ACA Response to National Registration Framework

15 September 2020

The ACA, in collaboration with the Australian Institute of Architects, has responded to the ABCB’s discussion paper on the proposed national registration framework, pointing out the problematic lack of distinction made between a registered architect and building designer.

Whilst the ACA believes that the National Registration Framework for Building Practitioners (NRF) provides a structure to create national consistency in the registration of building practitioners by addressing Recommendations 1 and 2 of the Building Confidence Report (BCR), there are a number of areas of concern.

Distinction between a Registered Architect and Building Designer

There is a lack of distinction made between a Registered Architect and Building Designer as it relates to the appropriate qualifications and competence to undertake work in the building sector. As such, the ACA believes the NRF, as currently proposed, will have unintended consequences with inappropriately qualified building practitioners, resulting in poorer quality and compromised safety outcomes for the public. This result is counter to the intentions of the BCR, which is premised on building the public’s confidence in the construction industry.

We believe that the levels of education and assessment of experience set out in the NRF do not align with the combined skills, knowledge and experience required to deliver safe buildings, and buildings that comply with the NCC in all of its aspects.

For example, there are increasing professional registration, training and experience requirements for registered architects compared with building designers. It appears that the NRF is reducing the level of education, experience and skill required to design and document buildings in the building designer category of the NRF, at levels 1 and 2.

The NRF allows building designers with an AQF level 8 Diploma in Building Design (a one- to two-year course) with three years post qualification experience to be able to undertake a good proportion of building types that currently require a registered architect.

In contrast, architects have completed an accredited program in architecture at AQF level 9, a mandatory period of two years minimum of relevant work experience and the Architectural Practice Examination prior to applying for registration as an architect. Each of the assessment programs on the pathway to registration are benchmarked against the National Standard of Competency for Architects. All assessment programs use the context of a complex project for assessment of competency. Post registration, architects must comply with legislated provisions similar around the country relating to Architects Code of Conduct, mandatory Continuing Professional Development and maintain appropriate professional indemnity insurance. (Architects Accreditation Council of Australia)

Registration (and ongoing continuous professional development) requirements for architects relate to education, experience and robust demonstration of competency through an examination and interview against national competency standards that are recognised internationally. There is currently no comparable assessment process for building designers.

Application of the National Construction Code (NCC) requirements

The proposal (based on the BCR) is generally focused on the understanding and application of the requirements of the NCC and fails to recognise the other skills, experience and detailed tasks that are required for an architect to provide professional services to their clients. These skills cover all areas of brief development, design, documentation, equal access, sustainability, environmental efficiency, contract administration and project management.

They also require an understanding and ability to review and determine requirements of various pieces of legislation, including but not limited to planning controls, environmental controls, safety in design as well as building regulations. Therefore, we believe that to propose a registration framework based solely on the need to satisfy the single obligation to comply with the requirements of the NCC also suggests the authors of the proposal are not aware of the varied skills required by architects and their obligations under the current registration framework.

Recommendation 1 of the BCR (page 15) specifically identifies separate categories of building practitioners for ‘Architect’ and ‘Designer/Draftsperson’ amongst others. The ACA strongly believes this separation of categories should remain and the proposed NRF should reflect this recommendation as originally proposed in the BCR.

The ACA believes that the issue of quality and competency needs to be better managed other than looking at the first two recommendations of the BCR.

The BCR notes the critical role the changes in procurement methods have had in reducing building quality. The widespread adoption of design and construction contracts have led to a reduction in the architect’s ability to fully document the design and often reduced their involvement during construction phases, which has contributed to the reduction of construction quality. These contractual obligations often directly compete with the architect’s duty to the public to maintain quality and performance.

We therefore believe that the NRF must recognise the existing well-established consistent national regulatory framework for architects as separate from other types of building designers and recognise their skills in other sectors of the proposed registration framework.

Confidence in the Building Industry is Questioned

The proposal currently aims to consider a Registered Architect – who has completed an AQF level 9 course, circa 3300 hours’ experience assessed against nationally consistent competencies, and passed written and oral examinations – as being equal to an individual who completes an AQF 8 course followed by three years of non-assessed experience. Building designers are not qualified to be architects, and architects should not be identified as building designers at any level.

The act of downgrading a profession to the level of a para-profession is unlikely to promote confidence and provide the best built environment outcomes for the public. The stated objectives of the BCR are to ‘enhance public trust and confidence in the building industry’.  This will be best achieved through prioritising professionalism and higher levels of competence for all practitioners, which is not demonstrated in this proposed framework.

In our view, NRF does not recognise the significant differences in education between architects and others providing building design services.  This lack of regulatory recognition corresponds to confusion within the community as to the role and capabilities of an architect as opposed to a designer/draftsperson and can result in poor quality outcomes and risks to safety.

Registration of Architects

Architects are already regulated in Australia by State and Territory Governments. The eight Architect Registration Boards in Australia, established under legislation, register architects, conduct disciplinary investigations, pursue unregistered use of the term architect, accredit programs of study (the list of programs of study accredited by Architect Registration Boards is maintained by the AACA), and inform consumers and the public on architectural issues.

