Getting Your Licenses and Accreditations
By Bea Spolidoro, AIA, WELL AP, LEED Green Associate
Getting licensed in the United States is a complex process, but less complicated than expensive. The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) already has a lot of information to support Foreign Architects (here). For the purposes of this article, I will summarize the possible ways to become a registered architect in the USA and what other certifications you might want to consider.
Different paths toward licensure
If you are not yet a registered architect in your home country, but you studied abroad, you will have to demonstrate that your education is adequate to satisfy the American standards. I went through this path myself. If your degree is not from a NAAB-accredited program (which is very likely, if you studied abroad) you will need an EESA evaluation. Some non-US schools have been already deemed substantially equivalent. To learn more, visit the NAAB page (here). As a general rule, it is very important to have studied for at least 5 years, obtaining a degree equivalent to a Master of Architecture (MArch). In Europe, it is common to follow first a 3-year course and then a 2-year course (aka “3+2 university”). That is a good example of studying for 5 years and obtaining a MArch equivalent. Studying less than 5 years might make your path more complicated. If your program has to be evaluated by EESA, you will need to provide them with a detailed English description of your courses, and how many credits you have gained over the years. The description has to be officially issued by your school. EESA will get back to you hopefully approving your program and recognizing all of your education credits. There is a chance that you may need to fulfill some additional credits. I needed 3 more credits in English composition, of all things, but other friends were told they hadn’t enough credits in mathematics and the like. EESA will also suggest to you how you can fulfill any missing credits. Once your foreign education has been fully approved by EESA, you can start your NCARB path, just like any other American (future) architect. You will need to collect hours of experience (AXP hours) and test on the Architecture Registration Exam (ARE). Please note: you can test and collect AXP hours at the same time!
If you are already registered in your home country, you might be able to convert your licensure and skip the education evaluation portion by NAAB and EESA, as described above. You will need to compile a Credential Verification Form for NCARB and follow the instructions outlined here.
Once your foreign licensure has been recognized, you will still have to collect hours of experience (AXP) and test on the Architecture Registration Exam (ARE). Please note also here: you can test and collect AXP hours at the same time!
If you studied Architecture in the United States, your school of architecture hopefully is a NAAB-accredited program. If your course of studies was at least 5 years long, you are likely eligible. Please verify with your own school if you studied in a NAAB-accredited program.
A few considerations for every Foreign Architect
Becoming a registered architect in the United States is very important and can help you in your career development. In my opinion, if you plan to work as an Architect in the US for more than 6 years, you should get registered ASAP. Being a Registered Architect in the USA is also very important if you plan to apply for a Green Card that is merit-based or sponsored by an employer. I recommend establishing your NCARB record as soon as you are eligible to do so. That is vital to start collecting AXP hours through your personal NCARB profile. Don’t wait for more than 8 months to register any hours you spent working in an architecture firm. Quoting from the AXP Guidelines dated July 2019: <<Experience reported beyond this eight-month period will be accepted at a reduced value of 50 percent toward the AXP requirements for up to five years after the date of the experience. After that time, the experience will no longer count toward your AXP hours.>>
For what concerns testing for the ARE exams, you have to be aware that your exams are valid only for 5 years. That is known as the “rolling clock” and it simply means that when you start testing, you should complete all the other exams before 5 years. To be honest, you should shoot for a one-year, two-year testing period anyways. Dragging the examination process for too long is counterproductive since the knowledge for one exam can help you in the following ones.
Lastly -and this is very important!!- you CANNOT CALL YOURSELF AN ARCHITECT if you are
not yet registered in the US! You might even get in trouble for claiming something false. Some States don’t even accept the terms “Architecture Intern” or “Architecture Designer”. You can find more about that here.
Licensure, AIA, NCARB, oh my!
I often get questions about becoming a Registered Architect, versus becoming an AIA member and getting an NCARB certification. Let’s make some clarity: The NCARB record allows you to test for the ARE and report your AXP hours. Once you pass all the exams and finish all the AXP hours, you get an NCARB certification valid for the US State where you registered. That NCARB certification allows you to transfer your registration from State to State (aka reciprocity) if you decide to move to another State (inside the US). You can always stop paying for the NCARB certificate, but then you will have to pay all the unpaid years when you ask for reciprocity. Speaking of paying, you should look at the NCARB prices as well, to get a sense of the financial burden of becoming licensed. You can learn more about the costs here
With your NCARB certification, you can apply for an official stamp at the State Licensing Board of the State where you initially applied (Pennsylvania for me), so that you can practice as an architect and even get your stamp. That is when you become a Registered Architect or RA. You will have to renew your licensure by paying a fee every two years. In Pennsylvania, it is $ 100 every two years. Check the costs that apply to your case with your own State Licensing Board.
