Architectural Intern or Architectural Designer: What’s the Difference?

By David Del Vecchio, AIA, Chair, AIA/NJ Legislative & Government Affairs Committee

A recent discussion on LinkedIn asked whether anyone claiming twelve years of experience working in the field of architecture can call themselves “architectural designer”. I gave this subject much thought, and while I sympathize with graduates pursuing their licenses (or not, for whatever reason) I had this to say.

The suggestion that an unlicensed person with twelve years (or any amount of years) of experience should be allowed to call themselves an “architectural designer” is clearly counter to current AIA Public Policy which reserves the use of the term “architect” or its derivative forms to those who are licensed as architects, and provides a limited exception for interns with an accredited degree in architecture. The policy on the “Use of the Title Architect and its Derivatives” says,

The AIA supports protecting the public by reserving the use of the term “architect” and its derivative forms to those individuals licensed as architects. In addition, the AIA supports the use of “architectural intern” or “intern architect” for graduates of NAAB-accredited degree programs.

Further it is contrary to most, if not all, state statutes that prohibit the use of the title or even the words “architect, architectural, or architecture” in describing one’s qualifications or title. While the guidelines are very specific as to which terms are permissible, some confusion may arise when NCARB tells interns that,

“A person currently employed under the responsible control of an architect and who maintains in good standing a National Council of Architectural Registration Boards Record may use the title “intern architect” or “architectural intern” in conjunction with his/her current employment, but may not engage in the practice of architecture except to the extent that such practice is excepted from the requirement of registration.”

Some believe that this should then allow them to also call themselves “architectural designer”. But the difference between the terms “architectural intern” and “architectural designer” is significant, the former implying that an individual has obtained the necessary educational requirements for licensure (an NAAB-accredited degree) and it actively enrolled in an acceptable internship program (NCARB’s IDP program); the latter does not necessarily imply either.

NCARB fails to explain to those enrolling in the IDP program that state regulations may prohibit the use of terms beyond what the NCARB and NAAB guidelines suggest may be appropriate. It is up to each intern to check their local laws for themselves before they use any term that may mislead a member of the public to believe they are qualified to take responsibilities beyond their licensure status.

In some states, like New Jersey, every regulated professional has an obligation to report suspected violations of the law, including the use of restricted titles. Members of the AIA New Jersey Legislative and Government Affairs Committee recently wrote an article educating our members about that responsibility, and about how to recognize, document, and report instances of illegal practice.

Most state regulatory boards rely on the licensed professionals to police themselves. They will not actively seek out instances of unlicensed practice. Whether this is due to insufficient resources, a lack of any budget to perform what most architects may think is exactly what the board was created to do (using a portion of their biennial licensing fees), or a lack of the proper language in the enabling legislation, is not certain to this author. So without an active and concerted effort by every architect to control our own profession, we often become our own worst enemy.

It seems most interns don’t truly appreciate what is at stake or even what it means to be a regulated professional. It’s not about what you “get”, it’s about what responsibility the law allows you to take on in order to safeguard the public.

The endless conversation in which we all engage about the use of restricted titles by those not entitled by law to use them does serious damage to our long range efforts to curtail illegal and unlicensed practice by interior designers, home inspectors, and other registered professionals practicing outside their expertise, as well as home contractors providing construction documents, energy auditors who suggest improvements rather than merely quantifying an existing condition, LEEDap’s without a license stepping all over an architect’s responsible control of a project …well, you get my drift. The list is endless.

How can we advocate for tighter restrictions on what we define as the practice of architecture if we allow unlicensed graduates of architecture programs to use the term “architect” prematurely? It becomes impossible to make a reasoned argument that our title affords any level of protection to the public users of the buildings we design. Until you pass the A.R.E. or otherwise obtain a license, your credentials simply do not meet the minimum threshold established by law necessary to call yourself an architect.

By the way, the “right to practice” is really the “right to be held accountable to the public for protecting their health, safety and welfare”, or in other words “the right to be sued for screwing up”. It is not a license to print money, that’s for sure.

[Space here does not permit me to touch on the whole subject of “software architects”, but I will say that the arguments I’ve heard are specious at best. Creators of computer software are not involved in the design of buildings, any more than the Lawn Doctor is performing open heart surgery. Maybe that could be the topic for another article in the future.]

Allowing the use of the term architect in any form by someone who has not yet obtained a license makes it increasingly difficult to expand the purview of the profession in states that don’t require a licensed professional to design many buildings, based on their use or size. At a time when home design and the renovation of commercial buildings, for example, become increasingly more complex, as technology advances, and as security and energy concerns move to the top of the public conscience, a diminution of the criteria for allowing the design of any building results in the public being afforded less protection than when buildings were built more simply, when energy was cheap, back in a time before building codes were first adopted on a state-wide basis during the second or third quarter of the last century.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could argue that a single family home is less “architecture” than is a Wal-Mart or a McDonalds. Yet most homes in this country are built without the direct involvement of a licensed architect, merely because some regulation was passed decades ago, clearly without the public’s true interest in mind.

Those seeking licensure should be shouting to change those laws in their state, if they really believe that the license they seek means anything beyond being able to use the term “architect” in their title. Everyone who lives, works, plays or prays in any building should be afforded the same level of protection from incompetent design and illegal practice.

This is not an exclusive club to which we architects belong. It’s not like the old days when you had to be born to the correct family, have a ton of money, gone to the “right” school or have gained entry into the right circle of high society in order to successfully practice architecture. Anybody who works hard to get the correct five-year degree, then undergoes the proper internship for at least three years, and then successfully passes the right examination will have the right to practice architecture by sending in their application and fees to their state registration board.

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Comments

  • Arjun Kanuri  On May 2, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    Great information. Lucky me I found your blog by accident (stumbleupon).
    I’ve book-marked it for later!

  • scott p.  On May 24, 2013 at 9:54 am

    I am a licensed architect and I actually have a counter (and minority) view of the situation. I believe we need to relinquish our tenuous hold on the term architect and reserve Licensed Architect (or Registered Architect) for those qualified to practice architecture. Engineers, accountants, nurses, etc. earn their title when they graduate and when additional qualifications and certifications are earned their title changes accordinbly; (PE, CPA, RN).
    This is the structure that the typical individual is accustomed to. Whenever I meet with a client and they ask one of our interns if they are an “architect” too they are forced to give the exclamation of the degree, IDP, exam, licensure procedure. In almost all instances the client will turn to me and say something to the effect: “they are an architect and you are a Licensed Architect”. This is the typical way the general public views the situation and I would like to see our profession embrace this terminology.
    Anyone who uses the term architect to decieve the public and to solicit work which they are not qaulified to perform should be prosecuted but use of the term to describe your area of study is not something we should control. As I said, I realize that I am in the minority in this regard but I believe that our hold on the term will continue to be challanged and we will continue to lose the right to forbid the use of the word architect.

  • MKP  On March 12, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    This is a very interesting discussion to me, as I had just searched AIA – Intern Architect in google. The reason – I had applied to a planning position within the local government and my application was disqualified because the HR department would not consider my “intern architect” experience as actual working experience. Thankfully, the employees in the planning department are aware of the nomenclature of architects and are working to get the situation amended, so that my application can be reviewed. Seeing as that I do have a masters degree in architecture, it is rather silly that there isn’t some other way to identify ourselves outside of interns, particularly when the majority of the general population see the position of intern as a short-term, sometimes unpaid, job people take before completing their education.

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