M.Arch. but not a (licensed) architect

I know many of my B.Arch./M.Arch. cohort and other architecture friends and colleagues have not pursued licensing but still actively participate in architecture and the built environment in one form or another.

I am therefore deeply concerned by the recent announcement from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada that they will be retiring the old MRAIC designation in favour of RAIC to be used only by licensed architects. Until now, the MRAIC designation could be used by non-licensed members including graduates and faculty of schools of architecture.

The headline “New designation set to raise profile of architects” makes me question whether that is to the benefit of architecture in Canada or to licensed architects.

In Canada, licensing and associated designations are legislated under the Architect Act and regulated by the provincial professional architect associations. I understand (though don’t fully agree) with the need to protect the title “architect” to protect the public and make sure it is clear who is licensed to design buildings over a certain scale or of certain types.

I do not call myself an architect. I do not use the professional designation OAA. In fact, I recently gave a career talk at Algonquin College and specifically titled my presentation “I am NOT an architect”. I have a long list of titles to work around using the registered legislated title:

  • Architectural advocate/theorist/designer/activist/writer/educator
  • Critical architectural/urban art practitioner
  • Trained as an architect
  • Studied architecture

I never present myself as someone who knows how to make door schedules or check a design against building codes and zoning regulations. I absolutely do not intend to imply that is all an architect does. I actually mean to imply that there is a huge overlap between what a licensed architect does and what I do, between what they know and what I know. I still wouldn’t stamp my name to a construction drawing or give advice on technical details I’m not trained or experienced in. They (most of them) won’t go around publishing in academic journals.

Do people misunderstand the distinction between “studied architecture” and “architect”? ALL THE TIME. I don’t call myself an architect but lots of people call me one. The use of M.Arch. after my name creates this confusion as much as MRAIC. I used to always correct them. Now I consider whether or not someone introducing me at a party as an “architect” is putting the public at risk or if it’s just easier than using one of the more accurate but cumbersome titles from my list.

There is an important distinction between misrepresentation and misunderstanding. While it is reasonable to regulate and impose restrictions to control against professional misrepresentation, the change by the RAIC claims to be about clarifying general public misunderstanding about who is and who isn’t an architect by restricting use of their non-legislated designation.

To what extent should I veil my architectural association/knowledge/expertise/disposition to ensure I am not accidentally misconceived to be an architect? And to what extent should I not be able to present my valid qualifications and associations because some unethical person might misuse them to misrepresent themselves?

Putting aside the legal definition, I do self-identify as an architect or, at least as a practitioner of architecture. I do so because I do not limit the definition of architecture to what is controlled under the Architect Act. I do not practice all types of architecture, BUT I DO PRACTICE ARCHITECTURE. The kind of architecture I practice is largely either theoretical or small-scale and does not put the public at risk (at least I don’t think it does) and therefore does not need to be legislated and therefore falls outside of the legislated definition.

We shouldn’t confuse the legislated definition with being a complete definition of architecture.


And this is where I see an important distinction between the provincial professional associations and the RAIC. The RAIC is the national body that can speak for Canadian architecture beyond the limitations of the Architecture Act and beyond the interests of the (legally defined) profession. I would argue the RAIC has traditionally defined and should continue to define architecture more broadly as contributions to the design of the built-environment and possibly even broader definitions of cultivating cultural identity and experience as related to the built-environment.

There are a lot of people making positive and important contributions to architecture in Canada and align with the vision and mandate of the RAIC. Not all of them are licensed architects. I think the RAIC should want to visibly support and acknowledge these practitioners of architecture and encourage them to visibly present themselves as members of the RAIC.

On a final note of concern, two important points related to my own circumstance and general interest in advocating for equity.

First, I graduated in 2007 and along with many in my cohort, struggled to find work during the economic crisis. Many of us put our critical and creative skills to work and found alternative routes to practice architecture on our own. For some, it built a portfolio that eventually opened opportunities in traditional practices. For some, like myself, it opened an interest in continuing to practice alternative approaches to architecture outside professional practice. Studies are starting to look at this cohort of architecture grads and how they are reshaping the definition of architecture and architectural practice.

Second, with gender equity issues returning to the forefront in architecture I have to ask whether this new policy by the RAIC is further marginalizing women and their contribution to architecture. Despite over 50% of grads being women for close to 30 years, the profession (licensed architects) is still only about 20% female. That means there is a substantial percentage of women architecture grads who are not licensed architects, ie not eligible for any other designation recognizing them as contributors to architecture in Canada. This concern extends to people of colour and other marginalized groups though more research has been done on women in architecture.

Full disclosure, I have been but am not currently a member of the RAIC. I am a big supporter of their work. I had to let my membership lapse due to financial constraints. Which on a related issue of equity, I will mention that many professional organizations acknowledge the barriers to entry and offer discounted rates to unemployed and under-employed members.

  1. Sarah Gelbard said:

    In a string of tweets, I was asked:
    “Why not use M.Arch.? You earned that one!”
    “Why do you have to use the designation, after your name, on a business card?”
    Tweeting is insufficient for properly answering this.

