the architecture of constructing a practice

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    on a truly integrated development program (not just intern development)...

    Gregory Walker
    Feb 4, '12 8:51 PM EST

    In the companion to this post, we took a look at some of the challenges and barriers to creating an incubator culture that could support architectural startups. But, when you take a step back, would accelerating the number of new startups really solve some of our most pressing issues? The notion that architecture is an ‘old person’s profession’ has legs for a reason – to master all the complexities takes years of accomplishment, learning and doing. Starting a firm before you’ve gained the right kinds of experience doesn’t, on the whole, help advance the profession forward. And, by extension, how many young practitioners really want to start out with no clue as to what they’re doing? I’m willing to bet it’s very, very few.


    To improve the startup culture of the profession – something any reader of this blog would know is a Martha Stewart “Good Thing” to me – one would first have to address how to properly train young professionals and in an appropriate time frame. Does this mean it should take, on average, 7 years to complete IDP or another 3 to finish the exams? Of course not. But, for the past decade+ , that’s the reality of where professional development is. And it’s in this early stretch, as Daniel Friedman, John Cary, Laura Lee and umpteen interns have carried out in discussions across conferences, chat rooms, bars and studios, that we see the greatest failure in the architecture profession today. Solve the professional development equation and young, dynamic startups can take care of themselves.


    It’s actually pretty easy to summarize the fundamental problems – the entire sequence between graduation and licensure is unstructured. IDP, while identifying areas of experience to be acquired, fails to include methods that qualify or structure that experience.  There is zero accountability for the practitioners charged with both overseeing and administering the opportunity to get the experience. And, with the economy of the past four years, it’s been impossible for alarming number of recent graduates to even get the chance to run this gauntlet. As John notes in his well thought out article for Design Observer “…the program was designed for volunteer participation. It remains voluntary for employers to participate — by signing off on timesheets and providing the various experiences that NCARB recommends at their sole discretion — but mandatory for graduates seeking to become registered architects. This creates a troubling power dynamic with little recourse…” Finally, when you make it through IDP, a 7 part exam awaits that, at best, has some relevant bearing on what you've supposedly been learning the past few years. At worst, the exam carries no direct link at all. The absolute disconnect between all three components is startling. 



    So, enough of what we already know. The real question is: how are we going to start proposing a way out? I’m going to build on a long conversation and propose that there are 3 irreducible needs any revised model has to address:

    • Accountability – not just with the intern, but also with the person/entity overseeing their development. The current system provides no mechanisms for relief if the Supervisor and/or Mentor don't comply with IDP, withhold signing off on experience or fail to provide the opportunities to get the required experience. None. I know, I've been both.
    • Standardization of Content – we all benefit if the IDP credits cover the same minimum material. If it’s on the test, it has to be known and addressed beforehand. (this wouldn’t restrict ‘how’ this could be done). How would you like to take a final exam covering material that isn't provided ahead of time and is only partially or obliquely addressed during the course itself or in a variety of well-priced study guides? Didn't think so. 
    • Structured Approach – the most important. There has to be some common path that gets people to licensure reasonably quickly and with some reasonable consistency. More importantly, we need a holistic narrative to transmitting this content – a beginning, middle and end. We can’t expect interns to just ‘absorb’ the whole picture while grabbing a few hours of CA or contracts when a firm can squeeze it in.

    Yes, there are firms who have taken this burden on themselves out of pure professional obligation. But many haven't, can't or won't. And it shouldn't fall to the arbitrariness of those individual entities to determine the value of professional development. The current system, clearly, can’t be tweaked to accommodate these concerns. And I agree with the notion that there are reasons to look at other professional models for help.


    One radical proposal would be to create a new model of professional development that leverages the schools, IDP and existing programs.  To accomplish this requires embracing a shift from thinking of IDP and professional development as simply gaining experience, piecemeal, and moving towards a more holistic approach that methodically addresses the technical and managerial aspects of practice. Discussed on many an occasion over the years, is the idea to look at the ‘teaching hospital’ for some guidance. The merits are known: it provides guaranteed training (if and once you can get in) and it provides a structured curriculum that is relatively standardized across the various institutions implementing it. There’s enough flexibility to allow each hospital the opportunity to tweak it to fit their strengths and operations.  You can check off the first three items above – accountability, standardization and  structure.


    Making a direct translation is problematic. Teaching hospitals are large, complex beasts that rely on combinations of public and private financing, with a fair percentage derived through grants of all sorts. The selection system is brutal: you apply, hope you’ve been accepted to one of your choices and ultimately move to where you’ve been accepted. There’s very little say that the medical interns have during that time (the power structures would make IDP look good) and it’s impossible to obtain any kind of ‘alternative experience’ to forge a path to licensure. So, perhaps our best option is to take the good, leave the rest and forge a hybrid all our own.


