The part of our profession that is largely misunderstood is the clarification and definition of a licensed architect and the term used to describe the title. The state board laws prohibit the use of “architect,” “architectural,” or “architecture” often known as the “3-A’s.” These three words and any variation cannot be used in titles, text advertising, or contracts/documents unless the professional possesses a license to practice architecture. For this reason, many unlicensed individuals and companies default to titles such as “designer,” “project manager”, “design professional,” or “project lead.” In addition, the use of business names cannot contain the “3-A’s” in any variation such as ‘architecture services’, ‘architectural design’ and the likes. Once you see the text of “3-A’s,” you are likely expected to assume there is a licensed professional managing and guiding the day-to-day operations of the practice as is required by the CAB (California Architects Board.)
However, it is safe to say that the “3-A’s” are still abused, and many individuals and companies still manage the use of the words incorrectly in varying forms. After learning about these variations, my hope is that the consumer will be better able to make an informed decision before they start interviewing for the right professional.
Upon graduating from an accredited university, the graduate enters the profession with the requirement of eight years of work experience under a licensed architect. The graduate is usually given the title of candidate, junior designer, intern, or similar variation that cannot contain the “3-A’s.” During the period reaching the first eight years, known as the internship, one can begin the exams through NCARB (National Council of Architectural Registration Board.) However, the last exam known as the “supplemental” cannot be taken until after completing eight years of work under a licensed architect.
Today, there are six exams consisting of various sub-categories including design, structural engineering, contract law and documentation just to name a few. NCARB is currently under version 5.0, known as “ARE 5.0.” The candidate averages about five to ten years before they can pass all six exams. Of the candidates processing through the exams, only about 50% to 57% (average of all exams) eventually complete all six exams with passing rates to become a licensed architect (percentage varies from state to state.)
Once all exams have been completed, the candidate becomes a licensed professional architect and can begin to use the “3-A’s” in any form or variation. Under this category, the architect is free to practice architecture and should carry errors and omission insurance. They must also stay in good standing, which requires technical and safety courses every other year to maintain their license. Please further note that the architect can act as the owner, principal or president, but must be followed by ‘architect’ to identify the professional standing. The architect/owner also must be in “responsible control" of the architecture process. As mentioned previously, this means managing the day-to-day operations and/or having upper management hold the same roles, all under the principal licensee. The CAB (California Architects Board) specifically requires that architects be in “responsible control” of the entire service process to ensure the “standard of care” is always met. This is required in order to fulfill the duties of an architect and owner combined.
Designers come in all sorts of variations from two years to fifteen years of experience (likely those candidates that were not able or chose not to pursue licensure). The more experienced, the better off your experience will be. A young architect whose smart enough to pass exams in the first five years, may not know many aspects of the architecture process and technical aspects in practice. Technical aspects are not taught in architecture school so the consumer should rely on a balance of years of experience and talent.
Designers cannot use the “3-A’s” or any variation. However, several practice with this unlawful use of text because they simply do not know or ignore the use of the “3-A’s.” Doubtful consumers can go online to the California architects board/state architects board to check on the status of anyone using the “3-A’s” to confirm the legal us of the text. Please note that many interior designers default to the title “designer” and so the consumer should inquire as to what type of design services they are providing.
Many general contractors (GC’s) principal focus is to build the work presented in the plans provided by the architect. This is the traditional and most common structure of a GC operation. In some instances, a contractor can retain an architect for their client and is typically a separate service from the GC. This is often just a referral. However, it is important to also describe other GC structures such as the design-build approach.
Design Build Services
The general contractor under this model, seeks to find clients to provide both design/architecture and construction, where services up front are described early on in an effort to budget and streamline the concept of the “one stop shop”. The GC carries much more liability and tends to dabble in design and process while still having control of the construction. In many cases, The GC presents a full-service package from shell design, interior finish design, construction costing (no bidding), construction, and construction management. However, the common “catch” under this structure, is that the consumer cannot go outside the services to get their own bid from another GC. Often, this model controls the process and does not allow the client to seek additional pricing options. The design is also contained by the professional selected by the GC, which is often sold to the consumer as “in-house.”
Consumers should be careful and ask questions as to who the architect will be and know that meeting the architect is good advice. It is also possible and more common for the GC to utilize unlicensed designers (no use of the “3-A’s”). While this isn’t illegal for residential services, the consumer should at least be aware that the person servicing them is not licensed nor is attempting to deceive the consumer otherwise. Style and aesthetics should also be considered and is not always found in the GC’s work or the design build process. The reality is that unlike commercial services, a home is very personal to the residential consumer. Getting to know your architect therefore becomes an important consideration.
3rd Party Services Providing Architecture
There is a rare group of folks that provide architecture services and where the owner, CEO, or president may have not studied any architecture or engineering. These are usually comprised of business background individuals looking for a new or refined business model that focuses on volume and profit. Architects are rarely good businesspeople given that their educational and work training is more focused and specialized. They tend to be far removed from business practices, and ideas of profit since their focus is more on the architecture. Their passion lies in the design they produce for their clients, not whether they have been hyper efficient or profitable. There are countless aspects of architecture that require specialized attention, training, and experience to be considered among the most reputable firms. The architecture community is not known to focus solely on profit to win recognition, nor even efficiency perse.
When it comes to architects, their reward mechanism is focused on the competition to provide better architecture and services with the resultant embodied in real time and space as the indicator of success. This is then secured and reinforced through publication of beautiful works. Exceptional architecture does not focus on production volume since it would otherwise negate the creation of craft, hence art. Architects are artists/technicians after all, not profiteers alone.
The 3rd party focus is usually based on other aspects of operating a business, namely volume and efficiency. Today’s entrepreneurial firms, like these 3rd parties, introduce technology to help them reach their goals. In doing so, the personalization of the architecture process, experience, and ultimately the product becomes compromised or greatly missing in depth. The architect is secondary under some of these models and the team owning and managing this business model are often not licensed professionals nor trained in the critical aspects of the architecture profession. They act as the forefront, collecting the initial sale of the service contract before even introducing an architect to the client. The architect, unlike the owner operator, has no real say in the business aspects since that is all covered by the non-architect leaders of the business.
Therefore, it is important and a right of the consumer to ask and review who is in the forefront of the services experience. Clients should always have direct communication and guidance from a trained licensed architect. Not a sales team, not a contract department, and not a customer service center, just as one comes to expect from their doctor or lawyer. Further to this, medical practices are often managed by businesspeople, but patients do not interact with these folks, they instead interact directly with the doctor or lawyer.
Ultimately, the actual advice and nature of architecture should be controlled by the person stamping the plans, even if that company is owned and operated by a sales focused business team. Architecture has too much liability as it is, and risks can be very high when the business structure or model hides from the true architect. The liability increases for both the licensed architect and the client, more than the business owner because the architect holds the license, not the business owner.