In June of this year, Alfred Vidaurri Jr., FAIA, NOMA, became the president of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). Vidaurri is a vice president of Freese and Nichols, an engineering, planning, and consulting firm with several offices throughout the southern United States. He is a graduate of The University of Texas at Arlington’s Master of Architecture program and lives and works in Fort Worth. Texas Architect Interim Editor Brantley Hightower, AIA, recently spoke with Vidaurri about the profession and the role NCARB plays in the path to licensure for emerging professionals. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Brantley Hightower, AIA: First of all, congratulations on becoming president of NCARB. You are the first Latino president in the organization’s history, which on the one hand is a great honor, but on the other hand speaks to some of the ongoing challenges facing the profession. As you know, the diversity of architecture schools is increasing, but that disappears as graduates start to move forward in their careers. How can NCARB help make the diversity of the profession more like that of the nation as a whole?
Alfred Vidaurri Jr., FAIA, NOMA: When I first ran for the national board of directors, I said, if elected, one of the major areas of focus of this organization should be the area of diversity and inclusion. That was five years ago. Who would have known how this issue would become so much a focus in all our lives?
We’ve been working closely with NOMA, and in 2020 we conducted a survey and created a report called “Baseline on Belonging.” We tried to study and identify why it is that members of underrepresented groups tend to fall off the licensure path. What we found is that some of those candidates who were from underrepresented groups or over the age of 40 felt that there was not a lot of firm support in that career journey. The other thing that we found was that candidates from these underrepresented communities were also less likely to identify and create relationships with firm leaders. They felt more on the outside by not having those kind of strong ties and connections to the firm leadership.
We’re going to follow up and look at those same questions with regards to education, firm culture, and career development. We want to try to dig a little deeper into all of this. The good news is the NCARB Board is very engaged with these issues. They realize we have to reexamine what NCARB can do in the portions of the pathway that we are directly involved with.
BH: NCARB defines that pathway to licensure you just mentioned, but there are many different starting points. How did you decide to pursue a career in architecture?
AV: From a very early age, I always had an artistic, creative bent. I thought that maybe I would be an artist of some sort, but when I told my high school career counselor, she said, “Well, that’s a tough career.” I can remember her going through her career book and starting with the “A”s. When she got to architecture, she asked if I’d ever thought of that as an option. “Well, no, not really, but it’s kind of intriguing.” So that started me down that path, and once I started researching it a bit more, I decided I wanted to be an architect. And that was it. That was the goal. I’m one of those individuals that, once I set my sights on a goal, nothing distracts me.
When I started college, I started in the local community college for the first year, and then I transferred to the University of Texas in Arlington. I did the four-year program, and then after graduation I went into the workforce for a year. I felt like I had been given a great base education, and I really wanted to test it: I wanted to go out to the real world and truly understand the profession. I worked for a year and then was invited to go back as a graduate teaching assistant to help offset the cost of graduate school, and so I went back for two years and got out and never looked back.
I went to work for various Texas area firms and then got licensed under the older model, where you tested once a year and took a week of vacation and you went to a convention center somewhere and took the exam.
BH: How did you become involved with NCARB?
AV: In 2004, I was appointed by Governor Perry to the Texas Board of Architectural Examiners. I ended up serving on the board for 11 years. I’m one of those who likes to volunteer, and I tend to jump in with two feet, so next I started with volunteer committee work. I had opportunities to move into leadership positions at the regional level, and then decided to run for a national position, and so that’s how I got here.
If you would have asked me 16 years ago if I would ever be in an interview like this as president of NCARB — never in my wildest imagination. It was a very different organization back then. I’m not sure I would have wanted to be involved 16 years ago, because I saw no one that looked like me. I saw very few from underrepresented groups. The good news is this is changing, and that’s why I feel, yes, it’s a great honor being the first Latino, Hispanic NCARB president, but I also feel it’s a great responsibility to show others that the door is open. It is possible. And I look forward to the day when we no longer honor the first or the second or the third of something, but instead we honor the wonderful uniqueness and the leadership and vision that a person is going to bring to the table.
BH: As the leader of an engineering, planning, and consulting firm, you work with a variety of different professionals who all have different career paths. Do you think there are lessons that architects can learn about how we educate and train our emerging professionals?
AV: Except for when I had my own small practice for a few years, in my 40 years of practice I’ve always been involved in a multidisciplinary firm. I’ve always worked in places where I am shoulder to shoulder with engineers, architects, interior designers, landscape architects. Some of them have different educational models. Some of them have different experience requirements. Some of them allow testing at different points in their careers. But, despite those differences, they all created amazing, highly qualified individuals. What that tells me is that there’s not just one model.
BH: What advice do you like to give emerging professionals?
AV: One thing is that it’s important to understand as early as possible what the licensure journey looks like. I’m surprised when I talk to students or emerging professionals and ask if they understand the steps to licensure: Do you know what the AXP is? Are you aware of the six divisions of the ARE? So many say, “No, I really have no clue.”
My advice, then, is to become very knowledgeable as soon as possible. You have to proactively manage your career, your journey of gaining experience. Recent graduates sometimes get into the workplace and assume they’re going to be steered in the right directions to become good, competent architects. Hopefully that’s true, but there are also cases where that’s not the case.
Don’t sit back and wait for others to lead you. You need to make sure you find a great mentor. You need to understand the requirements ahead of you and have conversations with the leaders of your firm to say: “Look, this is my goal, this is my timetable, and this is what I need to do. I need you to work with me to achieve that because, at the end of the day, it’s good for the firm AND it’s good for me as an individual.”
BH: You mentioned you took the ARE back when it was only offered once a year. I took it back in the nine-exam era. Now there are only six exams. The licensure process, like the profession itself, is constantly evolving. How do you think that evolution will continue?
AV: For several years, we have been talking and researching. We have a Futures Task Force that is tasked with looking at these kinds of big-picture opportunities. We have other committees that are practice-related, education-related, and exam-related. We’re doing an Analysis of Practice study to tell us at what point in that journey emerging architects acquire the skills and knowledge to be a competent architect. In some cases, that might be in school: There are models in other countries that allow licensure upon graduation. In other cases, that might be through work experience. But we need to make sure that we always have a fair, accessible, and open path for licensure.
Sometimes change makes people nervous. It’s fine to say, “We’ve always done things this way.” But I want us to explore the “what ifs.”
If we were to sit down and create a path to licensure today, my guess is it would look nothing like how we’re requiring people to do it right now. We would come up with something totally different if we had a blank piece of paper. And so, what I’m suggesting is that it’s time for us to explore and rethink things. But I also know that’s a scary conversation for some people. Some people don’t like change. NCARB has 55 jurisdictions, and I’m not trying to disregard their role, but I’m encouraging all our members to be open-minded, to be forward-thinking, and to participate in that conversation.