Licensed Architect : What That Means

Licensed Architect : What That Means

There are things happening these days that are Not in the best interests of the Health, Safety & Welfare of the public.  Things about non-professional entities using the title “Architect.”  There are those in our society that seek to confuse the public about what it means to be an architect.  To find out more, read on…

What it takes to be a Licensed Architect

A lot!
Some people in America and elsewhere are nibbling at the edges of what most states call their “Title Act”, trying to obfuscate the title of “Architect.”  Architect has historically meant: “person who designs buildings & homes.”  Legal use of the word has typically been awarded to those individuals who have earned its use through the following means:



through a major, accredited university architectural curriculum, culminating in the award of a professional architectural degree.  For instance, Rand Soellner, of the HOME ARCHITECTS ®, attended the University of Florida for both architectural undergraduate course work and went on to their Graduate School of Design.  He earned  a Bachelor of Design Degree from the College of Architecture and Fine Arts, and a Master of Arts in Architecture degree, signed by the Governor of the State, the Chairman of the Board of Regents, the President of the University and the Dean of the College of Architecture.  Courses often entailed 19+ hours of course work per quarter, which is exhausting.  Typically, this involved at least 3 “all-nighters” a week (meaning: periods of sustained, focused architectural learning and design activity of from 24 to 48 hours, continuously, without sleep).  There is a LOT to learn.  People who have not gone through this, cannot possible know what legitimate degree-earners know about architecture, anymore than home-schooled health care people can hope to know what a licensed Medical Doctor knows.  It is unbelievably difficult and one of the reasons why so few people that start courses in an architectural program actually finish with a degree.

licensed architectSoellner remembers that of 500 students in the sophomore architectural undergraduate class, only 5 made it through the master’s program.  Of course there was attrition to other universities, but essentially this indicated that only 5% of those who started there were able to successfully complete the obtaining of a professional-level architectural degree.

Rand Soellner remembers one course, in particular, in graduate school that was highly mathematical and theoretical and was very difficult.  Many students failed the course.  He asked the professor why that particular course was in the curriculum.  The professor said, with a perfectly straight face: “It’s a flunk-out course, created to weed out those who are not smart enough to become architects.  As an architect, your problem-solving skills will be tested to a degree that you cannot imagine.  Architects have the sacred duty to protect the Health, Safety & Welfare of the public.  We only want the best in our school to become architects.”  Therefore, only very few ever make it through college and graduate school with a professional level degree in architecture.

So, after 5 to 8 years in college (Soellner spent about 8), do you think you are done?  Far from it.  Read on…


2.  APPRENTICESHIP WORKING FOR LICENSED ARCHITECTS in the real world, at an architectural firm, where licensed architects watch and judge your every move and decision, correcting you, coaching you, guiding you.  NCARB (National Council of Architectural Registration Boards) has a process that new graduates must go through, called the IDP program (Intern Development Program), which documents the various hours of each type of experience an Intern Graduate Architect must obtain before being allowed to even sit for the upcoming exam.  Sound similar to being an Intern Medical Doctor?  It is.  You don’t just come out of college and start designing buildings.  You start by learning how to detail how a building and house goes together, so that your future designs will work properly.  You begin by helping other senior REAL licensed architects by developing their detailed design and Construction Documents.

This process can last between 3 to 10 years +/-.  For some people, they never meet all of these IDP requirements, and so, thousands of other hopeful want-to-be architects stop at this point.  You see how this works?  The entire process is created like a series of filters that only allow the most capable people to make it through to the next level.

Once you have met your apprenticeship program requirements, you then typically study at home (in the late night hours, after working at an architectural company during the day) for your upcoming architectural exams.  Soellner recalls studying for about 6 months, in the early morning and at night, usually until about 2AM.  In other words, all that you have accomplished to date does Not adequately prepare you for the grueling multiple day exam that is coming for you.  Soellner remembers having four 3″ thick mega-binders filled with exam preparatory study materials, and taking mock exams, conducted by himself, every week for 6 months, in order to pass.  Once again: it takes focus, dedication and capability.  Not for the faint of heart.


3.  TAKING AND PASSING THE MULTIPLE-DAY STATE ARCHITECTURAL EXAM.  Soellner remembers being ill on the day the exams started.  Didn’t matter.  This was it.  Do or die.  He was sipping from a pink Pepto-Bismol bottle all day, while others drank Cokes.  He also remembers frequent bathroom trips.   His life, from the time he was in 7th grade, up to this point, had been planned and focused on passing this test.  Fail and you are toast.  Pass and you get to continue on the road to becoming a licensed architect.  Huge pressure.  Soellner remembers thinking: “Pass this and you become Real.”   Most people taking this exam do not pass on the first time and have to return, year after year, trying again and again.  Most never make it.  It’s just too hard.

licensed architectThe test is created by NCARB, as the national standard, throughout the USA.  It is administered by each state’s Board of Architecture.  These days, most of it is done on computer.  When Soellner took the tests, it was by hand.  You either knew the answer or you didn’t.  No study materials of any kind or others were allowed.  You bring your brain, your clothes on your back and perhaps your bottle of Pepto-Bismol.  The test was given in a huge room with a 20′ high ceiling, with about 200+ hopeful applicants, all sitting at rows of tables.  Stern test monitoring architects walked around the room, watching what you were doing, looking for anything out of line.

