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  • Writer's pictureNíall Hedderman

What Are We Protecting?

Most people know that it takes a long time to become an Architect and many people know that, like Doctors and Lawyers, Architects are governed by a professional code. Fewer people may know that, in the UK at least, there is an Act of Parliament which protects the title 'Architect' and  establishes a body called the Architects Registration Board (ARB for short) that keeps a list of every person who is legally allowed to use that title. If your name is on the list, you are an Architect. If you are not on the list, then you are not an Architect. Simple.

Only it isn't.

The Act of Parliament does not protect the words 'Architecture' and 'Architectural', so anyone - qualified or not - can start a business with those words in the name. 

Joe Bloggs Architecture could be run by someone who has no training as an Architect and has no registered Architects on staff. As long as none of the individuals at the company refer to themselves as Architects they are not breaking the law.

Architect - Protected

Architecture / Architectural - Free of All !

It is easy to see how this might be confusing, particularly to the general public who may have no experience of the Architecture profession until they need to build a house extension or new home. At that point, members of the general public could be misled. But does any of this matter? What difference is there anyway between a business run by a legally registered Architect and one owned by someone who is not registered? 

Architectural Consultants, What Do They Do? 

Imagine a homeowner who employs an Architectural Consultant (they exist) to help procure a house extension. The consultant isn't actually an Architect and both the training they received and the services they offer are less comprehensive than a registered Architect, but the homeowner doesn't realise this and the consultant isn't going to enlighten them. If the project goes badly, and many do, the homeowner will tell their friends, family and colleagues about the bad experience they had with their 'Architect'. Had they employed a registered Architect and even if the project went badly, the homeowner can complain to the ARB if they suspect their Architect did not provide a sufficiently professional service. There is no official body to handle a complaint if the consultant is negligent. 

Why would someone choose to use the words Architect or Architectural when naming a company or marketing to their clients? I would argue that there is a value in those words. Their popular perception is very positive and is associated with high quality design and professional integrity. Those who use the words Architecture and Architectural in their business, whether qualified or not, are trading on the goodwill people have towards the Architecture profession. That goodwill was built up over a very long time by a profession which has given this country some of its greatest man made assets. That goodwill must be protected, otherwise it will diminish. 

Since the Architect Act was introduced in 1997, the profession in the UK has had their title protected by law. It is illegal to call yourself an Architect in the course of business unless qualified to do so. Ever since then the profession has debated adding protection of function, as well as protection of title, to the Act. This would follow the model in many other countries, where certain tasks can only be carried out by a registered Architect. For example, passing a law whereby only an Architect can lodge a Planning Application. Many Architects in the UK argue this is the only way to guarantee the goodwill towards the profession is preserved and protected. 

It’s A Free Market. 

I disagree, I am not in favour of protection of function. In any sector of an otherwise free market economy it is a bad idea to engage in protectionism. It would create a bottleneck in the construction industry. It would create the incentive to limit the number of Architects, thereby artificially choking supply and increasing the cost of construction. Changing the law to create an monopoly for a narrow elite is described  as 'rent seeking' by economists and I think it would be a disaster for the profession. If protection of function was ever enacted it would eventually lead to the profession being resented, even despised. Paradoxically, the urge to protect the reputation of the profession by protecting its function, would have the opposite effect. 

Instead I would argue for a truly level playing field. At present, non-Architects who use the words Architecture and Architectural in their business dealings fall into two categories.

1. Those who are able to carry out all the functions of an Architect.

2. Those who are selective and carry out only some of the functions of an Architect.

Let me describe what I mean by referring to a recent project of mine. 

This relatively modest, sub £30k, garden room is typical of the size of project where I find myself competing against draftsmen / designers / technicians for work. I have no doubt some of them will contact me to say "I could design that" and maybe they could. But could they then successfully apply for planning approval, ensure the design complies will all the building regulations, prepare and issue a tender package, negotiate a contract between the builder and owner and then administer that contract, ensuring that time, cost and quality are all managed during the building process? Would they return after construction and deal with the snagging and successfully apply to the local authority for a completion certificate? 

There is more to this job than pretty pictures. But If someone says they can do all aspects of my job, and do them all equally well, I won't contradict them - I will challenge them. Go and become a registered Architect. Either put up, or shut up. If they are successful, I will be the first to welcome them into the profession, although I might ask 'what took you so long?' 

The Same Rules For Everyone. 

I want a level playing field, because 9 times out of 10 I can beat a draftsman / designer / technician on that level playing field. And they know it. I am not being unduly hyperbolic, I was formally trained to deliver all aspects of a building project, not just some of them. If someone is a specialist, operating in a niche part of the construction process, providing planning and building warrant services but nothing else, for example, they should not use the words Architecture or Architectural. Why aren't they proud enough of their own specialist skills to market their business correctly, instead of borrowing the goodwill built up by another profession?

Change The Law.

I believe the Architect Act should be changed to reflect this, reserving the words Architecture and Architectural for those who are registered as Architects under the Act. 

These two simple moves; bringing onboard those who provide all the services of an Architect and giving the profession sole use of the words Architecture and Architectural, would do more to preserve the good will of the profession than protection of function ever will. 

I am not the only one to thinks this should be so. A recent UK Government e-petition was started by a near neighbour of mine, Peter Gunning, an Architect in Fife. It aims to collect enough signatures (870 at the time of writing) to force a response from the UK Government. I hope they read this before making their minds up.

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