What is the downside to being licensed?


Throughout school and my professional career people have always told me that being a licensed architect through the AIA (I am in the US) is very important. I understand some of the best "architects" are not licensed and licensure doesn't really define your abilities as someone who designs space.  I am wondering if there is a downside to being licensed other than fees and not being able to stamp your own drawings? It seems you have nothing to lose by being licensed, but it also feels strangely like institutional dogma at times, more so after the AIA Trump press release fiasco. Anyone here concentiously unlicensed? Why?

Dec 2, 16 2:40 am

conscientiously unlicensed? 

Hmmm.... not sure what you mean by that. You're unlicensed until you are licensed. I'm not sure why being unlicensed is necessarily something to be ashamed of.

As long as you follow the rules and not think that because you are unlicensed that you are untouchable. That would be a sore mistake. Do your work professionally and competently and you probably would face less issues. If you don't, you may face more issues than you need to.

Do keep in mind that AIA is going to promote licensing. They were deeply involved in creating architectural licensing in the U.S. That's their baby. 

Dec 2, 16 4:43 am

Rick:  The OP meant to say "consciously" unlicensed, as in intentionally unlicensed.

The only real downside I can see is that you will likely be held to a higher standard of care if you are ever sued, even though the project actually didn't even require a full fledged architect.  A house, for instance.

Being licensed isn't a negative.  It's just not that big a positive if you are doing small scale work where you are in competition with  "designers".

Dec 2, 16 7:27 am


And that other people think Architects make tons of money. Boy are they wrong. 

Dec 2, 16 8:17 am
Non Sequitur

I think one downside is that you have to listen to wankers constantly complain about how unfair it is that you require a license to be called an architect.

Senjohn, I make enough to keep my home bar stocked with a variety of craft brews... probably not something a "building designer" pumping out shitty backyard decks and deathtrap theatre conversions can claim.

Dec 2, 16 8:42 am

Non Sequitur, has anyone ever said you sound like a wanker....

Dec 2, 16 9:14 am

It's "conscientiously." Anyway yes, many people decide not to become licensed. That's perfectly fine if you're doing small scale work.

Dec 2, 16 9:17 am

Couple things I've noticed: my employer seems to expect me to be more competent then everyone else in the office. I'm one of 3 architects in a firm of about 15. There are at least 5 designers here who are older than me (35) and unlicensed, the rest are younger. I also think that once you reach a certain age, maybe 40ish, people will start to wonder why you aren't an architect and might assume that you just arent smart/dedicated/something enough

Dec 2, 16 9:32 am
Non Sequitur

Detwan, nope... no one, ever.

Must be the license.  Perhaps it's some sort of wanker proof kryptonite.

Dec 2, 16 9:55 am

Salary/firm value...  Most companies can't bill/sell you as a architect if you aren't.  It's the equivalent of "nurse practitioner" versus "doctor".  Joe Blow walking in off the street to an architects office wants to hire a architect..... not a (whatever you choose to call yourself that isn't a architect).  They tend to get butt hurt finding out the lead on their project can't even get their license; honestly, that makes you look like you can't cut it from an outside perspective because no one will understand why you are eligible, but refuse to take a test... sounds fishy or like some sort of statement about how serious you are about your profession.

So in-house, that means you have a ceiling you put on yourself.  There's only so far up the ladder you'll get as a non-architect working in a Architect's office.  Look around at the higher ups.  The non-licensed folks are usually books, marketing, or have some other certifications.  

Tintt probably has more to say... lots of experience, but just now getting her license.  

Dec 2, 16 10:39 am
x intern
Second ^^
Clients want an architect
If you want to sit in an office drawing forever might work out otherwise get your license
Otherwise you should have saved yourself 3 years and went to cc for a cad operator
Dec 2, 16 10:55 am

in my state, half of a partnership/ownership has to be licensed

so, in someone else's firm, you'll never have to stamp anything, but, if you expect to take on a leadership role, it will have marketing implications as noted above and likely your partners will insist on it as part of pulling your weight

