Is Architectural Licensing Necessary?
Mónica Ponce de León, dean of Princeton’s School of Architecture, recently called for allowing graduates of accredited professional programs like hers to take the licensing exams without having to meet any experience requirement. That requirement, she argues, is “an exclusionary tactic … structured to perpetuate discrimination and inequity.”
In her new book, Architecture and Labor (Routledge, 2020), Yale’s Peggy Deamer goes a step further, suggesting that architects decouple their profession from state registration entirely. Her call to “deprofessionalize” architecture—to deregulate it—may strike some architects as far-fetched, but here’s some breaking news: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, aka “the mini-Trump,” just stripped landscape architects, among other professions, of state protection of their titles and practice. Deamer, a co-founder of The Architecture Lobby, is focused on architects as workers and on the broader situation of architecture in the late-capitalist, Trump-inflected U.S. Issues of equity and diversity are high on her agenda. Those issues are salient to any discussion of state regulation.
Architecture emerged as a profession in the 19th century. As Deamer explains, it joined other “learned” professions in seeking to distance itself from commerce. State regulation of architects in the U.S. began with Illinois in 1897. Hoping to distinguish the profession from others involved with building design and construction, proponents of registration aimed both to protect clients from unqualified practitioners and to raise the profession’s status. In 1920, as part of an effort to coordinate the licensing process across the state boards, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) instituted the first standard licensing exams.
Architecture as a so-called learned profession was also exempt from U.S. antitrust laws until 1972, when the American Institute of Architects (AIA) dropped its fee schedule to settle a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice. A second consent agreement in 1990 affirmed price competition and made any discussion of fees by architect bidders a felony. (German architects retain a fee schedule, Deamer notes, despite EU rules to the contrary.) While billed as “consumer protection,” the U.S. Department of Justice’s actions, taken initially against civil and structural engineers, were pushed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. General Services Administration to reduce the cost of those professions’ services.
In 1979, California Governor Jerry Brown proposed to “sunset” state regulation of architects, among other professions. (Law, medicine, and engineering were exempted.) The organized profession and its licensing board fought Brown, arguing by analogy to civil and structural engineers that public health, safety, and welfare were protected by state regulation. The board also substituted its own licensing exams for NCARB’s, emphasizing seismic and energy issues. In the end, Brown’s effort failed; none of the targeted professions was deregulated.
Architectural regulation varies widely, as Deamer’s book and a 2012 study of Australia and Sweden by University of Queensland’s Amanda Roan and Monash’s Naomi Stead show. The U.S. and Australia follow the Anglo-American model that ties licensing to a combination of education, experience, and exams. In France, Germany, and Sweden, education and experience suffice. Licensing exams (and their associated fees), not experience, is the main difference between the two models.
In Sweden, architects’ title and practice are not regulated by the state. Anyone can call herself an architect and practice as one. From their first student days, though, most architects join the Swedish Association of Architects (or Architects Sweden), self-described as “the professional association, union and interest group for Sweden’s architects, interior architects, landscape architects and spatial planners.” Graduation from an accredited program and two years of experience with EU firms allow them to be recognized by Architects Sweden as qualified in one or another of the related fields it covers.
“Why has the AIA, NCARB, and NAAB, and even the ACSA, made it so difficult to find demographic data?” asks Mónica Ponce de León, questioning if diversity is really their priority.
Roan and Stead’s 2012 study focused on “women’s position in architecture” in Australia and Sweden. It benefits from substantial data about the diversity of the architectural profession in the two countries. In her interview with Antonio Pacheco, Ponce de León decries the lack of data here: “Why has the AIA, NCARB, the NAAB, and even the ACSA, made it so difficult to find demographic data?” she asks, questioning if diversity is really their priority.
Ultimately, their data showed that Sweden wasn’t Nirvana for women architects either, despite a “context of strong social and political support for women and a loose regulatory framework in architecture.” In 2012, 51 percent of the members of Architects Sweden were women, and women and men architects’ salaries were “on par for the first ten years.” But pay diverged thereafter as more senior positions went to men and fewer women started their own practices. Some of the fields covered by Architects Sweden attract more women than men, potentially a factor in their higher numbers. Still, the growth of women studying architecture in Sweden suggests they will be the majority of architects in the future.
Australian architects are registered by state boards overseen by the Architects Accreditation Council of Australia, which coordinates reciprocity with other countries and shares architecture school accreditation with the Australian Institute of Architects and the state boards. In 2012, Women made up 26 percent of Australian Institute of Architects members, half their proportion in Sweden. The title “architect” is protected, but non-architects can provide architectural services. In 1996, Susan Shannon argued that the current process of architectural licensure in Australia made it less likely that women architecture graduates would find suitable employment to gain needed experience or see the necessity to be registered. Instead, they are “more likely to see it as oppressive or restrictive.”
