Why the Architect Registration Exam Should Test Design Skills

If architects hold themselves to a standard of design competency in education, a similar standard should be held when granting legal certification.

Ross Brady Ross Brady

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In the United States, the Architect Registration Exam (ARE) is out of balance with the profession it aims to certify because it doesn’t attempt to test design capabilities. As the last barrier to professional designation, the ARE is often seen as the end of a comprehensive process that starts in architecture school, where design skills are emphasized in concert with the practical subjects of technical construction, project management and historical precedent. However, when potential architects eventually sit for licensing exams, often years after their schooling has finished, they’re required to revisit only the practical subjects — not the creative ones.

This mismatch highlights a gap in the profession: If architects hold themselves to a standard of design competency in education, they should hold themselves to a similar standard when granting legal certification.

The ARE, like most architect licensing exams around the world, tests only practice-based knowledge in service of safeguarding the public. This is not unreasonable; however, the average pass rate for the ARE since the current incarnation of the test began in 2008 is 65 percent. By comparison, the nationwide pass rate for first-time takers of the bar exam in that same period is a noticeably higher 76 percent, while MDs taking the USMLE became doctors at a rate of 95 percent. In this context, it could be said that architects are pretty bad at becoming licensed in what they’re educated to do. So where’s the disconnect?

Via Prezi

While ensuring public safety is paramount, and should certainly be maintained, the ARE’s approach fails to capture the vital role that proficiency in creating original visual images plays in the profession. The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, which administers the test, even goes so far as to explicitly state that creative thinking is purposely excluded from the exam. Architectural education, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly top-heavy in its emphasis on creative design skills despite making additional often toothless attempts to also cover the same practical subjects the ARE tests later on.

Viewed in whole, the average time it takes an architect in the United States to work through this combined system of education and licensure is 13.3 years, with four years typically passing between the time they finish school and the time they take their first licensing exam. Even if that gap were eliminated, the fact that evaluating design competency is completely abandoned at that point, when an architect is finally ready to enter official practice, is inconsistent with the rest of the experience and sends mixed messages about what’s valued in the profession.

Average timeline to architecture licensure in the United States; via National Council of Architectural Registration Boards

This problem occurs at both ends of the system, which means if the case can be made to reduce the dominance of design studios in architectural education to bring it into closer alignment with architectural practice, a complementary move should also be made to the licensure exam. By asking exam-takers to exhibit a minimum level of design skill, alongside the practical knowledge already being tested in service of maintaining public safety, the legal threshold for practicing architecture would reflect the expectation that an architect must be visually literate in a way their clients aren’t.

How might this be tested? At its core, the purpose of this hurdle would be to ensure a candidate for architecture licensure can produce original images of original designs that display a minimum level of coherence and completeness. The evaluation could be as open-ended as a portfolio review, conducted by the same state boards that already assess licensure candidates, or as rigorous as a timed exercise under testing conditions, similar to the current divisions of the ARE.

Ideally, the images produced would be judged agnostic of stylistic preferences, and the evaluation’s intent as a test of visual-creative fluency would clearly indicate that fluency as the primary added value an architect offers to building projects. Such a test of design skills would be far more robust than the ARE’s current vignette and case-study questions, which evaluate only the identification of complex code requirements and adherence to program particulars.

Via Kwantlen Polytechnic University

The effects that such an evaluation might have on the profession are multitude. First, it might alter the makeup of licensed architects to skew toward only those who have both logical know-how and artistic sense. This is slightly different than the current state of affairs in which visually skilled individuals who have trouble with rational logic-based thinking may struggle to enter the profession, while people who excel at passing written tests despite scraping through the studio portion of architectural education may not.

In theory, that could improve the overall aesthetic quality of the built environment by raising the bar on the visual design skills required to be an architect. Because most aesthetic decisions rest in the hands of clients, though, the biggest benefit gained from evaluating design skills as part of architectural licensing is what it signals to anyone thinking of either becoming an architect or hiring one: that creating a building that shelters, functions and appears at a minimally accepted level of quality is what they’re expected to do.

By adopting that caveat, the architecture profession might be able to successfully assert its value in an increasingly fragmented economy, reinforcing the notion that an architect’s role is greater than only ensuring public safety while bringing the experience of becoming an architect into a tighter balance with itself.

Top image via Easy Academic


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