Friday, 18 February 2011

A house designer by any other name …

As you might have seen, the Architects Registration Board has been going off recently at real estate agents who describe houses as having been designed by architects when instead those houses have just been designed by, well, by people who design houses.

The difference is immense, and it amounts to this: One group of people have paid a lot of money to join the Boys Club with the name “Architects” on the door, and the other haven’t. 

That’s about the size of it.

It’s therefore quite appropriate then that those who have paid the money to join the club (which club, as anyone knows, has been set up to protect its members) should be entitled to exclude the riff raff who haven’t. (Because if paying a lot money and knowing the right people doesn’t entitle you to set barriers to entering your profession, I don’t know what would!)

And it’s quite appropriate that they should be able to throw around threats of fines and jail time should anyone, especially real estate agents, confuse the low life riff raff who design houses with the real toffs who have paid to join the Boys Club.

And the Real Estate Institute’s members are now running scared. So much so that an Advisory Note sent out yesterday to members warns to tread very carefully indeed “if you are intending to describe a building in terms involving use of the word ‘architect’ in any form.”

This all just protectionist nonsense.

There is no justification for laws protecting the use of the word “architect” in any form except with the word “registered” in front of it.

House-buyers are buying houses, not names. They visit houses and walk around them—they judge them for themselves, by their own standards—they don’t just rely on an agents’ blurb. And having inspected them, if buyers decide that houses designed by registered architects are so much better than those designed by others, then those houses will attract a premium.

And if they don’t, they won’t.

No more protection is needed then than to allow buyers to see what they’re buying before they buy it. And which buyer wouldn’t?

There is no argument in justice for law protecting the members of this particular cartel.

If the houses they design do attract a premium that will be because, on the judgement of those who buy them, they deserve to—and if so the members of the Boys Club won’t need a special piece of protectionist law to protect them.

If however they don’t attract a premium that will be because, on the judgement of those who buy them, they don’t deserve to—and if so there is no justification in law for protecting people  who the market has decided are no better than their competitors.

And that fact is, whatever nonsense the various heads of the Boys Club over the years have maintained—former NZRAB chairman Ron Pynenburg for example, who says claiming a property was designed by an architect can push up its price—or his successor Paul Jackman  who claims “these false references add lustre and market value to the properties being sold”—there are no figures in existence indicating that the mere claim that an architect has designed a house is enough to push up its price. This is just self-serving nonsense.

Indeed, when challenged by Mary Wilson the other evening, Mr Jackman couldn’t even produce figures showing that houses designed by his members attracted any premium at all.

Damning evidence, I would have thought, that not even the barriers to entry created by Mr Jackman and his organisation are enough to jack up the prices the market is prepared to pay for what his members produce.

The fact is, there is no honest argument to protect the word “architect,” and five years ago when the Architects Act was rewritten the Select Committee agreed unanimously with the half-dozen of us who pointed that out.

We pointed out that all that needs protection are the words “registered architect,” since to say one is registered when one isn’t would be fraud—and if registered architects transpire to be so much better than unregistered ones, why then the market would beat a path to their door.

Our half-dozen did our best--we had persuaded every one on the Select Committee--but when it came to the final vote in Parliament, it transpired the Boys Club under Gordon Moller had paid Mai Chen thousands of dollars to whisper protectionist nonsense in the MPs’ shell-like. And I’m afraid, my friends, that that was that.

Which is why we end up where we are today with threats of fines and jail time hanging around folk for the inadvertent use of the words “architect,” and Advice Notes being sent around the country to real estate agents about the use of the aforementioned word—and about future meetings on the matter thereon.

Be aware however that words and phrases like "architecture," "architectural," and "architecturally designed" are still legal...

PS: Here’s an interesting and related fact for you to ponder: One in four Americans now needs the state’s permission to work, either in the form of a state license or being on some sort of register—which means one out of every four workers is not permitted to work without begging permission from a bureaucrat.

What proportion do you think we might “enjoy” here in NZ?


