Be Better

I had many interesting conversations with architecture students while I was in Chicago. It was very interesting that many of them had similar questions to those I receive every day from the licensed architects who follow this blog. Some were concerned about finding a job. Others wanted to know about how to start their own firms. Many wanted to know how much it costs to do so. Not so surprisingly though, they all wanted to “save the world”.

Architects will be architects.

On two separate occasions, I was asked my opinion about competing with unlicensed professionals. These students are working to become residential architects and in many states, working with a licensed architect is not a requirement. How would they compete? How is that fair? Should those laws be changed? Should non-architects be permitted to use the term “architect”?

My answer to those students, as well as to anyone else concerned with this very volatile issue?

Be better.

Architecture is a business. As with any other business, there are obstacles which require our talents, skills and determination to overcome.

Our architectural educations should be viewed more as personal improvement, building our skills and reinforcing our knowledge, and less as a ticket to professional exclusivity. The lessons we learn and the skills we acquire during our time in architecture school make us unique to any other people on earth. We are taught to see. We are taught to listen. We are taught to learn differently than the average person, and very differently than any designer that has not experienced the process of architectural education and achieved what we have achieved.

Our endeavor to licensure builds upon what we have achieved from our educations. As complex as the path through IDP (Intern Development Program) may be, it is intended to take us to the next level, to take what we have experienced in architecture school and prepare us for transition to the “real world” profession. Whether or not the IDP is currently successful in that mission is a debate for another day, but there is no doubt that completing the IDP is an achievement of epic proportion. The complicated rules, bureaucratic regulations and massive amounts of documentation, if nothing else, prepares us well for the realities of ever-evolving building codes, restrictive zoning regulations, architectural review and the increasing piles of paperwork required for construction approval.

The experience of cutting our way through the jungles of architecture school, climbing our way up IDP Mountain, reaching the ARE (Architect Registration Exam) summit and passing the many required exams, transforms one from basic designer to a professional Registered Architect.

Designers are born. Architects are accomplished.

Receiving our professional license makes us more prepared and better qualified for the services we are seeking to provide our public. The many years of focus and dedication to become a licensed architect provides us the opportunity to become better communicators, better managers, as well as better designers. It does not entitle us, though, to exclusive access to our chosen markets. That sense of elitism will be the cause of our downfall as a profession.

The argument that the term “architect” should be legally reserved for licensed professionals is a waste of time. As individual small firm architects, we have more important tasks requiring our attention. We have businesses to build, clients to serve and families to feed. If we want the term “architect” to be given the respect it deserves, than as a profession we need to earn that respect, not legislate it. Stop fighting the use of the term “architect” and start creating value.

Build a strong, healthy, profitable business and create a unique marketing position to separate your firm from every other competitor, licensed or not. We have a unique marketing opportunity as registered architects. We have a clear and distinct advantage over unlicensed professionals. The accomplishment of our education and the achievement of our professional license should be used as an integral part of our marketing and sales systems. The unique skills acquired during our time in the “jungle” and ascent to the “summit” should be honored by the lives we improve and celebrated in the works of architecture we create.

Work hard. Provide services that your market demands better than others may provide. Stop investing your energy in trying to change the behavior of others. You can’t change the behavior of anyone but your own. Invest in yourself, overcome the obstacles before you and succeed.

Be better.

I’d love to read your thoughts on this topic? Should all buildings be designed by architects? Should the term “architect” be reserved for licensed professionals? What do you think?
photo credit: _Hadock_ via photopin cc


  1. says

    Well put, Mark. This is exactly where we need to mentally (and maybe spiritually) be on the issue. I intend to drop a link to this post in each blog or discussion encountered that falls into the “waste of time” category identified here. Maybe it will get more architects focused with their eyes on the prize.

    You know that when an unlicensed designer sees architects waxing on about this subject, they must think they’ve beat the system…that they are winning. This post is an EXCELLENT reality check for the entire discussion.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Mark R. LePage says

      Thanks Jes. I appreciate the support and encouragement as always. I would LOVE for you to share it everywhere you can. We need to collectively put our energy where is will truly make a difference.

  2. Brenda Nelson says

    I agree – the way that the name “architect” will have more respect is when we stop worrying about the name and start worrying about our businesses.

