Cart Before the Horse(?)

The recent flurry of activity from NCARB — and the requisite mixed bag of reactions from the architectural community, complete with hand-wringing that comes with the idea of changing something about the process — has had me thinking a lot about change, change for change’s sake, and how we as a culture react to it. It’s certainly not the first time NCARB has made modifications to their programs and policies, and I doubt that it will be the last. In honor of the now-ubiquitous Throwback Thursday, here’s an example from my own personal experiences.

Confession time: I graduated from college — and entered the workforce — in June of 2000. (Yes, again, another reminder that I’m getting old.) It was a simpler time — Facebook hadn’t been invented (much less gone mainstream) just yet, Twitter was even further off, and a “smart phone” was one that had a camera. I also walked uphill to the office, both ways, in driving rain and snow… (I’m only kidding about that last part. It was a bridge, not a hill.) But I digress… Back in my day, an intern had to complete IDP (filling out Experience Reports BY HAND) before being they could even consider starting the ARE.

I know what you’re thinking: Facebook hadn’t been invented yet!?! Stay with me, here…

When I began my internship, taking my first steps on my path to becoming an architect, candidates had to complete IDP first (earning your minimum amount of experience while doing so) before receiving their Authorization to Test. Under that model, the exam became a rite of passage… it was something that you worked toward, the culmination of your education and training, a palpable threshold that could be crossed. The ARE tested not only your ability to hit the books, but also the things that you had learned along the way. The experience became part of your preparation for the exam. (For the record, I completed IDP in early 2004, started testing — under ARE 3.1, mind you — in December of 2004, and finished nearly one year later, in December of 2005. Seems like only yesterday, but the fact that it’s been nearly ten years is staggering to me.) As most candidates know, that’s all changed now. Most jurisdictions allow their interns to take any (or all!) of the seven divisions of the exam as soon as they graduate from college, concurrent with earning IDP credit.

As NCARB has been quick to point out, taking the ARE concurrent with IDP has provided a great deal of flexibility in the internship process, allowing emergent professionals the chance to take a particular exam when it’s most convenient for them (even if they are out of work, which has been a major issue for our profession in recent years). It also eliminated some of the frustration inherent in IDP, which can drag out for years due to difficulty in gaining particular blocks of experience. Pennsylvania adopted concurrency in 2007, long after I was registered, which meant that I never had the opportunity to experience this in practice.
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Full disclosure: I’m not a big fan of concurrency, which to me feels like putting the cart before the horse. I feel that it has diluted the exam process, and in doing so, has taken some of the “oomph” out of licensure. It’s still no small feat, mind you — earning one’s license still requires 5,600 hours of experience and seven passing scores, no matter what order you decide to tackle them. But there was something about the significance in completing IDP before starting the ARE, meaning that you had earned the experience and were ready to be tested on it. Then came scheduling the different divisions, each one a milestone in its own right, and getting those score reports, one by one. That last “pass” letter was a powerful thing — it meant that you were DONE. Without it, and this is just my opinion here, it would seem to me that your internship ends not with a bang, as T. S. Eliot put it, but with a whimper.

It’s has nothing to do with the time factor — it’s just that I don’t feel that the test was meant to be taken by someone fresh out of school, someone who hasn’t yet experienced many of the things that are meant to be tested. More to the point, without the proper context, some candidates might not even realize why a particular question was even important. The exam loses its heft when it’s nothing more than a chore, something that just needs to be gotten out of the way.

Case in point: I can remember, very distinctly, sitting in on a construction meeting where the word “contingency” was mentioned. I was 27 years old at the time, and will openly admit (just as I did then) that I didn’t know what the term meant. The owners’ rep explained it to me, practically giving me a dictionary definition, but in the context of the project, I understood it. Two years later, while preparing for the ARE, that same definition showed up on the back of a flash card… and, later, a question about contingencies came up in my Contract Documents exam. I remember feeling that I had achieved some holistic understanding, that my study and experience were both informing my performance on the exam. I felt… well, I felt exactly how I think you’re supposed to feel in that situation. Confident. Composed. Collected. Without the experience to back it up, it would have just been another vocabulary lesson, a piece of architectural trivia. I don’t believe that interns are going to look back on the test, after completing IDP, and say something to the effect of “so *that’s* what that question was on my test!” Some will, I’m sure, but many won’t.

Again, these are just my opinions on the matter, which are deeply rooted in my own personal experiences with the exam and my internship. That said, opinions can change. In the time that I’ve spent talking with exam candidates and recently-registered professionals, I’ve come to appreciate the freedom that concurrency has offered in the process… particularly in recent years, when practical experience (you know, the kind that came with a paycheck) was hard to come by, and I certainly do not discount that. The point here is this: if I had vehemently opposed concurrency for those reasons, expecting every architect that came after me to have the same exact internship experience as I did, countless interns would not have benefitted from the more streamlined process. The sum of the requisite parts is still the same, just the order in which they’ve been undertaken is slightly different. Those who are opposed to the currently proposals for changes in the system, without allowing them a chance to develop, are in danger of putting an overturned cart in front of our collective horse, a roadblock that is potentially more damaging to our profession than it is helpful.

