Why is an architect licensed? It is a simple and complicated question at the same time. For those of you who do not concern yourself with matters of the profession of architecture, let me start by stating that an architect is one who has earned a license to practice architecture through a process of education, experience and examination. Being an architect is a bit like being pregnant; meaning you either are or you are not. In other words, a person with a license is an architect. A person without a license is not. In other words, it is illegal to call oneself an architect without a license. That’s not meant to be cruel. The title “architect” is protected in the design world so that everyone outside the design world can steal and malign the title as the title follows every imaginable adjective known to man; the worst of all offenders is the IT world (i.e. information technology). ***taking a deep breath*** The correct or incorrect use of the title may be a future soapbox, but I suppose I’ve hinted subtly at my opinion of the matter.
Now, to get to the point, the reason an architect is licensed is to “protect the health, safety and welfare” of the occupants of the jurisdiction (not because we pick the coolest paint colors). So what does that mean? What is health, what is safety, what is welfare? We are bound to ‘protect’ these after all, it would be helpful to know what it is we are protecting. It was simple for knights in King Arthur’s day. There was a castle; protect it.
I briefly researched this (online) and was a bit disappointed that I could not quickly find pages and pages of definitions, articles and other blogs where someone has tackled this issue. However, NCARB, the AIA and several state governing boards listed similar definitions for each of our triumvirate.
According to the NCARB, “health, safety and welfare in architecture is anything that relates to the structure or soundness of a building or site.” The New Mexico Board of Examiners for Architects adds “or its role in promoting the health, safety or well-being of its occupants.” Now there is an interesting point. Not only are we required to protect, but are we also to promote the health, safety and welfare? Not that I disagree.
The NCARB definition continues on to expound on each concept. These are heavy concepts, but I believe the architect can solve these requirements with creativity, economy and dependability.
Health: “Aspects of architecture that have salutary effects among users of buildings or sites and address environmental issues. Examples would be appropriate air temperature, humidity, and quality; adequate provisions for personal hygiene; and nontoxic materials or finishes. Health may include aspects of design that have beneficial effects among users of buildings or sites and address health and environmental issues.” Today it’s not enough to merely provide shelter and basic hygienic facilities, but in our environmentally conscious world, we must endeavor to reduce or eliminate unseen hazards too. Fortunately building science, educated consultants, building codes and a wealth of informative sources give us the knowledge to design healthy environments. It does make a difference in how we live, work and play.
Safety: “Aspects of architecture intended to limit or prevent accidental injury or death among users of buildings or sites. Examples would be the provision of fire-rated egress enclosures, automatic sprinkler systems, and stairs with correct rise-to-run proportions.” This is probably the concept that most people would associate with our requirement to be licensed. Building codes are enforced to prevent unsafe building designs from even obtaining a permit, but it is the architect that has to digest these codes and synthesize them in manner that is uplifting, enlightening as well as functional.
Welfare: “Aspects of architecture that engender positive emotional responses among, or enable equal access by, users of building 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.” This is probably the least understood or least objective quality that we are responsible to provide to the public. However, this evokes the imaginative abilities and talents of the architect. Certainly one can take a solely prescriptive approach to accessibility by minimally following the technical guidelines of the accessibility codes, but it takes an inventive approach to integrate these elements in a way that positively contributes to the space and environment. It takes additional creativity to knit these features into small existing buildings with limited budgets.
So there you have it. Our respective state governments require a license for us to practice as architects. It does not limit an unlicensed person from working; they simply must work under the supervision of an architect. The debate about licensure laws and the path to obtain the license cause some of the fiercest debates between the two sides. This is especially true since some jurisdictions have exempted some building types or situations from requiring an architect. Therefore, I believe the debate will always exist as someone will find it unfair in the least or unjust at worst that they don’t have a license for whatever reason.
Agreed, the license does not guarantee talent and at rare times it doesn’t ensure competency. Regardless, rest assured dear consumer that there are those who have undergone extensive education, thorough experience and rigorous examination to see that you are protected to the best degree possible. No system is perfect and incompetency or illegal behavior occasionally sneaks its way into our world. However, there are systems in place to enforce these regulations and seek justice when someone’s health, safety or welfare has been threatened.
Be careful before you hire a design professional. Consider who is best qualified to meet your needs and protect your interests. Maybe you will seek out the licensed professional now because you “want to” and not because you “have to.” If you have questions, contact your state’s architect licensure board or your local AIA chapter.
I still think we pick the coolest paint colors, and what about carrying a sword like a knight? OK, that’s another discussion.
photos are from bluestardrop – Andrea Mucelli’s photostream on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License)