A review of the Architectural Registration Exams

by Stephanie Doerksen, VIA Architecture

Disclaimer: the opinions in this post are my personal opinions, based on my experience with the ARE’s. They are not the opinions of VIA Architecture.

I am exactly half-way through writing the Architectural Registration Exams. On Monday, I wrote my fourth (of seven) but I don’t know yet whether I passed it or not, so I could be slightly more than half-done or slightly less. So far the process has been exhausting and often frustrating. I’m finding that I need about 6 weeks to study for an exam, if I spend 20 hours or so per week studying. This varies by exam, of course, but that’s probably a decent average. I know many people don’t spend that much time studying, but I like to be prepared and I’ve been passing, so I guess it’s paying off.

20 hours per week is a part-time job. In addition to my full-time job. 7 exams at 6 weeks each: if I take a week off between each exam that is essentially an entire year, assuming I pass every single exam the first time. Currently, I’m only working 4 days a week because I couldn’t stomach the thought of 60 hour weeks (40 of them paid) for an entire year or more. I know that many people do it, but don’t know how. Forget work-life balance! I’m lucky that VIA has been very accommodating.

In my experience though, the time spent studying for the ARE’s isn’t really the hard part. The hard part is that it’s difficult to stay motivated when the content of the exams favours American codes and business practices and the study material itself is expensive, poorly written and often full of mistakes. That’s why it would be great to be able to write an exam written for Canadian interns, based on Canadian content. (If only such a thing existed. Oh wait… It does!)

So far the AIBC is the only provincial (and territorial) licensing association that continues to require its interns to pass the ARE’s as opposed to the Canadian ExAC. Although it’s difficult to say exactly why the AIBC insists on sticking with the old system, I’ve heard a couple of “reasons.” The usual one involves the importance of having reciprocity with American jurisdictions. It’s hard to believe this is anything other than an excuse. First off, why would it be more important for an architect in Vancouver to have reciprocity than, for example, one in Toronto? It seems unlikely that only BC architects work across the border. Secondly, if all Canadian architects are licensed based on the ExAC, then a new reciprocity agreement will need to be negotiated with NCARB. If reciprocity really is that important, then a new agreement will be reached sooner or later.

The other reason I’ve heard for not offering the ExAC in BC is the financial burden of administering the exam. When you consider the expense involved in continually developing and updating content that crosses so many areas of expertise, not to mention invigilating and marking the exam, this reason has the ring of truth. However, if the majority of the cost involved comes from creating the exam questions, doesn’t it follow that the more provinces to provide the exam, the cheaper it is for everyone? And why is the AIBC the only association that can’t afford it? (I was an intern in Quebec as well, so I know for a fact that dues are higher in BC!) This reasoning makes me feel that the AIBC isn’t as committed to supporting its interns as other provincial associations.

In 2010 the AIBC surveyed interns regarding their working conditions and progress towards becoming registered. The most significant response, in my mind, was that over 70% of respondents felt that they had not been adequately compensated and over 60% felt that the time and energy spent towards registration had not been worthwhile. The comments specifying why they felt this way were diverse, ranging from the length and difficulty of the process itself, the lack of compensation and work-life balance, and the direction of the profession in general.

It’s clear that the process of becoming a registered architect is long and difficult and the ARE’s are a large part of this. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that the process is hard. Architects have a lot of responsibility and require a very broad knowledge base in order to do the job well. As with any respected profession, becoming a member should be challenging and rigorous. But it should also be worthwhile. Although I’m half-way through and committed to finishing the NCARB ARE’s, I’m also looking forward to when the AIBC finally adopts the ExAC, because I think it will make the registration process a lot more accessible and fulfilling to BC’s interns.