written by:
May 27, 2009
Originally published in Small Is the New Big

In the United States, it’s illegal to call yourself an architect unless you have been licensed by a state—a process requiring a degree in architecture, years of apprenticeship, and a grueling multipart exam. Yet unlicensed “architects” doing the work 
of architects abound—they call themselves designers.

101 architects to be

Needless to say, debate over the issue rages on, with some (mainly licensed architects) arguing it is irresponsible to forgo a license and others (mainly designers) arguing that a license is not only unnecessary but potentially damaging to one’s career and creativity. Dwell spoke with four professionals with different perspectives on the issue.

Kate Schwennsen / Associate Dean of the College of Design, Iowa State University / Ames, Iowa

If a person can practice architecture without going through years of understudy and taking a grueling multipart test, why bother getting licensed?

Sure, it’s possible to design buildings without being licensed, but, with the increasing complexity of building technologies, regulations, and knowledge needed to adequately and competently practice—plus the fact that, in most states, you can’t design commercial buildings or buildings over three stories—I think most agree it’s far better to go through the process. Getting a license is not only learning dry stuff like following building codes, it’s becoming part of the profession.
In becoming professionals, we take an oath. We have a contract with the public that says we will look after your welfare.

But an oath is just words. Do you really think a licensed architect is going to be more ethical than a designer?

Not necessarily, but if we misserve you in some way, the path for filing a claim is clear. If a designer has done incompetent work, redressing the issue is far muddier. And I don’t think they’re just words. For most architects, it’s equivalent to the Hippocratic oath. We don’t have a lot of exciting TV shows about architects, but our oath is just
as heartfelt as any doctor’s.

What about the idea that getting licensed can hinder creativity? Do you buy that?

Being unlicensed does not allow more creative pursuits. But I realize the process is expensive, hard, and extremely time-consuming. It’s a real concern for us—this growing trend of practicing without a license. We worry that we’re losing a generation 
of talented people who are limiting not only their own but society’s opportunities for the future. We’ve always had rebels in this field, and some have accomplished amazing things. Who knows what they might have done had they been licensed architects?

Jay Serrao, AIA / Serrao Design/Architecture / San Francisco, California

We gather that many licensed architects join the American Institute of Architects. What is the purpose of joining?

The AIA provides a range of support services to architects. These services benefit some architects differently than others; for me, it provides a link to others in the profession, even though it doesn’t much enter into my daily practice. I don’t have any problems with my membership, though my pocketbook does. The cost of membership, and the cost of licensure, do not balance with the income level of a young architect.

What do you think about the burgeoning group of designers who question the value of being licensed?

I’ve known people through the years who have had a difficult time getting through the exams. The exams are rigorous and were a challenge for me. There are many facets 
to architecture, some of which are tested in the license exams. Unfortunately, design quality is not one of them. But other areas, particularly dealing with structural safety, are important. My belief is that being licensed does not qualify one as an excep-tional architect. But ultimately the mark
of a well-qualified architect is a combination of things: education, training, and experience. The license is just one part of that.

Bryan Bell / Design Corps / Raleigh, 
North Carolina

What is the value of architectural license in the U.S.?

Professional licenses set standards and are given for the “health, safety, and welfare of the public.” I’ve seen families’ self-built homes in Alabama, and the devastation of houses after Hurricane Charley. Our laws should reward expertise that protects people from these terrible results. However, 
the licensure law gives the architectural profession a monopoly, and with this comes responsibility that has not been well met.

What do you mean by monopoly?

Professional licenses are awarded and regu-lated by state governments; only licensed professionals can do certain jobs. That 
is a monopoly, and it is intended to serve the good of the public, the entire public. But architects have come to serve only portions of our society—only 2 percent of new homebuyers work with an architect. Other professionals, such as builders and manu-factured-housing companies, are filling in 
for needs not being met by architects. 
But these professions do not provide the real values of well-designed results. Architects need to do a better job of explaining the value of their services. When that happens, 
it will not take a licensure law for a greater sector of the public to want and use architects as designers—they will do so voluntarily.

John Randolph / Randolph Designs / 
San Francisco, California

You got a degree in architecture, you design buildings, you oversee their construction, but—because you choose not comply with the state licensing requirements—you’re not an “architect.” Doesn’t that limit you?

My vision of an architect is probably differ-ent from the California licensing board’s. 
I don’t think you need to be an architect to do architecture. I know a lot of people who go through the licensing process and don’t do architecture. They may design buildings and pay liability insurance, but in reality they don’t push the envelope and definition of what buildings should be.

So, to you, anyone with a vision and some understanding of how buildings are put together can do the job of an architect?

No, it’s very important for designers to be competent at what they do. They need to be able to understand the principles of physics, they need to be able to open up the codebook and understand and interpret the code in new ways. But that’s not all they need. I have nothing against licensed architects—there are some great ones out there. But for me, the label would be limiting. I am a practitioner of architectural experimentation. I design furniture. I construct exhibitions and con-ceptual spaces in museums and galleries. 
The last thing in the world I’m interested in doing is being a simple architect. The first thing I’m interested in doing is architecture.

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