Really?!? “Who Cares Who’s a Licensed Architect?”

Architect magazine, “The Magazine of the American Institute of Architects,” just published a column by Aaron Betsky titled “Who Cares Who’s a Licensed Architect?”

Architect magazine has perplexed me again.  (Do any actual architects review this stuff before it gets published?)  

Anyway, here’s a link to the column by Mr. Betsky, and below is the response I posted tonight on the Architect website.  I hope that my comment, and a whole bunch of other similar comments, show up tomorrow.  (So far zero comments show up, but it’s late at night right now.)

“‘CLIENTS care’ is the answer to the question ‘Who Cares Who’s a Licensed Architect?’  Sophisticated clients want design professionals who are insured for professional liability.  Design professionals who are not licensed cannot obtain professional liability insurance.

“Governments care, too.  Unsophisticated clients deserve the consumer protection that licensing and regulation by states provides.  A license only demonstrates minimal competence, but that’s so much better for consumers than NO required demonstration of competence, and no regulation of design professionals.  According to a recent report by the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, ‘Title protection plays a vital, fundamental role in protecting consumers from unqualified practitioners. The use of certain protected titles and phrases informs consumers that the individual is regulated, has undergone a certain level of scrutiny, and is qualified to practice under state law.’

“Everyone who cares about good buildings ought to care about licensure too.  ‘Design’ of buildings is total design – down to the flashing details inside the walls.  Someone has to figure out (design) those details, and building owners don’t want the guys in the field making up those detail designs as they go.  In fact, building codes for commercial buildings REQUIRE that the construction documents show details of ‘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.’ (2009 IBC)  These construction documents are required to be prepared by design professionals who are ‘licensed to practice their respective design profession as defined by the statutory requirements of the professional registration laws of the state or jurisdiction in which the project is to be constructed.’ (also 2009 IBC)

“As I have written before, in my blog, ‘Only with good construction details can architects’ designs be executed the way they have been imagined.  The designer who can’t draw, or even recognize, good construction details that communicate to the constructor how to build his design will not be a good designer of anything but unbuilt work.’  In other words, the drawings might look good, but the constructed building won’t necessarily look like the drawings, unless the designer can draw the construction details for that building.

“So, a licensed design professional is required by law to prepare the construction documents, including details.  It may as well be an architect – there’s no shortage of licensed architects who need work right now.  Good construction details make better buildings.  Details drawn by the same team who produced the schematic design make better buildings.

“Many, many licensed architects already practice architecture as described in the last paragraph of this column by Mr. Betsky.  Many licensed architects produce designs that transform ‘buildings into frames for our daily lives, frameworks for relationships, catalysts for new ways of living, anchors in a world of change, and many other things that… are difficult to define…’

“Debate away about what these other, difficult-to-define things are, but do not discount the core of what it means to practice architecture.  (Program a building based on a client’s needs, schematically design a building, develop the design, prepare construction documents including construction details and specifications, assist the owner in bidding out the project to builders, observe the construction process to determine whether construction is proceeding in accordance with the contract documents.)

“And for people who are looking for ways to describe to the public what architecture is, why not start with the basics that I mentioned in the paragraph above?  It’s what’s most important in the eyes of the public, governments, lawyers, insurers, and CLIENTS.  The basics MUST COME FIRST.  Licensure is a basic requirement for the practice of architecture.  The difficult-to-define qualities of the practice of architecture can come after that.”

25 thoughts on “Really?!? “Who Cares Who’s a Licensed Architect?”

  1. Liz:
    I’m guessing (hoping) that Mr. Betsky’s intentions were coming from the right place, which is that the profession should aspire to more than simply achieving minimal levels of competence. Regardless, the title of his piece and his general thesis (that the profession seems more intent in protecting its status than in promoting the cause of good architecture) are unfortunate. As you’ve pointed out previously, our profession has been assaulted from all corners in recent decades and as a consequence has lost much of its authority and respect. Betsky’s column doesn’t help matters by suggesting that licensure (and the comprehensive education and training that entails) should be challenged as irrelevant when the reality is that it is more relevant to the complexities of modern practice than ever before.

    • You’re right, Randy – as buildings get more complicated, licensure is more relevant than ever before. We architects are in responsible charge of those transitions between those complicated systems and assemblies. We’re responsible to owners, the public, our insurers, and state regulatory agencies.

      You may keep hoping about the place the author’s intentions were coming from – I think that Mr. Betsky is old enough and smart enough to say exactly what he means, and I think he did.

      And if “Architect” magazine published this online in order to foster debate on the matter, well, they’re getting off to a slow start. They still haven’t published my comment (or any others).

