Creating a robust knowledge loop and halving the time needed for licensure.

Last June, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) released data on a wide variety of topics across several decades related to internship, examination and licensure for architects. “NCARB by the Numbers” revealed that the mean time from graduation to completion of the Intern Development Program (IDP) is 6.4 years with an additional two years to complete the exam and achieve licensure. In real numbers that means the total amount of time from high school to licensure for architects in America is 14.5 years.

Compare those 14.5 years to many European Union countries where graduates are licensed in a total of five to seven years of school plus internship or to the norms for law graduates who wait mere weeks or months to take the bar in order to achieve full professional status, and it’s easy to see why our interns lose their way during the current mean of eight and a half years of self-structured internship and examination. And that may be why some students are dissuaded from an architectural career altogether.

The proposal described here seeks to address two goals: providing a structured path to licensure totaling seven years and integrating research with practice. The proposal takes advantage of many of NCARB’s recent changes to IDP and ARE as well as leveraging the historically strong connection between practice and academy in our Minneapolis/St. Paul

The relation between the architectural profession and academia has the potential to be a rich and interactive exchange leading to meaningful advancement of the discipline.

Ideally, it involves a knowledge loop in which the profession would identify problems in the course of practice, and academics would research and communicate useful results back to practitioners. Research priorities developed by professionals would ensure their value to clients, while complementary research priorities collectively developed with academic researchers would address broad societal needs, advance building technology and reduce waste at many scales in the building industry.

In the midst of this dynamic mix of professional experts and academic researchers, students could thrive, guided by both mentors and professors in individual research projects that connect to multiyear research goals. And if the students’ role in these research efforts could be counted in their IDP, meaningful work would systematically lead to licensure, potentially upon graduation of an advanced post-professional degree.

This ideal world bears little resemblance to the current state of American practice, academia and internship which has been described by University of Minnesota College of Design Dean Tom Fisher as a “broken knowledge loop,” with too little communication between practitioners and academics, too little research of value to the profession and too few venues to communicate the research that might be of use.

Fisher sees architecture mired in the mindset of a guild protecting its secrets instead of a profession that openly shares knowledge. Here at the University of Minnesota we believe that relatively simple changes to an existing professional degree program would enable a robust knowledge loop while simultaneously providing a clear and structured path to licensure in half the time it takes currently.

The diagram below is an ideal track assuming the student has worked in the summers during their undergraduate pre-professional program. As with any academic program, students’ actual experience will vary depending on a variety of circumstances.

The uppermost line shows the current typical track based upon the common “4 + 2” pre-professional Bachelors of Science (B.S.) and professional Masters of Architecture (M.Arch) degree with the NCARB reported mean of 6.4 years for IDP completion and 8.5 years to licensure.

The second line shows the proposed path for the same “4+2” beginning, but adding a one year Masters of Science in Architecture with a concentration in Research Practices (MS-RP). For students who manage the ideal track, the completion of the MS-RP would coincide with licensure.

The third line shows the path for a student with an undergraduate degree in something other than pre-professional architecture. This could be a general design degree in a liberal arts program or something farther removed from architecture such as biology or French.

For these students, a professional program is three years long before the one year MS-RP and will require additional time after graduation to achieve licensure, although it is still much shorter than the current path.

Both the professional M.Arch and MS-RP incorporate a new experience that we at Minnesota are calling a “research practice internship.” The student is working within a larger consortium of firms and the university that establishes multiyear consortium-wide goals and links faculty advisors with professional mentors to the students.

The consortium relationship creates a robust knowledge loop between the profession and academy. This in turn establishes meaningful internships for students who combine funded research as student assistants supervised by faculty with office-based internships paid by the firms — qualifying for the all-important “experience setting A” as defined in IDP. By integrating the two experiences for the student, academic research is applied on actual projects and information is gathered in a way that allows for consistent methods. The results of this work can build a rigorous database to share within the consortium and also with the broader building industry, setting the stage for future continuing education.

Additionally, the students have additional context for their work, understanding their project as one link in a strong bridge between school and profession. In our two pilot tests of the research internship last spring, one student worked on energy software modeling, producing a report comparing a variety of energy and sustainable modeling programs and recommends which are best suited to particular project types and places within office workflow. 

The second pilot utilized the College of Design’s Virtual Reality Design Lab (VRDL) to test a virtual patient room with a physical mock up. The student produced a report comparing the costs and benefits of each type of mockup and their optimal timing in the project delivery.

A tally of program hours shows how we are able to take advantage of several IDP and ARE changes. First, a rule change allows students in a pre-professional program to begin counting IDP hours immediately and in a wide range of settings not limited to a licensed architect’s office. The ideal track in the diagram assumes that students are working during their undergraduate program. Second, in many jurisdictions, Minnesota included, IDP completion is no longer prerequisite to beginning the ARE, so that graduates of professional programs may take the exam anytime, even if IDP is not complete. In our MS-RP year, students remain in a cohort and there is a structured setting in which to take the exam sections.

Third, NCARB made changes that allow paid teaching or research positions for students in professional programs or post-professional programs to earn IDP hours. In the research practice internship, there is a paid research component which complements the paid firm internship.

Lastly, NCARB designated 930 hours of IDP credit for qualified post-professional degrees such as the MS-RP. When all these hours are added up, the student could accrue 6,600 hours, which allows some slack in case the exact distribution of the 5,600 hours is not completely efficient.

One might criticize this halving the time to licensure on the grounds that the time frame is too compressed or that the internship experiences are too fragmented. However, we believe that the full integration of the internships in the later part of the path will create deep experiences that allow for good retention, what educators often call “stickiness” which will counter balance any detriment to the compression or fragmentation.

We can also look to the numerous EU models that offer considerably shorter paths to professional standing. Inherent to the EU models are standards for continuing education and oversight that may become necessary if the MS-RP or co-op models become wide-spread in the U.S.

We understand and expect that this program may not be for all students and the scale of our first planned cohorts (less than a dozen) are unlikely to make a large impact on the profession immediately. However, we believe the program will be a model for other schools to adopt in their own way, thereby multiplying its effect.

Our program bears similarities to the co-op programs at Cincinnati and Waterloo or preceptorship at Rice, incorporating work with school. There are also research consortia such as CASE or CIFE which incorporate the work of doctorate students.

Unlike these models, our program relies on direct ties and common goals set by firms and school through the consortium, which imbues the model with research agendas beneficial to student, firm, school, professional organizations, industry and society. Most critically, we believe that by offering this model, we nudge the profession towards true culture change, one that expects all our students can be licensed upon graduation, regardless of their final career choices.

This change extends to architectural firms and the building industry, transforming the culture to one of sharing knowledge in the effort to collaboratively tackle the serious “wicked problems” affecting the built environment.

Renée Cheng is a professor and head of the School of Architecture at the University of Minnesota. She was recently recognized as one of the Most Admired Educators by the Design Futures Council. She graduated from Harvard college and received her M.Arch from Harvard GSD.