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BSA News

May 04, 2023

What’s in a Title? A Lot, Apparently

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Photo by WOKANDAPIX via Pixabay

Those in the architecture profession who use the word architect or a variation of it in their professional titles must be licensed to do so. Failing to understand this has legal consequences. Here’s what you need to know.

Ever read that children’s book by Andrea Beaty called Iggy Peck, Architect, about a young boy who loves to build? Iggy didn’t think twice about calling himself an architect, but it turns out he should have. For those working in the architecture profession—specifically those who aren’t licensed or are licensed in one state, or country, but practicing without a license in another state—there may be legal ramifications regarding the use of certain titles. The BSA recently spoke with John Nunnari, executive director of AIA Massachusetts, to get a better understanding of the concerns related to using the title architect and its many derivations.

What are the concerns relating to the use of the title architect in Massachusetts?

The term architect and any derivation of it, such as architectural designer, registered architect, etc., are protected by law, and licensed architects are the only people who can use these terms when referring to themselves and their services. Titling infractions occur when someone not licensed in Massachusetts uses the term architect or any derivation of it in their title. The AIA Massachusetts memorandum “Use of Titles ‘Architect’ and ‘Architectural Designer’ and Similar Terms and Signing Contracts for Architectural Services” is an excellent resource, as it clarifies the laws pertaining to architectural titling.

Are there any titles that are exceptions to this rule?

The only exception to this rule is the term intern-architect, which is reserved solely for use by individuals who are enrolled, active, and in good standing in the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) Architectural Experience Program (AXP). The title intern-architect therefore can be used by those who have graduated with the appropriate National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) degree, have an open NCARB file (meaning they are somewhere within the one- to three-year time frame it takes to complete the AXP program), and are working under the direct supervision of a licensed architect.

What other titles can be used by individuals who are working in firms but aren’t licensed?

Other titles that could be used that are compatible with the law include but are not limited to the following: CADD operator 1, 2, or 3; draftsperson 1, 2, or 3; project manager; project assistant; job captain; or designer.

How does the registration board get notified about misuses of the term architect?

The Commonwealth Board of Registration of Architects (CBRA) resides within the Division of Occupational Licensure (DOL), which, collectively, licenses and regulates more than 500,000 individuals, businesses, and schools that engage in more than 100 trades and professions in Massachusetts. Within the DOL is the Office of Investigations (OI), which does the investigative work on behalf of the regulated trades and professions. It is the OI that brings suspected cases of noncompliance to the CBRA’s attention.

What is the CBRA’s process for investigating complaints, and what factors does the CBRA consider when determining a potential fine or discipline?

In cases where someone is using a title that is out of compliance with the law, the CBRA investigates the case, considering various factors, including how long the person has been using the wrong title and the degree to which the use might have been intentional, whether the person has been operating on their own or as part of a firm, and how quickly the person corrects the error. CBRA members are loathe to impose a fine immediately, so if the person quickly remedies the situation [described in further detail below], and it’s clear no attempt was made to defraud the public, the CBRA will likely just issue a warning. However, if the violation is particularly egregious (e.g., the issue persists after a warning or the person makes no attempt to rectify the situation), the CBRA can punish violators with a fine of not more than $500 or with imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than three months or with both. To my knowledge, no one has gone to jail due to an infraction. The CBRA has no current policy in place for titling infractions but is considering creating one for parity in the decision making between current and future boards.

What steps can a person take to rectify a titling infraction?

The individual will get a form letter from the state saying the CBRA has investigated a complaint against them and is proposing to take action, and that the individual has the right to request an adjudicatory hearing and retain legal counsel. The form letter will include an Order to Show Cause outlining the alleged titling infractions. In the case of a person who is unlicensed, they should as quickly as possible remove any titles that are out of compliance on their social media accounts, résumés, and correspondence. If working for a firm, they should work with firm leadership to find an acceptable and mutually agreed upon alternative title, and then update their accounts and correspondence. Finally, they should document these actions and submit this documentation to the CBRA for use during its adjudicatory hearing.

Many title-infringement cases have involved young professionals working at firms. Why are young professionals—rather than firms—receiving notice that their titles are out of compliance?

Young professionals are receiving noncompliance notices from the CBRA because it is responsible for licensing individuals, not firms. Massachusetts does not have a Certificate of Authorization—a statute that would give the CBRA the power to regulate businesses rather than individuals.

Some architects licensed in other states but working in Massachusetts have also received notice that they are out of compliance. What are the issues related to these cases?

A registered architect in another state (or country) who is offering architectural services in Massachusetts without a Massachusetts license is in violation of the titling statutes. The firm for which the architect is working should not refer to this person as an architect (on its website, in communication with clients, etc.) without clarifying the state in which the person is licensed. Those with an active architectural license in another state may refer to themselves as an architect but must clarify the state in which they are licensed in verbal statements and in any public materials. They may indicate that they can offer architectural services but must make it clear that they can render those services only after they obtain a state-issued license from the CBRA. Again, failure to comply could put someone in a situation where the CBRA could take action for a titling infraction.

Are architecture schools educating students about the state’s licensing laws?

AIA Massachusetts is working to 1) make sure firm principals are aware of the state’s titling rules so they don’t put their employees at risk and 2) talk to architecture school deans about the state laws and encourage them to make the rules clear to students.

Who should someone contact if they have questions about the law and its implementation by the CBRA?

Anyone with questions can contact the CBRA via phone at 617-701-8690 or email at [email protected].