    In response to your question: should all buildings be designed by architects? I don’t think that ALL should, but architects should be required for more buildings than what most state codes allow. For example, in Iowa, you are allowed to build a multi-family unit up to 12 units, 3 levels high, without an architect. I currently rent a townhome (was supposed to be for only 6 months!) in an 8 unit group that is less than 5 years old, not designed by an architect and built by less than competent laborers (I watched them construct the new building across the street). Our ground floor is so cold in the winter that we’ve had to purchase a supplemental electric heater and I worry about the pipes in that lower bathroom freezing. When it’s 10 degrees outside, our upstairs is 67-70 degrees but downstairs has been as low as 51 degrees, this is at ground level not in a basement and with 3 sides of our unit surrounded by other townhomes. You’re going to have a hard time convincing me that proper energy codes were followed and proper window/door installation details were created. This is in addition to the fact that this 3 bd townhome feels much smaller than our previous 2 bd apartment – it’s VERY poorly designed. I think that buildings larger than a duplex should always have an architect – it’s time we stop perpetuating the cycle of bad developer buildings which are destined to fall apart within 10-15 years. Our building resources are too valuable to waste in that manner.

  3. Tim Barber says

    An excellent post! You are right on. As I have told my kids many times “If you are good at what you do, you will make money”. People will seek out individuals that do an excellent job for a fair price. This applies to any profession, including architecture. Focusing on making your firm better, better responding to client, better designers, better listening to clients need, is more important than worrying about what title others give you. A home run of a post! I look forward to the next one!

  4. says

    As a professional architectural photographer, I substituted the word “photographer” for “architect” throughout your post and came away just as impressed. Your advice truly crosses professions. Thanks for the shot in the arm!

  5. John F. Worthy, AIA, LEED Green Assoc. says

    Thanks, Mark. I enjoyed how you made a point for our profession to not get into “us” vs. “them” in regards to licensure. However, think about it from the public’s point of view. I encourage my clients to use licensed contractors for their protection. This is because they have proven (tested) qualifications and state accountability.

    The term ‘architect’ should be used only for licensed professionals. In California it’s the law that an unlicensed professional can not use the term. This term is to inform the public that someone has passed a test for minimum qualifications regulated by the state to protect the public’s health, safety and welfare.

  6. @rkitekt says

    I think you make some great points about the use of the term Architect. I agree, we that are registered, should just be able to use our skills, knowledge, and experience to differentiate us from those that are not licensed, but I still would argue that we should still legislate the term to continue to protect the public. They are often not aware of all the background and struggles that those of us have had to endure to become licensed. The average “joe public” may not search (or research enough) to understand why they should get a licensed professional (particularly if they know or meet a non-licensed “one” first) to help them achieve their dreams. And my fear from that is not that the non-licensed person may physically hurt this client, as much as if it does not go well, that it may further damage the reputation of architects in general, which further strains, and makes difficult, the efforts of our profession and the licensed Architect.

    • Tim Barber says

      I had a discussion with a friend of mine who has an engineering degree, but was a programmer by profession. He seemed to think and I never verified this, that the term “licensed engineer” was a protected title. We know that the tech industry, along with many others, uses word architect all the time meaning someone who created or developed something. I even asked my state board about this and they said since it was a different industry, they didn’t think it was a conflict. So what if “Licensed Architect” were to become a protected title, only meaning those licensed to be an architect within the built environment? Just a thought.

  7. Adam says

    To play devils advocate here, would you want to be operated on by a surgeon that isn’t licensed through the local/state medical board? The mission of my state registration board clearly says “The mission of the Board is to protect the public health, safety and welfare by ensuring that those entering the professional practice of architecture meet standards of competency by means of education, examination and experience.”

    Nowhere in this article is HSW mentioned. If an unlicensed surgeon operates on the public it makes the top of the newscast and said person is publically shamed, fined and sometimes jailed. If an unlicensed architect completes a project at most they are fined (if caught) and nobody mentiones that they have not been held to any set of standards to protect the HSW of the public. I for one think this is the problem – not maintaining my job stability by pushing someone out of the profession.

