War of the Words

Architect. Designer. Job Captain. Intern.

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What does a person who received a degree in architecture and works in the profession call themselves? It is an age-old question that still plagues the profession, causing rifts, dissension, distrust, and anger while leaving both sides bewildered and disillusioned.

Some professionals aggressively engage the subject, spewing malicious opinions based on nothing more than a bruised ego. Others enter the scene cautiously, hoping to point out facts and offer their two cents. Still others remain silent on the sidelines, content to keep their nose out of others’ business, since ‘it doesn’t concern them’.

I would posit that it is an epidemic that needs to be addressed, and that all of us are involved, whether we want to be or not. If you hold a degree in architecture, this matter affects you. If you are a young professional, this matter is often a passionate topic in which you may feel you have no voice. For aged veterans holding a license from their state, it can be a bitter pill to swallow as countless other professions use the term ‘architect’ to describe their work.

It is time to address the elephant in the room; to challenge the status quo; to question the purpose of the rules. It is time we ask not only ‘what do architecture graduates call themselves?’, but add the ‘and why?’.

When making a case for or against a position, we must first define the terms. Only then can we establish a solution or law based on those definitions. For the purposes of this article, I will use the Merriam Webster dictionary for my definitions.

The problem is what to call an architecture graduate with any number years of experience that has not yet obtained a license and may or may not plan to. Well, what is an architect, by definition in the English language?

ar·chi·tect noun ˈär-kə-ˌtekt

Definition of ARCHITECT

1: a person who designs buildings and advises in their construction

2: a person who designs and guides a plan or undertaking

<the architect of American foreign policy>

Examples of ARCHITECT

  1. <the architect of the economic plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II>


Middle French architecte, from Latin architectus, from Greek architektōn master builder, from archi- tektōn builder, carpenter

First Known Use: 1563

Contrary to popular belief, an architect is defined as someone who designs; either a building or an undertaking. There is no mention of education requirements, legally recognized licenses or other prerequisites. It is very simple: architects are those who design buildings and/or ideas.

What is architecture, then? Perhaps it will provide a more narrow understanding of the profession.

ar·chi·tec·ture noun ˈär-kə-ˌtek-chər

Definition of ARCHITECTURE

1: the art or science of building; specifically : the art or practice of designing and building structures and especially habitable ones

a : formation or construction resulting from or as if from a conscious act <the architecture of the garden>
b : a unifying or coherent form or structure <the novel lacks architecture>
3: architectural product or work
4: a method or style of building

5: the manner in which the components of a computer or computer system are organized and integrated

Architecture encompasses the art or science of building, whether an inhabitable physical structure or a digitally created infrastructure.

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At this point, I’m sure many registered architects will find fault with these definitions based on the argument that ‘the law defines an architect as a licensed professional’. Lets address this in the same way; before any law can be established, a set of definitions must first be provided on which the law will be based. For example, you cannot have a law establishing consequences for murder if you do not first define what murder is. Likewise, you cannot create a law that regulates architects if you do not first establish what an architect is. Herein lies the first problem: the law does not abide by the English language definition of architect. Laws are essentially rules; they do not create definitions, but rather they create an enforceable procedure via a governing authority. The law must first be based on definition of the terms or the law will eventually fail its intended purpose. It is much like the matter of truth vs. fact; the definition of a thing must exist outside the law, otherwise the law can be abused to fit the will of the enforcer simply by changing the definition.

This is the current issue which plagues the architect’s profession. Regulation is an authority asserting ownership of a title in an attempt to assert control over an organization or system. In our case, the NCARB established a national test in 1965 to provide a standard by which all architects’ skills could be measured and verified. In this way, they were able “to assess a candidate’s ability to safeguard the public’s health, safety, and welfare.” A necessity that few will argue with. However, over the years, this necessity for protecting the public has turned into a battle over the use of the word ‘architect’ to the point that licensed architects threaten to report anyone who uses the word ‘architecture’ to describe their work or ‘architect’ to answer the question of, “What do you do?”. We have strayed very far from the original intent of a license and miss the point completely as we bicker with each other over the use of the word ‘architect’.

The original intent of the regulation of the word architect was to prevent unqualified individuals from selling architectural services to consumers that would put them in danger. The word architect was protected to ensure that an under-skilled person off the street wouldn’t claim to be an architect and compromise someone’s safety. However, in protecting the word from misuse (i.e. intentionally misrepresenting credentials to a consumer), it also excludes those who actually practice architecture from using the word as a descriptor for their career. Individuals who perform the same duties and tasks as licensed architects are not allowed to say that they ‘practice architecture’, nor are they allowed to call themselves ‘architects’. They live in fear that they’ll be reported to the governing bodies for infringing on the protected title and fined for just describing their job at a cocktail party. Simple conversations of ‘what do you do for a living?’ turn into fumbled answers that dodge the question, go into a lengthy discussion about the legalities of using the title ‘architect’, and generally leave all parties confused. Even if an unlicensed architect were to describe themselves in the ‘approved’ terminology of ‘designer’, ‘drafter’, or even ‘architectural intern’, the layman would scratch his head and retort, ‘oh, so you’re an architect!’. Titles approved for unlicensed architects only serve to belittle their work, confuse the public and heighten the animosity between those with or without a license. Honestly, those titles seem to be afterthoughts once the issue came up.

design is ...

