to be licensed


I want you to know, I’ve avoided this for years. Time’s up.

There’s something in the air these days (not in the air tonight). There seems to be a belief growing that becoming licensed as an architect is optional or even unnecessary. A thought exists that there needs to be irrefutable value clearly demonstrated in bullet points on a highway billboard for candidates to consider pursuing it after they’ve completed their education.

If this is you, you are asking the wrong question. It’s axiomatic. Why is getting a license even a question?

Every time this issue arises, I try to listen and be empathetic. I helped start AIA Pittsburgh’s YAF in 1996 for goodness sake – I’m an advocate for emerging professionals. I’ve taught hundreds of architectural students, speak at high school career fairs and try to be a good mentor. However, I took the exam in 1995 when it was offered once a year over a four-day period – on paper. I religiously prepared for months and I passed all of it first time. I was focused, some might say obsessed. It was important. I also don’t understand why it takes so long for people to pass all of it these days. It’s all I wanted to do.

I’m not trying to be polarizing or insensitive. Yet I’m sure I’ll make someone mad today. That’s not my intent.

Now, whether one pursues licensure by taking the A.R.E. after completing their education should not be weighed in the balance based on the cogency of my argument or anyone else’s argument.

If one is going to go through the time, money, blood-sweat-and-tears of getting a degree that allows them to pursue licensure – why wouldn’t they finish? Why is this a question? Isn’t that why they got in the game after all? Why quit before the finish line?

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There’s a logical fallacy often used when the option of licensure comes up. I’ve heard complaints over IDP (correction AXP), the validity of the A.R.E. as a measure for competency, incompetent architects who somehow pass, lack of sufficient financial return, debate over titles, who was and who wasn’t licensed in the past, and even how one can have a fulfilling responsible position without it. This is somewhat of an ad hominem argument. Let’s attack everything about it except formulate a lucid argument.

I’m more of a put-up-or-shut-up kind of person. Take the test. I know it’s hard; I know it’s expensive.

Regardless of one’s opinion of an imperfect process and imperfect profession, THIS is the measure in place to test architects and this is OUR profession with all of its warts and bruises. If we want to improve our profession or move architecture forward, not committing to it just makes it worse. We who are licensed need to help emerging professionals to fill in the gaps of their experience and preparation and help them get there.

Put your energy into studying not complaining or finding fault with the process, exam or profession. As a profession, we need to stop asking why should we get licensed. Rather ask how can we get there or what plan do we have to get there in the shortest time possible.

Start asking the right questions. We need more architects. Don’t make a decision at 28 (or 38) that you’ll regret when you’re 48 or 58 or… Do it for yourself. That’s ALL the reason you need.

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photo 1 credit: Long Road to El Chalten via photopin (license)

to be licensed

43 thoughts on “to be licensed

  1. I took my exam in December of 1976. My license is dated February 7, 1977. I also passed my first time. I studied hard and I studied long. Our profession is not one where you can skate. We work hard and we continue to work hard every day for our clients. It never stops. The idea that a license is not necessary really bothers me. Getting my license was one of the most important days of my life. Right up there with seeing my children being born. I still work hard every day to live up to the expectation of my license, the example it sets for me. For someone to say that getting registered isn’t necessary, or is too hard or is too expensive really bothers me. It’s the sign of a generation who isn’t willing to work for what is needed to achieve a goal.

  2. Was Bramante an architect or a licensend architect? What about Bruneleschi, or Michelangelo Bounarotti? Nevermind, they are too old, please think that Le Corbusier had no formal architectural education and he is most likely the most influential architect.
    To design buildings it is complicated and you have to get an architect title from a real university. The MArch or BArch titles have academical rigor.
    The license to practice is granted not by an academical licensure board, but basicaly by a bunch of older architects who made the organization.
    I know, I am not an American, and licensure is a long time practice in your country, but let be honest. They just want to force young architects to be interns in our companies, to work for us instead as our competitors.
    In my country to be an architect you spend 6 years in the university (geting the architect title, now MArch, there is no BArch anymore) + another 2 years of underpayed/unpaid internship. Then you are allowed to sign projects that are subject of a building permit.
    I must confess I am a humble follower of Dr.Garry Stevens, a traitor among architects, but what a fresh perspective!
    Please read Dr. Garry articles, even you are going to hate them!

    1. Octavian, I appreciate your feedback and offer to read an article with a fresh perspective. I believe I answered your question within my post. I’m not looking for consensus. It’s this type of response that initiated my post.