    To simply argue that we as registered Architects need to “be better” is idealistic. We are lucky to live at a time where there is a quantifiable set of standards which can easily identify those that are most qualified to deliver a safe building. We can argue how good the system is, how effective the testing is, etc., but if we as architects stop being advocates for the rules that are already established I believe that will be our ultimate downfall.

  8. Mike Caistor says


    Architects work hard to keep their licensed status. Attorneys have licensed stats. They don’t need creativity. You can look up what an attorney knows in the law library. Good architecture requires natural talent and training that is not so easily obtained. Try and tell the legal profession that their elitism is hurting their profession and to discard licensure.
    And we create more value than they do. People might dislike them more than architects but they don’t hesitate to throw several times as much money at their feet. Because the law is intimidating. Architecture is something people don’t see as being as urgent as law or medicine. But our regime is harder than law, maybe not as hard as medicine but still the most rigorous professional examination there is.

    The sad reality is that the most of the public won’t do something unless it has to. If building codes were not law then most people wouldn’t bother meeting those standards. Every natural disaster sheds light on who had and who enforced building codes and who didn’t. Most people see architects as a necessary evil to get a building permit. I am not going to submit to the public’s ignorance just to avoid being called an elitist. Most client’s motto is “Just give me what I want”. I am not trying to shove high architecture down their throats. But I am going to insist that things are done right based on industry standards. And corner cutting in the construction industry is a daily battle.

    So all you are doing is encouraging low self esteem for the profession. In fact, I think that you are pandering to the 50% draftsmen that are on the post erroneously called Residential Architecture.

  9. says

    Mark – I agree with the premise that we have to “be better”. However,if it was as simple as this, there would be no need for professional associations such as CORA, CRAN, and ArCH.

    Here are some of my thoughts. I do think residential design should be regulated. Perhaps there needs to be a second tier of licensure (similar to nursing) that allows for people to just design single family homes. I find it interesting that architects are educated to be lead designers, (something only a small minority of architects do) licensed to be general practitioners (legally we can design homes, hospitals, and high-rises) which very few practices do. Why not our education and licensure reflect the realities of 21 century practice? i.e. have specialties, similar to MD’s.

    As a residential architect. Here is the biggest dilemma I face. In the past 6 months I have been introduced (in social settings) to 4 “architects”. One was an IT architect. The others were unlicensed designers. Two of the unlicensed designers have very successful practices. While they were not holding themselves out to be architects, most people think they are. When I try to explain to people about licensure, most think it is some type of optional certificate. Keep in mind that many times it isn’t an unlicensed design firm that I compete with, but lumber yards and builders offering free design services!

    There are two issues here. One is the legislation of single family design. The other is the public’s perception as to who is an architect. The legislative issue is going to probably be futile on a national or even state level. However certain, usually urban, municipalities (such as most of the Chicago suburbs) are now requiring an architect’s seal for permit drawings. I think this trend will begin to grow, albeit slowly.

    But, how do we get the public to understand who is an architect – and what the benefits to hiring a licensed architect could be? The AIA has done a terrible, terrible disservice to residential architects by choosing to recognize only the avant-garde Euroboxes (which I too love) as the beneficial outcome of working with an architect. Is it no wonder people run to the nearest builder when they want to build a new home?

    I wish it was just as easy as being better. but it isn’t!

    ps…. hate to be nit-picky, but even the profession doesn’t understand licensing and practice laws. You have tossed around “registered”and “licensed”as they have the same meaning. They do not! They mean different things. Hence I am a Licensed Architect in Illinois and a Registered Architect in Iowa. In this age of interstate practice, The profession needs to get on the same page and adopt uniform practice laws!

    pps…ArCH (Architects Creating Homes) is a newly formed professional organization formed to promote the benefits of using licensed/registered architects for home projects – at an affordable dues cost to members. The organization was formed by a few of us who were dissatisfied with the lack of value we received from our AIA membership.

    To learn more, visit www.

    • Chris Cobb says

      Edward – good points. Just to expand a little bit, I’ll just add that the municipalities that are requiring an Architect’s stamp for single-family are doing it because of all the problems they have with code violations from designers and non-licensed professionals – at least that is what the inspectors and plan reviewers here tell me. This will continue as the code requirements become even more complex.