Design is knowing what to do in order to make a difference. Image by anikki* via Flickr

Think about it this way: if you asked someone what a designer did, you’d get a variety of answers. Things like graphics, fashion, art, and products would come up. If you asked someone what an intern was, you’d be met with a mixed response as well. Some would answer ‘student’, while others might say ‘recent graduate’ or ‘unskilled-worker’. These answers are both correct and incorrect; correct in that the term intern is ambiguously defined as both a student and a graduate, as well as someone who is experiencing supervised training. Now try to apply the term ‘intern’ to a person who has a masters degree in architecture, has twenty years of experience and runs multiple projects single handedly. Is this person a student? No. Is this person a recent graduate? Certainly not. Is this person inexperienced or under-skilled or in need of direct supervised training? Absurd. “Designer” and “Intern” are simply insufficient in describing what an unlicensed architect does and their respective knowledge base. Designer is overly generic, and unspecific, while intern gives no importance to years of training or acknowledges any advancements. Titles like ‘job captain’ or ‘project manager’ are also similarly insufficient in describing one’s work, as they can apply to any field. Not only are these titles insufficient, but they can create animosity by psychologically elevating the title of ‘architect’ above those with ‘lesser’ titles such as the aforementioned descriptors. This only perpetuates the notion that calling oneself an architect is an exclusive and elite rite of passage, only reserved for those who have bought into the bureaucratic system of paying to prove an existing skill set through a series of tests. It fuels the ego, and promotes a system in which tattling on co-workers is encouraged for the ‘sake of protecting the title’. My first question would be ‘how much money is collected annually from fines of misuse of the term architect?’ and second ‘what percentage of those fines are of professionals practicing architecture as defined by the English language?’. The law which sought to protect the public has degraded into a system that profits from those who seek to be a part of the profession and in good faith, use the word architect as defined in the dictionary to describe themselves. It is almost like trying to protect the word ‘man’ or ‘woman’. Restricting their use doesn’t make the person any less of a man or woman; it is what they are and no law can change that.

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We now have a generation of young professionals rising up in the firms who seem less eager to seek their license than previous generations. Carolyn Sponza cites the 2003 NCARB annual report which shows a significant decline in new registrants between 1989 and 2004 (up to 70% in CA). Although an increase was realized between 2006 and 2007, she suggested that perhaps it is due to an influx of recent graduates – a group to which I belong. She goes on to comment on hypotheses as to why this generation may be avoiding the licensing path. Though the suggestions are no doubt accurate for many young professionals, a key point is missing from most lists of this nature: the attitude of and towards architects. In eras past, architects were most often regarded with prestige and respect. It was a club everyone wanted into. Now, there is a perception among young professionals that it was all a facade; that the glitz and glamor of the architect’s profession was never what it claimed, and that the reputation of architects has turned into nothing more than a group of floundering whiners. Go to any architect forum and you’ll see a litany of complaints about engineers stealing architects’ work, IT professionals stealing the term ‘architect’, low wages (blamed on everyone but themselves), and a host of other ‘poor-me’ notes. Rarely will you find a constructive comment or suggestion for improvement. If you do stumble across a positive note, it will be met with criticism from the rest of the architects crying certain defeat due to some outside influence. We are poisoning ourselves from within. Why bother seeking a license, when one can’t even describe their work as ‘architecture’ without fear of retribution – talk about adding insult to injury! No wonder this generation is wary of joining in, especially when we have so many opportunities presented to us to make a difference using our skills without the buracracy and liability.

The problem is that our profession is failing to adapt to the changes in our society, and instead of creating solutions, they only add to the downward spiral with finger pointing, name calling, and complaining. My title. Your title. My work. Your work. A country divided cannot stand; nor can a profession that tears each other down.

Like it or not, I design architecture. By definition of the word, I am an architect. I have not completed my legal obligations to receive my license yet, but the work that I do daily is architecture. The profession I work in is as an architect. The legal interpretation of the definition is failing us. I have a solution, but it is one that requires everyone to put their pride aside, check their ego at the door, and admit that being an architect doesn’t elevate you to god-like status reserved for the few and the proud (that’s for the marines). Architects are just people who design buildings and ideas.

The simple solution to the title game is to call anyone who practices architecture an architect (unlicensed). Anyone who has successfully completed their testing requirements and has acquired their official stamp with registration number may call themselves a registered or licensed architect.

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The logic is sound. The general public will not be confused by these terms for they are completely unambiguous. The titles do not exclude those without a license from describing their education or work, nor does it diminish the work of a licensed architect. Rather, it accurately and fairly describes the type of work that each professional does along with their legal credentials that can be used on a given project. One rebuttal to this argument claimed that a negative connotation such as ‘unlicensed architect’ would erode public confidence in the profession as a whole, with the example of an uninsured motorist. To this I would say that what would happen in reality would be to the contrary. Clearly defining architects into two groups (licensed and unlicensed) would immediately establish an architect’s credentials for a project and give the consumer the utmost confidence that the person they have chosen is indeed qualified to work on their project. With the current status quo, there is much confusion as to how to identify a registered architect (do you use RA, AIA, NCARB? What is an architectural designer versus an architect? What is a junior architect, intern architect and project architect? What is the difference between an architectural intern and an intern architect? …see the current confusion?). In the case of an uninsured motorist, they can creep up out of nowhere and run into you, causing damage. However, in the case of architects, it would be immediately clear from the outset of a project as to whether an architect had the proper credentials: a state issue stamp. It is the same as going to a doctor’s office and seeing their certifications framed on the wall. Now, that doesn’t exclude those who will forge stamps or perform services at a sub-par standard; however, those perpetrators would be dealt with in the usual manner: fines and/or stripping of their license. I am addressing those who simply wish to call themselves (accurately, no less) architects, not those who seek to deceive the public for the purpose of financial gain. So why fine those who are not seeking to misrepresent themselves and are merely trying to describe their career path at a cocktail party?