The Architects Accreditation Council of Australia (AACA) was formed by the Architect Registration Boards in Australia in the 1970s to facilitate a nationally consistent approach to the accreditation of architectural education and assessment programs on the path to registration as an architect. The AACA:

  • maintains the National Standard of Competency for Architects. The Standard describes what is reasonably expected of a person who can demonstrate the standard of skill, care and diligence widely accepted in Australia as a competent architect. The Standard underpins all assessment programs on the path to registration as an architect in Australia.
  • administers the nationally consistent Architectural Practice Examination
  • implements the Accreditation of Architecture Programs Procedure in Australia and New Zealand
  • offers a range of pathway programs on the path to registration in Australia
  • negotiates international mutual recognition of qualifications and registration arrangements.

We support efforts to better regulate building design practitioners based upon a nationally consistent competency framework. We believe that utilising existing legislation regulating professions and disciplines is logical. It facilitates national consistency of regulation across Australia as the basis for mutual recognition across States and Territories while allowing individual jurisdictions to adjust the obligations placed upon the registered practitioner in response to jurisdiction-specific issues. Further, utilising existing legislation does not impose additional red tape and costs upon the regulated persons.

Recommendation 1 of the BCR (page 15) specifically identifies separate categories of building practitioners for ‘Architect’ and ‘Designer/Draftsperson’ amongst others. The ACA strongly believes this separation of categories should remain and the proposed NRF should reflect this recommendation as originally proposed in the BCR and the existing legislation regulating architects be maintained.

In addition to this, the proposal fails to recognise that architects are highly qualified project management professionals.  The proposal creates further confusion, indicating that architects do not hold these skillsets. Support for this is also shown in the 2011 final report from the Building the Education Revolution Implementation Taskforce, chaired by Brad Orgill.  The Report gave clear support for the managing architect role in creating successful building outcomes.

Risks in Implementing this Proposal

In its present form, Table 01 NRF Taxonomy Level 1 has the potential to reduce the accreditation requirements of a registered architect by allowing a comparison of a person with a degree in architecture plus NCC training to a registered architect.

This document and the support of the ABCB may become an influential document in allowing the establishment of “building designers” to a lesser level than a registered architect, but by association suggesting a person with a degree in architecture plus NCC training is equal to a registered architect.

Given that the funding of University courses in architecture are tied to the requirements of practice, if the equivalent NRF registration requirements are lowered to undergraduate degree plus honours, the federal funding and HECS for Masters of Architecture may be removed.

The proposal will diminish the quality of the built environment by devaluing the architectural profession. The risk of reducing educational requirements is that architectural students will abandon the Masters degree of their education as the report draws no difference between an individual who completes a five-year degree followed by competency based experience then passing a nationally consistent written exam and an oral exam, and completing a three-year degree followed by three years of non-guided experience.

‘Building Designer’ has come to mean something very different to the way it is outlined in the document. Throughout Australia, the various Architects Acts prevents a licensed building designer from identifying themselves as an architect. This registration framework is consistent across Australia and is held up by the whole construction industry as a model for national registration with rigorous entry requirements and a strong disciplinary framework. The profession will be diminished if a registered architect is forced to also hold a licence that identifies them as a building designer and the public will be short-changed if they have their built environment designed and documented by lesser qualified paraprofessionals.

This concern is intensified when we know that the main thrust of the recommendations of the BCR was to ensure a better understanding and application of the NCC, which is a single skill that can be better managed through more appropriate and accountable professional development programs supported by industry bodies such as the Australian Institute of Architects and the Association of Consulting Architects Australia. Such a proposal is supported by BCR Recommendation 3 – Continuing Professional Development, which in part, states: ‘Industry associations can play a key role in the delivery of CPD provided that there is collaboration with regulators to ensure that the content of training is appropriate. They may be willing to assist with the administrative oversight of CPD schemes through their accreditation schemes’.

There are also risks that the lack of distinction between a registered architect and a registered building designer, may impact on international trade in architectural services which are currently covered by mutual recognition agreements with other countries.

Therefore, if implemented, this proposal risks

  • confusing the industry and the public by comparing architects with paraprofessionals with a narrower skillset and less training.
  • confusing the industry and the public by not valuing architects as project managers.
  • the architect’s independence in the industry
  • creating conflict for architects to uphold higher standards and duty to the public required under the Architects Act with separate requirements from an alternate licensing authority.

Having less educated professionals in the industry appears contradictory to the objectives of the BCR.

Compliance with the NCC

The key to quality buildings is in the chain of responsibility and includes a commitment by clients, designers and contractors. It also requires a commitment from regulators to ensure rules and regulations are easily understood, achievable and able to be verified as compliant. Along with the Building Surveyor, the architect is the person best placed to observe construction with an impartial view to ensure the quality and compliance of the construction meets the requirements of the design and documentation and this is not just the requirements of the NCC.  Impartiality and quality are best provided within the architect’s current legislation framework. The ABCB proposal should recognise exemptions for Architects from the licensing requirements of contractors and paraprofessionals (in the design and documentation and project management categories) because architects are already held to a higher standard through the Architect’s Act.

The NCC incorporates too many Australian Standards to allow any one practitioner to have a full understanding of all of the regulations. The Australian Standards that are incorporated by direct reference are in many cases poorly drafted and / or confusing, creating opportunities for mistakes and incorrect installations to be made. The reference standards are also not freely accessible.  Requesting everyone to have a better understanding of the NCC will make little difference to completed buildings until the NCC is improved and becomes more user friendly.

The ACA believes that a registration framework is a means to ensure that only those practitioners with the appropriate skills and competence deliver buildings that comply with the NCC. Each practitioner must be held accountable for the work that they undertake, and this framework should assist with accountability issues.

However, it is vital that the NRF attribute the appropriate permitted work and not introduce a “lowest common denominator” approach.