    Some of the criteria that this kind of model could contain:

    Accountability –

    • IDP (and I’m going to co-op that term from NCARB for the remainder of this article, considering it the moniker for an integrated development program) would be run through certified providers who would be held accountable for their performance. The question of whether a fixed number of spots is regulated each year is a valid one. We’ll punt on that for the moment.
    • Programs could be run by Community Design Centers throughout the country. This has 2 structural advantages – being non-profits, CDC’s would be eligible to leverage the grant system to help subsidize expenses. In turn, they can offer reduced fees to qualifying non-profit clients who benefit from the design capabilities. It would also expose many students to a wider realm of potential professional work than they might otherwise.
    • Firms could qualify as ‘teaching studios’ if they agree to 4 things: an periodic external audit of their program; have the person in charge complete a yearly training course; adoption of and adherence to the curricula and standards (which could be used on their own projects); and a willingness to provide an agreed upon salary for the 2 years the interns are in the program. The firms would benefit by being able to compete to attract the best and brightest to join their firm. While this admittedly works better for larger firms, no one would be prohibited from participating and I’m quite sure many of the best graduates would prefer to work in these firms.
    • Programs could be provided by specifically created ‘teaching firms’ – firms which maintain a non-profit status but which would not necessarily be a formal CDC. This could be an excellent route for more experimental firms to take when starting up.

    Standardization of Content | Customization of approach.

    • A methodical curriculum, building upon the broad categories outlined in the current standards, would need to be developed. Far from proscribing the ‘how’, it would be developed in conjunction with the licensing exam. In other words, the content that has to be covered would be the actual content on the test. It’d be the same group developing both, one alongside each other.
    • Firms, CDC’s or other entities would get and be responsible for transmitting the required information within the given timeframes. They’d be required to have people who are taught how to teach the material. (this could also be a great training ground for future studio instructors). All of the participating entities would have the ability to customize how the curricula is transmitted and integrated. Students will quickly sort out which firms and entities are the most innovative in this approach.

    Structured Approach

    • The opportunity to develop an integrated approach to IDP would necessitate creating a holistic approach to the structure, sequence and relative timing of the information. The medical equivalent would be doing rounds in ER, then either neo-natal, pediatrics, etc. Each intern would have to have the opportunity and necessity to demonstrate mastery of the subject areas.
    • I’d propose that IDP be reconfigured to provide 2 years of structured “in firm” experience, immediately following graduation from a professional degree. The remaining year in the current program would be absorbed within the academic curricula) How that structure is done is a whole other discussion.  One example could be focusing approximately 80% of the time on technical subjects, 20% on managerial.
    • Entrance into IDP would allow one to begin taking the licensing exams immediately. (Honestly, I’m not sure many people would want to – maybe there’s a portion you take to get in, with the remainder at the end of each year or the end of 2 years? Not sure yet). 
    • The profession benefits because there’s some certainty to how long internship lasts and there’s less concern about having committed professionals waning after 7 years of being an ‘intern’.

    This is just an outline. It's not nearly complete. But, there is, I hope, enough clear benefit to this kind of restructuring – the profession gives greater certainty to the graduates (though perhaps not all) that they’ll have a chance to complete their license quickly, cohesively and efficiently. It provides for a more comprehensive approach, with real accountability on all parties and provides a way for young practices to flourish more quickly, while providing established firms a pool of talent that (presumably) has a greater capacity to contribute more effectively and quickly. In short, it would help bring us into the next iteration of the profession.


    Ideally, the AIA would rise up and more forcefully claim their responsibility to the profession to oversee its development (yes Robert Ivy and Jeffrey Potter, we're looking at you). NCARB has already washed their hands on this count – they’re too content taking money and keeping their real clients (the state licensing boards) happy (think I'm kidding? Just read their description of the ARE: "The Architect Registration Examination® (ARE®) assesses candidates for their knowledge, skills, and ability to provide the various services required in the practice of architecture. The ARE has been adopted for use by all 54 U.S. Member Boards and the Canadian provincial and territorial architectural associations as a registration examination required for architectural registration.").


    Regardless, one organization should oversee the development of the curricula material and administer the audit process. Again, to my fellow members in the AIA, why not us? This is our chance to make the organization relevant again.

    This model isn’t perfect – poke holes, push, stretch, make it work harder. Find a completely different alternative. But for the love of all that’s good, we can't just keep ignoring the problems we have now, nor be content to nibble around the edges. “Now” is broken. Instead of providing real value, we’ve left our young in the most precarious and morally unconscionable position imaginable: relying on forces beyond their control to provide enough work so that they can gain enough experience to sit for a test to finally obtain a license in the profession they trained and studied so long for.