The Texas State Board of Architectural Examiners already has a flow chart to educate the public on which projects require a registered architect and which do not. Note, too, that the chart even describes such architects as ‘registered’; not simply ‘architect’.

Tell me that this wouldn’t work. Ignore the current status quo, lay down your pride and tell me how this solution is ineffective.

In summation, the simple solution to the issue of titles is to revise the laws to differentiate between ‘licensed’ and ‘unlicensed’ architects.

Maybe once we are at peace with the terminology, the fights among us would stop and we can finally move on to bigger, more important issues and actually work together. I suppose the heart of the issue is that we all want to be recognized and valued for who we are and what we do. No title will do us justice, for we are defined by what we say and do.

How will you be defined?

(On a lighter note, IT Architects seem to have job postings in plenty, and starchitect isn’t regulated, so maybe we should consider one of these titles? I rather like the ring of it, “Brinn Miracle – Starchitect”…now where did I put my exclusive eyewear…)

*Please feel free to leave your comments, but we aware that I will not allow any name-calling, bullying or inappropriate comments. This article is an expression of my opinion with my suggestion for solution and as such, keep in mind that your opinion may be different but it does not make one of us inherently ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Let’s create solutions together.

Update: I have since earned my license in the state of Texas; I still hold the same opinion as stated in the article.

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  • Marty Boyd

    BRAVO!!!!!!  Love it!!

    • Thanks for reading! I’m hoping it will stir the pot a bit (in a productive, good way).

      • Jef Biesinger

        The big question still is what to put on my business card as I seek full-time employment? ‘AEC Professional’ or?

        • I suppose that would depend on which state you live in, whether you currently work under a licensed architect and how close to the thin line you want to walk 😉 I think “intern architect” or “architectural designer” are all fair to describe your work if you want to be safe, or the generic “AEC professional” if you want something more official sounding. Its a tough road, for sure.

  • Nadia Lauterbach


  • izzy darlow

    Carlo Scarpa was never licensed. He never took the Pro Forma in Italy. Regardless, he was an Architect; and like him so are we.

    In my opinion a license serves a few purposes: 

    1. It enables a governing body to regulate and track the practice of professionals.
    2. It’s a “fast” way for worker members of that governing body to determine whether “the work” meets it’s standards without having to actually LOOK at the documentation.
    3. It ensures that those with a license control the “levers of power”, and can generate a revenue stream for operating them, without competition.
    4. It also ensures a revenue stream for many “independent and impartial” certification entities.

    In many foreign countries, the credential one holds from one’s “school” (i.e. a professional degree) is a license.

    As for pointing to a solution. Mine is to practice, by whatever means I can muster.

    • There are several architects who are, by definition, unlicensed (even though we refer to them as ‘architects’). While I can see a very political spin to the reasoning behind a governing body, I also believe it is necessary. I know that fresh out of school (and heck, even now) I would not be able to design and oversee construction of a large project by myself. A small one? Sure. I understand that these regulations exist to protect people from those who can’t admit that and seek work which they are not truly qualified. Each country is different, but I think a straight run through school with immediate testing following graduation would be the best method.

      Like you, I play the game and press on towards the ever-elusive license; learning as I go.

      Thanks for commenting!

  • Jakexj9000

    Thats a really good subject; it actually applies to a lot of industries besides architecture… in A/V for example, there is no barrier to entry, so any yayhoo can say “I install TVs!”, and then try to dabble in million dollar automation systems.  Those are the projects we frequently take over.  On the other hand, if you spent 7 years of your life and $100K getting a degree, I think there has to be a difference between “your not qualified” vs. “you are qualified, you just don’t specialize in this particular area that requires further education/certification to place your signature/stamp of approval”

    • You’re right; many professions struggle with how to accurately describe their worker’s jobs (the actual work they perform) as well as highlight their additional credentials. Many professions require some sort of certification, registration or examination which proves their capabilities to do their job. Even in fields that require licensure, there are still those who do a poor job or falsely identify themselves as carrying certification to do a particular job. That’s why ‘the proof is in the pudding’ 🙂 The main idea behind my critique is that for architects, our title and job description changes depending on licensure, even when the work (and its quality) is the same. If a registered architect in Texas goes to California and does not hold a license in that state, they are no longer legally allowed to call themselves an architect. It seems that the current system is insufficient (or at least, incorrect) at properly classifying and identifying a professional and his/her job duties. I propose that there should be changes to accurately reflect the work (architecture) and the professional (an architect) regardless of proof of credentials to work on specific projects (licensure). Like you said, many other professions have these additional identifiers which show that they are more qualified for certain jobs (PE, CPA, CFA, etc.); architecture should utilize this same system.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment (and hopefully you get some more of those million dollar systems!)

  • Guest

    Cameron Sinclair, Architect – not the first time. What of it? Does this degrade the profession?

    • We can all get lost in criticism and miss the great things that are
      happening. Thanks for a great link.

  • Santosh Tajave

    Thank you. It has given me more confidence to design

  • Arch Grad ’11

    Thank you for this.  I graduated from an M. Arch program this past weekend, and had a hard time trying to explain the nomenclature debate to my parents.  They didn’t understand why I still had to be called an “intern architect” after getting my degree.

    • Congratulations on your graduation! It can be a confusing subject, especially when trying to explain it to anyone outside of the profession. Hopefully our generation can bring about some positive changes. Best of luck to you in your new career!

