Building the debate: A recap on the first ARB OPEN Salon on Standards

The NSW Architects Registration Board recognises that the National Standard of Competency for Architects (NSCA) is fundamental to a number of our statutory functions: it extends to the accreditation of architectural programs, all pathways to registration, and the ongoing learning of architects.

Listen to the full podcast here: Setting the Standard: The National Standard of Competency for Architects.

 We know the Standard is an important and influential document, but also understand there is confusion out there about what the Standard is; what it isn’t; and how it actually plays out in education, practice and regulation. This is why we’ve launched the Salon on Standards, creating a space for reflection, criticism and expert insight on the standards that affect architects in Australia.

 As we prepare the full Podcast of our first Salon that focused on the NSCA, we wanted to share some highlights from the discussion between Professor Kirsten Orr, Dr. Peter Raisbeck and Melonie Bayl-Smith that was hosted by the UTS School of Architecture.


The National Standard of Competency for Architects

Professor Kirsten Orr – who has forensically researched the Standard – put forward a concise description of the Standard’s purpose: to establish the standard of architectural education and professional competency prior to registration as an architect in Australia. Does it have anything to do with the status of an architect? Does it forecast changes in the profession? She doesn’t think it does, or can. This challenges our experience of the Standard though, because the core competencies also set up the continuing professional development of architects. The Standard seems to be different things to different stakeholders.

With that being said, do they work? At their most practical, Dr. Peter Raisbeck thinks they do. People study them at university, graduate, usually do a practice-focused course, they’ll go to the registration exam and they pass. But he also questions if they work for the broader profession. Do we actually have those standards to be more strategic, to be better managers, to be better leaders, to be better advocates?

Rather than fulfilling these complex aspirations of educators, the profession, or regulators, Orr reflects that in her view the NSCA has changed from being an encyclopedic repository for every skillset that the profession sought to lay claim to in the 1990s, to its current format as a streamlined document. In fact, Orr warns against over-endowing the NSCA with too much significance or aspiration – “the Standards assume whatever significance we choose to bestow on them, and you have to be really careful what you wish for.”

What does she mean by that? Orr and Raisbeck both agree there are palpable risks to educators who might over-emphasise the Standard in their teaching. If a subject could cover eighteen of the thirty-seven Performance Criteria required for Accreditation, do we need all of the other courses? What if your subject offers none? For educators, it’s important to recognise relevant competencies that apply to subjects – you’d be foolish not to, Orr points out – but acknowledges that it is just one hurdle, among many others, that educators must navigate.

As someone working as a teacher, running a practice, and examining aspiring architects, Melonie Bayl-Smith speaks to this bigger picture, “As a Registration examiner for all the pathways … I am not someone who sees the Standards as a limitation. I think a lot of people who denigrate and try to tear down the value of the registration processes in our profession seem to see the standards as a limiting tool.” As a teacher in particular – but also in her capacity as an examiner, Bayl-Smith points out that she is trying to imbue her students with a capacity to transfer knowledge, that their learning should be an integrated whole.

This integration extends to practice – where the Standard of Competency plays out in the everyday for Bayl-Smith. She self-consciously asks “Am I doing 9.1?” (Knowledge and implementation of appropriate practice model to ensure efficient, effective and ethical professional service) “I am trying to do 9.1 every day, and I’m challenged by how we imbue even a skerrick of the aspiration … I look at some of these things and go, they can be aspirational, I can look at that and go: ‘that is my challenge this week: how do I run an efficient and effective practice.’” Bayl-Smith’s self-appraisal of the Standard ‘in practice’ might sit uncomfortably, but it does reveal latent opportunities for the profession to claim in the Standard – if we are willing to engage with it. Without changing the framework or the syntax of the document Bayl-Smith thinks it has got the capacity to operate beyond a mere threshold – it can provoke, it can help people recalibrate or reconsider where they stand as a practitioner.

What if we needed to recalibrate or reconsider the Standard itself? Raisbeck’s experiences in the front line of teaching professional practice has revealed some cracks. “There are things that I think architects should teach and learn in the university that we don’t do.” He lists research methods, managerial and organizational sciences, leadership – and money – “After all, cash is king.” Not surprisingly, everyone we speak to has their own take on what the Standard for architects should or shouldn’t be, so we came to the same conclusion as Raisbeck: this is a debate we’d like to see us have as a profession.

It’s clear the Standard is not everything to everyone. Nor should it be. But as it responds to developments in the profession and becomes more streamlined, we are seeing the Standard play out across all areas of the profession. Educators consult it in their subject design; regulators deploy it to accredit programs, examine architects, and monitor ongoing professional development; and architects might even start using it as a form of reflection in practice. We know there are limits to the Standard, but we see value in debating what they are, and learning from it.

We’d like to thank the UTS School of Architecture for being the generous hosts of our first Salon, and to thank our panel members, Professor Kirsten Orr, Dr Peter Raisbeck, and Melonie Bayl-Smith for sharing their insights, challenges and aspirations for the National Standard of Competency for Architects.

Download: A Primer on Standards and take a look at our handy summary of the National Standard of Competency for Architects


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