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Entitlements—why aren't young architects and architects applying for them?

29 of December '22

Article from A&B 7-8|2022 issue


The chestnut trees have bloomed, this year's high school graduates have already completed their high school exams. Some of them have also taken entrance exams to Architecture Faculties across the country—months and sometimes years of honing their freehand drawing skills have finally had their finale. Most of those entering architectural studies will earn a master's degree in architecture in five years. Is this the end of learning? Not at all—it's just the beginning....

In order to perform independent functions in the design of buildings as an architect and the management of construction works of architecture of buildings, it is necessary to obtain a construction license in the specialty of architecture. Architectural licenses are also required to exercise author's supervision, to check construction projects and to perform the duties of investor's inspector.

A prerequisite for obtaining architectural licenses to design without limitations (in addition to completing a first and second degree in architecture or architecture and urban planning) is to complete a one-year apprenticeship consisting of drafting projects and a one-year apprenticeship on a construction site. To apply for an architectural license to direct construction works without limitations, it is necessary (in addition to the aforementioned education) to complete a year and a half of professional practice on a construction site. In the case of completing only a first degree, this period is extended to three years.

A person who is thinking of getting a license has been following this path for many years. After deciding to run for architectural studies, he starts preparing for the entrance exam as early as high school, usually in the penultimate grade. Assuming he doesn't take any breaks during his studies, successfully passes all exam sessions and mandatory student internships, and doesn't postpone the defense of his thesis, he graduates after five years. If, immediately after the defense, he starts working in his profession and seeks to obtain a license, a minimum of another two years pass before there is an opportunity to apply for it. Some, wanting to speed up the process, take on internships in the final years of their studies, sharing work with studies, often paying for it with their own health. So the optimistic scenario is about nine years of consistent pursuit. But for every architecture graduate, is earning a license a goal? Not at all! Let's consider why.

Many architecture graduates do not work in this profession. Some chose this path, hoping for prestige and lucrative work, but already during the mandatory student internships or in the first years of work, they realized that in reality things are not as rosy as commonly believed. Suffice it to mention that they are still doing well with contracts signed for the amount of the minimum wage and paying the rest under the table, if at all. Fruit Thursdays, private medical care, multisport? These are unheard of.

Many of these people follow related paths. It must be said that these are exceptionally diverse studies, educating on many levels. There is probably no other such course, where straight from a painting class you go, for example, to a lecture on the physics of buildings, and then to a history—let's say of art, architecture or urban planning. Not a few of the architecture graduates are engaged in BIM support, computer graphics, preparing architectural visualizations, working with advertising agencies or industry companies, for example, as a sales representative, or fulfilling themselves in the growing field of User Experience (UX). Some people stand, so to speak, on the other side of the barricade and take jobs in development companies, offices or academia. A very large group are those who feel more comfortable with interior design. All the alternatives mentioned in this paragraph (and many others) do not require the acquisition of a license in order to do their work in a fully professional and unrestricted manner.

Those who have taken up a job in a learned profession know how popular overtime is in these realities, unfortunately, most often unpaid. There are offices, often reputable ones, where this is a daily occurrence. The classic of the genre when it comes to the reasons is the deadline for handing in competition work or an impending change in regulations that makes it impossible to push through some project. Sometimes there is simply exploitation in the office, and the number of employees is too small in relation to the number of subjects. Certainly, a permanently overworked person is not eager to devote scraps of his free time to learning the regulations by heart. Not to mention that the brain refuses to obey. The exam consists of a test part on knowledge of the law and an oral part, during which the candidate's practical skills and competencies are tested. The exams are held in all District Chambers of Architects and are organized by the IARP twice a year in the summer and winter sessions. Postponing preparation until the following winter or summer can last indefinitely, or until they are needed, for example, to start working on their own name.

For many young female architects, those few-odd years after graduation fall during pregnancy, one or more, and motherhood. No matter how involved an architect may be as a father, at least during this almost two-year period of pregnancy and maternity leave, he doesn't fall out of the professional circuit like a woman. Probably none of the women who have completed their maternity leave would call this time sitting down, even though they were largely at home, nor would they say that taking care of a young child is the ideal time to acquire knowledge.

Many people are discouraged by the sheer necessity to learn by heart the regulations, which change frequently, and still access this knowledge conveniently and on the fly. However, this stick has two ends, because it is easier every day at work when you have a great command of the regulations and do not need to check every issue in the Regulation of the Minister of Infrastructure on the technical conditions to which buildings and their location should conform, and you have to keep up with any changes anyway.

