Architectural Blatherations

The Five Collateral Organizations: The Regulation of Architects in the USA

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The Good Oil

Americans love free markets. So does that dear old Aussie, Dr Garry. But when it comes to the professions, the USA would not have much to learn from East Germany in 1950: eliminate competitors, monopolize, control— and then create a labyrinthine bureaucracy to oversee the mess.

American architects have been quite successful in getting the governments to see things their way. Most states have extremely elaborate laws, running to tens of thousands of words, defining what architectural work is (practice acts) and who can do it (title acts). They also have a Byzantine system of organizations saying who can do what to whom: the so-called Five Collateral Organizations: AIA, AIAS, ACSA, NCARB and NAAB. Bloody hell!

We get quite a lot of venomous correspondence from our American friends about these organizations, and we remain in a perpetual state of confusion as to the messy politics. Here is one mad Aussie's take on it all.

Regulating American architects

For a society that so values individualism and free enterprise, and is traditionally against big government, we find the sheer volume of legislation bizarre, and the attendant bureaucracy even more so.


Most despised of the Five is NCARB [National Council of Architectural Registration Boards] supposedly working to ensure uniformity between the state boards. There is quite a bit of tension between NCARB and the states who often view NCARB as a bureaucratic rort. In its Fall 2000 newsletter, the California Board of Architects criticised:

...such issues as poor budget practices, resort travel, and elaborately expensive annual meetings. Yes, NCARB has vastly underestimated revenue over the past three years while trying to raise dues and fees. Yes, NCARB has continued to have board and executive committee meetings in remote four-star locations. And yes, the annual meetings continue to go over budget.

This criticism is mild compared to some we have heard. If we ever hear anyone not actually employed by NCARB say anything nice about it, we shall report it here. Here are typical comments by our respondents:

  • a carefully controlled social environment to weed out people with a divergent points of view
  • an oligarchy buried in the sand
  • completely corrupt
  • no debate is allowed
  • makes the Nazis look tolerant
  • you must support NCARB religious dogma

Sounds grand, doesn't it? We get an impression of self-righteous and complacent old hacks bilking all the first-class travel perks they can; before taking the more-than-comfortable early retirement they feel they so richly deserve for such altruistic service to the profession.


The AIA [American Institute of Architects] is the architects' union, although they don't like it phrased that way. You do not have to be a member to be an architect, but it helps; in the way that being a Rotarian or Oddfellow helps.

To its intense chagrin, the AIA has only had a feeble influence on the profession in the century of its existence. Barely more than one-half of all American architects have bothered to join. Many of those are from large practices seeking to curry favour from their employers. Compare this to the United Kingdom, where more than two-thirds of architects belong to the Royal Institute of British Architects, which also effectively controls education and licensing.


The ACSA [Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture] is basically an organization of all the academics in architecture schools, accredited or not. With the MIT Press, they publish what is without doubt the most intellectual journal in the whole field, the Journal of Architectural Education (the ostentatious posturing of the house rag Harvard Design Magazine notwithstanding).

The academics are the usual bumbling collection of dons you would find anywhere: well-meaning, well-intentioned, but with only the dimmest idea of reality. As ennobled professors, they assume themselves to be in charge of any process they are involved in; and express astonishment that their deeply considered deliberations – delivered a generation or more after they were solicited – now seem unwanted. Some are still waiting on President Wilson's response to their latest report.

An oft-mentioned criticism is that few ACSA members belong to the AIA, and few have licenses to practice. We understand the criticism, but are not sure that it matters. How many non-American architectural superstars conducting lucrative studios at Harvard, Princeton, or Yale belong to the AIA or have licences? You want to get rid of them? We advocate that the schools should leave the universities entirely, leaving scholarly work to those choosing to remain in academia, and architectural tuition to others.


The AIAS [American Institute of Architecture Students] is pretty much what it says.


The American states regulate who may do the work of an architect, and who may qualify for licensure. The states have said that one of the preconditions for licensure is graduation from an approved program.

And who approves programs? Not the states nor their registration boards: finding that responsibility too onerous for their own weak shoulders, they have abrogated their duty and passed it on to the NAAB [National Architectural Accrediting Board]. So the NAAB's job is, in effect, to certify the schools of architecture as having worthy programs. The NAAB has four members: the NCARB, AIA, ACSA and AIAS. Getting complicated, isn't it?

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