  1. Well said and well argued Peter.

    I've had similar discussions about the "ability" to practice law. Clearly, being admitted to the bar (entering the guild) doesn't guarantee a quality service. Neither does not being admitted to the bar mean someone doesn't know an area of law better than someone who is admitted. I know one particular very capable and successful "bush lawyer", who never even got a law degree.

    This discussion also relates to rights to use the word "university" too - and the mistaken assumption that the right to use the word means you'll get a quality degree, and that those organisations which didn't get the right, can't provide a quality degree.

    I agree that there is value in allowing people to claim themselves as belonging to an organisation (registered architects or lawyers for example), and letting experience and reputation determine the worth of that word "registered".

  2. 7 or so years selling Real Estate late last century left me with the very clear understanding that architect designed houses were often very difficult to market for two simple reasons.
    1 they are very personalised and have individual outcomes that have very limited appeal to the average buyer who wants conformity, comfort and practical, features often missing in the designer houses.
    2 such properties have a value in the head of the vendor that is not apparent to most purchasers.
    That said some posers just love to purchase a one off but the chances of that occurring are not great.

    The only time I would consider employing a registered architect would be to maximise a very restricted plot either from a planning angle or just to apply his expertise with plot shape and aspect.
    Having built two very user friendly homes with the assistance of draughtsmen the last one held in very high regard by many R A s, I see their inflated idea of added value as a bit narcisistic.

    As an aside I am rather incredulous as to how the many Architect designed houses and buildings are still being sheeted to the builder and the local body when the original design was the primary cause of the resulting Leaky building problem. I mean to say a flat roof with no eaves in a high rainfall area and combined with high wind flows and cladding that didn't turn water but absorbed it, jesus wept isn't that the sort of problem the university trained professional was supposed to forsee.

  3. You are so right ! Despite my 7 years university curriculum in Architecture in France, my diploma obtained with honours, and a few years of experience, I meet the same matter here in Australia... And I am not ready to give up and pay the Boys club. First I am a woman ;-) and second I have dignity and respect for my profession.

  4. BTW I remember when you built this house... What a great achievement !

  5. I'm an engineer, and with us the only protected term is 'Chartered Engineer' (which I'm not). This seems a much better compromise.

    The engineering institutions are trying very hard to ensure they are meritocracies rather than boys clubs and that membership does indicate a basic level of quality assurance. The institutions are also working hard to increase equality, health and safety and promote good practice in engineering.

    I don't know as much about architecture, but it doesn't seem right to label RIBA/ARB as just an old boys club. At a very basic level, their entry requirements demonstrate that the members have been trained and have practiced architecture for several years.

  6. I don't really have time for a long bleat on this one (copout, I know) but can you really stand there and suggest to your readers that the only difference between registered architects and unregistered draughtsmen/technicians/whoever else is 'paying a lot of money to join'?

    Deeply misleading given the high professional bar that is set to attain (and retain) registration. I am particularly happy with the 'barriers to entry' in becoming a registered architect, as it is an excellent indicator of competence. Compare and contrast with Sweden, where I got to call myself an architect fresh off the plane, as can anyone else who feels like one - got to add MSA on the end when I had my degree approved and could join the Architects Association here, and then got SAR after proving a year of employment with certain responsibilities (a quick email by my then-employer). So I became Arkitekt SAR/MSA for little or no demonstrated competence.

    New Zealanders on the other hand can enlist the services of a registered architect knowing that rigorous standards are in place to ensure a high level of professional competence. A lot of sour grapes, PC.


  7. As an architect, I feel that this post and the subsequent comments cannot go unchallenged - especially as Not-PC is himself an architect and I suspect knows that a lot of what he writes is just to get a reaction.

    Yes, architects are protective of, and immensely proud of their title, having spent a minimum of 5 years of university and at least a couple of years working towards registration after that. Calling yourself an architect is a hard-fought for battle, and yes, architects get annoyed when someone comes along with less/little/no training and tries to pass themselves off as something they are not.