Monash University Researcher Gill Matthewson’s 2018 analysis of Australia’s 2016 census showed that women are a growing presence in architecture there. A higher percentage of women, 40 percent in 2016 versus 34 percent in 2011, are registering as architects. Of all women active in architecture, 57 percent were registered in 2016 versus 51 percent in 2011. And yet, despite strong graduation rates, women’s participation falls off with age. Compared to their male peers, women are slower to start their own firms and less likely to incorporate them or employ others. After age 30, they are more likely to work part-time. Between ages 40 and 60, women are less likely than men to work “longer than the standard working week.” Among architect employees, “men dominate the higher earning brackets.” Matthewson summarizes: “Whatever the measure used, women are present in strong numbers in the junior ranks, … but disappear from its senior levels.” This trend “has weakened … but the pattern persists.”
I asked Matthewson if she thought women’s participation in architecture would grow if the profession was deregulated, a step proposed by Australia’s Productivity Commission in 2000, following an inquiry that raised arguments against regulation similar to those made by California Governor Brown in 1979. She responded:
“Self-regulation would mean less formal means of gatekeeping, which usually do not work to women’s advantage, nor to the advantage of minorities. There is already some informality in the system in Australia that I believe discriminates. Formal credentials matter much more for women and the progress of their careers than they do for men. But registration is also to some degree disconnected from the everyday of architects’ lives and that is a big problem. But that could mean reform rather than removal.
Women are already a sizable portion of the field. The issue is that they leave more than the men do. Would deregulation reduce that leaving? Hard to predict the consequences, but I’d be surprised if it did. It may make no difference but it could also exacerbate the conditions that cause women to leave: tightly held male cabals, ruthless competition, and the like.”
Matthewson also clarified that the registration process in Australia includes a single exam, a signed-off workbook, and an interview. “That makes it perhaps less of a barrier,” she says, than the U.S. process.
Ponce de León’s call to reform licensing, like Deamer’s call to scrap it, aim to shift architecture to a more inclusive and equitable place that’s better suited to contemporary practice and its possible futures. Deamer sees advantages in the Swedish model, which emphasizes education, simplifies experience, and eliminates exams, as well as advocating for architects as workers.
Roan and Stead, citing Professions and Patriarchy (Routledge, 1992), note, “Anne Witz claims that professions, by their very nature, may be an exclusionary project. … She states that ‘credentialist tactics, the use of educational certificates and accreditations to monitor and restrict access to occupation position, are one of the major tactics of professional closure.’”
Education, in short, is as culpable as experience, exams, and licensing. Yet, as Matthewson argues, running that gauntlet may benefit the women and minorities who manage to do it. Deamer points to Architects Sweden, because it’s a union in the Swedish sense of the word—that is, an organization that advocates for architects, broadly construed, aiming to secure for the women and men in the field reasonable pay and working conditions, act as a clearing house for R&D, and monitor events in the wider world with implications for its members.
Reform is certainly overdue. Deamer devotes several chapters of her book to the way tech innovations have transformed practice. The pandemic has given this (and much else) a gigantic shove, while simultaneously upending higher education. It’s highlighted inequities that were always there but are now almost embarrassingly front and center.
But the push for deregulation is now coming from other quarters. While Florida Governor DeSantis held off from moving on architects, his action—which took place under the cover of the pandemic, like so much else perpetrated by Trump and his loyalists—was carried out, as the Wall Street Journal editorialized, to “provide more opportunities for more citizens.” In an unintended echo of Ponce de León, the WSJ adds, “It’s all about removing unnecessary barriers that make it harder for people to enter certain professions”
Given that professional licensing may help rather than hurt women and minorities, as Monash’s Matthewson points out, the WSJ editorial’s breezy endorsement is open to question. It’s interesting that Florida’s interior designers, who enjoy state protection in Florida, successfully organized to resist DeSantis. The preponderance of women in that profession supports Matthewson’s thesis: being licensed, which was hard won, certainly matters to them.
With the heightened awareness of racism and inequity now sweeping universities and offices alike, taking the situation of women and minorities seriously is overdue. Ponce de León is right to make an issue of it. But, as Deamer argues, to be meaningful, reform needs to be holistic. If she points to Sweden’s union, part of its appeal is its ability to keep pace with and even lead change rather than content itself with rearguard actions. How the organized profession does this is a question The Architecture Lobby is pondering, as is Australia’s Parlour, the women architect’s advocacy group. The means will differ with context. Tertiary education has a similar need to challenge disciplinary boundaries and preconceived ideas about practice. That’s a challenge Dean Ponce de León may want to take up.
Featured image via Archinect.