Architecture’s Identity Problem? Nope. (More on the Importance of Licensure)

There’s an article out there that keeps popping up on my radar screen (ok, on my Twitter feed).  It’s about “Architecture’s Identity Problem.”  The article is by John Cary, and is published by GOOD.1  

John Cary says that “the profession and the public are measurably worse off because of “the fact that “more than half of architecture school graduates don’t enter the profession” and “fewer still get licensed.”  I disagree.  In fact, I think that the profession and the public are bad off enough because of how many people are out there designing and working in architecture firms without demonstrating, through examination, that they’re qualified enough to be licensed architects.2

John Cary seems to suggest that people who graduate from architecture school should be able to be architects without having to endure an internship or the Architect Registration Examination.  As part of his protest against the long internships and examination requirements that architects have to undergo before being able to call themselves architects, the article compares architectural internships to medical residencies.  This is not a good comparison.

The article points out that medical school graduates are legitimately called doctors before completing their residencies.  That’s true.  Medical students graduate from medical schools as M.D.’s, medical doctors.  However, first they graduate from undergrad.  They they apply to, and have to be admitted to, med school.  They take their first round of national board exams after their second year of medical school, then during the last 2 years of their 4 year medical school programs, their training is all clinical, in hospitals, under the direct supervision of doctors.  Then they take their second round of national board exams.  Then they graduate.  Then they do their internships (the first year of their residencies) and take their third round of national board exams.  Then, finally, they’re allowed to practice without having to be supervised by other doctors.  And then they go on to finish their residencies.  And take more board exams.  Then many do fellowships, again learning from other doctors.  So it’s not as if medical students just go to school, sit in classrooms for 4 years, and graduate as medical doctors.  They are thoroughly tested, by national exams, 2 different times before graduation, and they also have 2 years of practical experience before they graduate from medical school.  (And then most continue their training.)    

But the biggest difference between medical school and architecture school is that med students are taught by doctors – licensed doctors.  And the students are practicing clinical medical work, in hospitals, during the last half of med school.  They are observing and helping doctors treat patients, before they graduate as M.D.’s.  And when they go on to practice medicine unsupervised, they are regulated and licensed by the states they practice in.  NOT EVEN HALF of the professors teaching in accredited architecture schools are LICENSED anywhere in the U.S.  In a 2009 study by the NAAB, only 34% of faculty at NAAB-accredited schools of architecture were licensed architects.3  

Therefore, architecture students are barely being taught by actual architects.  And, very little of what is actually taught to these students is information about “making sure buildings don’t fall down.”  School curricula are very heavy on theory and design and very light on building technology – the stuff architects need to know to make sure their designs don’t fall down. 

Another important thing to consider is that many architecture students never work in architecture offices before they graduate from architecture school.

These are very good reasons for the fact that, as John Cary says “Earning a diploma from architecture school isn’t enough to be awarded the title of ‘architect.'”  The heavy focus on theory and design in school is the reason the architectural profession has the requirement for an internship (apprenticeship) period.  In some states, you can still sit for your exams and get licensed after a certain number of years of practice under the direct supervision of a licensed architect, even if you don’t have a degree of any type.4  This demonstrates the importance that regulatory agencies place on experience and demonstration through examination over schooling.  I personally believe that, more than a degree in architecture, the combination of practical experience and successful completion of the examinations is a better indicator of a person’s being properly qualified to design buildings that will not fall down.   

Not everyone makes it through all those steps that medical students have to undergo, and not everyone makes it through all the steps that architectural interns have to undergo.  These applications, exams, and grueling hours weed some people out.  Think about it – do you want the guy who didn’t pass those national exams, and who doesn’t have malpractice insurance, operating on YOU?  No, you want the guy who had the intelligence and the perseverance to get through all these barriers to being a doctor.

Do you want the person who didn’t feel like taking the Architect Registration Examination designing your office building?  You shouldn’t – and your lender, your insurer and your attorney don’t – because that designer doesn’t have professional liability insurance because he doesn’t have a license to practice architecture.5 

John Cary wrote, “It’s a long, arduous road that many in the field are either unable or simply unwilling to travel.”  It is.  But why would you want those without the ability or the willingness to travel this road taking the professional responsibility for preparing the construction documents for YOUR buildings?

We need more architectural interns pursuing licensure.  In these very troubled times for our profession, we need to be pushing to raise the bar of professionalism, not to lower it.  As John Cary says, many people do “have a romantic view of the architecture world.”  That’s fine, but it’s not reality.  And it’s time for those of us IN the architecture world to WAKE UP to reality, and push for more quality, not less, in our profession.  


1. Here’s the link to the article:

2. With such high unemployment levels among architects right now, how could the profession and the public possibly be better served if everyone who wants to be an architect is legally allowed to just say that he is an architect?  We have too many unemployed licensed architects, who, generally, are more qualified to practice architecture than all the unemployed unlicensed architectural designers.  

3. This 34% figure includes professors, associate professors, and assistant professors.  Only 31% of actual professors are licensed.  Here’s a link to the website NAAB: where you can get the report.

4. In Colorado, that period is 10 years.

5. In Colorado, you can’t get errors and omissions insurance if you aren’t licensed in the state.  Sophisticated clients will not hire an architect who doesn’t have this professional liability insurance. 




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