Some parting thoughts: The pending changes to the ARE, as well as the idea of sweeping changes to IDP, offers an opportunity to revisit our attitudes toward concurrency, as well. The proposed overhaul of IDP, aligning the experience settings with the ARE 5.0 exam divisions, is a game-changer that I hope also will have some influence over how interns (or whatever we will be calling them at that point) approach the test, which I will elaborate upon later. Under the current model, though, my preference for concurrency would be some sort of a hybrid — earning a minimal amount of experience (say, 1800 hours, the equivalent of one year, in any experience setting) before being allowed to sit for the exam; the test would then be taken while the candidate continues to earn IDP hours. Maybe that one year will empower and embolden some, giving them the confidence to charge ahead. Maybe it will show others that they might not be quite ready just yet, that there are still too many questions to which they don’t know the answers. (By the way, that will never change… it’s your confidence that you will find the answer that makes you a professional.)

The best part? The inherent flexibility of concurrency would still be part of the process. Finish the ARE before IDP if you want — that’s your choice. Or allow yourself the chance for that last “PASS” letter to be the oomph at the end of your internship, letting it go out with the bang it deserves. Again, just my opinion. Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments.

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Lost in Translation

With the development of ARE 5.0 well underway, NCARB has officially announced that the transition plan from ARE 4.0 to ARE 5.0 has been established. The launch of the new version of the exam is still over two years out, but this announcement makes it start to feel more real. For the record, the specific divisions (six this time) are only just beginning to take shape, but it certainly appears that the test will be significantly improved by these changes.

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“Can I tell you a secret…? I’m actually going to miss the vignettes…”

That’s apparently not the only thing that’s been significantly improved. In the companion piece on their blog site, NCARB has very rightfully pointed out the elephant in the room by addressing the very rocky road that took place during the last transition, when ARE 3.1 gave way to 4.0, offering candidates five solid facts (including an expiration date for ARE 4.0 — mark those calendars, kids!) even at this early stage. The flaws in the previous transition certainly weren’t for lack of trying: ARE 4.0 at least bore some strong resemblance to the previous version — the graphic vignettes were identical, and the multiple choice content, while updated, was still essentially the same… just more dispersed between divisions. The transition chart was pretty clear cut, allowing exam candidates that found themselves in between the two versions of the exam a well-defined path of how to completed the test. However, because the clock was ticking, it also meant that passed divisions of 3.1 had a shelf life.

I personally passed the exam and got registered long before ARE 4.0 was even announced, completely missing the transitional period which proved to be so difficult for so many. A close friend of mine found himself in just that very predicament. Newly married, he began testing under ARE 3.1. Their first baby arrived not too much later, followed by another a few years afterward. The test was still on his radar screen, of course, but life has a habit of getting in the way of even the best of intentions. With the end of the transition period looming, only the “Building Technology” exam stood between him and his license — and if you knew anything about the 3.1 to 4.0 transition, that just happened to be the worst possible test to have to worry about. The results weren’t what he wanted them to be, and he lost credit for five exams. Five. The setback was too much for him to justify financially, and the exam fell by the wayside. He has since left the profession, pursuing an alternative career that, while borrowing very heavily upon his skill set as an architect, is not day-to-day architecture. Whether or not this is better suited for him is not for me to say, nor is it the point of this argument.

I’m sure that everyone in my age bracket knows someone — possibly even many someones — like my friend. The situation that he found himself in wasn’t his fault, nor was it NCARB’s. Change is inevitable, and in the case of the exam, necessary… but it unfortunately takes some casualties along the way. The good news is that, with the release of the ARE 5.0 transition plan, NCARB has gone to incredible lengths to help make sure that the process is much smoother this time around. ARE 4.0 will continue to exist for another 18 months after 5.0 has been launched, giving many candidates ample opportunity to finish. More enticingly, they’ve introduced a credit model that actually allows a unique hybrid of divisions from 4.0 and 5.0, allowing candidates to finish the exam faster by going this route (starting with the CDS-PPP-SPD combo that many resources — including mine, come to think of it– recommend). Obviously a great deal of thought has gone into this process to ensure a much more streamlined transition this time around.