  2. Mrs. O’Sullivan has hit the nail on the head, and exposed the “dirty details” that for whatever reason have never been exposed and addressed. It is a highly distressing fact that so many good people have become architects [personally have a registration for almost 50 years] and so little has been down to expand the instruction to FULL profession coverage. So much has been left untouched or office learned [hence innumerable variations] And yet the simply truth is you cannot build as project if you don’t how to put a building together. Design is NOT the only thing!

    Incidentally,the AIA and NCARB have finally come to see this and plan a meeting in December to include a few representative interns who will, hopefully, give them an earful about their faulty and incomplete education and the lack of understanding their chosen profession.

  3. While I understand the importance of licensing, and the fact that an unlicensed professional cannot obtain insurance, I can also appreciate the sentiment expressed in Mr. Betsky’s article, especially given my own struggle with obtaining registration. Because of the revision of the exam over the years, I find myself in the undesirable situation of having to take exams over. It is a frustrating and unpleasant prospect, and is also somewhat costly. The fact that I must do this despite having the knowledge gained from 30 years of experience is what makes it particularly frustrating. Part of me wishes there were some other way to validate my existence and enhance my credibility. Obtaining CSI certification has helped me maintain some semblance of self-esteem about what I can bring to a project.

    • Cliff, thanks for commenting.

      I have met a number of design professionals through CSI who are not licensed, but who have an incredible amount of technical knowledge and ability. You all understand the importance of building technology, and can prepare construction documents, including documenting the things I mentioned above (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) better than a lot of licensed architects can. You are an asset to our profession.

      It’s the people without knowledge of building technology, who don’t understand why states regulate the profession, who think that big-D-Design is all an architect does, that I am worried about. They think they can TRADE the basics (building technology, understanding of codes, and competence at the basic services architects are contracted to do) for… something else. And that’s bad for our profession.

  4. Great comments. The part of the debate that makes me shake my head is the number of licenced architects I have run into in 22 year who couldn’t detail their way out of a wet paper bag but continually pontificte on “architectural design” ad nauseum.

    Being a graduate of an Architectural Technology program from a Technical College, I have no chance at licensure. And to be honest, that suits me just fine. In my humble opinion, the people who put the technology (building science, code interpretation, materials & systems) into architecture are as important as as the person who comes up with the “design”. It’s funny how, as a specfications writer, on a daily basis, registered architects come to me for my opinions on documents and details, material selection, contract law, contract administration etc.

    To me a good architect can design, but they also have the technical ability to go the rest of the way (the other 80% to 90% of the way) on a project to see their idea through to actual built and functional fruition!

    As Steve McDowell of BNIM (AIA firm of the year in 2011) said in his keynote address at the ArchiSpec Summit in March “Our spec writers win us awards”

    • Where’s the “Like” button?

      Paul, I totally agree with your description of a “good architect.”

      By the way, Colorado, and 12 other states in the U.S., still allow the apprenticeship route to licensure – 10 years of work under a licensed architect, pass the exams, no degree required. I think this is completely appropriate, and I believe all the states should allow this.

      When governments license people, and regulate them, they have a way to enforce the requirements that these people GET the technical stuff right – the threat of loss of the right to practice. The registered architects you work with know they need your technical knowledge.

      If there were fewer (or no) requirements for the people who design buildings, you and I probably wouldn’t be working for the people who design buildings, we’d be working for the people who build them.

      • Yes, the RAIC (Royal Architectural Institute of Canada) has a “Syllabus” program as well, or they used to. When I had a look at it years ago, it was so convoluted that I don’t know why anyone would bother pursuing it! It would appear that Colorado’s program seems less so.

  5. One of the ways to affect the technical education of architects is the NCARB internship program.

    “This December, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) will host its first Intern Think Tank in Washington, DC. The think tank will explore blue-sky ideas related to the future of internship, analyze the current program’s real-world implementation and effectiveness, and inform the Intern Development Program (IDP) from the perspective of the intern community.

    “The Intern Think Tank will be an opportunity for interns, who might not have had a chance to participate in a leadership position before, to share their ideas on what the future of internship may look like,” said NCARB CEO Michael J. Armstrong. “The think tank’s findings will be shared with the Council’s committees and the Board of Directors and will be taken into consideration when making future program changes.”

