“At NCARB, we want to completely reinvent our approach to conducting a practice analysis,” stated Andy McIntyre, Vice President, Marketing & Communications for the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB).

McIntyre made this comment in reference to the multiphase and multiyear Analysis of Practice project sponsored by NCARB. The purpose of this project is to comprehensively understand how the practice of architecture is being delivered within the United States currently and how it may change in the near future. This project aims to understand the differences and nuances of the profession from the perspectives of thousands of architects and non-architects, as well as a variety of perspectives, including those from different firm sizes, communities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, pursuing license or years since licensed, and specialties.

To better understand why and how NCARB is reinventing their practice analysis approach, we had the privilege of speaking with McIntyre, Jared Zurn (Vice President, Examination at NCARB) and eight practitioners in the built environment:

  • Kerry Bartini, AIA, NCARB, Architect, Principal, Berkshire Design, Inc., Pittsfield, MA
  • Ibrahim Greenidge, AIA, NOMA, NCARB, RA, Managing Partner, Co-founder, BOLT Architecture, Brooklyn, NY
  • Jason De Marco, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, NCARB, Principal, Polyline Architecture & Urbanism, Honolulu, HI
  • Thom Krejci, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, Project Director, Perspectus Architecture, Cleveland, OH
  • Kirstin Marshall, Bachelor of Architecture, Architectural Designer, MOA Architecture, Denver, CO (Pursuing license)
  • Maxim D. Nasab, AIA, NCARB, Bridge Architect, Principal, Apexx Architecture, Tallahassee, FL
  • Damian A. Roman, Design Principal, Process and Design Studio, San Diego, CA (Pursuing license)
  • B Sanborn, EDAC, SEED, AIA, Principal, Design Research Leader, DLR Group, Chicago, IL

Why Reinvent?

In the past, NCARB has completed traditional job tasks analyses (JTAs) in which subject matter experts (SMEs) discuss and establish the knowledge, skills, and abilities required of architects during a focus group and then validate the list of tasks in a survey. NCARB believed something more was needed to really capture the field of architecture today. Zurn explained,“ Due to rapid technological, economic, and societal expectations and changes affecting our profession, the idea of doing one more traditional JTA wasn’t going to cut it. It was time to go beyond the traditional approach and take a completely fresh look starting from the ground up.”

McIntyre added that education, experience, and the examination (commonly referred to as the 3 E’s) are the three main components of architectural licensure. Unlike a traditional JTA, the Analysis of Practice project will help NCARB see how these three components work together, how they influence each other, and where improvements could be made.

What do Practitioners Think About the Project?

The practitioners in the built environment added thoughts about why it was important to reinvent the approach with the analysis of practice.

  • Bartini shared her thoughts on the 3 E’s and the option of concurrently working on them:

“My goal to become an architect has always been at the forefront for as long as I can remember. There used to be a prescribed order to be followed for the three E’s: education, experience, examination. I was working toward my license years ago when I had a child, which required work/life balance adjustments and it took me much longer than initially intended to reach my licensure goal. I can see how the flexibility of working on the three E’s in an order best suited to a candidate can streamline efforts.

Depending on the state and the school, potential licensees are permitted to begin work on all three E’s at the same time. You can test while finishing school and working at a firm. This reduces barriers of expenses and time and is very beneficial. Women in architecture can fall off the path really easily when going on leave to have a child. Women and men who take leave to be a care giver or for critical care of others need to feel supported that they can come back to the profession and resume work. Twenty years ago, being a working parent was perhaps even harder than it is today. The pandemic has helped break down barriers. I’ve now carved a path for others to come in my firm (that I wish I’d had the support to carve years earlier), allowing them to more easily fulfill the role of parent, and contribute at the office as well.”

  • Roman shared some of his experiences on his licensure journey, such as the struggles to obtain a license in architecture:

“I’m an immigrant whose parents pushed me to succeed in this country. However, I’ve had to take the atypical route in my journey of becoming a licensed architect. Due to financial issues, I had to drop out of architectural school and then ‘boot strap’ my way back into the profession. I want to continue my entrepreneurial pursuits in architecture, but I don’t have my license yet. At times I feel like I suffer from imposter syndrome. Legally, I can’t call myself an architect. People frequently ask what I do for a living and I tell them I am a designer. I often ask myself how best to present my expertise to potential clients who request designs from me because clients typically want an architect! It’s important for me to represent myself honestly, fairly, and with integrity. I am determined to complete my licensure requirements and be able to finally say, ‘I am a licensed architect!’ This will hopefully be a year or so from now as I continue to work for a licensed architect for my completion of experience and testing, as required by NCARB and the State of California.”  