licensed architectsThe exam lasted about 3 days, starting early in the morning and going until suppertime each day.  Many things were covered in the test including, but not limited to: structural engineering, seismic forces, real estate issues & law, ethics, environmental considerations, architectural history, energy issues, site planning, logic & function, other aspects and an all-day design exam, where you were required to create, from scratch, in one day, on paper, an entire office building of about 6 stories: floor plans, site plan, elevations and building section.  And all aspects of your design had to comply with building code: stairs, accessible bathrooms, structure, building fire code type, means of egress, community setbacks and others.   You have to use your time wisely.

licensed architectSoellner remembers staggering outside the hotel convention hall (where the exam was held) into the late afternoon sun, breathing the fresh air and thinking: “I did well.”  That became his mantra for the next couple of weeks, while he waited, like the other several hundred test-takers for the results.  And in a few weeks, The Envelope from the State came to his little rented house.  Soellner remembers looking at that envelope, with its official State seal in the upper left hand corner, for a couple of minutes, trying to divine its contents.  Then, with shaking hands, he opened it, unfolded the letter and read the words that would form the foundation for the rest of his life.  He had passed with a ranking: “High Pass.” Rand collapsed onto his knees and raised his arms toward heaven and shouted: “Thank you, God!”

Many people never pass this test.  Those that do, deserve to move on to the next part of the process:


Now, there is a purgatory phase where people that have passed the exam continue to live their lives, work where they have been working, and fill out and submit the official State Board of Architecture forms for licensure.  These forms document all that you have previously done, with documentation of your professional architectural degrees and the NCARB and State documentation of your passing of The test.  You also have to have signatures of other, more experienced licensed architects that know your character (which had better be good+), and that you are competent to practice architecture.  These vouchers are not easily obtained.  You have to have been working with and proving yourself to these experienced professionals for quite some time for them to put their word on the line for you.

And, very important: you have to sign a vow to PROTECT THE HEALTH, SAFETY & WELFARE OF THE PUBLIC.  This is the core sacred vow to which all licensed professionals have to adhere.  Those that do not take this vow cannot be trusted to do this.  Those that do agree to this are monitored to insure that they do.

Then you submit the form, along with your check to the State Board of Architecture.  Then you wait again.  In about one to two months, assuming that everything that you have said on your application is true and correct and checks out, you receive what you have been working so hard for, during the first third of your life: your Architectural License.  Vindication of your lifelong goals and struggles!  Hallelujah!

Now what?  Oh yeah.  Now you have to earn a living.  It’s not easy gaining the confidence of clients enough for them to entrust you with their hard-earned dollars to design buildings and homes for them that will meet their objectives.  So:


5.  WORK FOR ANOTHER 10 YEARS TO OBTAIN YOUR NCARB CERTIFICATION.  That’s about how long in takes to gain the additional experience and proven track record to obtain this important national certification from the entity that facilitates architectural licensure reciprocity throughout the USA.  Once again, you will need to document everything else you have accomplished thus far, and obtain additional endorsements from satisfied clients and other architects that know of your strong moral character and positive track record of architectural project performance.  Once again you fill out the application and pay the fee and wait.  And, assuming everything you told them was true and could be confirmed, you receive your NCARB certificate.  This is the equivalent of a Medical Doctor becoming “Board Certified” in one specialty or another.  The public can expect that from this, they are dealing with a highly qualified and accomplished architectural professional with a proven track record.

Okay; think you’re done?  Not quite.

6.  CONTINUING EDUCATION REQUIREMENTS (CEUs): YEARLY.  Now, you have to continue to prove to the states in which you are licensed, that you, as a licensed architect, have remained abreast of the most current design and technical knowledge affecting your profession.  Every year.  Usually this varies between 12 to 18 to 36 hours a year, depending on the state and the professional organizations of which you are a member.  This means that you may be required to attend seminars,  study various leading trends in professional journals, take online webinars, or other course work in various architectural subjects, including building code updates, each year.   Once again: this is the sort of thing that most architects have to accomplish in the evenings and weekends, in addition to their office work.  Unlicensed people have no such requirement to do this.  It is inconvenient and demanding and often costs money.  Do you suppose that unlicensed people will be likely to do this, if nothing requires them to do so?  You decide.   Once again, some architects, even licensed ones, fail to complete their required CEUs each year and either are put on suspension or outright lose their licenses!  So: more attrition.


Starting to understand what it takes to become an architect and remain an architect?  So now, perhaps you might share the outrage of real, licensed architects who notice when others casually claim the title “architect,” when they have not accomplished all of the steps indicated above!    State Boards of Architecture are supposed to, by law, monitor and reprimand and when required, fine and incarcerate those posing as architects to the public that have Not accomplished the above (NCARB certification being excepted).

