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The Long (and Expensive) Road to Licensure

By the time an architect earns a stamp, their resident state has allocated a remarkable number of resources toward their professional licensure. Like many accredited professions, states invest heavily in those tasked with carrying out the duties of a high-functioning society. Ideally, an architectural education will produce professionals who are capable of designing everything from hospitals and fire stations, to housing and office buildingsā€”the fundamental building blocks of cities and communities. It comprises a four to five year undergraduate degree, often extended by one to three years of graduate studies. If this education is facilitated by state-run universities, instruction is significantly subsidized by that government. Washington State earmarks around 9% of its annual budget for higher education, and the two universities that provide accredited architecture degrees in the state, Washington State University and the University of Washington, collect more than $700 million of it. This is a massive number of dollars generated by tax payers, which are earmarked for the education of all college trained professionals.

Following graduation, architecture students enter the internship phase of their careers; 3,740 hours of professional experience are required and tracked by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), which then shares the information with the state of residency. Once the hours have been logged and verified, the professional exams may begin. In Washington State, there are nine individual exams, all of which are conducted and coordinated by the state. Each one requires extensive review preparation, which can take between several months to a couple of years, depending on exam dates and any necessary retakes. Once candidates have passed all exams, they are interviewed by a senior-level, state board-appointed and licensed architect who assesses them for psychological fitness, social skills, and general competency. If the interviewer approves, candidates are issued a license to practice architecture in their state.

On top of this, to retain licensure, every two years registered architects are required to complete 24 professional development hours (PDH), which are accrued by completing relevant classes, attending seminars, conventions or conferences, or taking tests based on industry papers, among other options. These credits are tracked, managed, and audited by the state.

As an architectā€™s career progresses, they may seek to practice in other states, and assuming they have proven a level of competency in their home jurisdiction, most other state architecture boards will offer reciprocity, though there may be a few additional hoops to jump through to be certifiedā€”for example, California has an additional structural exam for the heightened requirements of designing structures to withstand earthquakes. The reciprocity process requires states to compare the various licensure systems, and devise ways to grant licensure equitably among candidates.

So what does all of this state funding, effort, and time produce? What outcome is the state most interested in securing with all of these resources? While the robust system of licensure culminates in many valuable attributes, one is paramount: TRUST. At the end of this long, laborious, and expensive process, the state has created a professional architect who can be trusted to perform architectural duties.

Why Bother?

Once an architectural education is complete, competency established, and licensure has been achieved, it is disheartening to learn that city governments have little obligation to recognize the professional proficiency that the architect has worked so hard to achieve, and that the state has often subsidized. While most city building departments require a licensed professional to stamp the drawings of larger projects, there is no guarantee that this seal will engender confidence. The trust between city government and architect varies from one place to the next, of course, but itā€™s becoming particularly absent in larger American citiesā€”worse, it is often at the subjective discretion of individual design reviewers.

In a jurisdiction like Seattle, licensed professionals are finding that the building department has the authority to assume design agency. Some reviewers are now in the business of questioning an architectā€™s design from the very moment the early design review begins; guidance has evolved into directing, and they have no qualms about ordering an architectural team to alter the massing of a building, to change colors, or demand that they submit additional alternative schemes. Building departments have more liberty to play architect than ever before, all at the expense of the owner, the developer, the architect, and the state. The building permitting process for a multi-family building in a city like Seattle can now take up to two years before a permit is issued. This painfully slow system slinks along as the owner and developer are forced to pay exorbitant permitting fees and the architects scramble to demonstrate proficiency (engender trust), all while the state throws resources at an investment that is nearly annulled by the governing agency. Itā€™s all an enormous waste of money, time, and effort that could entirely be avoided.

City governments need to reestablish trust with the very design professionals who have taken the time and absorbed the expenses to educate themselves and become licensed, and who are ultimately charged with shaping the built environment. If city agencies take issue with the education and professional training of architects, we suggest that they get involved at the college level, and work with universities to groom young designers to be the professionals they can trust. More, if these governing bodies believe that there are licensed architects who arenā€™t capable of responsible design, we propose that they use their authority to ensure that these individuals or firms are barred from practicing.

These suggestions may seem audacious, but they are no more overreaching than rescinding the very trust that the state has painstakingly established with the architect.

Cheers from team BUILD