  • Marshall is also currently pursuing licensure and shared her experience, including the financial responsibility of completing the requirements:

“One of the main challenges in my pursuit of licensure is the exams. There is a lack of accessibility for a lot of people. At my level, it is not a high-paying industry given the workload. We go through rigorous training. There are a lot of steps to take, and it is not reflected in our pay. The exams and materials are a substantial cost, and the time impact is significant. The outlay for six exams is approximately $1,500 and that’s if you pass all of them on the first try. If your firm will compensate you, they only do so after you pass all of the exams. Licensure is a priority for me, and I’m determined to get there, but it’s a challenge for me to allocate the time and money required. I’m hoping NCARB can look for ways to make it more accessible to enter the field.”

  • Nasab emphasized the importance of collaboration with others in related fields:

“We talk about the importance of collaborating, but we don’t regularly collaborate within the field of architecture. In fact, architects are reclusive at times, especially in smaller firms. We need to come together, talk about the practice, write about the practice, and share our thoughts with the rest of the profession. We should talk about how architects are perceived in the public. A lot of people don’t know what an architect does. We need to stop trying to be the artists in the corner and instead, come out to fight for, and sell and educate regarding our profession. In my company, we specialize 100% in bridge architecture for pedestrian bridges and recreational piers. These projects tie into infrastructure and urban design. It’s imperative for me to work closely with engineers. Some hire me as a consultant, which indicates they are willing to listen. I also conduct lectures with engineers to remind them to collaborate with and involve architects and other built professionals on the front end of the project instead of it being an afterthought. It’s making a difference but there’s definitely room for improvement.”

  • De Marco shared his thoughts on how technology is changing the industry, moving from hand drawing to 3-D modeling:

“When I started in this field in high school, I learned how to hand draft and draw with a pen. I then took a class and learned how to computer draft. When I got my first job out of high school at a university’s facilities department, I worked with older and more seasoned architects that knew how to do architecture but didn’t know how to draft on the computer.  Thus I was the “hands” doing the thing they were thinking about.  It was an interesting cross-generational exchange where one has the production skill set and one has the knowledge of how you can work and collaborate.  

Over just my lifetime, architecture has gone from drawing by hand to drawing by CAD and now it’s three-dimensional Building Information Modeling (BIM) where we digitally model in the computer before it’s ever built so we can look for potential clashes and conflicts between structure, HVAC ducts, outlets, and so on. We can do 3D walkthroughs and renderings and all kinds of visualizations for our clients. Additional advances are taking place ongoing with new tools that will continue to enhance the field of architecture.”

  • Sanborn works frequently with architects and shared perspective on the increasing workload of architects:

“It’s important to examine what is currently relevant and what’s coming in the future regarding the required workload of architects. There is only so much that we can pile on to a discipline or education program before it’s untenable and not healthy or sustainable. In the case of an untenable workload, architects who want to specialize may not have the bandwidth to do so. As one who works with architects and also speaks with other groups who provide education programs for architects, it is evident they are being asked to learn a phenomenal amount. The demand ranges from stakeholder engagement skills to basic research practices to the craft of architecture to technology; that’s a lot for any one person to be good at. We need to consider the appropriate amount to ask people to learn, do, and practice as they seek to become licensed and well-rounded. When should they engage with other disciplines to get the job done? There’s been a trend over the last 20 years to pack a lot of skills that can also be provided by other disciplines into the role of “architect”. I don’t think that’s healthy on either side of the equation.”

Starting in a Different Place to Get to a Different Place

Gathering information from architects is a key part of the process, but NCARB didn’t start by talking with architects. Instead, they looked for a different perspective by talking to people who hire architects and engineers, and to others in the built environment who work with them. As Zurn framed it, “We started in a different place to get to a different place.”

It’s important for us to speak with people who are not architects but work with architects. These are the people that can provide a different perspective”, stated Zurn. “We realize one architect is not often the sole person responsible for the architectural project. We want to understand not only what an architect is doing but what they are doing in collaboration with others. It’s important to understand the ecosystem around the practice and the value of collaboration.”

NCARB’s overriding focus is to connect with as many people in the profession as possible. Seasoned and licensed, newly licensed, pursuing licensure, non-licensed, associated with NCARB or not, all are invited into what NCARB refers to as the “big tent” to participate.