      Today is today and that’s all that matters. I really couldn’t care less if Corbu or if any past “architect” held a license. It’s not relevant in today’s context. Take the test or you’re not an architect in this country regardless of who created it.

      1. SCNieves says:

        And you are “in this country”? Can you call yourself an architect if you are in a state where you are not licensed?

  3. I really appreciate your perspective on this. It has long irritated me to hear all the whining about how hard the exams are. But I always hesitate to respond at the risk of sounding boastful or insensitive. I am just an ordinary person. I am in no way a genius. But I managed to finish the exams in what today would be considered record time. It took me two months. And as far as studying went, I took a couple of practice exams for each and that was about it. I really do not think they are as hard as everyone makes them out to be. They are really just a baseline to establish a minimum standard.

      1. Yes, despite my advanced years, by the time i was eligible to take the exam it was on computer. That is due largely to a few missteps with my schooling.

      2. If you were able to pass what is close to the current version of the A.R.E., I think there’s a good story in there that could speak to current candidates. It shouldn’t take years, it might take months. Us old guys did it in four days.

      1. Yes, However, what is most disconcerting to me is that the vast majority of the public does not understand the difference between a licensed architect and anyone who can produce CAD drawings. Nor do they see any real value in hiring licensed architects for residential construction projects! I try to explain to people that the local high school symphony and The New York Philharmonic can both perform Beethoven’s Fifth. If all you ever heard was the local high school, you wouldn’t perceive the difference. yet to the trained ear, their is a huge difference! Most people do not have a trained eye, so they can not distinguish the difference between an authentically detailed traditional home and a builder’s McMansion! Yet, what about the benefit of going through a thorough design process with a licensed architect? Sadly, the preeminent professional society (AIA) has not done a good job at conveying this value to the public. Instead we continue to celebrate the avant-guarde and the heroic star-chitect and we wonder why people run from architects to the nearest builder?

      2. Ed, I don’t disagree with what you’re saying about the public and their view of architects versus any other schlep with a cheap CAD program. To be honest – I don’t want them as clients. I’d rather starve or wait tables or anything else. Can we educate them? Perhaps some. Fortunately there ARE a few people out there that get it, respect us and will pay us. I’ll work for them. The AIA is slowly improving. That’s all I can say, but I’ve had the same exact criticism. My thoughts of star-architects vary and the avant garde will always be celebrated in music, art, sports cars, homes and iPhones. It just is in America.

        Regardless, none of this negates the reason to get a license or the value of it.

  4. Michael says:

    I always find that those who complain the most about licensure don’t have the basic competency it requires to be an architect. I thought the test was not hard at all. In fact, I think it is just a matter of memorization and regurgitation. Licensure is about telling the public (our clients) that we have the basic skills to do the job. How is someone supposed to base their decision on what architect to hire, take their word for it? The public has a limited understanding of what we do and it is hard enough to tell the difference between good and bad architects. Quit with the myopic thinking and lowering the bar for those who can’t achieve, it does nothing but lower our profession as a whole.

  5. I looked at getting my license along these lines: I had a lovely little house in a lovely little garden but there was a gate at the end of the garden. The gate led into a large and beautiful field that I really wanted to explore. Licensure represented the opening of that gate for me. I still spend most of my time in my lovely little garden but I can go exploring that field any time I want now. It belongs to me too.

  6. dwmarc2014 says:

    Too many students enrolling for a career that they will not participate in rather except as adjuncts, eg construction, sales reps, or real estate Faculties there to keep themselves employed. In my day A school was more like Marine Corps training, but the sheer creep of numbers, along with cirricula expansion has made A school an interesting hybrid indeed. But I agree going for the license is a good thing. But also think all that design studio time is more for the profs than the students, 70% of whom will never use what they learned. The other 30% may not have needed the crits anyway.

    I had dinner with a former dean recently who said the purpose of A school is to throw new concepts out there to see if any of them float.

    1. After all of my years in education, I understand what happens – at least at the school I taught. I don’t share the same opinion as you do – I’m less nihilistic. I’ve heard so many comments from practitioners about what they want out of graduates. They want that for selfish reasons. If school doesn’t teach them to think or how to learn, then the profession will implode. Do students today get it? Do graduates today understand what it takes to work and get a license? Well…I wouldn’t have written this if I didn’t observe a certain tone over the years. I believe in discipline (maybe not Marine intensity), I believe academics should be strict and rigorous. Are young people getting it? Some are.

