Thoughts on Architectural Licensure

November 16, 2014

About a month ago, I applied for a scholarship that would have covered the cost of my architecture license (including the cost of exams and registration, approximately $2000 total). Unfortunately, I was not selected. I would like to thank everyone who helped with my application, including my colleagues at work and my fellow board members of Silicon Valley Odyssey of the Mind. I really appreciate the time you took to provide me with recommendation letters and support for my application! Next year I will no longer be eligible, so this was my one shot at the scholarship. I am still planning to go ahead with my license, so I hope no one thinks this has discouraged me. In fact, there are many reasons I think licensure is important, and I wanted to share the essay that I wrote about it as part of the scholarship application process. The essay prompt asked us to consider the role of the architect in sustainable design.

Essay for the California Architectural Foundation’s 2014 Paul W. Welch Jr. ARE Scholarship

The architect’s role in making buildings sustainable is to consider not just the environmental sustainability of the project, but to pursue a project’s social sustainability, equity, and justice. The architect is uniquely positioned, as leader of the design team and representative of the client, to ensure that a project focuses on social goals, like providing access to services, encouraging community interaction, and reducing inequality. As designers of the spaces where we live, work, play, and even wait for transit, architects have the opportunity and responsibility to create healthy and inviting buildings, neighborhoods, cities, and regions. Where other building professionals are primarily concerned with reducing energy use or resisting seismic forces, the architect’s role is to see the far-reaching implications of the project and to design its social impact. When we push our consultants to seek solutions that are more beautiful, more just, more energy-efficient, and no more expensive than other options, we are actually striving for social sustainability. This is neither solely a design nor a technology issue, but an issue of leadership; however, architects must be fluent in both design and technology, since both are needed to achieve the desired result. An architect must draw on all of her resources, including design strategies, technological expertise, ethical reasoning, and multi-dimensional problem-solving, to find the design that can address all aspects of a project, while staying on schedule and within budget.

What motivates me to pursue my architecture license is this surprisingly complex role of the architect, who must hold in balance the client’s goals, her own design agenda, and the demands of a world permanently altered by human activity. As I try to follow in the footsteps of sustainability-minded architects like Samuel Mockbee of Auburn’s Rural Studio, Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity, Pritzker Prize laureate Shigeru Ban, and many others, I see the architecture license as a key part of this journey. What I’ve learned from pursuing my license is that understanding the basics of architectural practice, as is needed for the AREs, is only the beginning of a well-rounded architectural education, which comes from years of experience in the profession. It is this well-rounded experience that will enable me to see the interconnections between building systems, climate, culture, and economy that will result in a sustainable design.

Here in Silicon Valley, one hears the terms “architecture” and “architect” quite often, but not in the context of buildings; rather, the computer industy has appropriated these words because of their evocative qualities. “Architecture” is used to refer to any fundamental computer system that supports other systems, and the “architect” of such a system is the one with the mastery and vision to implement it. “Architect” and “architecture” are powerful words, and we architectural professionals need to understand the power of our designs to create change and affect lives. The built environment is a complex system that is fundamental to our daily life, and its impacts on society and the natural environment are immeasurable. We must look deeper at the relationships between systems of politics, economics, and city planning in order to produce buildings of lasting value. As socially-minded architects, we cannot escape the political aspects of our work, including the health and safety of those who build our buildings; who is welcomed into or excluded from our buildings; how the materials we specify are produced; and even how our clients (including governments and large corporations) treat their own people. Considering this kind of large-scale sustainability is the way to design projects that are truly social-positive, and not just carbon-positive. Recognizing the deep way in which architecture is tied to the political sphere should help us make better decisions both large and small, starting in our own offices with how we treat interns, and extending outward to our interactions with clients, users, and the public.

I believe strongly in the visionary power of architects, who have been trained to solve problems at all scales and to understand the connections between systems that at first glance seem unrelated. Just as environmental sustainability requires all the professionals on a project to work together from the project’s inception in order to design the most efficient solution, social sustainability requires a broad vision of what is possible and how we can achieve it. I think that architects are suited to this task in a way that other building professionals are not, and that this gives architectural professionals the responsibility to be leaders. As I work toward licensure here in California, I see so much potential for beautiful, economical buildings that can change lives and renew our environment. I hope that achieving my license will give me the starting point for a lifetime of building toward social sustainability.