With all the buzz online, netflix shows on home improvement, DIY blogs and pinterest pegs, can one practice architecture without being licensed as a “professional”? Do I need to be a certified, bonafide architect to design my house?
This is a very timely topic for me as I just passed my board exam and obtained my license. Having gone through the entire architectural journey from start to license. I found that the process around the world for the profession is more or less the same.
You can practice architecture without a license if under the supervision of a licensed architect e.g. as an intern in their firm. It is illegal to solicit architectural services on your own, or call yourself an “architect” without a license. That license is also restricted by the country or state that issued it. This ensures that the local building codes are abided by, designs are appropriate to the country, that both architect and client are protected by law and that buildings erected will not endanger public safety.
Simply put, yes you need a license. And not just any license, an architectural license. An engineering license, environmental planner, interior designer or contractors license is also not the same, as in signing the building permit it is specifically indicated “architect.”
The road to becoming a licensed architect is long and arduous.
The summarized version of architecture training is, it takes 5 years of schooling, 2-3 years of internship under a licensed architect and then taking your board exam. That’s almost 8 years in the making of being an architect. This may slightly vary depending on where you are but what is uniform throughout the globe is that it’s not a short or easy route.
When finally getting that license, unfortunately most architects still go off drafting and implementing the designs of their higher ups. This is what gives architecture its competitive nature in trying to get the project or client and trying to stand out as a designer.
What’s more is having obtained the license, the worst may be over (may be too early for me to say) but there are a number of duties to fulfill immediately. One being the professional fees. You need to pay for the license itself, its renewal every 3 years, the professional tax and any membership fees to architectural associations…. All this without being employed as a professional yet.
Another sad reality is that I see across different countries, architects seem to have a slow growth in income. It’s definitely a struggle and can be a pain to watch other people taking shorter courses, having no internship and still making double your salary even after your 7-8 years of work. Perhaps in 5-10 years the income will be decent or more, but one has to be patient. (1)
After all the years of studying, the professional title is sealed with you taking your oath, vowing to protect your client, coworker and all you serve for the betterment of the public.
Some argue that perhaps having people undergo such technical training to pass the board exam, “drains the creativity” of architects as artists. This is why some opt to not go for their license at all. Should you decide to forgo the licensure process after finishing school, one must be incredibly knowledgeable to ensure the safety of those inhabiting what you build.(2)
This is the very reason for the license. It regulates the profession and ensures the built environment is safe. Architects need to know several building codes and regulations (such as the Fire Code and Accessibility Law) to be sure the building will not be a hazard to its occupants or neighboring buildings.
It may be monopolizing the profession in ensuring all design work goes to the “architects”, but it also protects the clients. Should something happen to your building, who will be responsible? Architects are responsible for a number of years after construction should the building collapse. Even if it is the fault of the contractor or supplier, the architect being “chief builder” and signatory is always the first to question. (2)
So the oath is taken to heart and you can be sure architects will give their very best to your design, as it can cost them their license. There is usually a professional architectural board or “professional licensing board” in every country to regulate all professionals. You can file a case against any professional through this body. Think of it as buying yourself and your building insurance. (3)
Going back to the point of “losing creativity”, it can also be argued that knowing this technical aspect well, makes the design thought process more well rounded and sound. This is what makes architecture difficult — what makes it both an art and science.
Reviewing for the exam also teaches people how to become a part of the profession in learning the code of ethics and how architects must respect and relate to one another.
Their duties don’t stop there. In order to renew their license every few years, architects must accumulate a number of points through attending seminars and conferences. These points are to safeguard that these architects are “continuing their professional development”, in learning the latest trends or innovation in material and societal issues.
This costs them money to attend these lectures and gather enough points to renew their license. Are you sure your unlicensed designers are up to date on the issues of the design world?
You have to be very careful in using the term “architect, architecture or architectural” as you can be fined and jailed for calling yourself or services as such without a license.
There was a company called “Backyard Architect” in the U.S. that served landscaping needs for yards and lawns. However, since the owner/designer was not an architect and no one in the company was, they were fined by the Texas Board of Architectural Examiners once brought to their attention. Is this too severe a punishment for misuse of a name? (3)
This is because the term “architect” is shaped to be a trusted name. Once called “architect”, the state or country regulates you as part of the roster of professionals in the country. The government is saying these people have passed the country’s standards and are trusted having taken an oath swearing to public safety.
Check your professional regulation commission to verify if your architect is a registered and licensed professional! Meaning they are part of the roster AND have a renewed license.
