In the political realm, the famous “third rail” topics are social security and health care entitlements. In the residential architecture world it’s architects versus their unlicensed competition. This fiery feud has scorched its way across countless online forums and through the letters page of this magazine and others for years now. In our ra Linked­In group, two discussions on the topic have generated more than 1,600 comments.

The heat is turned up even higher these days because both groups are suffering acutely from the extended housing slump, and all feel downward pressure on the fees they can charge when work does come through the door. The arguments lobbed back and forth in every venue are largely the same. You can get a good recap in Cheryl Weber’s Practice column here. Education versus experience is one major theme on each side of the divide; and there’s always someone who makes comparisons to other professions where health, welfare, and safety are at stake, such as medicine and air transportation (i.e., would you want an unlicensed brain surgeon operating on you? Or an unlicensed pilot flying your plane?).

While attention-grabbing, those analogies are really red herrings. No rational person thinks they can just pick up a scalpel and remove a brain tumor.

But home design is a little like the culinary arts. Both are fundamental and familiar in our everyday lives. Everyone who can make a basic sandwich, however, is not necessarily a chef. There are high and low versions of each discipline, and both, practiced carelessly, have the power to inflict mortal harm.

Still, it’s true that humans have built houses for centuries without the benefit of residential architects, and they will continue to do so—for good or ill. Many of our best loved neighborhoods were built by DIY-homeowners or local builders using a decent plan or a kit (often designed by architects).

As with all professions, I think everyone benefits from consulting someone with education and experience—the more, the better. And independent testing helps to separate the deadwood from the sturdy timbers. Do all these safeguards ensure talent? By no means—but it’s the best means we have at present to predict competence.

Nonetheless, architects can’t depend on credentials to defend against market incursions. Forget the ire and consider the hire. What do your unlicensed competitors have to offer clients that’s attractive? Look within your own practice for flaws and deficiencies and outside it for new opportunities. Focus on process improvement and on expanding the market for design services in general. And take to heart that customers happy with lesser skills are not your clients anyway.

We have a long way to go to foster a deep appreciation and understanding of residential architecture—both outside and inside the profession. Inside, it needs to begin in architecture school, where the specialty should be taught and honored as its own vital discipline. To do it well requires practice, perseverance, and passion. Health, safety, welfare, and that indefinable quality of delight—put this recipe together and you have the best residential architecture can deliver.

Comments? E-mail: cconroy@hanleywood.com.