Assessing Readiness for Architectural Practice: Two Paradigms, One Goal

The long and occasionally arduous process of architectural licensure has a very important purpose: to assess readiness for assuming the important responsibilities of architectural practice. Establishing a minimum level of competence for licensure is critical for life safety, and upholding the highest standards for architects benefits both the public and the profession. Further, the licensure process not only allows candidates to demonstrate critical knowledge and problem-solving skills, but also to identify and rectify any knowledge gaps due to the widely varied professional environments and project sectors in which they gain practical experience.

The professional responsibilities of an architect may be similar no matter where the architect is trained, but pathways to licensure can vary significantly from country to country. Having been licensed in the UK since 2010, I completed the US licensure process in late 2017, and was intrigued by the differences in testing philosophies which were borne out in the experience. Generally speaking, the UK has not embraced multiple choice-based standardized testing to the extent that the US has, a foundational educational difference which leads to key differences in assessment strategies.

In the US, candidates for architectural licensure must first earn a professional degree in architecture from an accredited program and gain professional experience in a firm working under the supervision of a licensed architect. The latest version Architect Registration Examination (ARE 5.0) requires six standardized tests administered through professional testing centers. Depending on the jurisdiction, candidates may be eligible to begin testing as soon as they have completed their education. The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) develops and manages the experience and examination process, and successful candidates are licensed by the appropriate state jurisdictions.

UK architectural licensure also requires education, professional experience, and examination, though the structure of the process is quite different. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) administers three stages of preparation. Most candidates complete an initial three- or four-year undergraduate degree in architecture and are then required to spend a minimum of a year in professional practice working under the guidance of a licensed architect. Having gained experience in the field, candidates return to school for a two-year post-graduate degree, then complete at least one more year of professional practice before undertaking the examination process (for a total of at least 24 months of experience working in a firm). The UK system for educating architects is more of a mesh of practice and academia, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Students are often more tethered to the realities of project budgets and practice once they’ve spent time in a professional setting, which is useful but can sometimes be limiting to students as they return to academia and begin again to explore more theoretical and innovative design solutions.

Timelines aside, the nature of the exams is vastly different between systems. While the ARE is very technical and in my opinion more demanding in its theoretical approach in which there is only one right answer, the UK system starts with the assumption that candidates are developing proficiency in the technical details through supervised professional practice and that the application of these details can and will be refined over time as the future architect develops. The UK exam, therefore, is more qualitative and seeks to assess architectural problem-solving skills and sound judgment, but ultimately, “all roads lead to Rome.”

The structure of the UK assessment involves a professional CV and career evaluation, an open book written examination undertaken in the applicant’s office under the supervision of a mentor, a dissertation-style case study which the candidate completes over time while working closely with a mentor on a project, and a final oral examination interview by a panel of architects who assess and recommend the candidate’s readiness for licensure.

The UK system thus allows for more nuance, shades of grey, and in-depth exploration of a real-world architectural problem with complex interventions and solutions, and the result is a comprehensive body of evidence of a candidate’s judgement, problem-solving skills, and understanding of the required knowledge which is then peer-reviewed. Technical skills learned on the job are folded into this work, but the knowledge is condensed, distilled, absorbed, and demonstrated in a holistic, integrated process.

Under both the US and the UK systems, the rigorous licensure process of education, experience, and examination seek to prepare candidates for the complexities of architectural practice. As requirements for licensure evolve with the changing professional landscape (for example, with the addition of the Integrated Path to Architectural Licensure which allows candidates to complete all education, experience, and examination requirements for licensure upon graduation), a comprehensive body of knowledge, supervised professional experience, and meaningful tools for assessing readiness for licensure will continue to be critical components for architects worldwide.

Regardless of the methodology of testing, what I have found by undertaking both systems, and particularly having “gone back to school” some seven years after completing my UK licensure, is the importance of mentorship and surrounding yourself with talented people who represent a diverse body of experience. Licensure is important but, for most, is only an early step in a long career in which we constantly need to develop and learn from mentors as well as becoming mentors ourselves. Examinations help us to establish baseline knowledge, but the skills required to leverage that knowledge and apply it wisely are developed and strengthened over the course of a career through experience, collaboration, and lifelong learning.

About Dan

LS3P Associate Dan Harrop, AIA, NCARB, ARB, hails from England, where he earned both a Bachelor of Arts (with Honours) in Architecture and Bachelor of Architecture from the Manchester School of Architecture. Dual-licensed in the UK and the US, Dan works extensively in the healthcare sector. His diverse portfolio also includes designs for commercial, adaptive re-use, and single and multi-family residential projects at all scales. His notable recent work includes the Duke PDC Medical Office Building in Durham, NC; FirstHealth Medical Office Building and Fitness Center in Sanford, NC; and medical office buildings at HealthPark at Kildaire in Cary, NC.