Michael Gleenwood

Architectural interns today are a mobile, tech-savvy, and professionally driven group. They are also confronted with a clunky, obtuse, and often lonely process to become registered architects. Even the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), which oversees the Intern Development Program (IDP), notes on its website that the path to licensure can be “tricky.”

Interns use terms like “opaque,” “confusing,” “time-consuming,” and “expensive” when referring to the licensure process. Individual experiences range from situations where interns are matched in study groups (with firm-provided dinners for lengthy evening study sessions) to the polar opposite, in which interns slog through alone with no support, incentive, or encouragement from their employers. When asked what would be an ideal situation, many emerging professionals point to having both the guidance needed to complete all 5,600 IDP hours and the financial support to help get through the exams. Incentives such as raises and promotions once the exams are passed don’t hurt either.

Large- and medium-size firms with a culture of licensure support have developed internal structures and programs to meet their unlicensed workers halfway. They pay for exams, provide study materials, approve tuition reimbursements to pay for additional study aids, and allow time off to prepare for the exams.

Joel Brygger, AIA, who started as an intern at Minneapolis-based Cuningham Group Architecture, credits a proactive attitude on the part of management and his own personal initiative as the key components of his positive experience.

“Exposure to different project types, to various phases of design, and even to conversations that are beyond the interns’ pay grade raise the competence level of the entire firm, pushing younger designers more quickly toward a professional mindset,” Brygger says.

Similarly, Austin, Texas–based McKinney York Architects values licensure and is dedicated to creating a healthy culture based on professional development. Recognized with an IDP Firm Award in 2012, seven of the 12 team members at McKinney York are licensed architects—and the others are all in the process of becoming licensed.

McKinney York partner Michelle Rossomando, AIA, who is charged with integrating the licensure process into the daily workings of the firm, says that the small things add up: submitting IDP hours quarterly, requiring firm-wide construction-site visits, and establishing rotating responsibility for 15-minute presentations during weekly staff meetings over lunch. “The interns get leadership experience this way and learn from everyone in our studio,” Rossomando says.

Nonetheless, many interns are left to their own devices when it comes to logging hours and preparing for exams. Jack Murphy, Assoc. AIA, argues that younger architects are primarily driven by design. “Young people will trade stability for more muscular design opportunities, meaning they’re likely in offices with more speculative work or a less established internal structure,” Murphy says. “This favoring of design opportunity over ‘professional advancement’—for lack of a better term—then slows the use of the internship program and the need to be licensed.”

Murphy also thinks that proposed changes to make the process more transparent and streamlined are good in principle, but he defends rigor as a necessary part of the plan. “It should be difficult to become a licensed architect,” he says, “but the last thing I need in my life is another app to help me through this.”

Mary Stuckert, who wrapped up her studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in January and has completed two-thirds of the required IDP hours, notes that she had to figure out the process for herself. “I want to start my own firm eventually, so it is essential that I get this done,” says Stuckert, who interned at numerous firms, only some of which signed off on her hours. Echoing Murphy’s comments, Stuckert noted, “I found that in the boutique design firms the principals are less focused on cultivating the professional development of interns.”

Matthew Tierney, a graduate student in the University of Minnesota School of Architecture’s progressive Master of Science in Architecture and Research Practices concentration (MS-RP), is on a different path than many of his peers—one that integrates education, firm experience, and licensure. In the fall of 2013, while a full-time student in the MS-RP program, Tierney worked at Perkins+Will, one of the school’s research practice partners, as part of the firm’s Social Responsibility Initiative on a healthcare project in western Kenya.

“The support from the university and the firms is essential for me as I move through the internship and licensure process in a collapsed amount of time,” Tierney says.

The MS-RP concentration benefits Perkins+Will and the university’s other research practice partners, too. “One firm principal called me to say how surprising it was to see an intern calling meetings, talking to their consultants, and running tutorials,” says Renée Cheng, AIA, head of the School of Architecture at Minnesota, speaking about Tierney’s experience. “Matt led many meetings to discuss how he was thinking about the software he developed—going way beyond the project.”

Other Minnesota students benefit from this reciprocal relationship by sitting at the table with firm leaders and being asked to think about, and respond to, issues typically reserved for architects later in their careers. Early awareness of advanced issues, the thinking goes, means earlier development—as well as architects who can hit the ground running much sooner than their peers.

“[Our] program is pushing for a cultural shift,” says Cheng. Ideally, she says, students will graduate having completed all of their exams and with 2,200 hours logged in their IDP registers. And thus far, the students in the program have responded positively. And while Cheng emphasizes that the experiment with an expedited path to licensure is great, she insists that the leadership skills that the students receive in the process are invaluable.

In January 2012, NCARB announced a three-phase rollout plan for IDP 2.0, addressing its critical part in the young architect’s life. This new plan re-categorized the eight sanctioned “work experience settings” needed to get the required 5,600 hours into three groups: practice of architecture, supplemental experience, and other work settings.

Then, in October 2013, NCARB announced that it would streamline the IDP process to ensure that the time needed to complete it continues to drop, as it has since 2010, after slowly trending upward for the last 25 years. NCARB also began analyzing the feasibility of a licensure-at-graduation model—an action item at the 2014 Emerging Professionals Summit in January attended by AIA, NCARB, AIAS, ACSA, and NAAB leadership, as well as emerging professionals from around the country.

In December 2013, NCARB announced the “New Era for the ARE” initiative, set to launch in fall 2016, in which six practice-based exams (rather than the current “content-based” seven) will focus solely on practice management, project management, and project design. “We are hoping that by the time ARE 5.0 launches, new IDP categories will be similarly grouped to support and supplement the exam sections,” says NCARB CEO Michael Armstrong.

Effective Jan. 1 of this year, interns may now log IDP hours straight out of high school for valid work regardless of the time spent on a project, and receive credit for valid experience acquired over winter and spring breaks while in accredited university programs. And in March, NCARB proposed a modification to its IDP six-month reporting rule that would for the first time allow credit for older unreported experience for a longer time period at 50 percent value. These changes respond to the realities of the marketplace and the variety of opportunities for interns to gain valid work experience while meeting requirements for licensure in the majority of U.S. jurisdictions. As part of the larger picture, NCARB is also funding communications efforts to encourage public debate. Ultimately, engaging interns and supporting them with tools to become leaders will—as Joel Brygger, Renée Cheng, and others argue—raise the competency level of the entire profession.