And step 1 above does not include things to prepare yourself to begin the long and multi-decade climb to becoming a licensed architect.  Things like studying hard and long in high school, taking a college-preparatory curriculum, rather than perhaps doing other things that other kids might enjoy doing.  Starting at an early age, to develop the attention and focus required to be successful at each of the big and difficult steps that lie ahead.  Sound tough?  It is.  And it is also one of the most mentally rewarding careers there is, just like other professionals: Doctors, Lawyers, CPAs, Engineers, City Planners and others that require such focused efforts to become and maintain your professional requirements.  And, Rand’s family was barely middle-class income people.  He had to obtain National Defense Student Loans to pay for the University training, but that did not cover all living expenses.  He had to live on $7/week for food.  No joke.  And he did.  he weighed 155 pounds all through school and is 6′-2″ tall.  Since then, he has put on weight!  But those harsh economies of getting through school and taking 10 years to pay back the student loans are not forgotten.  So, this was not something that was handed to him, or to many others, on a silver platter.   You have to love it, or you will not continue.


WHENEVER YOU SEE SOMEONE OR SOME FIRM CLAIMING TO BE “ARCHITECTS” or that offer “architectural” service, question that. Why?  Because, as you have seen, there really aren’t that many that make it through to the finish line and then maintain that status of Licensed Architect.  You can go online to any state’s Board of Architecture and see if they are licensed where they claim to be licensed.  See if they are.  Are they required to be?  If you see a storefront in your city or a yellow pages ad or other local presence indicating “architect” status, they are supposed to be licensed to practice architecture there.  If they are not, then you might want to take a photo of their storefront and report them to your state Board of Architecture, along with the contact information for that company.  They are likely going to receive a “Cease & Desist” order from the State instructing them to remove the words “Architect”, “Architecture” and the like from their service offerings and company name.

Why?  Because it is confusing to the public and not in the public’s Health, Safety & Welfare for non-architects to claim to be and to render services they are not qualified to perform.  People could die.  Buildings and homes can fall down and otherwise kill people.  People’s lives and property can be destroyed.  That is why the law is the law: to protect you.

Due to the demanding requirements listed above, it should be no surprise that there are tens of thousands of people who dropout from schools of architecture, those who cannot pass the exam, or for one reason or another cannot meet all the requirements for legal status.  Of course, such people are unhappy and likely angry that they cannot become what they have aspired to become for so long.  That is an unfortunate situation.  However, if in their dissatisfaction, they decide to claim the title anyway, or to veil what they do with misleading words and failure to clarify that they are Not architects when people assume that they are, that constitutes at best, questionable behavior and at worst: illegal practice of something for which they are not legally qualified.  This happens every day.  Watch out for them.  Real, licensed architects are required by law to have their various degrees and licenses and certifications proudly displayed on their office and meeting place walls, for the public’s inspection.  If you don’t see such documentation, ask them for their license numbers.  In addition to this, Soellner posts his license numbers in his automatic sign-off of every e-mail and at the bottom of this and every page of this website.  Make sure that you are doing business with a real professional.

What are the qualifications of many of the people who may lead you to believe they are architects, when they are not?  Perhaps they bought a $79 CAD program and didn’t make it through high school.  Nothing against such a person trying to earn a living in this world, just against their claiming to be something that they are not and that they did not earn.

If you want to put this into perspective with at least one other profession, how would you feel about “Health Care Body Fixer People” claiming the title “Doctor?”  Would you be comfortable with them cutting into your belly and performing an appendectomy?  Of course not!  The same thing with architects.  Whether you realize it or not, every time you walk into a home or building, you are relying on the creator of that facility to protect you from the elements, to not rot, crumble and fall down on you, to use your energy dollars and our nation’s resources wisely and to not make you sick.  Only architects are the legally created and licensed professionals to accomplish this best.


There are also alternative organizations (possibly formed by unsuccessful dropouts from the process described above?) that name their “club” with titles that closely parallel those of legitimate organizations.  Watch out for those.  They invent “certifications” that are legally meaningless for their unlicensed membership, created, possibly, to confuse the public and give the impression that they might be architects (even though the fine print likely does not say this), when they are not.  It is simple to distinguish these from the real McCoy.  Ask any of them: IS THIS AN ORGANIZATION FORMED OF LICENSED ARCHITECTS?  You will probably see them pause, take a deep swallow, and then admit softly: “no.”

This whole situation is becoming even more confusing to the public with the unregulated use of the word “architect” in the IT (Information Technology) industry.  That should never have happened.  They should call those people “IT Designers”.
How to keep things clear: if you are talking about someone who designs homes and buildings: the licensed professional who does that may legally call themselves an Architect.

SO:  MAKE SURE THAT YOU ARE DOING BUSINESS WITH A REAL LICENSED ARCHITECT.  What does it take to be a real architect?  Licensure in at least one state in the USA.  Licensing in other states depends on what services are requiring licensure in that particular state.  However, having an NCARB certification allows reciprocity in most states, if required, along with any state-mandated additional requirements, if any.

And there are organizations that feel that “if it needs a permit, it needs an architect.”  This would be a good trend in America, to insure that the public has only the most skilled professionals designing their homes and buildings.


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