Dec 2, 16 11:25 am

mightyaa.. I have less than 10 years experience.. just under 8 years full time and 1 year part time. I wouldn't say that's a lot but thank you. I have over 10 years experience as an archinector though :) ! That counts for something I suppose. Back when you had to finish IDP before testing I wanted to test, but you weren't allowed until you got approval. It took me 7 years to get through IDP which was average at the time, I was a temp, was laid off a few times, moved several states away, was unemployed for a bit... had a bunch of unbuilt projects so lacked CA points, eventually got them, got approval to test, I finished 3 tests, then got laid off again (the whole firm went under actually), I started a new career, started a family, swore off architecture, my rolling clock ran out, then I started testing again in September. 2 tests left. By the way, if I recall no clients have ever asked if I was licensed. Maybe some consultants did, but not clients. They don't ask because i think either they assume you are, they don't perceive the difference or maybe they know that unlicensed workers help make fees cheaper and as long as the principal is licensed they didn't care? It does help to get put in the qualifications package to respond to RFQ's though if you are licensed. The more sophisticated clients like universities look at those bios and like to see licensed persons on their jobs. 

Dec 2, 16 3:28 pm

Non, I know an interior designer who just built himself a 4 million dollar house and drives 100k dollar car...It's not about what your do, but how you do it...

Dec 2, 16 4:08 pm
Non Sequitur

^yes... but your example is an exception. I know more than a handful of architects that fit your example.

Dec 2, 16 4:27 pm

I worked at an office where one of the project managers was intentionally not pursuing licensure. As an unlicensed employee, the firm paid him an hourly wage plus time and a half for overtime. He knew that if he got his license they would stick him on a salary and he wouldn't be making all the extra cash for the overtime he regularly accrued. He had done the math and he would be making less than what he estimated the firm would be willing to pay him for a salary while still being expected to do the same work.

One potential downside to being licensed is that people like me expect you to know things that other licensed architects should know ... like things that are routinely tested on the ARE. If you don't know those things and are licensed, I think less of you. The flip side is that if you know those types of things and are unlicensed, I think more of you.

That being said, many unlicensed people have long and fulfilling careers in this profession and if you don't want to get a license ... don't get one.

Once, a community college was awarded a large sum of money because they had been promised one thing, but their architect had a bunch of unlicensed, inexperienced people working on their project instead.

Dec 2, 16 4:29 pm

Defidently a benefit for non-residential stuff.  For residential no one cares too much.  For landscape clients hardly know there's such a thing as landscape arch licensure.  

Dec 2, 16 4:57 pm

To clarify being a member of the AIA is not the same as having a license.  The AIA wants people to be to think the title AIA = licensed architect - it does not.   AIA = old white mans club, makes me think of judge smails from caddyshack.  The title "architect" holds more value.

The downside of having a license is that your cost to employers goes way up for the same level of skill.  The upside is reaching professional status.

Dec 2, 16 6:21 pm

Two things from the OP:

Throughout school and my professional career people have always told me that being a licensed architect through the AIA (I am in the US) is very important.

The AIA doesn't grand licenses. NCARB does. That's an important distinction you should learn more about. The AIA is a professional association. It's basically all the cost of a labor union with few of the benefits. That said, obtaining an NCARB license is very important, for reasons already discussed.

I understand some of the best "architects" are not licensed and licensure doesn't really define your abilities as someone who designs space.

Who are these people? 

Dec 2, 16 6:46 pm

The AIA doesn't grand [sic] licenses. NCARB does. 

NCARB doesn't grant licenses. Individual licensing boards do.

Dec 2, 16 6:55 pm

EI, of there any reason that person in your example can't be paid salary as a pm ever without the license? Doesnt really make sense to me. I think most of my firm is salary

Dec 2, 16 6:56 pm

It was just the way that the firm did things. You worked as an hourly employee until you got licensed, then you would get put on a salary. Honestly, I think they thought it would be an incentive for people to get their license, but they obviously didn't think it through that thoroughly. 

When I was there I put in a fair amount of overtime as well. When I left and got a salaried position at another firm, if you compared the salary I was offered to what I was making hourly at the old place based on a 40 hour week, it looked like I got a substantial raise. In reality, I was making about the same at both places.

Dec 2, 16 7:06 pm


It happens to be a firm's policy not a overtime exemption matter of law. In fact, a firm could salary such a person regardless of whether or not they are licensed without having to pay overtime.

Dec 2, 16 7:25 pm

A firm can classify someone as exempt professional IF they make at least $47,436/yr AND they meet the requirements re independent management of their time, etc.  Usually for someone with a professional degree in architecture the DOL considers that to be 1+ years of full time experience after graduation, but for a person without a professional degree in architecture and no professional license the DOL uses 8+ years in a management role as the threshold for overtime exemption.  So for someone without a professional degree, the overtime thing might be a logical reason to remain unlicensed (even if a license is possible in that person's state for someone without a professional degree).