    I find both questions condescending, uncollegial, and disrespectful. The implication being that as a non-licensed architect I have not “earned” nor am I entitled to use the MRAIC designation.

    If the concern is RAIC designation (“membership in a club” as the tweeter phrased it) is confusing because, as the RAIC tweeted: “post-nominal designation implies a credential,” then perhaps the question should be:
    Should any member (licensed or not) be using an ambiguous designation?

    If you want to ask why would I want to use the designation, why does a licensed architect?
    In most cases, I would think the answer is to show our alignment and membership with an organization.

    The ungenerous (and marginal) reason for a non-licensed architect might be to fraudulently imply he is a licensed architect.
    The ungenerous (and marginal) reason for a licensed architect might be to brag about some elite status and add extra initials after their name.

    The morally questionable use of either ungenerous possibilities should be frowned upon and discouraged. I don’t think we want to go as far as preventing the beneficial uses of the designation and visibility of alignment with the RAIC for those who use it with honourable good intention and impact.

    note: This comment has been edited as I’ve put more thought into how to more clearly articulate my point.

  2. What academics often do not fully understand is that architects in practice do so for a living- for profit- I know, it’s hard to believe that a paycheque can come from somewhere other than the taxpayer’s pocket. We have real clients and real projects which need to be delivered and certified prior to occupancy; we have the privilege of being a self-regulating body, and as such, are subject to laws and regulations. Architects often complain of low wages and long hours, and it is an issue almost entirely of our own doing. People perceive architects as artists, having little authority or jurisdiction over anything, largely due to others ‘claiming’ elements of professional practice to themselves. Having these individuals (and others) as members of a professional organization like the RAIC is not supportive of professional practice and therefore these types have no right to claim any sort of recognized title, while they may present themselves as ‘thinkers,’ ‘advocates’ or whatever other kind of creative title they can come up with. Architects have a meaningful and necessary contribution to society that needs to be adequately appreciated and protected. So Sarah, please leave your toxic tweets and posts to yourself because frankly your complaints are misguided.

  3. Low wages and long hours are not the fault of encroachments on the profession – they are the fault of the profession for not pricing their time appropriately, and being able to justify that expense to clients. In this case i would suggest that architects move to a design/build approach and bring the entirety of the design and construction management in house. It then becomes easier to justify the Professional Service fees.

    People perceive architects as artists in part because of RAIC sponsored campaigns like “every building has an architect” that encourages writers to identify who a building is by, as they wood a piece of art. Engineers don’t demand the same of their bridges.

    Many People work in industries that require Design skills, Project management, Subject area technical knowledge, and have public safety and life safety issues in the forefront. They don’t Jealously protect their titles, and freely work with allied professionals to get the job done.

    The thing is, RAIC and the Architectural profession have a duty to offer something to non Licensed members of the field. No other profession demands 7 years of dedicated study – Med school, Law School, Teachers college are mostly 1-2 years of specific training after a 4 year undergrad. Architecture demands 7 years in a limited enrollment program, and then 7000hours of work experience. – that’s another 7 years before you can get licensed. Fundamentally the profession is learned as an apprenticeship – since schools of architecture are taught by Academics and theorists and architects who haven’t built anything in years. The academic requirements could easily be moved to a 2 year M.arch after a 4 year undergrad and the rest taught in practice, as was done prior to he various provincial architects acts being passed. (FWIW, there are many lovely buildings that are perfectly safe and built prior to the passing of Nova Scotia’s first act in 1933)Ill add that P.eng’s have 4 year undergrad, and 4 years experience before they can be licensed – About half the time it takes an architect – and they are self regulating and face the same constraints you mention.

    Finally Architects like to tout the breadth of the Education Program as leading to many different career paths out side of actual built architecture.if you can seriously applaud a graduate who becomes a web designer after 7 years of school studying architecture you have failed as an advocacy body for the field.

  4. Sarah Gelbard said:

    I am a Master of Architecture, as recognized by my peers, my professors, and the Canadian Architectural Certification Board. I was honoured by the RAIC for being the top graduating M.Arch. student in my year.

    I understand my credentials to be in architecture not as a licensed architect. I recognize the difference. I am asking licensed architects to recognize that there is architecture that exists beyond the territory they have claimed through law.

    I am not after the licensed architect’s piece of the pie. I specifically and consciously decided that wasn’t the piece of the pie I wanted. I haven’t asked the provincial professional associations for recognition because I don’t want to be a licensed architect. I do expect the national advocacy institute, that claims to be “the leading voice for architecture in Canada” to advocate for architecture not architects.

    If the RAIC wishes to revert back to its place as the elite licensed-architects-only club, it can choose to do so. But it should rename itself Royal Architects Institute of Canada | Architect Canada. If it wishes to continue to define itself as advocating for architecture, it should represent architecture in Canada not just licensed Canadian architects.

  5. Sarah Gelbard said:

    In terms of “real-world” I would rather model my impact on the built-environment on Jane Jacobs not Howard Roark.

    • Bytowner said:

      An honourable goal.

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