Evolution of Architectural Licensing and Its Importance

06/13/2019 | By Christoph Trappe

Building owners and facility managers may not be directly tied to architectural licensing and the 100-year history of how the NCARB evolved to help provide education and other resources to architects. But it’s an interesting conversation and provides insight into why these regulations are in place to protect you, your facility and your occupants.

I sat down with NCARB CEO Michael Armstrong at AIA in Las Vegas 2019 and got an update on what’s happening with the industry, the history of architectural codes and education as well as who the key players are and what actually goes into licensing architects. Listen now >>

Rather read our conversation?

[Start transcript]

Christoph Trappe: Hello, everyone. It’s Christoph Trappe, chief content officer at Buildings.com and interiorsandsources.com. Still here in Las Vegas at the AIA Architectural Conference. Still sharing some of the news we run across, some of the trends, some of the new products.

And for this episode of the show, I’m joined by Michael Armstrong. He is the CEO at NCARB. Michael, thanks for joining us.

Michael Armstrong: Thank you.

Christoph: And I don’t know if you guys know this, but the parent company of BUILDINGS and interiors+sources is almost 100 years old. That’s Stamats. You guys are a couple years ahead of us.

Michael: That’s right. We are turning 100 this year. In 1919, 13 states had created state licensing boards to practice architecture. They got together and said, ‘We should create a national organization to promote a uniform approach across state boundaries to regulating architects and architectural practice.’

So, out of that original idea grew NCARB over the last 100 years. And now we are the consortium of state and territorial governments that offers an exam, an education standard to guide the states on the legal approach to the regulation, the licensure of architects and the oversight of architects. Also, licensure in terms of disciplinary action, certification for reciprocal licensure. Also, increasingly being a thought leader in the profession.

Michael Armstrong from NCARB talks with Christoph Trappe
(Photo: Michael Armstrong from NCARB and Christoph Trappe)

Christoph: Yeah. Great. So, as you know, we have building owners and facility managers and interior designers mostly. There’s, of course, architects reading interiors+sources and listen to the show as well.

But talk about what you do. How does it impact those groups?

Michael: I think that it’s important for the general public and building owners and those that care about the built environment, to know that there’s some assurance that an architect has a background that qualifies them to protect the public. And this is true also for the finance industry or the insurance industry and for the general population. I think there’s an assumption and an assurance that architects are trained to protect us.

Christoph: I mean, people probably just assume, right, most of the time.

Michael: They do. Most people—and we just actually did a poll recently on this. Most people don’t know the rigor that goes into pursuing an architectural license. Most people think it’s a good idea that architects are licensed. They don’t realize that the rigor behind licensure is probably more intense than other professions.

And it’s because if you make a mistake with a building, it can fall down or otherwise injure you. Whereas making a mistake in some others may not be as life threatening.

I think our conversation is expanding to be more directly involving these other constituencies. We are in conversation with the interior design community about the role of regulation and the role of licensure. Our counterpart organization, the CIDA Council for Interior Design Accreditation, supports licensing boards that frequently include architects and interior designers on the same board.

So, these disciplines, which have always been adjacent to each other, are more than ever in the same room, having the same conversation about licensure and regulation.

Christoph: Very important, of course, to always communicate across. What other trends have you seen that are good to share with our audiences?

[Want more from AIA? Product Solutions for Your Building]

Michael: Well, several years ago, we created a Futures Task Force. And that task force was populated with individuals that might normally not be at the NCARB table. Individuals that might be very much in the thick of a large firm in New York City, or a cutting-edge use of artificial intelligence that may not represent your typical licensing board member. We wanted to make sure that additional voices were at our table to help educate us on the evolution of architectural practice.

And if architectural practice is evolving, shouldn’t the regulation also evolve? How should it evolve? And how can we evolve it in an effective way unless we know what’s really going on around the country and around the world?

And so, this Futures Task Force has been designed to pose uncomfortable questions or perhaps offer inconvenient truths about what’s really occurring versus what we think is occurring. Or, to make it clearer, that the approach to the practice of architecture is very diverse. It’s not as uniform as some people think. Not all the same tools are being used in all places.

And not even the same definitions are being equally applied. One example being responsible control. How does one review their role as a licensed architect overseeing a project, and how much is deferred or delegated versus how much is hands on? There is not unanimity or consensus around this issue.

Christoph: So, how do you evolve? I mean everything is changing so quickly, right? How do you get there? How do you stay ahead?

Michael: Well, first of all, we are very much anchored to our memberships, which are state licensing boards, appointed by governors, governed by state statutes that are adopted by state legislatures, who are largely not architects. And their role is to protect. Their role is to create enough rigor to create confidence that the consumer can be protected by the architect.

