A looming change in state licensing-exam requirements for architects may wipe out the value of Wisconsin colleges’ two-year architecture-training programs.
The rule change would be “a step in the direction of requiring an accredited degree,” said Josh Johnson, past-president of the American Institute of Architects Wisconsin and head of Wausau-based Becher Hoppe’s architecture division. “It’s becoming more of the norm nationally, and I think we’re moving toward that new tradition.”
The state Department of Regulation and Licensing has proposed a new state rule that would allow architectural school graduates with an accredited degree the opportunity to take the state licensing exam within one year of graduation.
The proposed rule is before the Senate Committee on Economic Development, which has not yet scheduled a date to vote on it. If the committee signs off on the rule, it would go into effect the month after its approval.
The only National Architectural Accrediting Board-accredited degree in Wisconsin is the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s masters program in architecture, which takes six years to complete.
William Babcock, AIA Wisconsin executive director, said the state’s existing architectural licensing rule requires a combination of seven years of education and experience. But the experience requirement, he said, consists of an intern development program that can take three to five years to complete.
If a graduate of a two-year degree program at a technical college gets five years’ worth of experience, Babcock said, that person is able to take the licensing exam.
The two-year degree is not accredited.
But the state requires graduates with an accredited degree follow their schoolwork with training. That means accredited graduates might have to follow six years of education with up to five years of experience. Thus, compared to the person with the two-year degree, someone with the more advanced degree may have to spend as much as four more years working toward an architect’s license.
The test in itself covers 16 divisions of work and can take more than a year to complete.
Under the proposed rule, experience is still required before licensure, but the time gaining experience and taking the licensure exam could be split for accredited graduates, potentially shaving multiple years off the time to get a license.
“We basically want to stop prospective architects from saying, ‘I don’t want to put 10 years into this, I’ll go do something else,’” Babcock said.
But Babcock also said Wisconsin is one of only 15 states that do not require an accredited degree for licensure, and this rule could be a “small step” toward a new state law.
“There is no bill out there right now dealing with it,” he said, “but I know there are people on the state examining board looking into the issue.”
If that bill does come to fruition, it’s going to be a problem for Wisconsin colleges and technical schools that offer nonaccredited architectural degrees.
“That certainly would be a concern if parents or prospective students are looking at our curriculum,” said Dave Shonkwiler, dean of Madison Area Technical College’s Center for Agriscience & Technologies. “At the end of the day, we’re all working toward the same thing: that the buildings are safe.”
Madison College offers a two-year degree for architectural technicians, and Shonkweiler said graduates have been able to do architectural work that is just as solid as that done by those with an accredited degree.
“The simple fact is we’ve got a lot of history to show the state’s licensing practices have not been detrimental to the profession,” he said. “If there was a case of buildings and bridges failing from a design standpoint, and you could look at it and say, ‘Well, look the registered architect on the project only had an associate degree,’ you might have something. But it’s not the case.”
Johnson, a registered architect in New York, Texas and Wisconsin, said some of the finest architects he’s ever worked with did not have accredited degrees, but he said architectural practices have become more complicated and a uniform national standard is optimal.
Babcock said AIA Wisconsin would support a law changing the state’s requirement to accredited degrees only for licensure, but for now, the rule change is all the organization is supporting.
But with 35 states requiring the accredited degree, he said, it might not be too long before Wisconsin tries to join the majority.
“It’s something people will notice,” he said, “if architects can get licensed in Wisconsin and not elsewhere.”