Rethinking Access to the Architecture Profession

As we continue to reflect on what exactly the profession of architecture is going to do to make itself more accessible and authentic (hopefully as a part of a broader reinvention of America doing the same thing), a lot of the initial chatter on Twitter has turned to education, licensure, and continuing education. I have some thoughts…


Education

In my mind, education is the single biggest barrier put up by architecture. Education experience is one of the three pillars of prerequisite experiences alongside work experience and exam experience that every architecture board has in place for people wanting to become licensed architects. We need to honestly examine if a NAAB-accredited bachelors or masters degree is the only path.

A small handful of states currently offer alternative paths, with some requiring a 4-year college degree of pretty much any kind, and others allowing a high school diploma plus documented work experience in lieu of any college degree. Alternative paths like exchanging work experience for school are great ways to be more accessible, as it lets people earn money instead of pay money to learn the trade. If you’re poor coming out of high school, you’re often working to help support your family (that is, your parents and siblings) at that young age, and no amount of scholarship money to offset the enormous expense of architecture school is going to help with that because you need a job and income now. Sitting in classes and studios for the next five to seven years that absorb all of your time and energy just to get through won’t help that. This is personal, it was me; and there are more people in similar circumstances all over the country today, it’s a very real barrier.

It’s time to bring back apprenticeships, and we have plenty of national organizations who could set standards to protect apprentices and incentivize practices to engage in apprenticeship. Part of apprenticeship is the formal titling of the apprentices — we could finally embrace the architectural equivalent of the EIT with such an effort. If something like this moves forward, it will be equally important for our industry to avoid creating castes based upon level or method of eduction. The toxicity of professions with castes (looking at you legal profession) is critical to avoid, as we’d end up right back at an inaccessible profession. So there are challenges here, but if we’re truly open to considering change, we can work through them.

Licensure

Tied closely to education is licensure. If we move forward to open up the means by which people get an architecture education, then we must allow those new methods universal access to licensure across the country. This will be extremely tough to achieve, but if we create a wave of change with architecture boards that are ready to make practice accessible, then we’ve seen how other movements can make change spread from state to state.

All but a small handful of states in the US require a NAAB-accredited degree in architecture in order to fulfill their education prerequisite to sit for the ARE and get a license. The rest of the states either require some sort of 4-year college degree or a high school diploma at a minimum; and most of these states have experience-based equivalencies that a person can use to demonstrate they’re ready for licensure, despite the lack of an architecture school degree. These are great examples of making licensure more accessible, and the rest of the states need to follow. Who are we trying to serve by restricting exam access? Who do we keep out by restricting exam access?

The ARE is central to the topic of licensure and it needs to change to be more accessible. Right now it’s focused on being broad and general, which is definitely how architects need to be. But we should pull back some of that which is of limited relevance and reclaim it for test content that’s focused on demonstrating an understanding of equity and social-awareness from the perspective of the designer and the leader of the project delivery team. This new content should be aligned with the same kind of content introduced to continuing education requirements, too (more on that below).

I’ll mention the work experience component of licensure here as well. The beauty of apprenticeship is that it fulfills that experience component. Schools have already started pushing students to start NCARB’s AXP while they’re still in school. These efforts help move the work experience component along, and get people more capable faster. Like I mentioned for the ARE, the AXP and apprenticeships should have to include training focused on equity and social-awareness topics from the architect’s point of view. Additionally, all of the currently required volunteer hours should be switched over to have this same focus.

Continuing Education

The idea of including requirements for learning about equity and social-awareness content such as unconscious bias and multi-cultural communications to continuing education is important. Some states already require ethics as a CE subject, and that should become a nationwide requirement too, as ethics topics dovetail nicely with equity topics.

Where it’s currently required, ethics training is tracked independently from HSWs or LUs. Equity and social-awareness training needs the same breakout from the existing CE categories. Leave HSWs for building and occupant safety, with the “social heath, safety and welfare” content separated due to its importance.

Tracking and Reporting Progress

Key to making sure this effort doesn’t dissolve into more talk without meaningful change, or that an emerging movement doesn’t fizzle out, is continuous tracking and reporting of our progress.

Our profession needs to start reporting workforce diversity in greater detail and with more frequency — the schools need to do the same. There should be staff at AIA dedicated to studying metrics and providing regularly-scheduled interpretations of the numbers — basically an ABI, but for diversity. A big, big challenge will be additional tracking and reporting of firms’ interactions with clients where we follow the kinds of projects with a focus on the ends of the equity spectrum with projects that actively promote inclusion and equity at one end versus projects that restrict or even hurt inclusion and equity at the other end. This client and project tracking will be critical to understanding how well architects serve society and would need to be interpreted and reported regularly, just like the diversity data for employers and schools.

Get It Done

We’re at the start of a conversation about making architecture more open, accessible, and authentic. It’s vital that we don’t lose momentum. It’s probably best to start on these changes at the local/state level with the various industry boards and organizations and build the momentum from there to make things happen nationally.

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