    The Council is seeking interns to fill 12 spots. To be considered for the think tank, interns must meet the following qualifications:
    • Unlicensed at the time of application
    • At least six months of approved IDP experience (930 hours) and an active NCARB Record
    • Available to travel and meet 13-16 December 2012
    • Willingness and ability to participate in approximately five (5) conference calls
    • Willingness and ability to conduct up to 10 hours of research throughout the next year
    • Have not held an officer or other leadership position with any architectural collateral organizations:
    NCARB, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), American Institute of Architecture Students
    (AIAS), Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ASCA), or the National Architectural Accrediting
    Board (NAAB).

    Interns interested in serving on the think tank must fill out an application and write a brief essay on “why internship and licensure matter.” They must also list a reference on the application who currently serves on an NCARB Member Board, as an AIA Component executive or officer, or is an architect. Interns will only need one reference.

    “We look forward to engaging interns in a new way to harness their ideas for the future,” said Director, Internship + Education Harry M. Falconer Jr., AIA, NCARB. “This will be an opportunity to think outside the box and explore additional ways for the next generation of architects to gain the experience necessary to practice architecture.”

    Interns interested in participating in the think tank or architects interested in encouraging interns to apply should download the application form at

    Questions? Contact Nick Serfass at“.

    Do you know some interns who realize the problem and could apply to participate in this event?

  6. Excerpt from book titled, “The Other Architecture”

    A little extra reality about registration [may not be exactly the same in every state;

    “The states began to see value in establishing standards for architects,
    just as they do for doctors and lawyers [this has now
    expended to barbers, veterinary technicians, and similar persons
    who treat or work with the public in general]. Basically,
    this is seated in an established educational sequence, testing
    for ability, and providing a method of registration. In the latter,
    a periodic renewal of the registration [license, if you will]
    allows the state to keep tabs on the professional.
    Each profession has a code of ethics by which practice is to be
    accomplished– this involves the setting of certain distinct points or
    hallmarks for each practitioner to follow to maintain correct
    professional demeanor and operation.

    Architects, through their registration program, come by another
    aspect of work, rather unlike any other of the major
    learned professions. In an effort to provide the best quality
    construction possible, the registered architect is required to
    practice in a fully lawful manner. This means that the work
    produced by the architects MUST be in compliance with the
    applicable building codes and other rules, regulations, ordinances
    and codes. In fact, practice in a manner other than this
    is basis for legal action and suspension of the registration.
    While doctors and other licensed professionals are bound
    [primarily by ethics] to give their best effort for their clients,
    none have the onus of a direct legal tie to ”public health, safety
    and welfare“ as contained in the architects’ charge. Some
    states have now added laws whereby certain facilities MUST
    be designed by registered architects [or engineers], and no
    building permit will issue without the correct design responsibility.
    This elevates the quality of design, and with continued
    involvement of the architect, the actual construction. The
    latter comes about through the enforcement of the contract
    documents on the part of the architect – i.e., part of the architects’
    charge is to monitor the Owner-Contractor contract
    to see that equitable and proper actions takes place through
    efforts of BOTH parties.

    In this scenario, the government’s inherent interest in safe construction
    [the basic concept beyond building codes] is carried
    to execution, by having the architect responsible for seeing
    that code compliance is built as an integral part of the project.
    Although the general context of the architect may be changed,
    by different project delivery systems, the fundamental charge
    remains unchanged. There are situations where there are now
    legal questions as to just how these two elements are resolved,
    in a legal and protective manner. Certainly, the delivery systems
    cannot obviate standing law, and re-configure the professional’s
    standing, status, and responsibilities. However, there is need for
    a wider and more open discussion of this information,
    and hopefully a better understanding by all parties.

    At the present time, two aspects of professional architectural
    education are quite disturbing. Both have to do with individual
    “budding” professionals and what information they need
    to carry into their career work. Many academics decry the idea
    that they are “preparing students for the work place”, when
    reality shows this is exactly what education, in large part, is all

  7. Health Safety and WELFARE. Don’t forget Welfare. Defined by the AIA as: Aspects of architecture that engender demonstrable positive emotional responses among, or enable equal access by, users of buildings or sites.Examples would be spaces whose scale, proportions, materials, and color are pleasing for the intended use;
    spaces that afford natural light and views of nature; and provisions for users with disabilities.
    Everyone forgets or ignores Welfare as something that we as a licensed proffession are trained in. It is the most difficult to quantify and therefore defend. It is also the very thing that has the potential to set us apart from engineers and those without the training. It is also the thing that we have allowed to cause us to label us as elitist. We can defend our proffesion all day on the technical aspects but without the ability and training to create the most beautiful built environment we can then we are selling ourselves drasticly short. I have heard architects complain that owners don’t care about how a building looks. I have found that no one wants to build an ugly building. It is our job and our mandate to inspire the public to understand the possibilities of what we can offer and to help them understand the value of that.

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