What is the Benefit of Becoming a Licensed Architect?

The question of whether or not it’s worth it to get licensed actually comes up a lot. So, let me fast forward to my answer: Yes, I strongly believe that there is value in being a licensed architect. While there are more asterisks on that answer than I would like, I think that having a rigorous process that architects all go through helps establish a baseline of competence within our profession. I could (and probably should) write numerous blog posts on what is wrong with the process of becoming a licensed architect, but, for now, I’ll just focus on a bit of my story in getting licensed and taking the exams.

A little backstory: I have a 5-year Bachelor of Architecture degree. I was excited by this particular degree, as I had a funny feeling that I would be very done with school when people would normally get ready to enter a master’s program. I also had zero doubt about what I wanted to do when I grow up. (Although, technically, I’m not sure it is 100% settled that I have officially “grown up.”) I also like getting things done as efficiently as possible. You’re either going to nurse that drink for a few hours or pound a shot (this is College Jeff talking) and so I approached college the same way.

I also hate exams. HATE them. I’ve always done well enough with them, but found them irritating, as if they were holding me back from just DOING things. I definitely have a strong impatient streak that runs through me. So, the idea of getting my bachelor’s degree and then going back to school was something I had absolutely no interest in.

Similarly, the idea of having to finish school, and then having to work for many years to gather enough experience before I was even eligible to take the exams to become a licensed architect truly pissed me off. Now, things have changed a few times since I became licensed, and now you can now (finally) take them concurrently as you gain your work experience. (P.S. there were a whopping 9 exams back then, too.)

I put it off repeatedly. I was doing well in my career and didn’t see it holding me back. Maybe, I thought, I could avoid the miserable prospect of studying for endless hours. It almost seemed reasonable.

Then one day I had a meeting with a client, some colleagues, and a contractor. Someone mentioned something about needing an architect for this. I made a quick little side comment to deflect that I wasn’t licensed and an innocent joke was made at my expense about how, when I was actually a real architect, I could speak up. That evening I made a plan to get off my butt and get the exams done and over. I’ve never regretted it. Just not having to explain to people that I’m “almost as good as” a licensed architect (which, honestly, I actually concur with) was enough to convince me. The reality is that someone can work for many years without getting licensed and have just as much, or more, experience, than someone licensed. I’m not even sure I retain a fraction of what I studied for my exams. But I had public respect out of the way and that has been worth all the work.

Side Rant: I was fortunate at the time to not have children and have enough free time to study. People with children, particularly mothers, have historically been challenged to carve enough time out to get licensed. I’ve been very happy with the move to allow concurrent exam taking with accruing your professional hours.

So, back to my exams. What were they like? Infuriatingly stupid, to be quite frank. We had a rudimentary software that dumbed down normal design decisions. I got questions that were inane and insulting. To add insult to injury it would take weeks or even months to get results back (which still occurs). The whole thing is designed to trick and deceive and it didn’t, from my experience, highlight or test the skills needed to problem solve. Still, I realized that fighting the process was like trying to make a stand when no one was looking. So, I swallowed my disgust and buckled down to study and take the exams in a semi-regular fashion. Through determination and luck I managed to pass every exam on the first try (which is apparently very rare and a reminder that I should go buy a lottery ticket). It was a period of time in my life that I wouldn’t want to repeat but I’m glad I did it.

In our office, I encourage everyone to get licensed, but I don’t sugarcoat the misery of the exam process. It stinks. Still, the feeling of actually getting respect as a licensed architect (and heck, being able to actually own and operate Board & Vellum) has made it all worth it. So, my advice to everyone out there contemplating if taking all of the exams and becoming a licensed architect is worth it… I say, hold your nose and throw back the shot. You’ll thank me in the morning.

This post is part of the ArchiTalk series originally spearheaded by Bob Borson of Life of an Architect. Historically, he has selected a theme and a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s posts. This year, the themes have been selected by a variety of contributors. This month’s theme was selected by Meghana Joshi of IRA Consultants, LLC, and is “The Architectural Registration Exam.” To read how others interpreted the theme, please explore the links below.

Matthew Stanfield – FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
What is the Big Deal about the ARE?

Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
what A.R.E. you willing to do 

Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Take the architect registration exam, already

Eric T. Faulkner – Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
ARE – The Turnstile

Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
the architect registration exam

Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
I forget

Drew Paul Bell – Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell)
The Architecture Registration Exam

Kyu Young Kim – J&K Atelier (@sokokyu)
Every Architect’s Agony

Nisha Kandiah – ArchiDragon (@ArchiDragon)
To do or not to do ?

Keith Palma – Architect’s Trace (@cogitatedesign)
Test or Task

Jim Mehaffey – Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
Passing the Test

Mark Stephens – Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Part 3!

Ilaria Marani – Creative Aptitude (@creaptitude)
How to Become a Licensed Architect in Italy

Jane Vorbrodt – Kuno Architecture (@janevorbrodt)
Seven Years of Highlighters and Post-it Notes

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