  10. Chris Cobb says

    “If we want the term “architect” to be given the respect it deserves, than as a profession we need to earn that respect, not legislate it.”

    Not sure I understand your point – didn’t I “earn” the respect by fulfilling the legally required prerequisites that have been mandated in the interest of public safety and welfare? How does “be better” translate into that? Are you saying that ‘If you have a good profitable business with a healthy bottom line, then you must be a qualified professional.’?Sorry, on a deeper level, I just don’t understand what you are saying. I get that “be better” is good for business and the marketplace will disqualify those that don’t differentiate themselves as such, but this doesn’t directly translate into the minimum standards required for architectural competence.

    Further, I have concerns because it is not a stretch to say that you are encouraging unlicensed professionals to break the law. Further, in Texas, a registered Architect is legally required to report known violations of the rules and regulations of TBAE. Encouraging registered professionals to turn a blind eye is not a professionally responsible position or in the case of Texas legal. I have no issues if professionals lobby to change the law and state their opinions to do so. But as it stands, there is nothing wrong with being clear about what the law is, why it is there, and we are called by our professional duties to do so. I would even go a step further and say it is healthy for both sides to be asking the questions and having the arguments; not a waste of time at all.

    • Alicia says

      Thank you Chris! These were my concerns with this piece as well. The term ‘architect’ is thrown around far too easily and is not given the respect and distinction that it deserves. Many in society use the title in any context that they wish because they think they can – they are encouraged with the notion that ‘anyone can design’. The architecture profession has not done a good enough service to every licensed architect (who spend a considerable amount of brain power, training, money and accumulation of experience) to ensure that the title of ‘Architect’ is legally protected from non-licensed use (software architects, love architects, the ‘architect’ of a cinderella season). UNTIL the National AIA actually tackles this issue, the whole nation of ‘Architects’ will be constantly spending VALUABLE time trying to prove why they are an essential component of the built environment (which is B.S. as Mike says above). This has damaged our profession – nearly beyond repair in my opinion and the impacts are forcing us to limp along in an ambiguous state of identity.

      This post below is a painful reminder of just how far the application of referring to someone as an ‘architect’ can spiral down to…

  11. Mike Caistor says

    I support Ed Shannon’s idea on a separate tier of licensing for residential designers. I have said it before in previous posts: ” Residential Architect”. Only with an eye on raising the bar for residential as a specialty not lowering it to grandfather in and legitimize existing designers. Much the same way as licensed landscape architects developed site as a specialty and licensed interior designers are developing interiors as a specialty.

    However, many designers are drop-outs to start with and are not going to want to pay those kind of dues. But I would like to see a new venue of Residential Architects that are better than the”regular” architect as specialists and command a good fee while taking the profession onward and upward. Not the designer as a shortcut around architects and paying appropriate fees. These new Residential Architects would be my competitors. But I would rather lose business to someone who is better than I am than lose business to those who cut corners. Then may the best man win.

    But as far as just letting the market decide “let the best man win” as the basis of the architect being better than the designer the market is not well informed. Most people don’t know the difference between an architect and a designer. And most don’t care. They see one is more expensive as another and as long as the cheaper one “Give me what I want” then that’s where they will go. Planbook plan to be revised in tow. And they sell themselves short . And they sell the neighborhood values short.

    Which is why more municipalities and New Urbanism communities are requiring architect’s stamps. My compliments to so many municipalities that have nurtured urban redevelopment over literally decades of hard work in the face of seemingly hopeless odds. And many of those neighborhoods that were once blighted are the new hip neighborhoods.
    Here in Denver they are the hot deals while the suburbs are still languishing from the last economic cycle. And these cities don’t want just anyone to come along and screw up what they worked hard to build. So if they aren’t requiring an architect’s seal they are using architectural guidelines that a lot of designers just “don’t get” so clients know to use architects if they want to “get it through: the cities. And the client can’t just say “Give me what I want” and put a planbook plan there. Call it socialism but these cities are going to maintain quality control. They worked hard and now the same developers that called them communists are reaping the rewards of a brisk market in these areas.

