Understanding Architect Licensing in America for Foreign Architects

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The Emails I Receive From Foreign Architects

Ever since I began Young Architect 3 years ago, I have received a significant amount of email from Foreign Architects around the world, who’re frustrated, annoyed, and even furious about the Architect Licensing rules in America.

Most of these emails are along the lines of…

“In my country, after you graduate architecture school, you are considered an ‘architect’, and that’s it. In America, that means nothing. I can’t even call myself an architect. This is ridiculous. Blah, blah, blah….”

I feel like I’ve heard and seen every variation of this story from Foreign Young Architect readers who want me to do something or fix it for them.

What most people don’t realize is that there’s absolutely nothing I can do, and even worse…

I support the system that most Foreign Architects are so frustrated about—because I’ve bent over backwards and spent years fulfilling all the requirements to be a Licensed Architect in America. It wasn’t easy.

Let me explain.

A Highly Regulated Industry

Practicing architecture in America isn’t the same as practicing architecture anywhere else in the world. The number one reason why is because architecture and the business of making buildings is very organized and regulated.

The word regulate means “to control or supervise (something, especially a company or business activity) by means of rules and regulations.”

The #1 reason why it’s so regulated is to protect the public, SAFETY. No one wants poorly constructed buildings that fall apart and kills a lot of people. This protection is accomplished by regulating who is allowed to be a Architect, Engineer and Contractor while making sure someone will be responsible if there is a problem. In America, Architects can go to jail, lose their licenses, and get sued when there are problems with a project.

To protect the public, everyone who claims they have the expertise to design and construct a building is not allowed to do so—without the appropriate credentials and building permits.

You can’t even call yourself an Architect unless you’re a licensed architect. And you’re only an Architect in the state you’re registered in.  For example, I am an Architect in the State of Oregon, but I am NOT an Architect in Washington, California, New York, or anywhere else. I’m only registered in one state, mainly because its expensive to to be registered in states, that I’m not actively working in.

The governing agencies decide who can be a licensed architect.  Their sole mission is to protect the Health, Safety, and Welfare of the public by regulating who practices Architecture and how it’s practiced.

The National Council of Architecture Registration Board (NCARB) governs architecture licensing nationally across America, and each state has a licensing board that oversees their state. And sometimes the state board will require stricter requirements than NCARB. To make things even more confusing, every state doesn’t agree about the definition of “practicing architecture,” so each state has their own definition.

NCARB and the state boards often have very little sympathy for “how it was done in your country.” They only care about how it’s done in America. Foreign Architects wanting to become licensed in America, need to help them understand your qualifications on their terms, not vice versa.

There are many hoops that people must jump through to call themselves an Architect or practice architecture in America. There is no shortcut, and EVERYONE must meet the requirements below.

The Process for Everyone

To be a licensed architect in America, the process is Education, Experience, and Examination.

Let’s discuss each element.

The Accredited Architecture Education

There is a strict education requirement for being a licensed architect in America, and that’s where most Foreign Architects get really frustrated. In America, many architecture schools (but definitely not all of them) establish an “accredited degree” from an organization called the National Architecture Accreditation Board (NAAB).

The purpose of NAAB accreditation is to make sure the program’s curriculum is what a future licensed architect needs to study in college. By having an accredited architecture degree from a NAAB school, you’ve fulfilled the education requirements for architectural licensing.

The following degrees are the only approved NAAB Degrees:

Bachelor of Architecture (BARCH)

Master of Architecture (MARCH)

Doctor of Architecture (DARCH)

Most architecture schools offer a variety of non-accredited architecture degrees. For example:

Bachelor or Master of Art and Architectural Technology

Bachelor or Master of Science and Architectural studies

Basically a non-accredited architecture degree can be name anything except the names of the listed degrees above

Becoming accredited is a very long, expensive process for an architecture school. And the cost is often passed onto the students.

When I was choosing an architecture school to attend, I knew I wanted to become a licensed architect. So it was very important to me that I graduate with an NAAB accredited architecture degree.

But wait, I have good news.

You can still become a licensed architect without a NAAB Accredited Degree. You just have to meet all the NAAB degree requirements, and many people go this route.

There is a process, called the Education Evaluation Services for Architects (EESA) in which NAAB and NCARB reviews your college transcripts, course descriptions, and all the work you did in your non-accredited architecture degree program. They compare it with the NAAB requirements and make sure nothing was missed.

Sometimes after this review, people with non-accredited architecture degrees have to take some extra college classes to meet the remaining NAAB Requirements. It really depends on your college transcripts and the work you did in architecture school.

I would like to discuss the EESA review in more depth later in this article, after we finish discussing the Experience and Examination elements of architecture licensing.

To learn more about the Education Requirements for Architect Licensing, visit NCARB’s website.

The Architect Experience Program (AXP, formerly called The Intern Development Program IDP)

There is a strict experience requirement for becoming a licensed architect in America. It’s similar to being an Apprentice.

Not only do you need to meet the education requirements, but you also have to log a significant amount of hours work directly under the supervision of a Licensed Architect on all phases of a construction project (and even topics around running an architecture business).

Completing the AXP requires several years of recorded hours working on a variety of tasks, which are all approved by a Licensed Architect. Don’t worry: You’ll get paid for this work, just like a normal employee.