“NCARB is not just trying to connect with mid-career professionals, trying to advance through certification, we’re trying to include, connect, and collaborate with this incredibly diverse pool of people. We’re fortunate to have a diverse audience in the profession and are pleased to have participation of all genders, races, and ages (which span from age 18 into the mid-90’s). We need them in the big tent in order to help move the project forward,” said Zurn.

NCARB is making a concerted effort to get beyond its core audience and dedicated volunteers and certificate holders.

“It’s imperative that we include, connect and collaborate with a broader community within the built environment. In fact, we have an ambitious goal to include feedback from approximately 20,000 people who work in the built environment. We want all these people in the tent contributing and engaging. We don’t want to lose anyone’s perspective because our data gathering methodology just didn’t work for them. Not everything has been perfect, but we’re learning and are feeling optimistic that we are on the right path,” shared McIntyre.

Options for engagement include online bulletin boards, online ethnographies (mobile application that allows participants to document answers to job-related questions via audio and video while they are working), web interviews, social intercepts at conferences, social media surveys, My Story profiles submissions, webinars, mini engagement surveys, and news releases.

“We, as the client, were impressed that Alpine Testing Solutions (Alpine) came to us with multiple different methodologies for collecting data,” said McIntyre. “One of the reasons we selected Alpine as our vendor of choice (along with the Schlesinger Group) is because we appreciated the multipronged approach they proposed. We realize data collection is never going to be perfect, but the fact that Alpine has many spokes in the wheel, gives us confidence that we will have triangulation on different things and it will allow us to gear up a bit. If one data collection method doesn’t work particularly well, it’s not a loss because other methods can compensate. We also appreciate that when the pandemic arose and some spokes designed for in-person engagement activity were no longer feasible, Alpine and Schlesinger Group were able to adapt and pivot to a more digital focus.”

 Anticipating a Positive Outcome

The practitioners interviewed for this article had positive comments regarding the approach to the Analysis of Practice and are anticipating positive outcomes from the results.

  • Greenidge, when asked what he would see as the ideal outcome of the Analysis of Practice and his vision for the future, shared how he thinks diversity and collaboration could be improved: 

“Implementation of different strategies will allow us to see the profession start to change. We need more diversity and not just racial diversity. We need to collaborate with people from other professions. We should find opportunities to make ourselves as architects more available to the public. We need to talk to people outside of architecture. We need to get outside the profession and do outreach. We need other people within architecture, outside architecture, collaborating with architecture. We need a “stew” of different people providing input.” 

 “As an architect, I like to remind myself that we are hopelessly optimistic. It is required to do the work that we do. We’re plugged into the matrix right now. Tech will play a role in what we do and the spaces we create. There needs to be a better understanding of the communities we work in. The process needs to be collaborative. Architects need to have sensitivity when crafting spaces for specific people. We need to appreciate the different demographics. COVID 19 taught us buildings can help heal people and make them feel better. We need to rethink how spaces are used and educate the public on why buildings need to change. New York City (NYC) is often called the concrete jungle. But at BOLT (architecture) we’ve redesigned a multifamily building to accommodate outdoor space (roof space, terrace space, health/wellness spaces). NYC has so much roof space. What if we grew farms? It isn’t a heavy lift. But this effort would require that we architects be at the forefront of having that conversation about the impact of green roofs. We can create jobs and promote health. It creates a holistic space.”

  • Krejci echoed the importance of collecting a broad set of perspectives and of making room for all in the profession:

“Having an outside source that takes abstract notions and quantifies them and provides a rigorous and objective view of what’s happening is important. Also, having it be professionally and scientifically completed by an outside company is critical. That varied, outside perspective is essential because when you’re too close to a project it can make you myopic as far as what you’re seeing.

 The ideal outcome of the Analysis of Practice would be a frank and unbiased, unvarnished look at the state of the profession in the future, but also looking back. Looking back helps us figure out where things might go in the future. Anything that’s worth anything, you have to look at the problems and address them boldly. Make tough choices to keep things going forward.

 When I first started practicing, there was a focus on having more women in architecture and that idea has expanded. Let’s focus on getting the traditionally underrepresented and get more diverse perspectives into architecture and make the tent bigger. “

This Analysis of Practice project is not only providing valuable data, it is providing a method for ongoing gathering of information from which to learn, improve and to leave a footprint for continuous future improvement.

Zurn summarized the hopes and expectations of the project. “We don’t think we are going to do this work and be done. We’re reinventing so we can rebuild from the ground up…and we’re just getting started!”