It’s common for people to save money by finding a design online, have an engineer sign off and their builder build it. This completely eliminates the architect from the process therefore “saving” on their professional fees. In a way, it is a gap in the system that needs to be addressed. When the economy is down and people still need shelter, will they prioritize their funds in a bonafide architect for their simple home? Or save some money to go to health care, education, transportation or other factors of survival? (4)
There are ways to skirt about it, by calling yourself “home designer” or “home builder”, it’s just much safer to steer clear of the term if you’re not given the legal clearance to do so (again depending where you live, because some laws can penalize you for simply offering the architectural service). (5)
This doesn’t mean you can’t practice ANY kind of architecture. As an intern or under the supervision of a licensed architect’s practice, you will still be able to design, draft technical details, conduct site visits, draw up floor plans, create material specifications — you can cycle all architectural tasks!
The licensing only prohibits people from stamping building documents for the government as those are regulated by code. This also prevents people from soliciting architectural work on their own without professional supervision, as the overall design must still be overseen and held liable. (6)
Given you can still exercise quite a lot of skills having accomplished your architecture degree, it’s a definite life stage to ponder whether one should pursue their license or not. If you’d like to focus on a certain aspect such as model making, rendering, CAD drafting, designing architectural graphics, or perhaps specialize in being a realtor or contractor, then you may not need to take the exam. (7)
You don’t need the license to have a successful career in the field. It’s okay and absolutely normal if other life priorities are pressing, as this extra step entails a lot of money and time off earning money. It’s also worth considering if you can go about the profession and don’t want responsibility of license renewal, fees, added time etc. (7)
If you look through your local building code, there are some things you can build and design without being in legal trouble.
States like Florida,Texas, Oklahoma and California allow you to design farm buildings, one or two family residences, some allow a warehouse, a townhouse, multi-family dwellings and commercial properties (about 2 stories) with limits to the total project cost or total project area. Again, it pays to double triple check your codes on how to go about this to the exact details as they’ll update these every few years! (3)
The license however is not a fast pass and golden ticket to all things architecture. The powers of your license are limited to where you applied for it. So in the U.S., it’s limited to the state where you passed your exam. For example, in my case, who passed all requirements for the Philippines, the moment I go abroad, I cannot sign and seal documents in the foreign country, unless I apply for a special temporary license or design in tandem with a local architect (depending on their local laws for foreign practice).
Why? It is because architects within that 7-8 year period of study have analyzed the climate, available materials, culture and user behavior of the people of that country. It’s a whole new ballpark and literal new set of rules. Thankfully in the age of globalism, there are clauses in architecture laws to allow some cross practice, which gives us these international “starchitects” planting their structures around the world.
So to sum it up, licenses protect your life, your building and your building from affecting the public. If you’re at the crossroads of taking your license or on the journey there, know there are still good opportunities out there without the license and be aware of all that comes with it (and applying for it).
All around, hiring an official architect gives respect to the licensed professionals and their hard work. This goes the same for the architect, who is not a substitute for an engineer or urban planner. All these people have important roles and have spent so much money and time to understand the built environment to craft safe spaces for all.
- Sinko, K. (2020, August 14). Is architecture hard? how difficult is studying architecture? (& how to make it easier): 070. Successful Archi Student. Retrieved March 2022, from https://successfularchistudent.com/is-architecture-hard/
- AIBD. (2021, April 30). How to design buildings without being a licensed architect (legally) . American Institute of Building Design (AIBD). Retrieved March 2022, from https://aibd.org/how-to-design-buildings-without-being-a-licensed-architect-legally/#now-for-the-meat-and-potatoes-of-this-article-the-exempted-activities
- Kolson Hurley, A. (2009, September 10). Trust me, I’m an (unlicensed) architect. Architect Magazine. Retrieved March 2022, from https://www.architectmagazine.com/practice/trust-me-im-an-unlicensed-architect_o
- SVadmin, J. (2021, September 5). Can you call yourself an architect if you are not licensed? Special Project. Retrieved March 2022, from https://mgtuts.com/autocad/can-you-call-yourself-an-architect-if-you-are-not-licensed.html
- Bell, D. P. (2018, August 23). Working in architecture without a license – youtube. YouTube. Retrieved March 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmGrIR4viPI
- Riscica, M. (2020, June 25). 10 great reasons not to get your architecture license. Young Architect. Retrieved March 2022, from https://youngarchitect.com/10-great-reasons-not-to-get-your-architecture-license-become-an-architect/