courtesy Office of the Attorney General of New York

Re: “‘Architect’ Goes to Jail, World Shrugs,” I agree with Aaron Betsky’s conclusion that licensure by no means assures architectural competence in its most important sense. But his argument contains some dangerous tripwires. Newman was not imprisoned for “practicing without a license” but rather because in doing so he defrauded his clients of significant sums. And the fact that he “got away with it” doesn’t mean his designs were adequate or safe, because certification by a building official does not assure the public’s safety, as building officials themselves have asserted:

“…(T)he public health, safety, and welfare can only be assured by requiring that licensed professionals design any significant improvements to real property…(since) few, if any, governmental building departments, inspectors, or code administrators have sufficient qualified staff to carry out their responsibilities; and that they must depend heavily upon licensed design professionals to deliver to the public safe structures designed within the limits of current codes.”

Calling this an “ethical” issue is like characterizing drunk driving as just an error in judgment—“hey, nobody got killed this time, so what’s the problem?” Licensure laws are created to protect the public’s health, safety and welfare. At the moment that means assuring conformance to life safety, zoning, and other regulations, and that Newman’s buildings are “still standing” is a pretty low bar. It’s likely that a competent contractor could meet this same standard, and it’s the legal requirement that an actual, licensed architect be involved in projects that keeps us involved at all where many clients would just as soon save the money and trouble.

Architects have little enough leverage, control, or influence over the built environment, and asserting that an unqualified felon was “good enough” undermines our legitimacy even further. It’s a route that we undertake at our great peril, particularly in a time when in the foreseeable future code checking will be performed by computation and not human judgment. Where’s the influence of the architect then?

The “system” that Betsky faults is in actuality controlled by architects who lead organizations that set the standards for academic accreditation (NAAB) and licensure (NCARB), so we can only blame ourselves for their alleged faults. Since we control that system, we can certainly change it. But the “romantic notion” that positive standards and public good (not just safety) should be the aim of the public regulation of architecture—including licensure—isn’t just wishful thinking, it’s actually a strategy. Broadening the definition of the architect’s responsibility for health, safety, and welfare beyond the merely technical to the stewardship of the environment is a noble goal that could both benefit the public we’re licensed to protect and our profession itself. It would be a difficult assertion to formulate and enact, but perhaps we should invest our energy toward that aim, rather than undermining the most potent source of our influence in the systems of delivery.