Oct 02, 2022

If we truly want a diverse community and to provide equitable pathways to the profession, we need to support efforts to broaden the track to licensure.

A topic that is gaining increasing attention within the architecture profession is the ability to apprentice to be eligible to sit for the ARE (licensing exam) rather than going a traditional “NAAB accredited university degree with subsequent interning” route. The idea is not new; currently 15 states allow alternate paths to licensure other than a NAAB accredited degree and NCARB has pathways for architects who are licensed without a NAAB degree to get reciprocity through NCARB certification. These alternate opportunities might involve eight or more years of apprenticing under a licensed architect or a mix of an associate degree and in-office experience. However, this would not be in lieu of NCARB’s AXP experience requirements, rather this pathway would clearly require enhanced AXP.

A nationally recognized acceptance of this pathway to becoming a licensed architect would open the profession to many who do not have the means to afford a five-year college education or those who succeed with experiential learning over classroom lectures. A five-year architecture degree could cost a student anywhere from $50,000 to $400,000 depending on the university, and that’s if the student was able to live at home! For many would-be architects, that price is a full stop barrier to entry to the profession, and undeniably earning money for four or five years instead of going into debt is a very positive start to any young career. If we, as a profession, truly want a diverse community and to provide equitable pathways to the profession, we need to support efforts to broaden the track to licensure.

My personal professional experience leads me to strongly believe that an intern would learn more about architecture, building science, codes, computers, construction, etc. by working for five years in an office rather than five years at a university. If I was given a choice of someone who had been working since high school for a firm for five years versus a person graduating with a five-year degree, all other things being equal, I would, probably hire the person who had practical experience.

I posed a question about this on a national discussion board for architects to better understand the reasons for resistance to alternate pathways. Not surprisingly, for a number of respondents the primary concern brought up was that in an office one does not get the design exposure one would in a university studio class or that learning on the job does not teach one to think broadly, critically, or spatially. One comment was that universities put the “art in architecture.” Most agreed that through apprenticing one might be technically competent but would never be a designer, a “true architect.” I, however, would argue these responses reflect much more poorly on the mentoring practices of some firms rather than expressing the value of a five-year degree.

For example, a student could learn design and broad thinking through expressing his professor’s favorite Maya Angelou poem in his design of an affordable housing project. Alternatively, the same person would also be exposed to many design considerations and, perhaps, even broader thinking if he had to weigh the concerns and comments of an owner, a zoning committee, neighborhood groups, and an ARB, all on the same project. In the end, everyone would sit for the same exam, which seems like a fair measure of what has or has not been learned.

I think that this hand wringing over the lack of university-taught design experience belies the reality of architects. The profession is not a monolith and neither are the day-to-day jobs that architects do. I was fortunate enough to grow up professionally in a small firm that taught me to be what I consider to be the “classic architect.” I was expected to start a project as a PM from a blank sheet of paper and take it all the way through the end of construction. Thirty years in the profession has shown me that my experience was more of the exception than the rule. I know and respect plenty of university trained licensed architects who have a truly remarkable understanding of how buildings go together but literally could not design a bathroom well. Others I have worked with were drawn to construction and have spent their careers focused on construction administration. Similarly, I have worked with gifted designers who had absolutely no ability to detail a wall section or put a set of construction documents together. Still others gravitate toward the running of firms and the management of people. An “architect” is not one thing and the path to becoming one does not have to be just one way.

This is in no way to indicate I am against a traditional university path to licensure. I am deeply appreciative of the exposure the University of Virginia gave me not only to architecture but to literature, world history, science, even astronomy, and that I was taught how to effectively articulate ideas. I am a staunch believer in the value of a broad education and would strongly encourage anyone who has the means to take this pathway to do so. In light of this, I would hope one option to be explored would be an associate’s degree coupled with years working under a licensed architect.

In recent years the AIA has made a commendable push to bring more diversity to the profession and has initiatives to promote equity and diversity. I cannot think of a single idea that would open the profession up more to people of all backgrounds than allowing those for whom a university education is not possible an alternate route to licensure. I would call upon the AIA to lead on this issue and make an initiative for a national recognition of alternate pathways to licensure a priority. This will not be a quick or easy change since each state has its own rules. However, the AIA and NCARB are looked to for guidance by many state licensing boards and were they to make this a prime concern in their push for diversity and inclusion, they would be able to effect significant positive change. 

Nea May Poole, AIA, LEED, AP is a principal and COO at Poole & Poole Architecture, LLC. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Click here to read this week's issue of The Zweig Letter!

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.