Dec 4, 16 3:44 pm
AIA does not grant licenses. But you cannot be a full member of the AIA without a license. Otherwise, you are an "Ass. AIA", which is appropriate.
Dec 4, 16 4:07 pm

Having to engage in conversations with other architects.

Dec 5, 16 4:16 am

Another downside is having to explain to your mother why you're not "technically" an architect. 

Dec 5, 16 10:22 am

or the same explanation when someone comes to you with a pile of money and a project "oh, sorry I'm not a real architect"

Dec 5, 16 1:03 pm

One downside to be a licensed architect is liability and standard of care.  If you aren't licensed and never represent you have any sort of credentials or certifications, you can't be held to the same standard of care as a licensed professional.

On the flip-side, "reasonable and prudent" (the basis of standard of care) doesn't really change on the same scope of work; so if you are a designer or architect doing design and representing you are capable of performing the work, the exposure is not substantially different.   Sort of the 'looks like a duck' application toward interpretation..  Basically, don't think being non-licensed will save you from your own mistakes.  

Another reason for getting licensed; A ton of HOA's and covenant communities require licensed architects to do the design.  

Dec 5, 16 2:43 pm

If you don't want liability move to Dubai and become a prince.  Other than that, it's part of life. 

Dec 5, 16 4:38 pm

One downside to be a licensed architect is liability and standard of care.  If you aren't licensed and never represent you have any sort of credentials or certifications, you can't be held to the same standard of care as a licensed professional.

ok. I re-read what you wrote. However, as you said, on the flipside, part you wrote is caveat emptor. In which case, the unlicensed designer would be held to the same standard as the licensed designer. There is some instances in specific cases where an unlicensed person can rely on a licensed person's judgment and in that case, the licensed designer is at a higher standard of care based on the contractual duty. Yet, the unlicensed designer would still be held to a higher standard than the unlicensed client for the project. In turn, both would be jointly liable for their parts with regards to the client.

Hence, JOINT-LIABILITY and conjoined responsibility to the standard of care arises.

Dec 5, 16 4:55 pm

one downside is that wanna-be architects, er, building designers, who live in their parent's basement will report you to the state board if you don't pay your renewal fee on time.  

another is that you may also be called in to undo the damage by unlicensed building designers who designed (or maybe didn't) non-exempt structures.  community theaters are one great example.    

Dec 5, 16 5:51 pm
Non Sequitur
I've learned so much correcting mistakes made from building designers early in my career.
Dec 5, 16 6:13 pm

I learned so much from that TOOL album, where it teaches you to sux your own cox, learned so much...

Dec 5, 16 7:07 pm
Non Sequitur

^It's a pretty spectacular album.

Dec 5, 16 7:18 pm

Don’t confuse people Rick.  The point of my post was to basically say as a licensed professional, it is generally expected by the law that you know certain things (there was a test and everything to establish this).

You are actually a good example of how they establish the standard of care with non-licensed.  You’ve been representing that you have expertise in the field of architecture.  And you are unlicensed.  That means in a theoretical world of establishing the standard of care for your actions, they will look at how you represent yourself.  So at least here, you’ve been representing yourself as well versed in the knowledge of construction.  You will be held to that level instead of someone who has had very little exposure to construction, construction law, contracts, etc.  What you have going for you is that, as far as I know, you haven’t ever really designed anything that was built at all and a whole lot of folks telling you that you are wrong (basically establishing your knowledge is limited).  Things would get interesting to say the least since there is this very wide gap between perceptions of how much you know or don’t know…  Sort of an interesting twist, but I've seen sort of egotistical "we can do anything" websites that tout a huge array of capabilities be used to wreck folks in court when it turns out they screw up one of those things they claim they know how to do.

Contracts are just a part of how they establish the representation of your capabilities.  I’ve seen all sorts of things hauled into it.

Dec 5, 16 7:59 pm

Explaining to people you studied 7+ years to earn the same or less than a trucker. Don't give me the bullshit of "open your own studio", you shouldn't have to.

Dec 6, 16 4:41 am
Rick you need to stop acting like you know things. You don't, and have proven you don't time and time again. Hell, you were even banned for it, and shouldn't be allowed back here anyway.