    We can do better. We should demand more of ourselves. Let’s get started…


    • jplourde


      I've been following your posts with  interest regarding the recent zeitgeist re-emphasis on start up entreprenuership.  I think you're absolutely right:  10 years is a ridiculously, unnecessary, long period from graduation to licensure, and I do think that if a given startup's focus is actual architecture, then of course professional qualifications is a prerequisite.  

      To to briefly comment, you mentioned IDP has little bearing on the AREs.  Totally agree, but then as well if you take it a step further, it seems to me that the AREs have little bearing on what an architect actually does everyday.  It seems it's as if the AREs were designed for an outdated, or worse, fallacious, concept of what an architect is.   Most of the exams are geared towards memorizing tedious detail that may or may not ever have any affect on an individual's ability to work effectively.  


      Take for instance,   a simple example like the structural exam.  The exam's content is focused mostly on calculations.  However, in reality, the architect almost never actually does a single structural calculation for any project.  She's not working by herself, that's what PE's are paid to do.  However, what the exam doesn't focus on are rules of thumb, fundamentals,  and strategically basic concepts that would allow architect's to pre-dimension structure much more accurately.  This would limit  for example what often happens, a project gets out of scheme design, the engineer climbs on board, and promptly doubles the size of all the structure, because the naive architect didn't have the time to calculate it all out.  

      It's as if the AREs were designed to make sure the architect could design a building all by himself.  A very sad, banal, tedious, ineffiecient building.  That doesn't sound like architecture at all to me.  Never mind, that this is of course preposterous because nearly every project legally requires engineering input.  

      Why are we wasting countless hours, and precious capital, studying content that has little to no value for the career?  Shouldn't the AREs actually provide and require the architect to learn extremely valuable and intelligent information and problem solving, rather than just tick a bunch of boxes that will never be used again?


      Feb 16, 12 12:04 am  · 

      "This model isn’t perfect – poke holes, push, stretch, make it work harder. Find a completely different alternative. But for the love of all that’s good, we can't just keep ignoring the problems we have now, nor be content to nibble around the edges. “Now” is broken. Instead of providing real value, we’ve left our young in the most precarious and morally unconscionable position imaginable: relying on forces beyond their control to provide enough work so that they can gain enough experience to sit for a test to finally obtain a license in the profession they trained and studied so long for.

      We can do better. We should demand more of ourselves. Let’s get started…"

      A call to action if I've ever heard one. Well said, Gregory.

      Mar 7, 12 10:24 am  · 

      he exam's content is focused mostly on calculations.  However, in reality, the architect almost never actually does a single structural calculation for any project.  She's not working by herself, that's what PE's are paid to do.  However, what the exam doesn't focus on are rules of thumb, fundamentals,  and strategically basic concepts that would allow architect's to pre-dimension structure much more accurately.  


      agreed - most of what we do structurally are graphic statics.


      I worry about "teaching firms."   the vast majority of what you learn in practice is picked up during CD and CA phases of a project - over many projects, much of which can be pretty mundane - and my experience with academics who dabble in practice is that they're often pretty clueless at the back-end - and don't take on the "uninteresting" projects where interns could actually learn something useful.


      IMO - get rid of IDP, change the ARE and make it much harder (think more architectural "essay" problems - less rote memorization).  we don't need to replace one dysfunctional system with an even more complicated system.  let the schools try to catch up to the ARE through the demands of the student, not NAAB (i.e. ARE pass rates could become a draw like they are for law schools)- and for those who choose to work in our profession in other capacities, don't force them down the same path.


      right now we're treating recent grads from professional programs as little more than people with associates degrees in software - people who have much bigger aspirations for their careers, and slowly crushing their spirits by treating them as low-level employees for far too long, not as professionals.  Let people sort themselves out earlier on instead of this carrot and stick game that keeps far too many people delusional about their future, only to become bitter once they realize they can't go back.

      Mar 8, 12 11:15 am  · 

      you know - I was thinking more about the origins of IDP - mississippi - not exactly your most progressive state during the 60s and 70s when IDP was created.  there must be a reason why IDP was created here and not somewhere else that has a much better track record with social justice...


      then it occurred to me.  IDP was designed to keep women and minorities out of the profession.  think of it - you make entry into licensure dependent ENTIRELY upon industry - industry leaders choose who to hire and thusly who to allow entry into licensure - a southern state like mississippi would have an interest in keeping architecture white and male because colleges by that point could no longer restrict who they let study architecture - so white male firms hire other white males and keeps only white males as licensed architects...  we've definitely made progress as a society in the years since, but have you ever wondered why school looks more diverse yet the profession still looks very white and male as opposed to other professions?


      Of course this is all conjecture - but if this is really the origin of IDP then all the more reason to eliminate it.