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  • Tom

    Thanks for someone finally noticing a sore issue. I have only a 4 year architecture degree – considered “non-professional” by the architectural profession. I have fumbled my way through cocktail parties my whole life trying to find clever ways to – now at age 53 – simply state what it is I do. In a room of grey haired professionals I feel many times like a boy, or at worst a fraud – while dancing around the forbidden word “architect”. Frank Abagnale comes to mind. However, as chief architectural designer for our firm, while not being the license holder, I have a proven, wonderful success record with clients, universities, and city governments – designing complex buildings that get built – many times innovating, and solving issues where others have failed.Perhaps first and foremost, it should be acceptable for anyone – no matter what level – to abide by the definition given by the English language and be able to call themselves – architect – if they are a designer of buildings or systems. It defines what they do. Anything more wordy becomes complicated, confusing, and misleading. The next conversation if one wanted to go deeper then would involve – what level architect.To gain levels, I think a testing and ranking system would solve all the problems. Anybody no matter what age, job status, or level of schooling should be able to try and improve his or her level by taking a test. The test should involve simply being able to understand a given problem, reach an acceptable solution for the problem, and be able to communicate the solution to professional examiners through words, and drawings, in a given time limit. To go up in level simply means you have passed the tests or trials of that level. If you need to go to school to develop the required skills involved in being able to pass that level then Ok go to school. But ultimately no one on a board of examiners should care where you get the skills. To use the school rating system seems many times to slow one’s advancement to a mind numbing snail’s pace involving at least 17 years before you even begin to do something professionally. Those best qualified to perform seem perhaps already “born” to be in that profession. And…perhaps there are more of us that fall into that category than schools have ever given credit. Albert Einstein once stated, “I was born intelligent but schooling ruined me”. If the architecture profession wants to finally rid itself of this issue then it needs to create an international testing and ranking system based on successful problem solving independent of location, age, education level, or job status. Perhaps InternationalCARB would offer a simulated architectural environment for testing and ranking. The system could involve simulated real life situations involving for instance the client, fire safety, health safety, structural engineering, historical boards, eco- engineers, who-ever – as in real life when getting a project approved for a level. Tests could up one’s level over time as fast or slow as wanted. If I have passed level 1 or 2 architectural exams I can start my own business, and call myself – a licensed architect – within defined limits – making over no larger than single family one story houses for instance. If I am able to pass a level 43 architectural exam then I can manage a design team for a 100 story tower in downtown New York.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply. It is definitely a big issue that is often ignored, belittled, or otherwise fumbled through. My hope is that by bringing about more awareness and approaching it from a practical and logical angle that it will be addressed. There are a number of ways that the problem could be solved, if ever there was the motivation by those in charge to make the change. If we work together and let our voices be heard, they can’t ignore us forever. Thanks for reading and best wishes!

  • Richard Altavilla

     To say that a licensed architect produces safe buildings and an unlicensed architect does not is flawed. Both are governed by the same regulations both can have professional indemnity. Who produces the regulations for buildings safety, the architect or the building code, the standards, the Council bodies. The architect has to comply with these regulations otherwise their designs will not be approved. The point is, that the Council doesn’t give a registered architect special preference. He has to abide by the same rules and codes as anyone who submits plans.So if I design buildings for a living then I am an architect that is my profession. Many of the greatest architects of the twentieth century had no training and no license and history confirms they were architects. In fact many are taught about at universities and some have won the Pritzker prize in architecture.

    • I agree – a series of tests does not guarantee safe building design. There are plenty of licensed architects who make mistakes, and there are plenty of unlicensed practitioners who are more than capable of producing safe buildings. However, I do think there needs to be a standard to ensure at least a minimum competency. The problem I have is restricting architects from calling themselves architects on the grounds that the term is ‘legally protected’, even though our language defines me as an architect. The titles need to change to accurately reflect the language. 

  • Wow. Excellent post. You’ve hit all the major points and left dissenters with no footing to stand on. Very, very good. I tip my hat to you…

    • Thanks. Now it is time to figure out how to get this idea to the powers in charge of protecting the title.

  • Excellent article, Brinn. Like Benjamin mentions, you’ve described all the major problems and potential solutions for this issue of the Architect’s title and have really backed everything up with thorough research. Have you considered sending a (modified) version of this article to NCARB?

    • I have thought of sending it to NCARB (along with further research). However, I do wonder how effective it would be coming from an individual compared to a letter sent on behalf of a larger group. If we were able to have a petition of sorts to quantify the number of people who agree with this stance, I think there would be more pressure for them to at least address the issue in a public forum. I wonder if it would get lost in the noise or brushed off completely without that support (and accountability). I think the key is finding a group that would stand behind this. The groups that come to mind are things like YAF (Young Architects Forum), Associate AIA members, AIAS members, etc. However, each of these are affiliated directly with the entities and organizations that seek to protect the term. Perhaps the best course of action would be to create a new group specifically to address this issue and then use social media to spread the word, start a petition and then go to NCARB.

  • marvinmcconoughey

    I concur.  The public good would benefit from increased choice of who to employ to design buildings. Some architects, Frank Lloyd Wright for example. claimed that an architect can design almost anything.  My view differs.  I believe that increasing building regulation, technological change, and land use regulations support dividing architectural credentials into residential and non-residential.  That, to me, is far more meaningful than distinguishing on the basis of education and test passing.

  • Jarch

    You hit the nail on the head!  First off, your work is better than most licenced architects.  I am in a similar boat.  I got my M-arch, graduated with honors, and had no luck finding work after nearly 300 resumes.  According to the law, I am supposed to submit to these circumstances and put my career on hold.  My biggest beef with this whole system is that control over my career is out of my hands if I am to take the traditional path toward licensure.  I started my own design business, but because of the law I am affraid to even tell clients about my training because it may give the impression that I am saying that I am an “architect.”  My career is in the hands of my competition.  I can’t think of any other profession where this is the case.  I strongly urge you to send this article to NCARB and the AIA!   