With appropriate record-keeping and in certain working situations, Foreign Architects may sometimes be able to meet some of these requirements with their previous experience. But that needs to be discussed with NCARB, because they’re in charge. I am not up to date with the current rules, since they have changed from I completed this process years ago.

To learn more about the Architect Experience Program, click here.

The Architect Registration Exam

There is a strict Examination Requirement for becoming a licensed architect in America.

The Architect Registration Exam (ARE) used to consist of 7 exams, but it’s soon to be only 6 exams. The topics of the exam test EVERYTHING about practicing architecture and protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Passing all divisions of the architecture exam is no small feat. In fact, it’s a lot of damn work.

The Architect Exam is a self-guided standardized test. On average, it takes 2.5 years to complete the ARE.

To learn more about the Architect Registration Exam, start with reviewing NCARB’s information first.

Overlapping The 3 Part Process

I also need to mention that each of these elements could overlap with each to help you accelerate the time towards becoming a Licensed Architect.

  • You could start working on your AXP hours before you’ve graduated from architecture school or fulfilled your NCARB education requirement.
  • You could start taking the Architect exam before you’ve completed your AXP hours.

HOWEVER, the rules aren’t the same for every state. So you should check with NCARB and your state board about the rules of overlapping your Education, Experience, and Exams.

My Friend’s Experience with Getting Her Foreign Architecture Education Approved

I was recently talking to my friend who attended my ARE Boot Camp program. She  obtained her architecture degree in Venezuela, then moved to America after graduation. She has almost completed all the ARE’s, and is on track to be a Licensed Architect very soon.

On our phone call, I asked her about the Education Evaluation Service for Architects (EESA) process she went through to be eligible to take the exams. Here’s how she explained it to me:

  1. The first step was to obtain an NCARB Record, which involved connecting with NAAB and discussing the details of fulfilling the education requirements.
  2. Then she gathered diplomas, transcripts, course descriptions, syllabi, and any other data that could effectively describe her education and the work she did in the architecture program she attended.
  3. All of that information had to be taken to a special translator and translated into English and transmitted to NAAB.
  4. NAAB then reviewed everything and contacted her, stating that she needed to take 3 classes to fulfill the missing education requirements.
  5. She told NAAB that she’d already taken 2 of those classes. Then she provided them with additional information that fulfilled those 2 classe requirements.
  6. The one course she was missing was in building codes and regulations. Since she attended school in Venezuela, where codes and regulations are very different, she took this course at her local community college and really enjoyed it.
  7. After completing the building codes and regulations course, she fulfilled her education requirement. At that point NAAB advised NCARB that her education requirements had been completed. NCARB then gave her the green light to start taking the exam.

This process doesn’t happen overnight. In fact it can take months and will also be very expensive. During the time she spent getting her education approved, she was allowed to start working on her experience requirement and made a lot of progress on her AXP hours.

The Silver Lining

I don’t know if foreign architects realize that the majority of people who work in the American architecture industry ARE NOT Licensed Architects. In fact, most students who graduate from architecture school never become Licensed Architects.

Everyone who isn’t licensed (and is working on buildings or projects involving the health, safety and welfare of the public) works for a Licensed Architect, who stamps, signs and accepts responsibility for the project they designed. But the Licensed Architect doesn’t have to personally draw every line.

There are also many jobs for people in architecture that do not directly involve the health, safety and welfare of the public.  The architecture industry is so huge, and there is room for everyone to be successful.

I have a deep respect for anyone that pursues a career in architecture, but being a Licensed Architect is not the only way. Many people have very successful architecture careers without ever obtaining an architecture license.

HOWEVER, everyone must be aware there are strict boundaries for people without an architecture license and get very clear of the rules and not to get themselves in trouble. State Architect Boards are very active with looking for people who are stepping over the line of practicing architecture without the proper credentials. The State Boards regularly take legal actions against these people.

What To Do Next

If you want to be a Licensed Architect in America, please stop emailing me your stories. There’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. I’m not even up to date on the process, which is why I keep telling you to talk to NCARB.

It’s a waste of time to talk to anyone, except NCARB. No one else can help you, because NCARB is in charge.

In the past few years, NCARB has worked really hard developing their website, Customer Service and helping people understand what their next step is. I recommend reading NCARB’s website very thoroughly, many of your questions can be answered there. You can also call their fantastic Customer Service Hotline at 202-879-0520.

The very last thing I’ll say is to be really nice to the good people at NCARB. The person answering the phone, is not the person who wrote the rules or created the system. But certainly they can help you understand and navigate the process.

About the author

Michael Riscica

Michael Riscica is a Licensed Architect who lives in beautiful Portland, Oregon, with his Labrador Retriever. He is passionate about helping Young Architects change the world. In his free time, Michael likes to take very long bicycle rides across America. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In.

Aaron - February 9, 2017

Very informative and helpful article. I am currently pursuing EESA and nervous about the possibility for deficiencies. In comparing against NCARB Education Standard I think I’ll be ok, but not 100%. I have a Bachelor of Science in Architecture here in the US and started my Master’s at an accredited M.Arch program before transferring overseas to complete my M.Arch. So, in theory I followed the same process as a local 4+2 program. Can you possibly expand on your friend’s experience with EESA in regards to the degree from Venezuela? Was it a Bachelor of Architecture degree or Masters? What areas did they specify for deficiencies?

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