Tough economic times trigger a variety of responses from business owners: fear, a new clarity, competitiveness, and, for architects who design houses, turf battles. Anyone who’s been following the online forums this past year has seen the cauldron of comments boiling up around a long-simmering debate: Is it time to regulate residential design? After Waterloo, Iowa-based architect Edward J. Shannon, AIA, LEED GA, posed this question about eight months ago on residential architect’s LinkedIn group, more than 1,000 posts—some calmly logical, some livid—lit up the message boards and cross-pollinated on the forums of the Congress of Residential Architecture (CORA) and the Custom Residential Architects Network (CRAN). Clearly, it touched a nerve.

To put this issue in perspective, residential architects seem especially vulnerable to the insults visited upon the profession these days: industries from IT to lawn services co-opting the term architect, a time-consuming licensing process exacerbated by the weak economy, and a lax regulatory environment for house design that invites sub-par players. Add the drawn-out housing bust, and it’s enough to make anyone cranky.

“There’s a low amount of work right now, which makes more evident what piece of the pie is being done by non-architects,” says Luis Jauregui, AIA, president of Jauregui, a design/build firm based in Austin, and former national chairman of CRAN. “Feelings are rawer in a slow economy. Nobody complains when they have more work than they can handle.’’

This contentious conversation may never be resolved, but at its heart is a question of value: If virtually anyone is allowed to design a house, what is registration worth to architects specializing in houses? And what is the value of a residential architect versus a licensed designer?

Basically, the regulatory ideas that have been tossed around for decades are all laudable, but notoriously difficult to apply nationwide. The lack of measurable and consistent credentialing is what prompted Shannon’s LinkedIn question. A year ago, he moved from Chicago, where residential designers are required to have a license, to Waterloo, where they are not. He teaches residential design in the local community college’s architectural technology program, which emphasizes drafting skills. “As a college instructor, it’s hard to look my students in the eye and say, ‘If I give you this training, you’re qualified to hang your shingle,’ yet they are, according to state law,” Shannon says. “It was culture shock.”

With public health and safety and a solid design sense at stake, Shannon sees merit in a state-mandated competency test for home designers, which would sort out the poorly trained from the professionals. Thomas H. Donalek, AIA, of Chicago drew a harder line on the AIA Young Architects Forum: “I think that the required combination of education/degree and work experience and a test is an example of architects holding our profession to a higher standard than bare minimum. It is the combination of these factors that together do a reasonable job of assuring the protection of the life, welfare, and safety of the general public.”

Members of the American Institute of Building Design (AIBD) also chimed in. “I believe that any American has the right to design their own home as long as it meets codes. If you want to regulate ‘ugly,’ then you need to live in a community with design guidelines,” wrote AIBD member Susan P. Berry, CEO of Classical Home Design in Maitland, Fla.

One reason this subject is so heated is because the single-family home is at the heart of the American dream, and our libertarian tendencies run deep. To quote Thomas Jefferson, a famous non-architect, “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.” That sounds a little dangerous in a construction context. But Jefferson was, of course, a role model who spent his life building up and tearing down portions of his house, notes Marvin Malecha, FAIA, dean of North Carolina State University College of Design, Raleigh, N.C., and an Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture distinguished professor.

“He did that with great trepidation and was very reluctant to share what he was doing with the architects in the Capitol, so there’s always been this tension about what a professional can bring to a job, and what an amateur brings, and what a builder knows that an architect doesn’t,” Malecha explains. “It’s easy to fall into the temptation of ‘I know everything.’”