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.




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.


9 thoughts on “Shoegnome Hit the Nail on the Head

  1. Pingback: You graduated from Architecture School and want to be called Architect

  2. Great post, Liz. I heard a relevant joke today:

    What’s the difference between God and an architect?

    Calling yourself an architect while unlicensed should not be permitted. I do not believe MDs call themselves doctors until they pass their exams and serve an internship. Lawyers do not refer to themselves as “esquire” until they pass the bar. There is a social responsibility associated with the practice of architecture that mandates a certain level of professionalism that can only be verified through a licensing process. Ours is not a perfect system, but it serves as a benchmark.

    Answer: God doesn’t think he’s an architect.

    • Cliff, thanks for reading and thanks for your comment!
      I think that MDs take their second round of board exams in their fourth year of med school, and if they pass those exams, upon graduation from med school, they’re called doctors, but can’t practice unsupervised until after they pass their third round of boards, which they take after their internship (first year of residency).
      You’re right about lawyers. I wish lawyers had experience requirements. Some of their clients would be better served.
      And you’re right that ours isn’t a perfect system.
      Thanks for the laugh, too!

  3. Design. Design. Design! The AIA’s constant mantra – to the seemingly deliberate exclusion of technical knowledge or even moderate competence – is quickly leading to the demise of the profession. Truly, does a person need to be licensed to perform design? Does the public health, safety, and welfare need protected from poor design? Look around you; look at even the designs of some of the so-called signature architects we peers worship. The answer is “obviously not.” We ourselves, on the AIA bandwagon, are diluting the respect for our profession by drastically lowering the standards needed to practice architecture and enabling knowledge to be handed off to technical consultants. We shoved away engineering responsibility to the rise of engineering trades because, gee, structures is hard and mechanical/electrical stuff isn’t ‘fun.’ Site development – can’t some engineer do that; it isn’t Building. Code compliance is so confusing is there a consultant? Construction surveillance can be taken over by CMs who understand construction. Hardware terminology is just so fussy. Specifications are so boring; no one reads them anyway. Interior design and space planning: so common and temporary, not like a Building. Roofing, fenestration, building envelope: so litigious, let’s get a consultant who understands the proper integration of these into our designed Building. Let’s promote better Design! Let’s sponsor and celebrate contests for “Architecture by Children” to prove ‘anyone can do it.’ UGH!

  4. Great post, Liz. I think we have abrogated our duty as a profession to be masters of the technical aspects of our discipline (which actually should be a primary generator of architectural form, in my opinion). For example, we have, as a building culture, completely lost respect for what water does to building fabric (and wood in particular) largely in the name of some murky aesthetic notions. We have built millions of acres of platform-framed ‘homes’ that will likely not outlive the mortgages placed on them (and, yes, there are licensed ‘architects’ responsible for designing and detailing a large portion of these). Our insistence on creating value for what we do out of some fuzzy idea of offering unique (aesthetic) designs for our clientele has given us a landscape of institutional and commercial buildings that become obsolete (and demand replacement) within a 20-to-30-year lifespan. Ugh is right!

  5. Liz:

    While I very much agree with your posting (and with Jared Banks), I do have to take issue with you on one point–what you said about “the hard stuff is hard, and it’s not that fun.” On the contrary, it is fun. Why do I like specifying?–let me count the ways.

    I like specifying because it’s a means to integrate the art and science of architecture. The ways in which buildings are detailed are as much a part of design as are plans and elevations, and need to be as consistent with the overall design concept.

    I like specifying because it involves the whole process of building design and construction. I know it sounds ironic, given that specifiers are all detail-focused obsessive compulsives, but more than anything else, specifiers are generalists. The details are of course important, but they must be viewed in the context of the whole; the big picture always needs to be kept in sight.

    I like specifying because it’s a way to keep educating myself. I’ve learned something new on every project, and that’s helped keep me fresh and current.

    I like specifying because it combines both doing and teaching. Our clients hire us as much for what they learn from us as for the the specifications we produce.

    At my retirement party I was told by a client that I make specifications fun. She’s uncovered the specifiers’ Dirty Little Secret—specifying is fun! We help to make projects real, and to be built the way they were designed. How satisfying is that!

    • GREAT comment.

      You’re absolutely correct that specifiers are both “detail-focused obsessive compulsives” and generalists. How is this possible? I don’t know, but I know an awful lot of us like this.

      For me, the work of specifying is not as fun as Design Development was when I worked as a project architect. The upside of that is that I now find it easier to manage my time, because specifying is clearly work, whereas a lot of the other work of an architect (drawing all day – and then much of the night, too) didn’t feel that much like work to me.

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