That said, licensure is good but it definitely increases stress. It's not be be taken lightly. You need to be committed.
Dec 6, 16 7:20 am

What NS said about correcting building designer's mistakes and learning from them... I did an internship with a building engineer who did forensics when I was 19 and 20 years old so this was before I worked in architecture but was a student of it (studio, etc, where buildings didn't have much quality of being real.) We investigated several failures by architects that scared the crap out of me and so I wanted to learn first and not just get licensed right away. Most of the mistakes were fairly easy to correct but one of them was significant. Still scared me how he could drive around town and point out design mistakes literally everywhere. The guy was an older guy who was very well regarded in the construction field with a lengthy career and he himself was later ruined (in his 70's or 80's) by a terrible lawsuit around s flooded property. Through being his apprentice, I think I had a lot more respect for professional licensing and what it takes to design a building than any of my peers who would cheat on IDP or fake it till they made it Or say "it doesn't matter" or it's someone else's responsibility with regards to important things like getting water away from a structure. I think licensing should be taken very seriously and think it should be even harder than the ol' ARE is.

Dec 6, 16 9:24 am

The ARE is basically a test of AIA docs, not of creating well designed buildings.

Dec 6, 16 9:28 am

I always thought investigating buildings would be a good TV show too. CSI: Construction Site Investigators.

It would be great too if there were another license or credential that recognized a higher level of knowledge and ability than the ARE, which is a minimal competency exam, not exactly a golden seal of approval. I've suggested this before, there should be a board certification or something similar in architecture.

Dec 6, 16 10:48 am

tintt, I like where your head is at, however, I think there already are credentials that recognize higher levels of knowledge and ability than the ARE. The issue is that they are just more specialized and architects don't want to be specialized.

For example, you mentioned getting water away from a structure. RCI has plenty of certifications for roofing, waterproofing, exterior wall, and building envelope consultants. Any architect could easily pursue and earn just about any of them. However, I don't think the AIA is going to start giving out awards in the "built work that doesn't leak" category, so why would architects care?

There are plenty of other certifications and credentials that would be extremely helpful for an architect as well ... if you are involved heavily in contract administration, go earn the CCCA credential from CSI. Want to become better at estimating costs for your projects ... become a CPE with ASPE. Tired of the service you are getting from your free door hardware consultant ... go over to DHI and get some certifications.

The issue is that very little value is seen in these types of credentials. It's just more alphabet soup on your business card. Even LEED credentials are starting to be perceived to add little value except maybe in marketing. Clients aren't demanding that the architect running the CA on their project hold any certain type of credential, so why would the architecture firm value anyone who has their CCCA?

For some reason we still have this idea in the profession that it takes a bunch of generalists to create good architecture. Sure, knowing a little about a lot of things is important in being able to coordinate a large and complex set of values and variables that inevitably are in conflict in any given architectural endeavor. That is what the ARE, IDP/AXP, and NAAB-accredited degrees are supposed to cover.

However, where this mentality will always fail is where there are no experts in any individual area who are able to get beyond that basic understanding. So architects are left hiring consultants, or we fake-it-until-we-make-it usually deluding ourselves in the process to believe we actually know what we are talking about. Meanwhile, we continue to complain that our profession is becoming devalued and we are no longer "master builders." Continuing education is supposed to ensure that licensed professionals continue to learn and gain more knowledge and expertise perhaps leading them to more specialized knowledge. Yet, I'm rarely impressed by the knowledge given in lunch-and-learns as it is always so basic ... and I'm not even licensed. This leads me to believe that continuing education in reality is just a way of reminding us of what we've forgotten. 


Another downside to being licensed: continuing education hours.

Dec 6, 16 12:43 pm

EI is the new balkins 

Dec 6, 16 1:01 pm

Damn, that's cold.

Dec 6, 16 2:19 pm


Dec 6, 16 2:44 pm

EI is speaking sense. 

Dec 6, 16 3:06 pm

I have letters behind my name. They stand for I took a class and passed a test. And paid a fee. I wish the term architect meant all that stuff was covered automatically.

Dec 6, 16 3:30 pm

all this amateur attorney pontificating is getting old.

Dec 6, 16 3:43 pm

Soon you will need a certification to apply for certifications. 

Dec 6, 16 3:51 pm

Licensure, certifications, blah blah.  

Only Three things matter

1 experiance

2 intellegence

3 character

A license is not a substitute for, or proof of any of these  



Dec 6, 16 3:55 pm

Those three things matter, yes, but without a license, you are not an architect. Isn't not being able to be an architect enough of a downside?

Dec 6, 16 4:14 pm

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