Licensed Architect vs. Unlicensed Architect

As an undergrad architect student, you may be wondering the age-old question: what is the difference between a licensed architect vs. an unlicensed architect? A subject of heated debate for many years, particularly amongst industry professionals, there are certain facts that clearly illustrate the differences – and how they can potentially impact the world around us. However, there are also subjective factors that may vary, depending on the individual you speak to. In this article, we’ll explore the differences between the two occupations, as well as a series of frequently-asked questions relevant to this ongoing dispute.  

Define The Term ‘Licensed’ Architect

In the United States, it is actually illegal to refer to yourself as an architect unless you have been licensed by a state. Attaining your licensure as an architect requires not only a degree in architecture, but years of apprenticeship as well as a difficult multi-level exam. That’s why it is critical that you know your facts and explore your options. There are still many unlicensed architects who will do the work of a licensed architect; they may call themselves architects, designers, or a number of other titles. As a result, this issue has become a controversy, especially among the architectural community – primarily licensed architects – the argument being that it is irresponsible to practice without a license. On the other hand, some professionals are of the opinion that it’s not only unnecessary to have a license, but may hinder one’s creativity and career goals.  

Before we go any further, let’s take a look at the usage of the terminology. The first distinction would be that a licensed contractor has passed the ARE, or the Architect Registration Examination, which is the professional licensure examination adopted by the 50 states of the United States, the District of Columbia, and three U.S. territories (Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). A very arduous test administered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), this exam not only measures an individual’s design skills, but tests technical and critical knowledge related to the practice of architecture. Universally, this exam is recognized as a way to test a candidate’s professional knowledge in order to ensure health, safety and welfare among the community that the prospective architect will be serving.

An architect is licensed by passing the ARE, which some have compared to the Bar exam for the legal profession, as far as the level of preparation and difficulty entailed. This grueling exam is seven parts, and each section ranges from 3-6 hours per test; some individuals take this examination over a period of time, ranging from weeks to months. In order to pass this exam, you must be extremely knowledgeable about the management and operation of all architectural practices.

Some individuals who have passed this exam may have several suffixes to their name, including:

AIA: This suffix indicates a registered/licensed architect who is a member of the professional organization American Institute for Architects (AIA).

RA: This means that the individual is a licensed/registered architect. RA= Registered Architect. They have passed the exam and may be a member of Society of American Registered Architects (SARA).

NCARB: This suffix indicates that they are accredited by the National Council of Architectural Registration Board. They have passed the exam and maintain their accreditation with NCARB.

What Can An Unlicensed Architect Do?

On the other hand, an unlicensed architect or unlicensed contractor may have the same education of a bachelor’s degree and training as a licensed architect, but they have not taken or passed the registration exam. As a result, they’re unable to provide a set of “sealed” documents that are needed to obtain a building permit for a construction project as required by many municipalities. Whether they’ve been in the architecture profession for many years or just came into the profession with a design degree, they still cannot technically (or legally) call themselves an architect.

While this is not to say that an unlicensed contractor isn’t capable of doing a job as well as a licensed architect, it should still be noted that the major difference is education – and adhering to a standardized set of qualifications. Although both individuals may be able to provide you with services (and having a license doesn’t guarantee those services will necessarily be to your satisfaction), in the end, a licensed architect can be held accountable in the event that things go wrong with their architectural services.

The Importance Of Receiving Your License In Architecture: FAQs

As we’ve discussed, there is still much debate as to whether or not undergraduate architecture majors should work towards their licensure. In this section, we’ll review some frequently-asked questions that address this question and related issues pertinent to the practice of architecture.

Q: What is the value of becoming a licensed architect?

A: As nearly anyone who’s had to go through the examination process can attest, they are both time-consuming and difficult. However, most industry professionals will agree that these exams cover the many facets of architecture, many of which are tested during the ARE, including structural safety. Consequently, becoming a licensed architect ensures you will be certified to provide the highest level of architectural services while adhering to safety guidelines and regulations. Although becoming a licensed architect does not guarantee you’ll become exceptional at your craft, it may ensure that you are well-qualified through adequate education, training and experience.

Q: Is a licensed architect going to be more ethical than a non-licensed architect?