    • I’ve considered sending a version of this to the AIA/NCARB, however it would be a tough sell due to the audience, I’m afraid. I think the biggest obstacle is the attitude towards licensure by those who have it: it is a rite of passage. Too often we forget that the system of checks and balances is to protect the public, not create an elite ‘members only’ club. On top of that, it is always ignored that building codes exist for the purpose of acting as a check and balance against anyone who would claim (falsely) that they are capable of building design. Now I do believe that it is important to consider the ramifications of allowing ‘anyone’ to call themselves an architect, but there needs to be balance and fairness and consistent application of the English language to ensure that the profession is not ‘ruled’ by the few who make rules only to protect themselves. It is a complicated issue, with highly charged emotions based on the concept of fairness. That is never an easy problem to solve, but my hope is that a dialogue can begin and real changes can come from it.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  • Aaron

    There are so many issues with the current practice of architecture that it often seems impossible to get to and address this important subject while fighting off all of the other crap.  Thanks for taking the time to air it out.

    It is a sad shame that we’ve allowed a small group of well financed institutions to manipulate the law to protect their own financial interests (ha! like that never happens) while flying in the face of the common definition of architect and architecture.  The result is the destruction of the subject itself.  For years, practitioners are unable to fully immerse themselves in architecture because of legal threats.  Architecture blossoms out of endless hours of contemplation, study and experimentation – often only formulating in the presence of vibrant cross-subject peer interaction.  Not being able to call yourself an architect or say that you are practicing architecture around your creative peers stymies the entire process from the get go.  Limiting the legal use of architecture is limiting the subject severely and we are seeing the results – it ain’t pretty.
    For some reference here is a link to some standard lingo for the State of Virginia: http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+54.1-400
    Like you said, just switch “architect” for “licensed architect” and the problem is solved.  You can even see how the legislation struggled to define the people who do the work that does not require a licensed architect in the paragraph of section A: http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+54.1-402  
    I don’t think it is a conversation that resolves this problem.  I can see two ways that it gets fixed: the enforcers step way over the line, like they did to the poor guy in Texas for his use of backyardarchitect, fining him $200,000,  hopefully causing a counter suit disputing the validity of the laws regulating the words architect and architecture.  Or time will pass and fewer and fewer architects will join these institutions, eventually leading to their loss of validity while simultaneously redefining the subject and it’s practice as a business.  Wait there is a third option, “outside” subjects such as information architects get involved and straighten out the legislation. I look forward to any of them.

    Also I second your comment about building codes being in place to protect the public.  That is an enormous infrastructure put in place for that very explicit purpose.  It seems strangely and almost childishly redundant to cite protecting the public for control over the word architect.  But if the term was “licensed architect” that would be wholly different.    

    • Thanks for your response. I read through the links provided, and it confirms there is a need to change the law to differentiate between licensed professionals and the practice of architecture. I noted that the “practice of architecture” does not mandate that a licensed professional be used, i.e. unlicensed individuals, according to the law, are currently practicing architecture according to their definition.(But they aren’t allowed to say so).

      I’m hoping to have some time to devote to revising and adding to the original article for presentation to the law makers in the near future.

  • Peter

    Frank Lloyd Wright, architect, interior designer, leader of the Prairie School of architecture. Voted as the greatest American architect of all time by the American Institute of Architects. Attended a high school in Madison, Wisconsin, but apparently never graduated. He was admitted to the University of Wisconsin as a special student and took classes part-time for two semesters. He left school at the age of 20 to work at an architectural firm in Chicago, Illinois.
    Well, it seems that Wright cannot be called an architect and even allowed to practice architecture. It was all illegal. Who knew! Hm Voted by AIA as the greatest architect. That was before AIA became a corporation I guess.

    • Jonathan

      He was a fraud, a womanizer, never paid his employees and treated everyone like absolute crap. A genius in his own right, a great building/construction designer, but not an architect — certainly not a licensed architect. Many of his structures fell apart because he didn’t possess the experience needed. Is that a house you’d like to buy and live in, especially if you had a family? Just to find out your house is falling apart and isn’t safe? I wouldn’t. However, back in those days, people didn’t ask for proper credentials, etc, so he got away with it. I’m not stating his overall work should go unnoticed, it won’t. I have a ton of respect for his ideas, concepts, designs, but he wasn’t a legitimate architect. Never even graduated high school…

      • sheryl devereaux

        Jonathan: With all due respect, if any pertains: FLW was considered, and is still considered an architect. The structures that Wright designed “fell apart” not because of his lack of experience. He had plenty. He worked (apprenticed) for many years before starting his own firm. The problem with his structures was that they were designed before his time. The technology needed for them was simply not available. These facts are very well documented for your research interest.

  • A.D.

    Couldn’t agree w/ you more Brinn…

  • Lyonheart80

    The problem is the idea that ANY licensing actually safeguards the public. Credentials don’t make one a better Architect, Doctor, or Lawyer. All they show is that you are willing to play along with the system. A system set up to keep as many people out as possible in order to reduce competition for those already entrenched in the system. Just my 2cents.

    Excellent and well thought out post Brinn.

  • Photohutch

    As a student of architecture design, I really appreciate this conversation and Brinn’s well written arguments regarding all the complexities surrounding this paradigm. Excuse me on advance if my only modification to the solution Brinn offers has been made in previous comments. I feel thier is a certain amount of formality that should accompany a “licensed architect” that would be sufficiently met by the capitalization of the words Licensed Architect, as such. Where as the architect left uncapitalized lacks the formality reserved for those who have taken time, effort & investment to be professionally recognized. Obviously this is only a distinction applicable to written media.