For many of you in the midst of taking 4.0, the transition won’t be an issue. (Prior to this announcement, I was envisioning a HUGE rush of candidates trying to complete 4.0 before the end of 2016 — appointments at your local Prometric testing center should be a little easier to come by now…). For many others just starting out in architecture school, the exam is far enough off that ARE 5.0 will likely be their only option. But for those graduating in the next year or two, or those who just started working, you might find yourself preparing to test in a transitional period… which means that you have a decision to make. I’m not saying not to take the test, or to put off getting married or having children — life is far too short to waste time waiting for anything. But if you think that your path will take you toward the exam within the next two years, give this some serious thought, and make your plans accordingly.

Many Happy Returns

Today marks the one-year anniversary of In DePth. Allow me the self-indulgence of a little reflection.

As of this writing, I’ve published 40 individual posts — well over my initial estimate of two each month — and sent nearly 600 tweets since my introductory post one year ago. When I decided to take on something like this, I was only hoping to offer a little bit of advice and guidance (and maybe a little bit of entertainment) in the interests of providing some online mentorship to emergent professionals in Pennsylvania… but the reach has surprisingly been much broader than that. The blog has received over 2,700 views, which is about 2,699 more than I had expected. Most of the traffic has been from the United States, of course, but people from countries as far away as the Philippines and the Republic of Korea (including a place called Azerbaijan, which I didn’t even know existed) have viewed this site, which I find incredibly humbling.

Managing a blog has been a huge learning experience for me — hammering out a few hundred words each week has been a discipline, to say the least. Auto-scheduling has proven to be both a blessing and a curse; it’s allowed me to publish while sitting in the beach, but also led to more than a few misfires (I really didn’t mean to publish a nuts-and-bolts essay on Easter Sunday, if anyone was wondering…). While I’ve always been incredibly critical of my writing, this format has only intensified that feeling — some posts sit as drafts for weeks, while I meticulously tweak grammar and sentence structure; strangely enough, in spite of that, my most popular post ever was written in under an hour (while nursing a mild hangover, to boot). Some of my more recent entries, about the Blackout and the transition to ARE 5.0, have also gotten a lot of exposure (thanks in no small part to NCARB’s help in sharing them), meaning that I am indeed reaching my target audience. The blog format has also allowed me the freedom to develop ideas, some of which have then been considered fit to be included in local, state, and national online publications. Again, for a guy that sometimes feels like he’s punishing his keyboard for wrongs done in a past life, this is quite humbling.

Lastly, I wanted to give a huge shout-out to someone that has really provided a lot of support for the blog in its first year — my main man, Ted Mosby. Earlier this year, I wrote about Ted’s presence as one of the few architects in prime-time television, and as part of my New Year’s Resolution to include more images in the blog, I uploaded a photo. Those references to our favorite fictional architect led to anywhere between 10 to 15 unique hits on the blog, per day, for a series of months. I have no idea if any of those people that stumbled upon this site actually read anything that I wrote, but I’m grateful to Mr. Mosby for the exposure.

Thanks to everyone who has visited this page, read these words, left your own comments, and shared these random thoughts of mine — it’s appreciated more than you know. Anything you want to see me cover in the coming months? Leave me comments below (bonus points if it involves a mention of Ted). On to year two!

A Time For Change

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NCARB announced today that the clock is ticking on ARE 4.0, which will soon give way to version 5.0. It’s not all that surprising — the current version has been in effect for several years now, since 2009, with the graphic vignettes essentially unchanged since the implementation of ARE 3.1. (With the benefit of hindsight, this makes the cloud solution for the practice software make much more sense, eh?)

Transition information won’t be available until at least this time next year, but it sounds like this will be an even more radical shift than the last upgrade, from 3.1 to 4.0. Based on feedback from the recently-released 2012 Practice Analysis of Architecture, the revamped exam will incorporate possibly six divisions, with content focusing on integrated skills like project management.

The biggest change? No more graphic vignettes. NCARB has apparently taken all of the negative feedback about the testing software to heart, and in a bold move, decided to eliminate the vignettes entirely. (I couldn’t help but think of Cuba Gooding Jr’s line from Jerry Maguire: “Well, that’s another way to go…!”). Interns can now kiss that antiquated software goodbye, but at something of a price — the new format, with its “hot spots” and mini graphic items sprinkled throughout, sounds like it might be a much more difficult exam. (Be careful what you wish for!)

Not much more information is available beyond the initial press release, but I’m hoping that this is a topic of discussion at the annual Coordinators Conference. I’ll be sure to report on anything that I find out, so be sure to keep checking back for updates.

In the meantime, current candidates should continue to prepare for 4.0. If you’ve been on the fence about starting the exam, it might be a good idea to take advantage of the Blackout and get prepared to test this fall. The transition from 3.1 to 4.0 was cumbersome, with many candidates losing credit for passed exams due to compatibility; it stands to reason that the transition to 5.0 could bring the same sorts of issues, which are best avoided if possible. ARE 5.0 won’t take effect until late 2016 at the earliest, which is plenty of time to get registered under the current system. Particularly if you have a fondness for those graphic vignettes.