The Transformation of South Africa's Architectural Profession

The South African Council for the Architectural Profession (SACAP) has introduced new measures which will radically change the face of the architectural profession in South Africa whilst boldly addressing the key issues of transformation, tertiary education accessibility, spatial development and professional unity.

Under the new SACAP RPL system the need for intensive university training and a professional degree falls away and licensure may be obtained through a process of self assessment, self development and practical experience. This is truly a ground breaking development which not only impacts directly on social transformation but also addresses – and resolves -  the key issue of tertiary education funding.

Any young (or old!) South African may now become a professional architect without ever attending a university based school of architecture or even leaving the community to which he or she was born; the transformation implications are staggering. In addition, hundreds - possibly thousands - of architectural technicians from historically advantaged and disadvantaged communities alike can immediately apply for professional architect status based on the recognition of prior learning (RPL) and the proven experience gathered over years of working or practising as architectural consultants.

The colonial architectural system which South African inherited and which constructed the built environment in which we live today was imported from Britain and regulated in the British tradition by the profession itself until the late sixties when the apartheid government declared it a strategic profession and established a Council under the Public Works umbrella to control and regulate the profession.

It is this same, but fully transformed and restructured entity, now known as the South African Council for the Architectural Professions (SACAP), that regulates the architectural professions today. SACAP has particular duties enshrined in Architectural Profession Act (Act 44 of 2000) which entrusts it with the responsibility of accrediting the country’s formal schools of architecture and other architectural learning sites (ALS) . By definition and law, SACAP is thus the ultimate architectural education authority and has the power and ability to co-opt or by-pass the ALSs in the process of defining the educational and training systems which it can and will accredit – including its own.

It is a fact that the architectural profession’s transformation agenda is of paramount importance to the State and the people of South Africa and SACAP is the most appropriate and responsible organ available to tackle this task. Whilst the architectural profession was quick to transform itself at institutional and academic level it failed to generate the transformation required at grass roots level. After twenty years of democracy the profession of architecture remains elitist, divided and predominantly white. This was not for lack of trying to transform; the schools of architecture took in large intakes of students from previously disadvantaged backgrounds and the South African Institute of Architects launched numerous programmes and initiatives, including its Open Architecture online platform in collaboration with the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

The numbers being generated by these honest and well meaning attempts at transformation proved insufficient to manifest a significant change in the professional landscape. Essentially the traditional academic system of educating architects proved inadequate to fulfil South Africa’s particular market related and socio-political demands and expectations. A radical but responsible new approach was required. SACAP recognised this and acted on it;

“The South African architectural profession remains challenged as it has not made significant improvement with reference to equity and redress, within the new democratic dispensation. While the focus of the current transformation initiatives remains largely at increasing the intake of students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds at architectural learning sites (ALSs), this is a slow process with a minimum turn-around time of about eight years from beginning architectural studies to completing the Professional Practice Examination (PPE). When considering the disparity in the quality of secondary school education, under-preparedness for university is another serious concern, whilst at the same time universities face resource challenges and generally have limited capacity to support under-prepared students.

On the other hand, the reality of the South African architectural profession is that a significant number of practitioners from historically disadvantaged backgrounds actively practice their trade, with no opportunity to upgrade their professional standing other than enrolling for full time studies at an ALS.  RPL affords these practitioners the opportunity to advance their knowledge and skills in order to upgrade their professional status. In this regard RPL will improve turn-around time on transformation than the only currently available alternative, that of full time studies.” (1)

Under the new system, known as Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL), SACAP recognises “that over time as experience is gained, competencies are gained, which allows an applicant to apply for recognition and a higher level qualification”. SACAP’s viewpoint is that “for the purpose of the RPL process, the essential skills and knowledge required to practise architecture in a sustainable, socially responsible and financially viable way are clustered into a range of ten specific outcomes referred to as professional competencies”.

The ten professional competencies are defined as architectural design, environmental relationships, construction technology, building structures, contextual and urban relationships, architectural history & theory, building services & related technologies, contract documentation & administration, computer applications and office practice, legal aspects and ethics.

Individuals who cannot access a university education for cost, practical or geographic reasons may now follow an RPL route which can culminate in professional architect status without the backing of a recognised university degree.

Those wishing to follow this base route can now engage the following process;

1. The aspirant architect will have to obtain employment as a trainee architectural draughtsperson with a SACAP registered practice and register with SACAP as a Candidate Architectural Draughtsperson.

2. When ready the candidate applies to write the SACAP Professional Practice Examination (PPE) and if successful applies for registration as a Professional Architectural Draughtsperson.

3. After a minimum of five years as a  Professional Architectural Draughtsperson the individual may apply for registration as a Professional Architectural Technologist subject to passing the Professional Practice exam (level2) and obtaining a successful SACAP RPL assessment and fulfilment of any further criteria or requirements arising from the application.

4.  After a further minimum period of three years the individual may apply for a registration upgrade to Professional Senior Architectural Technologist through the SACP RPL assessment system.

