I came across a news article about a fake architect named Paul J. Newman who went to prison for posing as a licensed architect. Apparently he “had rendered fraudulent architectural services” for seven years in upstate New York and was charged with six felonies including grand larceny, forgery, unauthorized practice of a profession and fraud. He was not licensed as an architect in any state or jurisdiction and was practicing architecture in New York state using a fake New York stamp. He got caught because he started to do work in Florida and neglected to make a fake Florida stamp for himself. Someone reported him to the Florida state board, which informed the New York state board about the infraction, and when the New York board looked into disciplining him they discovered that he was a complete fraud.
Some people are unaware that it’s illegal to call yourself an “architect” unless you are licensed in one of the states or jurisdictions. In addition, if you’re licensed as an architect in one state, it’s illegal to perform architectural services in another state (or even offer to do so) without a license in that other state. Usually, violators of these laws are fined by the state board and/or are placed on probation or have their license suspended. Sometimes the offenders are truly unaware of the law, and sometimes they are aware but try to get away with it and only stop if they are caught. The case of Paul J. Newman is the first time I heard of someone going that far to fool people into thinking he was a real architect (and therefore going to prison for it).
Is licensing of architects really so important that someone pretending to be an architect should go to jail? They say that the purpose of licensing architects is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public. People spend a lot of time indoors, i.e. inside buildings, and the fact is that buildings have the potential to kill or harm lots of people. You may have heard the news stories last year about the tragic Grenfell Tower fire in west London, UK. While the responsibility for the disaster is still to be determined, it demonstrates the importance of life safety and building codes.
You may wonder, if the purpose of licensing is to ensure that those who design buildings protect the health, safety and welfare of the public, then why do designs need to be reviewed by the building department? I think the reason is that we are all human and are vulnerable to making mistakes. The Grenfell Tower renovation project was designed by licensed architects and reviewed and approved by building officials, yet the consensus seems to be that the design was flawed and caused the death of 71 people. Building department review is a belts and suspenders approach to make sure buildings are safe. Although clearly some mistakes still slip through the cracks. We are only human, but I believe the risk of mistakes is decreased when the individuals providing architectural services are real licensed architects, who by definition have undergone the education, experience and examination required to call themselves “Architects”.