    And in case anyone is curious, I too am one of those students whose is not inclined to pursue a distinction greater than architect.

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  • Spiper

    I am a licensed architect and have been for years. I firmly believe that the “old boys” strangle hold on the term architect needs to end. You can distinguish between nurse and registered nurse, engineer and PE, accountant and CPA and we should do the same with architect and licensed architect. it does not dimish us licensed professionals at all. In some ways educating the public to look for the term Licensed Architect would actually differenciate us from the other architect titles used by other industries (which is not illegal by the way).

    The area where the ability to use the term architect could really help a recent grad is when someone wants to seek employment outside of the traditional “plans and specs” arena. Architect degree was considered the #1 unwanted degree recently by a major magazine story due to the fact that architecture education has a narrow scope (their words not mine). I believe that being an entry level facilities coordinator at an institution or a product development team members at a manufacturering facitlity is something an architect grad would be very capable of filling. However how do you compete against a public (and our own profession) that view an architectural education as having only one avenue to pursue (work for an architect and get crap pay). Being able to put architect after your name might not get you a job when you have to compete with an engineer or someone similar but it could get you an interview, that is typically all you are looking for.

    It is an uphill battle but it is sad that the only ones typically fighting the fight are interns and never any of us “grey hairs. Keep fighting the good fight and let me know if I can ever help.
    Scott Piper
    Licensed Architect

    • Thanks for your comment. It is encouraging to have the support of licensed architects (even if the view is unpopular). All the best,

  • Erik

    How does passing a bunch of tests make you any more capeable of protecting the public than someone who has not taken the tests?

    • A valid question. The thought is not that the tests in and of themselves cause someone to be capable of protecting the public, but rather they measure one’s existing ability to do so. While I do agree that there needs to be some sort of baseline or standard to ensure a minimum level of competency (which saves time, effort, money, etc.) I do not agree that conferring a title to someone is the only way to announce their proven competency; especially when that title is ambiguous and applies to those who have proven – as well as those who have not – their ability to protect the public. Thus the argument that the English language definition should be followed exactly and all architects should be allowed to use the title while reserving the term ‘licensed’ or ‘registered’ for those who have demonstrated and proven their competency through testing. Thanks for stopping by!

    • how does passing a bunch of tests make a doctor any better than my first aid training in prescribing medicine??? Just a bunch of whiners…..want to be an architect,….then earn it!

      • Michael, you have to keep in mind that your analogy is flawed. We’re not comparing someone with no education, no degree and no training in their field to someone with a professional license. The idea that we are claiming the training in first aid is somehow equivalent to a masters degree in medicine is erroneous. Architects who have gone through the educational system and have multiple degrees in architecture, design, planning, etc. are likely very qualified to practice architecture. The issue of the article is much less about qualifications and much more about titles – if someone has earned these degrees in architecture, why are they not allowed to call themselves an architect? The only reason is that the term ‘architect’ is mistakenly used as a front to ‘protect’ people, yet the title itself does not do this. Only the license itself can do that, and even then it is reinforced by other checks and balances such as building codes, review boards and the like. So at the end of the day, the title architect does not protect anyone, yet it is withheld from the very people who practice it every day; people who are very well trained and educated in the field yet are not allowed to even refer to themselves by the title of the job they do. That is the issue which I am trying to address. If I practice architecture every day, if I have a masters in architecture, why am I prevented from calling myself an architect?

  • You design structures…..buildings…..
    You do not design architecture……you are a designer….not an architect…..
    You cannot regulate the public health, safety, and welfare based on Webster’s definition….
    how does passing a bunch of tests make a doctor any better than my first aid training in prescribing medicine??? Just a bunch of whiners…..want to be an architect,….then earn it!

  • Steve


    Real simple folks – the AIA in their own words. You don’t have to be licensed to be called Architect

    • Actually, what the PDF means is that two individuals with the same background, role, and responsibilities are titled differently based on licensure. For example, it says there are positions referred to as architect/designer 1, 2, or 3. Those with a license may call themselves an architect while those without (but doing the same job) may not. In that case you would be the “designer 1 2 or 3”. Also, the AIA isn’t a governing body that will fine you, so I would stick with how the state boards define it (which of course varies by state).

    • The AIA has nothing to do with licensure…period. Licensing is handled at the state level with the appropriate licensing examination board. Most states use NCARB to assist in training interns through IDP but have their own requirements in addition to those set by NCARB. Describing yourself as an “Architect” in any state while not actually being qualified will set you up for prosecution, litigation and/or legal action as warranted by state law. Best advice is to pass the ARE and follow your state board’s requirements.

    • pgharchdesigner

      Um, where is this stated?

  • pgharchdesigner

    In many States Licensure Law excludes Residential projects.
    Frank Lloyd Wright
    Benjamin Latrobe
    Louis Sullivan
    Walter Gropius
    Thomas Fuller
    Richard Waite
    Thomas Walter
    Richard Upjohn
    Frank Furness
    Louise Bethune
    None of these folks had a completed degree in architecture and never took any test yet they were people who practiced architecture.
    When you consider that architecture is a fine art, not typically found in an school of engineering, why then are architects only architects if they take a test that is very little to do with engineering? When you consider that in every building project there are MEP Engineers, Civil Engineers, Structural Engineers, Geotechnical Engineers to name a few. Then there are Code Enforcement officers who review projects for proper code use.
    I know of an architect who never carried E & O insurance. He lost an arbitration and was ordered to pay $63,000 in damages to the client. His entire finances – house, cars, bank accounts, office equipment, were all in his wife’s name. He declared bankruptcy, walked away from the damages and yet is still in business today. So there is a perfect example of how screwed up the profession is. The AIA evens suggests that architects “Protect the Health, Safety and Welfare of the public”. How?
    I know of a case where a maintenance worker at WVU fell to his death. The Architects, Engineers and the school were all found negligent. Yet, the architects, engineers and school were able to settle out of court. A man is dead. Licensure didn’t keep him safe.
    I have completed IDP, I have over 20 years of experience, but the PA State Board won’t allow me to sit for the A.R.E..
    There is a real problem with this profession when competition is prevented in a free trade of services by denial to take a test that would prove the minimal competency of one’s ability, skill and knowledge.