Some people simply still don't feel up to taking the state exam, despite having worked in the profession for several years. The reasons can be various, perhaps simply a lack of self-confidence, but also spending those years in an office dealing with unambitious projects and not being exposed to difficult issues. Often people just out of college, even if they end up in a reputable office that handles diverse and interesting projects, get little development or boring and repetitive tasks, such as preparing apartment charts hated by many. The lack of development can be frustrating, and finding an office that matches in terms of salary and responsibilities is not easy and sometimes takes years. The result is that despite years of experience, the real knowledge is not very diverse or simply applies to fairly basic building types, such as single-family houses. Having a license is a responsibility, and it's hard to shoulder it with peace of mind if you haven't had the opportunity to work seriously with experienced architects before and learn from their knowledge, or even learn from their mistakes. Often the employers themselves are not supportive in the pursuit of licensing, not only do they not encourage their employees to do so, but they even discourage it. Fortunately, it is increasingly rare to encounter the opinion that this is "breeding competition on their backs."

Another reason that causes young architects and architects to delay getting their licenses is the costs involved. The fees (in effect as of February 24, 2022) for the qualification procedure for the granting of construction authorizations in the architectural specialty are:

  • for the scope of authorizations: unlimited design, limited design, directing works without limitations, and directing works in a limited scope:
    • on account of qualification: PLN 1240
    • on account of conducting the exam: PLN 1240
    • on account of re-conducting the oral part of the exam: PLN 730
  • for the scope of authorizations: combined without limitations and combined in a limited scope:
    • on account of qualification: PLN 1860
    • on account of conducting the exam: PLN 1860
    • for re-taking the oral part of the exam: PLN 1070

Re-taking the written or oral exam involves paying the fee again, according to the rates in effect for the year. If one wishes to perform independent technical functions in construction (independently design or check architectural and construction projects), one must—in addition to holding a construction license in architectural specialty—also be a member of the professional self-government of architects—the Chamber of Architects of the Republic of Poland. Membership can be obtained if one applies for registration on the list of members of the District Chamber of Architects competent for the place of residence. Then you must pay membership fees. Thus, this is a significant cost for a young person, and if becoming licensed is not associated with starting a self-employed job, unfortunately many people postpone this expense until later. There is little motivation to stay with an employer, as the responsibility placed on the signatory is not commensurate with the salary. Often, becoming eligible comes with a promotion, but this mainly consists of a change of job title and footer in the mail, and not necessarily a financial honor.

IARP architect Piotr Średniawa, who together with his wife Barbara Średniawa runs the Office of Studies and Projects in Gliwice, was asked to speak on the subject. He is a member of the WKUA and MKUA in Katowice and chairman of the Council of the Silesian Regional Chamber of Architects of the Republic of Poland. It is from the Chamber's perspective that this answer is given.

"The issue of young architects gaining licenses goes well beyond the question "Why don't young architects want to gain licenses?". The question, by the way, also includes, to some extent, a hypothetical thesis about the reluctance of young architects to become licensed, and thus to become independent professionals. Looking at the statistics, the thesis may seem true, but it requires a more insightful look. According to our chamber data, about 30-40 percent of graduates of our universities that train architects in the two-tier system take the licensing exam at the Chamber of Architects. In the case of the Silesian District Chamber of Architects of the Republic of Poland, every year, and this regularity has been occurring for several years now, more or less eighty young architects take the exam during the summer and winter examination sessions. At the same time, every year the two higher Silesian universities training architects at the second level leave with a diploma about two hundred graduates, which confirms the above regularity. It is difficult to say what life and professional path the remaining 60-70 percent of graduates choose. A large group, and unfortunately the most talented ones, leave Poland and take up jobs in foreign offices. Within the framework of a unifying Europe, this is a seemingly normal phenomenon, but certainly to our great detriment. A small part is connected with urban planning and spatial planning or takes up jobs in offices. Some work in advertising agencies, companies doing visualization, interior design, in real estate development companies or with distributors of building materials, that is, they perform activities that do not require a license. We do not have information about a significant proportion of graduates, but architectural education is so versatile that it allows them to realize their ambitions and career aspirations in various fields, not necessarily strictly related to architecture.