    Architectural education is so much more than just designing a building so that it does not leak. It is a wide ranging education, allowing architecture students to think about structures as large as a city or as small as a phillips screw. Most of us graduated as students with a passion for the architectural world and the knowledge that what we could do was way in excess of the dross that most of us see around us. Let's face it - the vast majority of NZ houses are not designed by architects, and the vast majority of those houses are cheaply built, dull, and poorly designed to minimum standards.

    Evidently most of us New Zealanders will never have enough money than to buy the cheapest house we can get within our price bracket. Consequently most people will never really get to live in anything that may have had a little more thought and individuality implanted into it. There are some great designers in the country, some of these are architects, some are designers, some draughters, and there are some people, untrained, who are gifted individuals. But on the whole, there is not as much thought, training, or design input into buildings by those other than architects.

    So yes, "gravedodger"'s point that architect-designed houses are very personalised - well, yes, of course - that is the whole point! They may have things like taller ceilings, which give you a wonderful sense of space, but may fall outside the standard 2.4m high white gib board box of 90% of our housing. Design features are tangible to those who have a sense of individuality, but may slip by those whose ambitions are dulled by living in NZ's typically dull housing.

  8. Fred Stevens B.Sc., B.B.Sc., B.Arch(Hons)20 Feb 2011, 08:45:00 can call Peter and me architects since that is exactly what we are. We both have degrees in architecture and have both been practicing successfully for several decades, yet sadly Peter or i cannot call ourselves architects because we would be liable to a criminal conviction and a fine of up to $10,000.

    Being an "architect" meaning a registered architect does not guarantee that you will be a good designer. Maximus....if you look at all the leaky buildings in Auckland you will find that many, and in particular the apartment blocks, have been designed by "architects" registered with your own old boys club.

    I went all the way to Wellington 5 years from Rotorua ago and made a lengthy submission to the select, and yes, they did as Peter explained unanimously agree that only the words "registered architect" be protected allowing the word "architect" to be used freely as a word in the English language.

    The irony of the present building practitioners licensing regime is that you and all your old boy friends from the institute aka the architects registration board will be automatically licensed on the basis of your club membership rather than your individual abilities.

    If you are so good at doing what you claim, then why should you need propping up by your "club" and their unnecessary heavy-handed tactics against your less talented (as you categorize them) competition?

    I have an honours degree in Architecture yet if I put my degree after my name..Fred Stevens B.Arch(Hons I could face a criminal conviction since a reasonable person may be think that I am an architect!! So in effect my 5 years of university education is effectively wasted since I must keep it a secret lest someone may think I am an architect.......

  9. Fred, a reply to your comment has been posted at

  10. Maximus, Den MT etc,

    Frank Lloyd Wright, who the American Institute of Architects called "the greatest American architect of all time", would not have been permitted to call himself an architect in New Zealand under the regulations you applaud. He never studied architecture at university and was never a member of the American Institute of Architects. If he now lived in New Zealand and called himself an Architect, then he would be liable to a criminal conviction and a fine of up to $10,000. This is the absurdity that you are supporting.

    As you recognise in your response, Fred studied architecture for many years and did so with distinction. He also has designed some stunning places including the one in Lake Tarawera that was a finalist, if I remember correctly, in New Zealand’s home of the year a number of years ago. (The same also applies to Peter I must add). And yet they are not permitted to call themselves Architects. This is the absurdity that you support.

    Therefore, it follows, that having studied architecture at university and belonging to an architect’s old boy’s club (or an Architects union), cannot be a prerequisite for designing outstanding buildings. Yet you support the absurdity that it is, and must be.

    You claim that regulation is required to protect the name “Architect” so that the public be protected from “unqualified” designers. And yet observe the number of leaky homes that were designed by “architects” who were members of the architect’s old boy’s club (or the Architects union). Also observe the lifeless boxes that some members of the architect’s old boy’s club (or the Architects union) design for their clients today. Clearly, employing the services of such a person is no guarantee of quality. And yet the absurdity is that you advocate an old boy’s club on the grounds that it is.

    What you will notice if you read PC’s post and digest what he is saying, is that he (and some others) do not need or seek the endorsement of an old boy’s club to say that they can design outstanding houses. For them, I suspect, all that matters is what their clients think of the buildings that they have designed for them. For them, the free market will reward (and punish) good and bad work accordingly.