  • djswan

    Awesome read. I build and design things. I’m pretty good at it, to the point others say I have mastered it. Ohhhhh the form and function swirling thing like FLW loves so much, or was Sullivan wright? Every pun intended. The AIA is a joke. What does that organization profess to? To keep it a profession? What is it? Either you got it or you don’t.


    Derek Jon Swanger
    (Master Wood Butcher)

  • Adam

    Law based on definition of words? No. It is based on reasonable interpretation and
    intent, judges are appointed to read and interpret law. If it were a matter of definition, a judge’s
    interpretation would not be warranted.

    Also whether or not the definition of ‘architect’ mentions
    educational requirements is irrelevant.
    The definition of both lawyer and doctor are similarly worded.

    The original intent of licensure and the title of architect
    remains intact to protect the “health, safety, and welfare” of the public. Similar to other professions, wouldn’t you as
    a consumer want to know if you were consulting a nurse or a doctor? Or in law a
    paralegal or a lawyer? According to a
    dictionary definition these are the same, yet the public understands that one
    has more education and practical experience than another and thus indeed
    deserves greater authority. For these
    reasons, I do not believe your “solution” of using the terms “unlicensed
    architect” and “licensed architect” is sufficient. It is quite confusing to the public and would
    erode the profession even further in the public eye. However the one point I do agree with you on
    and I wish you would’ve written more about is the issue of an appropriate
    suffix. AIA, NCARB, and RA suffixes
    essentially mean the same thing, but perhaps the only really recognized suffix
    by the public is AIA. Why is it that
    engineers (PE), doctors (MD), doctorates (Phd), lawyers (Esq. or JD) as independent
    professionals have widely recognizable suffixes and architects have the
    abbreviation of a lobbying organization after their name. I think this significantly erodes the
    independent authority of a licensed architect as an independent professional. The AIA has good intentions but the fact that
    you have to pay dues to a club in order to be recognized as an independent
    professional by the public is very disturbing and should be done away with. The public shouldn’t recognize the AIA, but
    rather, the attainment by the individual of a professional degree,
    apprenticeship, and finally licensure.

  • Grit

    The most basic question “What buildings around here did you design?” requires darting out from behind the ‘architect’ nomenclature. You certainly don’t hear licensed architects clamoring to say “I architected that one!” Nobody cares about architecting or architected as verbs. The use of architect ‘the noun’ is very critical to the discussion. Consider the following two introductions:

    “Hi, I’m Grit…

    1. “…I am an architect.”

    2. “…I designed the _____ house.”

    Within that distinction, anyone has room to achieve success (albeit smaller projects) without the title. In fact, architects have made a trade off- in a professional sense, they have shackled themselves to declaring “health and wellbeing of the public” as their greatest achievement and will not rise beyond this entirely socialist and utopian concept.

  • I am in this same dilemma and I totally agree with your solution to the problem. I received my bachelors degree in architecture and now I work at a residential architecture firm that doesn’t require you to be a licensed architect in order to practice residential architecture. It’s always awkward when people ask me what I do for my profession, because I don’t know what I should call myself. We should use the terms “architect” and “unlicensed architect” as you suggested. Thanks for the article.

  • Robert Slocum

    Great article! I actually found this article by searching for what other alternative descriptions people are using. I’m a victim of the “confused cocktail party descriptions”. I’ve designed over a thousand homes, carefully staying within legal boundaries. The State of Texas flowchart you mentioned is extremely helpful. I’ve designed personal homes for two Architects. I also have Architects refer residential jobs to me.

    Back to the cocktail party description though. When asked, I say, “I’m a designer”. Instantly they assume I’m an interior designer. Other feathers in the room ruffle, and the clarification ensues…. confused faces all around…… eventually the light bulb comes on, and they ask, “how are you not an Architect then?” My best answer by this point in the conversation is: “An organization that Frank Lloyd Wright, himself labeled in one of his books as, ‘organized gansterism,’ decided to boycott a word of the English language, and it is now illegal for me to use any remote form of the word in the description of my job. Feel free, however as you drive down the driveway to look at all the million dollar homes and admire the ‘drafting’.

    All joking aside, it would be better for the public to have some different level of fair and accessible testing on several levels to establish a publicly identifiable title. Right now, if you are not an Architect you simply fall off a cliff into obscurity regardless of your qualifications or experience. Incidentally, it may be fun to pick out the embarrasing failures, but this “obscure” group of people design the vast majority of homes built in America. Even electricians and plumbers were smarter than us in coming up with something better than what we have: Master, journeyman, limited, apprentice…. Could you imagine if they couldn’t describe accurately to the public what they did?