    2. wmello1934 says:

      An Architectural Student develops concepts from the vast Technology available via education to nourishment them in their growth as a Master. The technology available is expanding at a rate that is faster than any singular individual can apply ergo one can conclude that it is now virtually impossible that any one being can be a complete ARCHITECT.

      1. I don’t disagree Bill, but that shouldn’t discourage an emerging professional from taking the test that is offered. I might be a complete architect by the time I die/retire. In ages past, the “architect” (master builder) might have spent his career working on only one building only to die not having seen it completed. Every generation has had it different. This one is moving quickly.

      2. wmello1934 says:

        To: Leecalisti says:
        Taking “THE TEST” and passing it, only allows the taker to legally call themselves an “Architect” and practice that profession. How many non test takers have been performing as architects for “Architects”(w/Stamp)? By 1951/1952 I had legally qualified to be called a “Registered Architect” in my State w/o testing.

      3. My point exactly Bill. We need to talk within today’s context where we can no longer (for the most part) achieve licensure without education and experience. One must have an accredited degree and one must follow IDP (now called AXP). Why hide behind your Mom’s skirt? Why not take the test and get the license? All of us could somehow have chosen to perform for others with a stamp. To me that’s gutless in today’s economy. All of the other rhetoric about talent, responsibility, qualifications, abilities and history are irrelevant to this argument. They’re merely excuses and smoke screens that divert away from the singular point. I worked for almost eight years for another firm after I passed my exam. I had no plans of going on my own – therefore I didn’t need the stamp. I took the test because that’s what it meant, among other things, to be an architect. It never intimidated me and it wasn’t merely a means to stamp drawings. Had I lived in 1950 or 1850 or 1050 things may have been different.

  7. dwmarc2014 says:

    Actually Lee, the root cause is not so much about schools or profs. The problem is “out there”. Certain commodity building types are so standardized that the fees float below 2%. Maybe less for repetitive tracts of housing or apartments. So an oversupply of professionals compete for build-to-suit commercial, churches, museums, fine homes etc. where a living can be supported. With talent & luck you might get on a faculty.! There is much demand for buildings, less for Architecture! Medoubts you tell your students this- even though they can see it with their own eyes. Love is blind.

    BTW, I lasted 44 years within the scenario noted. It’s the next generation I worry about.

    1. First, I’d never agree to take a project for 2%. I’ll wait tables first. However, none of this invalidates the reasons one ought to get their license. If they don’t want to work in the profession as you describe, then check a different box when choosing a major.

      Off topic, I’ve taken a break from teaching. My last semester teaching was F14. Things are too busy right now. I was always honest and transparent with my students, but hopeful as well. I worry about today’s generation too, but I know there are good ones out there. They just need to take the test.

      1. Josie says:

        Do you have student loans? Many of us can’t afford not to take any job and waiting tables instead would get us nowhere professionally.

      2. Josie, I came out of school with student loans. I did get married 15 months after graduation. We made decisions to have or not have things right away – we lived quite humbly, more so than many today (no cell phones, basic cable, no computers, old beat up cars, cheap apartment). I found the time and money to take my exam within 4 years of graduating because it was important to me. The waiting tables line was hyperbole to make a point that people will ultimately do what is important for them. We all have choices. After working for a firm right out of school, I took a leap and found a better job. Architects are pretty bad at taking risks.

  8. Lee: I agree with you 100 percent. The last thing the architectural profession needs is further erosion of its stature. Use of the title “architect” is an earned privilege and should remain as such. Licensure is necessary to ensure a minimum professional competency in order to help protect the public interest. Like you, I pursued licensure aggressively and passed the old 4-day paper exam the first time through. It was a matter of self-actualization and pride for me: it was important to be able to truly identify myself as an architect.

    Slightly off-topic, I also find the fuss over the use of the designation “intern” bemusing. If I understand NCARB’s current policy regarding those pursuing licensure, or those who are otherwise graduates of architecture programs, is now to simply discontinue to use the term without offering any useful alternative. I’m not sure how that is helpful. An advantage the term “intern” offered was that it reduced the likelihood of the general public misunderstanding the qualifications of unlicensed individuals. What are they supposed to refer to themselves as now? “Architectural graduates?” That doesn’t provide a clear picture.