Finally, you can (and you should!) become an AIA member, and join the biggest professional organization for architects in North America. You can become an Associate AIA Member if you are not yet registered. You can also become an International Associate AIA Member. To learn more about the AIA membership options and benefits (here). The cost of an AIA Membership varies from State to State, and from city to city. The membership is to be paid every year, but there are payment programs to allow for payment installments.
What about LEED, WELL, etc?
In the past years, sustainability has become a big component of our profession. Keeping people healthy and in a sustainable environment is becoming a focus for many architects. There are different options to become an expert in the field or, better, an “accredited professional”.
For what concerns sustainability, LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the most widely used green building rating system in the world. It is administered by the US Green Building Council (USGBC). Many clients want to pursue LEED certification for their projects, in particular when they fall in the institutional category. It is definitely a plus to carry a LEED credential yourself, starting from a minimum of “LEED Green Associate” certification. After you obtain that (which requires some study, but it is fairly easy to achieve) you can choose your “specialty” and become an Accredited Professional. The most diffused, for Architects, is the LEED AP Building Design + Construction (LEED AP BD+C), but you can focus on Operation and Maintenance, Interior Design and Construction, Neighborhood Development, and Homes. You can learn more about each specialty on the USGB web page here. Some people take the LEED Green Associate exam and the specialty exam on the same day. The specialty exam requires a lot of studying, so be prepared to dedicate the right amount of time to that.
Another option - which is what I personally chose for my career - is to become a WELL Accredited Professional (WELL AP). The International WELL Building Institute™ (IWBI™) manages the WELL Building Standard, which is <<the premier standard for buildings, interior spaces, and communities seeking to implement, validate and measure features that support and advance human health and wellness.>> This is a great credential if you want to learn more about the impact of building and design at large on the people inhabiting a space. I friendly call it “medicine for architects” and I really enjoyed preparing for the exam and getting my credentials with WELL. You should be advised that the amount of material to study is -if possible- even bigger than for a LEED specialty. I only took a LEED Green Associate
certification, then switched to the WELL Standard. In my working experience, I think of the WELL standard every time I design a space. It really stuck with me and it suited my interest in the people that will occupy any future project of mine.
While it is important to have a solid resume, you should also prioritize your personal interests and develop professionally, in addition to “pile up” many accreditations. First of all, the exams are costly: the LEED Green Associate exam is around $200, while LEED Specialty is a minimum of $400 and $550 total. The WELL exam is a minimum of $465 and up to $660. The cost varies if you or your firm are USGBC members.
Second, every accreditation comes with Continuing Education credits requirements. LEED APs and WELL APs need to accumulate 24 general learning units and 6 specific units each every two years. If you become a LEED AP and also a WELL AP, you can count the 24 general hours for both WELL and LEED (aka “double-dipping”) but you will need to collect 6 LEED-specific hours and also 6 WELL-specific hours in addition to the general ones.
Lastly, don’t forget the renewal fee: WELL APs have to pay $ 125 every two years, while LEED APs have to pay only $ 85. Make sure you are able (and interested!) in physically and economically sustaining the burden of these credentials.
Money, Money, Money…
As you see, becoming a Licensed and/or an Accredited Professional in the United States is costly. Some firms will pay for your exams, your AIA membership and your credentials as part of the benefits they offer. Other places might not. Make sure to inquire about the “reimbursement policy” of a firm before accepting a job, particularly if you plan to become licensed or accredited in any shape and form. Make sure to understand also what happens when you leave a firm: some places will pay for your exams if you promise to stay employed there for a minimum amount of years. If you leave too soon, you will have to pay back the exams.
There is a lot of discussion around the economic value of credentials and accreditation, and the direct impact on your salary. Being a registered architect helps for sure, but firms will also look at how many years of experience you have overall. It is possible that a young registered architect is paid less than an experienced non-registered professional, working on the same project and doing similar things. This is valid for both American and non-American professionals. If you are wondering about the value of your services in your city, check out the free AIA Compensation Survey Salary Calculator at http://info.aia.org/salary/. That is not to be considered a “surgical tool” and its accuracy varies quite a bit, due to the grouping of salaries from very different cities into macro areas. For example, I am practicing in Pittsburgh, PA (with the lowest salaries on average at a National level) and New York City is in the same “Middle Atlantic” group, despite having way higher salaries than Pittsburgh (this said, Pittsburgh has a much lower cost of living, making Pittsburgh one of the most livable cities in the US!!).
In conclusion, there is a world of possibilities for Emerging Professionals. The key is to plan your career ahead, as much as possible. Understand how long you will be in the US and then figure out what really interests you and how you plan to pay for it.