professional has a degree in architecture, he’s an architect.    

What is the writer’s obligation as a journalistAccuracy, or an article that flows like a cocktail party conversation?

What is my obligation as a licensed architect?  I have been told by the Colorado arm of the American Institute of Architects that it is my “duty as a licensed architect to report anyone that is using the term architect and is not licensed to the state licensing board, per the licensing law.”

The architecture profession does a great job of letting the profession know that intern architects shouldn’t call themselves “architect” until they’re licensed.  But the architecture profession doesn’t do a good job of getting the word out to the general public.  And I believe that this can cause problems for consumers.

Here are a couple of recent posts of mine about this issue:

“’Sunset Review’ of Licensure for Architects”: http://lizosullivanaia.wordpress.com/2012/10/17/sunset-review-of-licensure-for-architects/ and

“Really?!? ‘Who Cares Who’s a Licensed Architect?’” http://lizosullivanaia.wordpress.com/2012/10/23/really-who-cares-whos-a-licensed-architect/

If anyone (besides Manti Te’o) has suggestions for me, about how to continue to correct misconceptions, while continuing to practice good manners, please let me know.  I’m really at a loss, here.

“Brake Metal” – What Is It?

Have you ever wondered why architects’ construction details often have notes that call out “brake metal” (or, possibly, and incorrectly, “break metal”)?

When I was an architectural intern, working on construction documents, I often used details from previous projects to get started on details for a current project. I often wondered, and sometimes asked, “What is brake metal?”

I never got a good answer.

But when I started writing specs, I learned that brake metal is sheet metal that is formed in a press brake. This metal is often specified for sheet metal flashing and trim.

Here’s a press brake in action:

In this photo, above, a length of prefinished sheet metal is being inserted between the male die and the female die of a press brake. Next, the workers will pull up the bottom die, pressing the dies together, which will bend the metal.

Violà! Brake metal.

Many thanks to Metal Sales Manufacturing Corporation for today’s tour of their Colorado plant, where they roll form tons of sheet metal wall and roof panels every year (and brake form lots of sheet metal trim).

This tour was organized by the Denver Chapter of CSI (the Construction Specifications Institute). If you’ve been considering joining CSI, now is a great time to join, because, for one week starting today, CSI has a 20% discount on national membership (November 9th through 16th). This discount is only available to new members joining at the professional (non-student) level. The discount doesn’t apply to your chapter membership, but chapter membership is where you get great benefits such as this plant tour I wrote about today, so it’s worth joining a local chapter, too! Here are the details:

Join CSI at www.csinet.org/join by Friday, November 16th and pay only $192 for national dues, a 20% savings.

  1. Log onto www.csinet.org/join
  2. Select “Join Now”, and then click “Sign Up as a New Member”
  3. Enter Promotion Code CSI1220 when prompted
  4. Click the “Add Discount” button