  • Francis P

    Thanks for bringing this Issue up. Here in the Philippines, as far as I know, you can not call your self an Architect if you haven’t passed the Board exams. Instead you can call yourself graduate of Architecture or an Architectural Designer instead – to set you “apart” from the licenced architects. Those title of course are too long and has no accepted abbreviations yet not like if you are licenced (Ar. John or Arch. John).
    And I know alot who practice architecture but hasn’t passed or taken the licencure but are directors in architectural firms or runs thier own successful Architectural Firms. I graduated Architecture and practiced architecture for some time but the typical “elite club” of licenced architects would not allow this and lodged “complaints” in our local PRC (Professional Regulations Commission)
    I believe if you studied and practice architecture you are, as defined, an Architect. But I do agree that if you passed the Board Exams a more specific title is appropriate – as Licenced Architect.
    It’s a hot debate here too and I hope this could he settled once and for all.

  • Mark l Giovanni

    I am a sculptor / Artist
    And plenty of “licensed architects ”
    Use the word art in describing their firm or business , i.e. The art of architect ! Really people ? It’s ok for them to use a word I have worked 35 years to achieve recognition for. I am an artist , designer , sculptor , and an architect, I have been designing beautiful structures for 35 years .
    Even thou they do that , it other than making a point , it doesn’t bother me. It ‘s all only words !!!! And a Big
    Egos !!!
    And just saying I design way cooler
    Safe buildings than the majority of architects I know !!!!
    Let’s all just take a chill pill and enjoy and work hard at what we love .
    Thank you for your original article

  • Ed

    I like the term Stampitect. Most Registered Architects can’t use the tools needed to do the drawings they stamp. They maybe know 3 commands in CAD, complain Revit costs too much and Sketchup is magic to them.
    Typically they are outdated professionals who mainly sell services rather than produce much of anything.

    To be honest, the Ego License has become the problem. Using eager young professionals to do all the work they can’t do, and not paying them enough money to pay their student loans. But yet, taking all of the credit without reservation.

    This is the lost generation of the architectural profession.

    So please fellow Registrants…..hold your head high, take the liability and wet your stamp…..afterall you’ve paid for it.

    I hope I’m really hitting home my jaded view on this subject.

  • archlab007 .

    I have worked In all phases of (the real) Architecture for 30 years. I’m an Atchitect. If my state wants to challenge me for that statement, then they need to file at least 10,000 actions against all the IT people who use the term ‘architect’.

    The thing is this: State Boards & NCARB might be inclined to go after real Architects, but they will let others outside of Architecture slide. Why? Because the only clout they have is against the professionals that they claim to regulate. Also, because IT people make more $$$ than us REAL Architects.

  • Howard Davids

    Get a life! An architect is a professional as is a lawyer or doctor, each required to be licensed in order to practice. Look into the history of the thing! We the Government, in order to protect health and safety of the people, has seen fit to mandate, not recommend, but mandate an architect is licensed to work. If you want to see what the world would look like without such a mandate, just imagine a huge junk pile, not unlike several sci-fi future world movies where chaos reigns. The architect’s license is represent a public trust and diligence service thereof. The architect’s role, like a doctor or lawyer is to create or foster order not chaos, to protect not expose human vulnerabilities, and to aide in provision of comfort not distress. If this is too high and mighty for you, you’re in the wrong profession.

  • JC

    I’m not an old gray haired stickler, but disagree with the overall thought process here. Architect, Dr, Lawyer are terms reserved for licensed professionals. I’m sure there are tons of nurses out there than could perform most of the duties of a Dr, yet they cannot use that term to describe themselves. It should be the same with the term Architect, a recent college graduate with an architectural degree couldn’t even begin to perform the same duties as a licensed architect. In regards to someone with say 10 years experience and is now managing projects; whats wrong with the term ‘Project Manager at an Architectural firm’ as an answer to ‘what do you do?’ That individual still needs a licensed architect to stamp their work.

    Being a licensed architect goes beyond passing tests and being able to design a code compliant building. As an AIA member I agree to a code of ethics & conduct that unlicensed individuals practicing architecture are not held to. State by state there are practice guidelines, rules, and regulations for licensed architects. This whole system would need to be revamped if anyone that could design a code compliant building could call themselves an Architect.

    I see no issue with revising the term ‘Architect’ to ‘Licensed Architect’ but question why when we have so many other descriptors for those unlicensed staff members in our profession; intern architect, architectural designer, draftsperson, project manager, etc….

    How about from now on the unlicensed people just answer the ‘what do you do?’ question with ‘I’m an unlicensed Architect’? Between school, internship, & exams I spent 13 years of my life working towards being able to say I’m an Architect. 10 years into it I probably had all of the necessary skill to perform the duties of any Architect, but I endured having to explain I’m an unlicensed architect or, I’m an intern architect, and plenty of times explained why I couldn’t call myself an Architect. Why should I have to cede my hard earned title to those that were not willing to takes the same steps?

  • benjamin

    I love this topic. As a builder and now a “designer of buildings/interiors” I have seen both sides.
    Yes architects are needed, there are so many things that go into creating a building and someone needs to do it. But the joke is to think you need a degree to do it. Removing all the creative components of architecture, which so few architects do well as it is, if you can read a code book you can “architect” to meet standards. I’ve worked with many architects over the years, young and old and it never fails to surprise me how much they know about the other half of the industry – how their designs gets built and the cost implications, god forbid they admit they made a mistake or admit they don’t know something.

    The ego’s of architects are second to none and architecture school seems to solidify this. This often makes working with an architect annoying, a waste of money, and walks the line of painful. The ROI vs just working with a skilled builder very rarely makes sense. The word that most comes to mind when I think of Architect is pretentious, and the AIA is the backbone of that mentality.

    The truth is, if something like this has to be so well protected than it must not be real. If the job was that hard no one would have to defend it’s role in the process. No one is ferociously defending rocket science or brain surgery, and now with most architects using so many consultants, the job title has been even further undermined.