The road to obtaining a license and then membership in the Chamber of Architects of the Republic of Poland, enabling independent design activity, is not easy or straightforward. European countries have very different regulations in this regard, but we are bound by Polish regulations. It is worth pointing out at this point that obtaining the authorization as a result of the examination procedure is not, as you may sometimes hear from young architects, an optional determination of the Chamber of Architects of the Republic of Poland, but a statutory requirement, implemented in accordance with the Construction Law and the Local Government Act by the Chamber of Architects of the Republic of Poland. According to Chapter 2 of the Construction Law, after obtaining the diploma, it is required to complete a design practice of one year and a construction practice, also one year, and then take the exam. In theory, the minimum time since graduation would be two years. In practice, most graduates take the exam after four-five years, and this seems to be the minimum amount of professional time necessary to gain sufficient work experience for independent operation.

Our universities undoubtedly train future architects in the theoretical and conceptual areas at a high level. However, graduates lack practical knowledge in the design area concerning especially the phase of detailed designs, interprofessional coordination, and, above all, the formal and legal environment, that is, knowledge of regulations, negotiations with the investor, contracting, insurance and guarantees, and so on. This knowledge can only be provided by reliable practice under the guidance of experienced architects. Here is where a serious problem arises. The design market is not unlimited and there are a certain number of design offices and studios operating in it, and it is not easy for graduates to find work, especially during periods of economic downturn. Undoubtedly, this is a natural barrier for graduates, and overcoming it is sometimes associated with inconvenience, such as the need to relocate and change employment. A derivative problem is the level of design practice, which is revealed during oral examinations. There is a very clear difference in the level of knowledge and skills of young architects who have served their apprenticeship in reputable studios or offices with a high level of projects and significant realizations, and those architects who have served their apprenticeship in studios with a relatively low level, resulting in part from clientelistic or conformist professional attitudes. Unfortunately, the latter are very often obliged by examination boards to repeat the exam due to insufficient qualifications. The problem is known in the Chamber of Architects, but the issue of ensuring an adequate level of practice has not yet found a satisfactory solution and requires further exploration. Serious problems and difficulties also arise in the case of mandatory internships on construction sites, and it is relatively difficult for young architects to find employment as assistant construction managers. However, direct knowledge of the realities of the construction process is necessary for independent and responsible design activity, especially since the knowledge in this area gained from studies is negligible.

In view of this situation, many District Chambers are conducting preparatory courses to supplement knowledge, mainly in legal issues, the knowledge of which is indispensable for independent activity, especially in view of the confusing and illegible legal system concerning broadly understood issues related to development, spatial policy and architecture.
It should be remembered that the possession of authorizations is not only a formal requirement and a state document, but also a guarantee given to the investor and the client of the reliable performance of the design service, covering all types of buildings and architectural objects. Such a guarantee must also be membership in the Chamber of Architects of the Republic of Poland, especially since the architectural profession is by definition a profession of public trust. A similar principle of having the necessary qualifications applies and is obvious for other professions of public trust: doctors, nurses or lawyers, and does not raise any doubts in anyone's mind, although from time to time there are populist and demagogic demands for deregulation of these professions, fortunately unsuccessful for the time being.

Therefore, the Chamber of Architects attaches great importance to both qualification procedures and examinations, which certainly does not arouse enthusiasm among young students of the profession. The level of knowledge that guarantees the quality of the projects performed is also closely related to the quality of the space shaped. Only architects with the right level of knowledge are able to meet the challenge. This simple regularity contradicts the allegations that sometimes appear among young architects about the „prohibitive” actions of the Chamber of Architects of the Republic of Poland, blocking young architects because of the corporate interests of senior architects. It is worth mentioning that the master-student or terminator relationship has a centuries-old and proven tradition in our profession. It is a difficult profession, even today, in the face of an increasingly complex reality and dynamic changes, so the requirement for a license is more important as a certificate of knowledge and experience than a mere formal necessity. However, the level of knowledge provided by the authorizations is far from sufficient, so it is necessary to permanently educate, expand knowledge and improve professional development. Ensuring a high level of apprenticeship and further expansion of knowledge through permanent training, conferences or seminars is a very important task of the Chamber of Architects, successively implemented, but it also requires constant and further improvement. Therefore, the question „Is it worth it to be licensed” must be understood as a question: is it worth it and is it necessary to have extensive knowledge and qualifications in our profession. The answer is obvious. Not only is it worthwhile, but it is absolutely necessary, and having authorizations is only a small part of the issue."

Marta Kulawik

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