"Architects" and professional registration

Most people, and certainly all architects, know that in order to call yourself an “architect”, you must be licensed to practice in your state.  For all the states that test consists largely of the Architectural Registration Examination (ARE).  So, even though Gorbachev was the “architect” of perestroika and there are a plethora of information “architects” and systems “architects”, in fact only test-passing, actual building-making experienced folks can legally call themselves “architects”.  In a profession with significantly lower financial compensation than so many of its professional counterparts, exclusive use of the moniker “architect” is the only bone we get.

Taking the ARE requires that to be even eligible to sit for the exam you must have logged at least 3 years worth of experience working for a licensed architect.  During this time you are an “intern”.  Back in my day during this 3 year limbo status you simply worked on whatever your boss-architect gave you to work on, whether that was drawings, specifications, construction issues, etc.  Since then and for many, many years now the 3-year rule has been institutionalized into the Intern Development Program (IDP) and the 3-year period has been translated into a series of required hourly categories to be completed.  So, you have to spend 2800 hours in Design and Construction Documents, 560 hours in Construction Contract Administration, on so forth for a total of 5600 hours of logged time.  If your boss doesn’t give you this experience, in this variety of fields, you either have to find another job or continually wait until 3 years turns into 5 or 7 or 9.  The content of the test is certainly worthy of discussion, but what I am really more concerned about is the amount of time that it is taking interns to become architects.

(By way of comparison, to become an attorney and hold some sway over life and death issues, you can take the Bar exam three months out of law school, test cost: $500.  To become an architect, you need at least three years of working experience and between the IDP costs and ARE costs: approx. $2,000.)

To add fuel to the duration fire, back in ye olden days, when I took the registration exam, it was offered only once per year, a grueling 4-day affair with drafting boards, trace paper, etc.  You took it in mid-June (often your summer “vacation” for the year) or waited until next year.   Jumping fully onto the tech bandwagon, the test has long ago moved to a computer administered affair, with the execution of the test being farmed out to a testing vendor, Prometric.  Naturally, the exam now costs significantly more than it used to.  In addition, you can now take different parts of the exam whenever you want simply by scheduling online.  This seeming convenience may only allow you to continually put off taking the test as opposed to the absolute test-taking deadline of years past.

The result of all of this:  the time it takes interns to become fully licensed architects has increased dramatically. The chart below is put together by Matthew Arnold based on his research and that of Prof. Roderick Knox, both of the Cooper Union.

NCARB, who runs the whole IDP process, gives stats on pass rates of each of the sections of the ARE as well as by the school of the test taker.  However, these stats only go back 5 years or so, all still within the period of for-profit vendor usage and computer administered testing.  Even though their web pages are chock full of info, there appears to be no discussion of why the test taking has dropped off so dramatically.

What does this all mean?  Well, after the last two years, jobs for interns are hard to come by.  Varied experience in required IDP divisions is even more difficult to obtain.  The downward sweep of these curves is bound to continue if not increase.  You might like to use the IDP requirements and crappy economy to limit the number of architects, but it is ridiculous that the average span of internship is approaching 10 years.  The actual number of architects is not decreasing, just the number of interns sitting in limbo along the way.  These interns still work offices, still design buildings, still do most of the heavy lifting of our increasingly complex building modeling and systems documentation requirements for permits, building performance, etc.  I know “interns” for whom the 10 year average duration has long since past and they are some of the best “architects” I know.

Are we educating too many architect wanna-bees?  Maybe so, but to have architecture offices all over the country filling up with increasingly bitter, disaffected interns is surely not a good environment for making buildings.  Most interns I know love making architecture and are willing to put up with the low pay and hassle of the IDPs, AREs, NCARBs and by association AIA.  But what a sad state of affairs this has all become.

I get lots of resumes from interns looking for a foot in door, to at least start or continue this long duration.  I don’t want an office chock-full of employees – I would rather spend my time designing than managing folks.  Been there, done that. I feel a bit guilty about this – not being willing to spend lots of time developing young architects.  But not too much. When architectural fees increase I will pick up employees and do my part.  I am at least sympathetic to their plight, a road to licensure much more fraught with difficulties, consuming greater time and cash than I ever had to put out.

What will the profession look like in another 10 years when the only “architects” around will be the ones that persevered not necessarily the rigors of architecture school or the drafting room, but the IDP time documentation, record keeping, test scheduling and exam preparation.  Maybe this all makes sense for the new profile of the task of an architet – submitting for building permits still requires some drawings but increasingly is dominated by submitted reports, forms, and supporting documentation.  I am not sure Palladio would recognize us at all.

(Update:  the IDP just passed a new rule such that all hours logged by an intern must be submitted in periods no longer than 6 months and within2 months of completion.  Yet another speedbump along the already circuitous and pot-holed path to registration. In that your boss has to certify this stuff is a great way to keep a thumb pressed down hard on the capital-labor relationship)

(there is also a discussion of this on Burning Down the House – Radio Architecture, June 23, 2010 show, hosted by Curtis Wayne)

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One thought on “"Architects" and professional registration

  1. Thanks for all the information on how to become a registered architect. Sorry to hear that the actual number of architects is not decreasing, just the number of interns sitting in limbo along the way. I work for McGraw Hill and their directory if full of top quality solutions, including architectural specifications. architectural specifications

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