5. After a final minimum period of four years as a Professional Senior Architectural Technologist the individual may apply for full Professional Architect status through the same SACAP RPL mechanism.

In theory, and all things being equal, a successful individual can become a professional architect twelve years after registering as a draughtsperson. The shorter route offered by universities requires a minimum period of eight years, although the practical average is more likely ten years – and hundreds of thousands of Rands in fees and costs, usually inherited as student loans that the young architect spends years paying back.

Under the RPL system prospective architects can engage the professional system straight after leaving school by attending a local draughting academy or simply by going to work for a SACAP registered professional whilst attending night courses or, more likely, completing training modules or courses developed by ALSs, SAIA, SACAP as well as accredited service providers.

The type of architect generated by the two parallel systems is likely to be different in most cases.  The SACAP RPL route is possibly suited to generating a different breed of architect - the community architect – and the universities will continue to produce the global architect that they have so successfully produced to date.

Community architects will not be something new. They are already there, and have been since time immemorial and are generally called building designers, draughtspersons and even builders. These community professionals, who collectively produce many more buildings than registered architects, have been marginalised by the architectural profession for generations and denied the rights, support and professional status rightfully due to them.

Under SACAP’s RPL system these community based localised architects will benefit enormously from new access to specialised education, training, resources, networks and growth opportunities previously denied. These benefits will extend directly to the communities these professionals serve and will impact directly on community upliftment, the development of employment and self development opportunities and will contribute significantly towards poverty reduction and adverse social conditions.

The professional animosity which evolved over years of separatism and gate keeping is expected to evaporate as the core differences between the parties become commonalities and the generation shift activates new ways of thinking and doing.

“Old school” architects, foreigners and traditionalists may have a difficult time understanding the significance of decolonising the architectural profession and, in particular, the scope and benefits that its implementation brings to us all as a single unified profession.

And whilst the pressing issues of decolonisation, transformation and the cost of tertiary education are fully addressed by the RPL initiative, as is the matter of work reservation, the most important factor to emerge from it must surely be the unification of a profession which had become scattered, outdated, anti-competitive, confused, inefficient and difficult to engage through a disconnected process of change, transformation and localisation.

Unity is the key factor in making SACAP’s policies come to fruition. Without professional unity this initiative will fail with disastrous consequences for all. Clearly failure is not an option nor is there a reason for it as the SACAP RPL initiative is fully inclusive and benefits all parties - and because it fosters the free market it will find traction very quickly.

Schools of Architecture (ALSs) will be afforded new sustainable opportunities to extend their academic reach, capabilities and income streams beyond campus walls by producing educational modules, courses and events (primarily online) which directly address the needs of SACAP’s ten point competencies structure and possibly compliment SACAP’s and SAIA’s delivery of high quality CPD offerings. SAIA and CPUT’s outstanding success with the Open Architecture RPL programme not only proves that blended and online architectural education systems work but that they work extremely well and efficiently.

New opportunities will also arise in the technical training ranks of the private sector; “CAD academies”, design schools, community collectives and computer draughting initiatives will flourish across the country and related services and industries will evolve as localised economic development responds to the new demands.

Architectural professionals will now have the opportunity to mentor new talent into the profession and their own practices through a practical, affordable and structured system which can be adapted to their own specific location, needs, environment and circumstances. The architect becomes the educator again, as it should be, and as it was for thousands of years.

There are endless rosy pictures which one could paint inspired by the SACAP RPL initiative. But (coming back to Earth) there are two vital pressure points on which the success of the initiative rests and these are of immediate importance; the concept of self development and the successful implementation of robust and functional evaluation and assessment methodologies and related panel compositions.

Self development depends on the availability of development options and opportunities offered. These, as well as the RPL evaluation and assessment systems deployed by SACP, will hopefully be energised and activated by progressive and pro-active university based ALSs and SAIA backed programmes designed specifically to address SACAP’s 10 Competencies and be contributive to the integrity of the assessment and evaluation systems which SACAP rolls out in the future.

ALSs would do well to rapidly recognise that every architectural practice is now an extension of themselves - practices have become localised mini schools of architecture; bona-fide learning and training environments which need acknowledgement, nurturing, care and attention. New thinking will be required and many old colonial barriers may have to be dented to up-scale these imperatives through layers of faculty and administrative red tape, academic haze and self interest.

SAIA and the VAs have a pivotal role to play in ensuring the success and sustainability of the new dispensation. The Voluntary Associations (VAs) affected will be required to reinvent themselves in many instances; some will flourish, some will merge and some will wither - new ones will emerge.

The South African architectural profession has been liberated through political will, State funding and competent leadership. It is now up to each South African architect to recognise, value and nurture this new found freedom and to use it diligently to build the unified South Africa we so justly deserve.

Pedro Buccellato
Editor : Architect Africa Network
19 Henri Street, Braamfontein

(1) SACAP issued document titled "Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL), Guidelines for Assessment".