So, as creative and imaginative as we want to be, we have to make sure we’re anchored in that reality of what a state licensing board needs from us. So, that’s a starting point.

But having said that, we are charged with creating an exam and creating an experience program that all of our state and territorial members use. We created an education standard, which strives to reflect best practices in architectural education.

And so, through surveys and focus groups and volunteer organizations and think tanks, we try to keep gathering data. We keep trying to get information that is representative of trends. So, we are constantly modernizing, tweaking and evolving all of our programs. Not on an annual basis, because that would be too exhausting to our state boards.

But in the past three to five years, we have totally revised and overhauled our exam and our experience program. We’ve made it more contemporary in terms of the language we use. We’ve framed it in more relevant approaches in terms of simulating the actual practice of architecture. We think we are providing a more relatable process to the average candidate for licensure.

And then we are at our board of directors’ level, having what we call regular blue sky or generative discussions about where do we go next? How do we stay in a proactive rather than reactive posture?

And that’s a lot of work. It’s much easier to react than plan ahead. But we are planning already to do our next architectural community called the Practice Analysis, where we gather data, we do analytics. And our analysis is then handed off to our volunteers to then recommend changes to our programs.

The process takes three years. The implementation could take another four to five years. That’s what caused our exam and our experience program to change in the last three years. So, we’re getting ready to do that again. That will be a huge lift that will give us thousands of data points that we will be using for years to come.

Christoph: Very interesting. So, we didn’t talk about this question ahead of time, so if you don’t know the number, we’ll write it in there later somehow. How many people pass the exam? How many people, as they’re trying to become an architect, pass or fail? Do you know off the top of your head?

Michael: We have 5,000 a year roughly that pass the exam. And the pass rate per exam division varies. The exam isn’t designed to be really easy or super hard. We do measure the performance of the exam, and we make sure that the exam questions are relevant. We regularly refresh the pool of our questions. And we have a pretty healthy pipeline of people going through the exam.

Christoph: And 5,000 is enough to have a good flow of new architects in the country?

Michael: Well, we think right now that, while there is some concern about the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation and the pipeline into the profession, the truth is that all the Baby Boomers aren’t retiring at once. Firms right now are hiring.

[On topic: Attract Millennials and Gen Z to Facilities Management]

We are at record levels in terms of how many people are taking the exam, how many people are collecting experience credits. We’ve seen no significant tapering off in terms of the pipeline.

Enrollment in architecture schools is staying roughly even, although there’s an increasing percent of foreign students. But more people are choosing licensure than they did several years ago. Now, that ebbs and flows with the economy. Right now, the economy is really healthy. So, more people are pursuing licensure. But the pipeline from our metrics is strong and we don’t see that changing in the foreseeable future.

Christoph: Very interesting. To wrap this episode up, what have you seen? Anything that’s stuck out so far as you’re walking around? I mean, it’s a big show floor. And it’s really hard to see things. I have a meeting every 30 minutes with different people.

So, of course, I’ve seen acoustics, there’s different things out there. How do you combine—acoustics and also the look, all kinds of different things, without looking at my notes.

Michael: I think one of the things that the Institute is especially focused on is the role of the architect in being a change agent around how we address climate change, how we address sustainability and resilience.

And I know that the Blue Ribbon Panel Report, which is being unveiled today as we speak, talks to the role of the architect in influencing codes, in influencing the idea of what is health, safety and welfare, and how elements in environmental protection and protecting the planet need to be called out more specifically and embedded in every step.

[Trending: Virtual and Augmented Reality for Construction]

And NCARB is prepared to do its part. We’ve had a task force, or a work group, I should say, on resilience. We are looking at how we can bump up some of our exam questions and experience requirements to call out issues around the environment.

We understand that we have to move from a rhetorical conversation to a deliverable conversation. And that also means, how do you drive clients to demand this kind of construction and this kind of architecture? What’s the role of codes? What’s the role of the marketplace in demonstrating cost effectiveness? And what does this look like in architectural school curriculum? What does it look like in an exam question?

So, we’re at the beginning of a conversation that is long overdue. And some people feel like they’ve been having this conversation for years, but now is the time for action. And we anticipate the Institute is going to want to have a big voice in this. That’s a trend I hear coming out of this conference.

Christoph: Very interesting. Michael Armstrong, CEO of NCARB. Thanks for joining us. Really appreciate it. If you’re listening on iTunes, Spotify, etc., feel free to check us out on Buildings.com and interiorsandsources.com. Thanks everyone for listening.

[End transcript]

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