    PC is arguing that the government has legislated for an architect’s union and whenever the government protects a profession, then the best interest of the public (and clients) are not served.

    This is the absurdity that PC is highlighting and fighting. It is a matter of principle. It is one I applaud.


  11. Maximus

    I cannot resist pointing out the following. On your blog and in response to Fred, you state the following:

    “I don’t know why you have such a massive chip on your shoulder about getting registered. The impressive set of initials after your name show that you have certainly had enough education – B.Sc., B.B.Sc., B.Arch(Hons) – more than most in fact, and if you wanted to be registered as an architect, all you have to do is apply to the NZRAB. There is no reason that your “5 years of university education is effectively wasted since I must keep it a secret lest someone may think I am an architect…….”

    Your comments remind me of Peter Keating’s comments to Howard Roark in The Fountainhead.

    “But look at me! Remember how we started? Then look at us now. And then think that it's up to you. Just drop that fool delusion that you're better than everybody else—and go to work. In a year, you'll have an office that'll make you blush to think of this dump. You'll have people running after you, you'll have clients, you'll have friends, you'll have an army of draftsmen to order around!... Hell! Howard, it's nothing to me—what can it mean to me?—but this time I'm not fishing for anything for myself, in fact I know that you'd make a dangerous competitor, but I've got to say this to you. Just think, Howard, think of it! You'll be rich, you'll be famous, you'll be respected, you'll be praised, you'll be admired—you'll be one of us!...

  12. A note for Autism re practising law; There are two facets to ponder:

    1 Membership of the law society (either Auckland District or NZ Law Society is voluntary.)
    2 To be a lawyer and call yourself a lawyer one must satisfy statutory criteria, not a set of rules created and enforced by a society (or in your words a guild.) Satisfying the criteria permits one to practice as a lawyer and gives those who deal with that lawyer assurances that audit, disciplinary and further education requirements are applied to the lawyer. I do not discern any notion of protectionism in this regime. If anything it is cannabilistic towards miscreant members. The system which pertains to architects, draughtsmen, designers etc seems to be quite different.

    Chris R.

  13. Anonymous: A note for you re practising architecture; it is just the same for architects.

    As you say, there are two facets to ponder:

    1 Registration under the Registered Architect's Act.

    2 To be an architect and call yourself a architect one must satisfy statutory criteria. Satisfying the criteria permits one to practice as a architect and gives those who deal with that architect assurances that audit, disciplinary and further education requirements are applied to the architect. I do not discern any notion of protectionism in this regime. The system which pertains to lawyers etc seems to be exactly the same. (I'm not sure about what you mean by cannabilism - although I am not averse to seeing lawyers eat each other).

    There is nothing to stop anyone designing buildings in New Zealand. Function is not protected. The title is the only thing protected, and even that, barely so.

  14. Maximus - Anyone can call themselves a builder, builders who are registered call themselves master builders. Anyone can call themselves a teacher, teachers who are registered can call themselves registered teachers. Anyone can call themselves an accountant, accountants who are registered can call themselves a chartered accountant. Architects seem to be a major exception to the rule and it stinks of protectionism. The architect's institute do not own the word architect.

  15. ... and unable to justify their own value to potential clients, it appears that aparently it's all about 'vision'...

  16. If the term "Archtiect" is protected, is it Illegal to refer to yourself as a software or database architect? Frequently within IT, some people are simply known as "Architects" if they take a broader systems view.

    Would this be illegal, according to the letter of the law?

  17. What a load of BOLLOCKS!

    When I chose an architect to design my house, I chose one whose designs and work appeal to me.

    I dont look to see what club he belongs to.

    Im not interested in CLUBS - Im interested in the style and quality of the work.

  18. Dolf - No, that's fine. If you're an information architect, you go ahead and call yourself an information architect. No issues there. It's only if you call yourself an architect and start telling people that you are a specialist in designing houses that it would become an issue.

    Tomahawk Kid - Good on you.


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