  12. Mike Caistor says

    Chris Cobb questions: ” we need to earn that respect, not legislate it”.

    Legislation is not about whether or not we deserve respect. Legislation is to protect the public. A CPA is licensed so that the public is protected. You can go to H & R Block and have them screw up your taxes ( I speak from experience). And there is nothing illegal about that . Just like you can go to a lumber yard and have them screw up the design of your house. And there is nothing illegal about that. But the CPA can be relied upon to verify the legitimacy of financial matters of interest to the public. In other words, if you buy a company you can rely on those income statements and balance sheets to verify that you are getting what you paid for.

    Similiarly, the public relies on the architect to be able to verify that the design of their building meets industry standards. Some architects may be better than others. But the public is assured of minimum competency. And that architect has a license to lose, is held personally liable and faces criminal penalties . In contrast, the designer or builder can hide behind the corporate veil and the ABC company can become the XYZ company overnight. Architects can not slither away so easy. Most of the market doesn’t know this. I have had more clients that trust the builder more than me as the architect despite my explanations that I have a fiduciary duty to protect the client that the builders does not have (at least in this state). Many clients perceive that the builder is the one who really makes things happen while the architect is the ivory tower paper boy that is a necessary evil; to get a permit. And builders help elevate their position above ours by perpetuating the “elitist ” architect myth.

    My portfolio speaks for itself. I have heard criticism that it is on the mediocre side because it doesn’t have a lot of monumental projects. You have to look hard to see how I performed my trademark customized to site philosophy rather than standardized planbook. But that also speaks to the fact that I in fact did give the client the traditional architecture that they wanted. Not shove “elitist” modern down their throat (not that I think modern is elitist). The difference is that I enforced quality control over a lot of the tangled up spaghetti plans that clients came in with and said ” Give me what I want”. Whereas the draftsman is not brainwashed like the architect is in school to put architecture above just making a quick buck. Sure,we must make compromises, but the brainwash of “ethics” from the ivory tower is a lot of what separates architects from draftsmen and builders.

  13. Mike Caistor says

    Finally, Your post says ” How to Compete with Unlicensed Professionals” and then it says ” Be Better”.

    If “Be Better” was all it took to compete with unlicensed professionals then we would have put most of them out of business already.

    They have three weapons, first they uncut our fees. Secondly, they “Give me what I want” to the client regardless of how bad it is. And if we point out how bad it is then we are “elitists”. Third, they are not bound by the ethics , professional duties , liabilities and consequences that we are. They can tell the client anything they want to hear and slither away if things go south . Whereas we would be held responsible.

    Perhaps as a profession we have done poorly at communicating our assets to the public and the market. And we live in an adversarial world where most people’s objective is get the business deal that don’t care if you do a “better” job for them. They will use the designer as a negotiating lever to bring you down and if you don’t comply they don’t care if they just use the one that is not “better”. And I have proven my worth to a lot of clients that simply didn’t appreciate it or care.

    So I would be hard pressed to come up with some strong methods to compete with designers. They have carved a niche that is hard to beat : Cheap and Submissive.

  14. says

    I agree that to gain a position of respect in the market, architects must prove themselves to “be better.” Unfortunately, that is easier said than done especially in a market that does not discriminate well between poor, mediocre, and excellent.

    Throughout my career I have been appalled at the lack of technical competence exhibited by architects (and engineers). For the last 20 years of my career I have focused on forensic engineering and architecture, so I frequently see this lack of capability expressed especially in the areas of: building materials/specifications, project management/contracts, building codes, and moisture integrity. I know this is not the “fun” part of architecture, but it is the part of architecture for which we are licensed. So, why don’t architectural schools give this the same emphasis they give to the concepts of aesthetics, planning and design?

    If architects truly wish to distinguish themselves from the hacks and the “want-a-bes,” I believe they must upgrade their D&B…that is their “Different” and “Better.” This is not an easy road to follow, but I believe that it starts with understanding construction, technology and process so architects can be know in the marketplace for delivering better buildings than the hacks that are so effectively competing with them.

    • Tim Barber says

      I agree! Just drawing pretty pictures doesn’t cut it in the real world. We need to embrace the entire scope of being an architect, not just the fun stuff.

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