A: Not necessarily; however, if a licensed architecture misserves a client in some way, the path for filing a claim is clear, as they can be held accountable for the work and services they are providing. On the contrary, if an unlicensed architect performs in an incompetent manner, redressing the issue becomes much more complex, as they simply do not hold the same recourse as a licensed architect. The size, breadth, budget and complexity of a project is usually the determining factor when individuals or companies choose to work with a non-licensed architect vs. a licensed architect. For example, if you are a homeowner seeking renovations or building a small house, you may opt to go with a contractor or an unlicensed architect. However, for larger structures, especially corporate or commercial, hiring an accredited, licensed architectural firm is not only preferred, but the only legal option within the United States.

Q: If I can practice architecture without taking the ARE, why bother getting my license?

A: Although you can still design buildings and work in the field of architecture without your license, there are many other facets of the industry (and your education) to be taken into consideration. With the ever-increasing complexity of building technologies, regulations, and the knowledge require to practice not only adequately but competently, many professionals agree that obtaining your licensure in architecture is well worth the time and money entailed. In addition to the more mundane elements you’ll learn, such as building codes, you are earning your place in the profession through a rigorous series of checks and balances comprised of a comprehensive education, hands-on training via internships, working with seasoned vets of the industry, examinations, and ultimately licensure. It should also be noted that in most states, you cannot design commercial buildings or buildings over three stories without your license.

Q: Is there truth to the statement that becoming a licensed architect may thwart my creativity?

A: While many professionals debate this question, being unlicensed doesn’t necessarily facilitate or guarantee more creative pursuits in your architectural career – in fact, some experts agree that it may hinder it in the long run. Although the process for obtaining your license in architecture is costly, difficult and very time-consuming, it can provide you with opportunities in the industry that you simply cannot achieve or practice as an unlicensed architect. Therefore, non-licensure may be more apt to limit your creativity – clearly, it’s a decision with pros and cons that are really subjective to the individual, based on long-term career goals, budget, and other personal and professional factors.  

Q: What is the purpose of joining the American Institute of Architects?

A: Although it may be costly, many professionals agree that being a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) is beneficial in a variety of ways. For one, it offers a range of support services to architects, acting as a networking touchpoint to many industry professionals. While it may be initially too expensive for an architect just starting out, seasoned architects may wish to consider it as a valuable networking tool and informational resource once they advance within their career.

The Pros & Cons Of Being A Licensed Architect: Is It Worth It?

As you can see, becoming a licensed architect is a big commitment requiring a great deal of discipline, time and money. However, as in every major life-changing decision, there are pros and cons you will want to weigh carefully before choosing to pursue your licensure. Here are several worth considering:

Pro: Architects are responsible for protecting the public’s safety, health and welfare.

Con: Protecting the public’s safety, health and welfare is a huge responsibility – are you ready to take on that commitment?

Pro: A number of larger firms will reimburse you for the ARE because they want to get you licensed.

Con: Taking the ARE and getting your license is costly – are you ready (and able) to invest this much into your future?

Pro: Obtaining your license means you can legally call yourself an architect.

Con: The expense of becoming a licensed architect is a major determining factor for many pursuing their degree.

Pro: Becoming a licensed architect makes you more valuable to your firm in a number of ways – the more licensed architects their staff has, the better they’ll look to prospective clients, and the lower their liability insurance will be.

Con: You aren’t planning on designing anything yourself independently, so why would you need liability insurance?

Summary: The Benefits Of Becoming A Licensed Architect

To conclude, although you can find ample work within the architectural industry without a license, you are generally more respected within the field for a number of reasons. First and foremost, being a licensed contractor not only gives you credibility, but allows you to work on projects that a non-licensed architect wouldn’t be able to. Whereas a non-licensed architect can legally work on smaller projects (typically of a residential nature), a licensed architect is qualified to take on projects of a much larger scale, including but not limited to government infrastructures, corporate buildings and skyscrapers. In addition, gaining your license will not only enable you to advance your career more rapidly, but increase your earning potential.

As touched upon earlier, having a license also allows a certain degree of freedom within your field, thus enabling the potential for greater creative endeavors throughout the course of your career. Depending on your professional goals and aspirations, earning your license can have a major impact on your future.

Whether you’re designing a residential home, an office space or a healthcare facility, you have the advantage of seeing your ideas come to life. Because this industry lends itself to major innovations throughout our architectural and environmental landscape, you have the power to change the dynamic of any given location, from rural towns to urban communities, both locally and globally. Creating plans and specifications to suit your clients’ and contractors’ needs within a certain budget and timeline adds an additional challenging level to the innovation process. Ultimately, becoming a licensed architect allows you to become adequately trained to serve the communities in which we live and work in, while leaving your imprint on the world for years to come.