  9. couldn’t agree more lee, which i do most (80%?) of the time. the way i see it the rigor that is required to successfully navigate education, apprenticing and licensing for an architect is exactly what is required of you in real life practice. would you really hire someone who felt your project was too difficult and opt for the ‘short cut’ or just complain about the bldg codes or historical commission?

    primarily, for me, i wanted my license to speak for my achievements, instead of having to explain i’m just as good as a licensed architect, which is actually a redundant title in massachusetts ( and many people/clients are unclear about.) and secondly, b/c of that standard, i could have never called myself an architect.

    i passed my exams over the course of one year (2000) took a very methodical approach, appx. one per month (falling + retaking one section) i believe it was much easier than the mental marathon of the hand test – i’ve heard stories!

  10. Andrew says:

    I don’t think it’s a debate. If you have the credentials to get the registration then you should just do it. And then suck it up and ask your boss for the 5-15% raise or whatever it is. They may say they don’t value it, but that doesn’t matter.

    I don’t think there’s much more to say about it. I encourage everyone to do it. Even contractors in Hawaii who don’t need schooling. That kind of makes me sneer given the 5 semesters of statics courses, but I support them if they can meet the state’s requirements. In fact, I support them more than the arch grads who don’t bother getting the license and practice with a work-around stamp and assume no liability.

    Please, just cross the finish line. As as old boss said, you won’t be any smarter after you pass. But you won’t have to worry about it anymore or continue to make excuses or give “intern” explanations anymore

  11. Lee, must say I know nothing of how your school operates, so you may choose to ignore this historic perspective. Harrrummpphhhh: In my day no one had to beseech students to take the exam. When I mentioned the Marine Corps awhile back, it meant that were in A school for a purpose: to take the exam later. Flash forward to now: An A school dean now more closely resembles a cooking show host who must also raise money….even if that person may has a license tucked away! Yes, Lee, if you head a multidiscipline school, it has changed that much. Peace.

    PS: If you become a contractor, you may be advised to drop your A registration because you are in a legal double wammy!

    1. Perry, actually I haven’t been teaching since Fall 2014. All of my observations are from reading online and listening around – so to speak. It’s sensing what the graduates are feeling not what students are thinking. Hearing or reading excuses not to take the exam finally got to me.

  12. I completely agree. I did everything I could to complete IDP as quickly as I could and immediately started taking the exams once a month. The last few were rough as they coincided with planning a wedding and buying a house. 🙂

    Getting my license was always a priority, even though I always expect to work in a medium-sized firm and may never be the one to stamp & sign a drawing. I love being able to call myself an architect (that’s what I worked for!) and I never considered not taking the exams.

    I do everything I can to urge interns I know to get it done!

  13. David says:

    Should you have to be licensed to be promoted to leadership positions in a firm? Where would the threshold be?

    I see younger staff assume it’s not important- just a ‘rubber stamp’, because unlicensed people are promoted to leadership positions. Reinforcing the idea that it’s not a necessary step because you only need one guy with a seal. (Literally what I’ve heard)

    I’m licensed and feel it is immensely valuable. I try to encourage those younger staff to pursue it. I think if they did they would see the value.

  14. Marcia Mikesh says:

    Getting my license opened a lot of doors, I would have been very limited in my career without it. I never considered not taking the test, seemed like a foolish choice. I graduated with student loans to financial institutions and to relatives. Lived like I was still in college for a long time to pay things off.

    I studied at 4 AM before work 4 days a week for a couple months before the exams, the memorization, took a few practice exams, attended a couple low cost weekend seminars put together by the local AIA. This was before the ARE was computerized, not sure why that might matter. Also I was able to take the “technical” part of the exam the year before I completed my internship.

    I was lucky that the design problem was the type of project I’d been working on for the previous 2 years at the firm. I realized I forgot one of the sets of restrooms and they passed me anyway. Then I asked for a got a 30% raise, which is more about how poorly I was paid as an intern than how great my pay was after getting my license. But that jump in pay was a big deal to me.

    I’m self employed, have been for more than 25 years. I remember a designer I worked with in a larger firm that wasn’t licensed, and his role was limited to design and lots of renderings. He seemed kind of stuck to me, like architecture lite by never dealing with technical or detailed planning issues. It wouldn’t be enough for me.

    Thanks Lee.

    1. Thanks for your story – these types of anecdotes are so important in communicating the importance of licensure. Most of the reponses that had a different point of view simply proved my point about false or faulty arguments. Your story clearly communicates the work and the reward.

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