In 2013, the AIA awarded grants from a newly created Innovation Fund to three Knowledge Communities and 11 AIA Components and Chapters across the country to support its multiyear Repositioning initiative. The idea was simple: Provide resources to member-focused programs, document those programs, and offer a plan for others to replicate those successes. All of the grantees shared the same explicit charge: Foster a 21st–century vision of member service, collaboration, and advocacy. Implicitly, however, the grants allowed recipients to investigate hypotheses and gain insights about the present and future state of architectural practice. What follows are accounts of five of those grant programs, some of which succeeded in executing their plans and some of which uncovered deeper, and unexpected, realities about planning versus execution. The full list of projects can be found at progress.aia.org, under Repositioning.
Tapping the Wellspring: AIA Seattle’s Getting to Zero
The Architecture 2030 Challenge, created by 2015 Kemper Award recipient Edward Mazria, FAIA, and endorsed by the Institute, encourages firms to achieve carbon neutrality in their work by 2030. It’s a benchmarking process that offers high–level goals, but, as AIA Seattle points out in their Innovation Fund grant project Getting to Zero, it also raises a lot of practical questions centered on how a firm can adapt its approach on an everyday level.
Getting to Zero, a series of four workshops that target market forces, integrated design processes, post-occupancy operations, and long-term operations, intends to both educate architects and give other AIA Components a realistic way to replicate AIA Seattle’s successes.
AIA Seattle began by targeting architects who participated in an earlier version of the program, in partnership with Architecture 2030 as well as organizations such as ASHRAE and local government agencies. By building off that affinity base, program organizers reached its anticipated audience of 40 individuals almost immediately and had to raise their audience cap twice, eventually ending up with 120 attendees. The organization vaulted past its initial revenue goals—in and of itself an important metric. It did so by offering a series of workshops that outline short- and medium-term steps that any firm can take towards carbon neutrality—always a recipe for success. But, cleverly, AIA Seattle treated Getting to Zero as part of an iterative process that capitalized on a demonstrated interest within an established audience base.
Road Show Rodeo: AIA Vermont’s Archistream
The central challenge of a bricks-and-mortar exhibition space is, well, the bit about bricks and mortar. Remove that challenge and you get AIA Vermont’s Archistream, a converted 1969 Airstream Globetrotter. Alone, the vehicle is a novelty that generates awareness just driving down the street—but not enough to sustain interest, which AIA Vermont accomplished by making the interior a mobile resource center, gallery space, and hands-on workshop. Sure, there were new challenges—the right insurance (they settled on a “Marine Policy”), ADA compliance, and retrofitting a Marshall McLuhan–era camper for modern media requirements—but the benefits have outweighed the risks. To date, Archistream has received almost 89,000 visitors, not to mention the estimated 113,000 people who have seen television and print media coverage, and an untold number of pedestrians who have seen its lime-green tagging and silver-tinted super-graphics roll past.
Exposure is one thing, but engagement is another. One of AIA Vermont’s metrics for success was its ability to join the greater Vermont arts and community scene—unachievable with a folding table and brochure stack. And, it’s a self-fulfilling metric, too. The more miles Archistream logs, and the more events it rolls up to, the more people either “meet” architecture for the first time or are reminded of what architects do. The only limits for the campaign? The number of towns and cities it can reach with four wheels and an engine.
Lessons Learned: AIA Chicago’s Outreach Programs
Chicago’s Humboldt Park, Logan Square, and Back of the Yards neighborhoods represent areas of opportunity for architects hoping to make a positive difference. Working with aldermen from each neighborhood, AIA Chicago collaborated with Chicago-based Arquitectos, a professional organization for Latino architects, as well as Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago (NHS), to launch two outreach programs that raise the profile of architects among potential clients as well as the public-at-large. The first, Working With An Architect (WWAA), is a series of workshops in Spanish and English that covers everything from defining the architect’s role to budget planning. The second, Ask An Architect (AAA), dovetails with WWAA to offer potential clients the opportunity to consult with the workshops’ architects one-on-one.
In the best turnout, three people registered. So what was the problem, according to a public relations consultant in the debrief process? AIA Chicago, Arquitectos, and NHS did not refine their marketing approach. First-generation Latinos are not likely to use an architect at all (or even consider using one), making the workshops a challenging sell. And while second-generation Latinos are more likely to engage an architect (and recommend one to their family and friends), they were not as rigorously targeted by the campaign as were first-generation Latinos.
One lesson, then, is about how to segment audiences correctly. Another is about attitudes toward architecture: It’s not necessarily about just cultural identity, it’s about an individual’s outlook shaped by significant life events. Some analysts have claimed that the naturalization rate among Chicago Latinos has grown significantly in the last decade. Other analysis point to the decline in Latino residents in Chicago proper, matched by a staggering increase of 338 percent in surrounding Cook County during the same period.
In the end, the WWAA and AAA team got their geography right—targeting predominantly Latino neighborhoods—but public awareness and client development, as they also learned, should weigh a range of vital variables to succeed.
Small Project Practitioners’ Oral History Project
Context drives a lot of an architect’s design process, but it is also an essential part of the architect’s professional arc. It’s a regulated profession, to be sure, but also a highly personal one that emerging professionals, especially, must navigate while studying for licensure and plotting a course for creative growth. The AIA’s Small Project Practitioners (SPP), a knowledge community for members of firms numbering five or fewer architects, developed “First Projects—Oral History” to help emerging professionals find out more about how established architects began and why small projects are important in any architect’s career.
The gist of the project is a toolkit that SPP developed to help AIA chapters everywhere create reliably high–quality, consistently edited, and professionally presented videos that speak not only to young architects but also to regional excellence in profiling individual projects and their architects. For anyone that’s tried to shoot a video, it’s never as easy as hitting the record button. There are tons of location variables. (Did you plan to shoot on a day that 500 high school sophomores have arrived for a field trip?) And before you can balance talking heads and b-roll in post-production, you’ve got to know what to shoot in the first place. And as any professional videographer will tell you, that’s just scratching the surface.
What was your first project? What was the design process like? What do you wish you knew when you started? Sure, each video subject is unique (and so are his or her career “firsts”), but if this oral history project is going to be useful—as SPP hopes—then each installment has to be consistently good. And that relationship between useful and good, in the end, could even be a mantra for any emerging architect, anywhere.
The Hows and Whys of CRANtv
The AIA’s Custom Residential Architects Network (CRAN) is one of the most active groups dedicated to helping architects who specialize in residential design—which is, by any estimate, a large portion of architects in the U.S. Clients are important to any sector of the profession, but residential architects have a unique relationship to their client base. Designing a home is not easy; “home” speaks about a client’s aspirations, status, and comfort—not to mention the process of setting a budget, thinking about space, and being realistic about one’s lifestyle—a deeply personal process of discovery from start to finish.
Square one in that process is—and, by CRAN’s reckoning, has to be—developing trust with clients. What makes architects special? Who really needs an architect? How do you choose the best architect for your needs? What should your house look like anyway? CRAN’s attempt to broach these subjects is its eponymous CRANtv, a series of videos that can be borrowed by AIA chapters, other architects, and anyone, really, who is in the business of demonstrating an architect’s value to the world.
Working with Doug Patt, AIA, who runs How to Architect (howtoarchitect.com), the members of CRAN have produced and posted five separate installments of CRANtv on YouTube, arranged in a logical sequence. It’s a kind of pre-discovery process for clients before the hard work of schematic design and design development begins. And it’s working. To date, the videos have garnered tens of thousands of views and, in the process, CRAN has likely converted more than a few potential clients into happy homeowners.