Editorial: Alphabet Soup

At the recent Festival of Architecture in Nanaimo, BC, members of the RAIC voted on a proposal to change the organization’s designation structure (see CA, May 2016). Under the proposal, the MRAIC designation used by members would be dropped, and only licensed architects would be able to use the post-nominals RAIC. Some variations would also enter into the picture—RAIC (retired) for professionals no longer practicing, and RAIC (intern) for licensing-track members. The use of FRAIC by the organization’s Fellows would remain unchanged.

The motion appeared to have narrowly passed, after much heated discussion. But in a surprising turn of events, a subsequent recount of the votes showed the motion to have failed, coming short by 12 votes of the two-thirds majority needed for it to proceed.

While many in the room were supportive in principle of the proposed change, they felt that there was insufficient dialogue about it to warrant moving forward at this time. They sent a clear message: they wanted the RAIC to consult more broadly, and to find ways to make all existing members feel included in any future changes to the designations.

The original proposal stemmed in part from concerns by the provincial licensing bodies, who say they have seen the MRAIC term misused to imply architectural licensure. “A post-nominal designation implies a credential, and creating ambiguity about who is an architect is not something the RAIC can be seen to be supporting,” says RAIC President Allan Teramura, FRAIC. The change to a single designation restricted to those with a provincial license—RAIC—appears to resolve this.

But what are the ramifications at a broader, symbolic level? As it was presented, the change would have primarily affected those members who have an architectural education (the minimum requisite for joining as a full member) but have not registered, some 464 RAIC members. It would also have impacted the RAIC’s 25 international associate members, and 23 faculty members who belong to the RAIC and are not licensed.

This represents about 10% of the RAIC’s current membership. I’m one of those affected—while I graduated from architecture school and hold a PhD in architectural history, I ultimately chose a career path that didn’t include becoming a registered architect. Indeed, many of Canada’s most important advocates for architecture—including academics, curators and policy makers—have no need to be licensed. Other designers can legitimately practice without being registered, either because they work with a licensed architect or build smaller structures.

Judging by the comments at the annual general meeting, many of these members felt sidelined by the proposal. They would still have the opportunity to continue belonging to the RAIC. However, those losing the post-nominals would lose an important symbol—the right to publicly display their support for architectural advocacy in Canada in the same manner as they had in the past.

In the long run, the RAIC asserts that their proposal would help the organization act more effectively, and lay the groundwork to broaden its membership. “Ultimately, we seek to recruit allied professionals and others in the design and building sector,” the organization states in its background material for the vote. The first step in this, it says, is consolidating and growing its membership of licensed architects to achieve a “a critical mass of architects, large enough to make the RAIC’s voice resonate with credibility and authority,” while distinguishing them clearly from non-licensed members.

“While some have argued that the RAIC is about architecture rather than architects, we have to acknowledge that the Institute’s authority to speak on matters of public policy comes from our collective expertise [as licensed architects],” says Teramura. “It is this competency that governments, the public, the media and the other Canadian civil society organizations hear when they listen to our voice.”

Affected members, however, believe that they are also part of the RAIC’s collective expertise, and the proposal unfortunately left them feeling like they were being pushed out. If the RAIC wishes to see the change through fairly, one member opined at the meeting, they may need to drop all post-nominals. Or at the risk of creating an alphabet soup, said another, the RAIC may need to find new designations to introduce: RAIC (advocate) and RAIC (faculty), for instance. Alternatively, introducing a non-licensed membership category with pared-down benefits—with no designation or access to professional documents, for instance, and with correspondingly reduced fees—could be a way to navigate the change.

On a positive note, the passion and concern displayed by attendees of the RAIC’s annual general meeting demonstrates that the organization continues to be important to its members. Moreover, this issue could spur them into becoming more involved in the group’s efforts and invested in its decisions. The RAIC has before it a golden opportunity to open up new channels of communication, as it considers if, and how, to bring the designation issue back to the table.