      Mar 8, 12 8:53 pm  · 

      The threads here about IDP are interesting to me.  I was under the impression that IDP being centralized and congruent throughout the country would make it easier on interns. Certainly that was the view in the late 80's. That meeting a set standard would be easier than meeting whatever standard your intern advisor (boss) felt like dangling in front of your face and then changing each time you wanted that signature from him. Because the state had no incentive to look into any complaints about advisors and complaining would mean loosing whatever time you had in with them.  IDP would mean that Internship would not be tied to one place and you could up and go elsewhere easily since your time already filed was safe. (which by far were the biggest complaints that created the push for standardization at the time. ) Many of the arguments you give against IDP were the very same arguments that were given for it. 

      Toaster, I was going to rebut your post noting that nearly all of the women I graduated with are licensed, then I remembered, IDP was not required then, only suggested. Certainly accepted, but not required. Interns who moved around or switched jobs certainly chose the NCARB to file their papers with as their internship easily moved with them. However each applicant could apply to their own state and file their apprenticeship paperwork by themselves. Then apply for reciprocity to other states. The only state at the time that was difficult was California. (extra requirements for Earthquake design) I worked a few years submitted a few reams of paper to the state and took the exam, done. Applying directly through your home state was hundreds of dollars cheaper. NCARB was just too expensive on an interns salary. That was our biggest complaint about it.   I do know women who did have difficulties though. Difficulties with sleazy bosses, difficulties moving to another area with their spouse, etc.  Difficulties that IDP solved for the most part. Those  women chose to spend the money and register with NCARB because it helped them. So perhaps just having the choice to do IDP or not that we had made it easier?  (and certainly the economy helped)

      I have read and read the threads on here and I am astounded that a centralized, standard set of requirements that are acceptable in all 50 states  would be more troublesome than 50 different standards.  Fifty different standards that could translate to thousands of interpretations by each boss every where. 

      While I can see that the economy has definitely had an affect on IDP I can't see how it could be more difficult specifically for women and minorities than for anyone else?   And certainly not more difficult than the previous lack of standardized system.  (although more expensive to be sure)  At least with IDP it is harder for the individual advisor (boss) to keep moving the carrot.  When we had the choice those who came up against discrimination were the ones who chose to fork over hundreds of dollars extra to have NCARB oversee their apprenticeship (internship).  That helped solve the issue, that was the solution.

      Where did it go so wrong? When did the 'solution' become the 'problem' and why. That is what needs to be figured out to fix it. 

      Mar 9, 12 8:43 am  · 

      DAS99 - I'm not completely committed to this theory - I'm just trying to provoke discussion.  I'm glad you're offering evidence that I could be wrong.  I think it's very important to gain the insight of people who were around before this system existed so we can have some context.


      and it's really interesting that what existed before made it MORE difficult for some people to gain licensure.


      were apprenticeship requirements the only way to a license or could you get licensed immediately after school?   My argument is that while internships are the best way to assure a certain level of professional competency, it can also be a barrier of entry into our profession - especially during a down economy.  I think where things went wrong was the combination of this massive influx of recent grads and no jobs, changing practice (I've worked for a couple different offices that outsourced CDs and CA), and the continually huge technology gap between senior people and junior people.  if you're being honest about your training, unless you're lucky enough to work for someone equally committed to your development, you're spending years and several jobs just to complete IDP - and when you take the ARE you realize you didn't need to do this - you could have faked your hours like everyone else and then picked up the gaps in the study sessions.


      I think maybe it's the constant struggle to gain experience and this feeling that we're somehow being exploited that really bugs people.

      Mar 9, 12 10:16 am  · 

      @toaster   It was harder for some, easier for others. (and I am not that old that it should be so different LOL)

      For example if you had a decent boss and never moved, you did an apprenticeship for one office, sent papers in to your state and  then were eligible to sit for the exam. That could be easy, or you could have a hard time finding a job, you could choose to work for a person who jerked you around and wouldn't sign. You could work a year in one state and then find a job over the border in the next state and that  could complicate things. NCARB was what people saw as the solution to whatever issues there were. You could intern in two different states no issue. You would know every quarter if your boss was complying or not.  The states were sure glad to jump on the bandwagon and wash their hands of the process. 

      To the best of my knowledge there was never any way to skip apprenticeship. Nor would I advocate that. I do not think that students come out of design school knowing how to put it all together. There was however the option to skip school though. I think the year I took the exam was the last year in my state you could grandfather in with a 10 year apprenticeship and no degree. That varied from state to state though so you could be eligible in one state and not in another. That was why a standardized solution was so important.

      I do see the need for there to be some sort of improvement with the IDP. Also there needs to be a viable alternative for the jobless in a poor economy. 

      Mar 9, 12 1:32 pm  · 

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