About 50 congressional staff attended the briefing to hear about proposed policies to make the country’s 500,000 federal buildings more energy efficient, including the High-Performance Federal Buildings Act, a bill recently introduced by caucus co-chair Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Mo. The measure would require federal agencies to consider life-cycle cost analysis for the design, construction, operations, and maintenance of buildings, which would help federal agencies spend funds more efficiently and would also require the employment of architects. “The architects played a key role in helping to build a coalition for my bill,” Carnahan says.

Via the building caucus, the AIA and ASLA are invited to a monthly meeting at the D.C. offices of ASHRAE, the society of heating, refrigeration, and air conditioning engineers, which boasts 55,000 members. Every third Thursday of the month, dozens of organizations from the building industry meet to discuss policy and strategies to build support on issues. “We work closely with the AIA to identify topics and to coalesce on topics of mutual interest,” says Doug Read, the chief lobbyist at ASHRAE.

In February 2009, for instance, when Congress was considering the $787 billion stimulus package, billions in school-reconstruction funds were eliminated from legislation that the House passed, putting untold pending construction projects in jeopardy. The AIA helped create an 80-member ad hoc coalition that put pressure on lawmakers to restore the funds for school construction. The final legislation included about $49 billion for states to allocate to public schools for modernization, renovation, repair, and construction projects. The funding also helped prevent teacher layoffs and program cuts for school-reconstruction work.

In 2010, the AIA joined with other organizations to help pressure the government’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy to repeal a mandatory 10 percent withholding fee on architectural and engineering contracts until the construction work is completed—a stipulation included in government contracting regulations for more than two decades.

The AIA has also forged partnerships with the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), which employs 11 lobbyists and six outside lobbying firms. The association’s PAC contributed $2.1 million to federal candidates in the 2010 election cycle, of which 63 percent went to Republicans and 37 percent to Democrats. Members with the association’s 800 state and local chapters are constantly meeting with lawmakers, says Scott Meyer, the assistant vice president of government affairs. “I don’t think there is a day where we are not up on Capitol Hill speaking and talking to members in the House and Senate,” he says.

The NAHB’s biggest policy and political issue is ensuring that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac still play a key role in spurring home financing. Since the collapse of the housing market, Fannie and Freddie have become a political football, and there has been a push in Congress to eliminate the two quasiprivate companies from the housing market. “We have been doing a good job slowing that down,” Meyer says.

Architects have leveraged the NAHB’s lobbying muscle by working with them on issues such as sustainability in housing policy and on tax credits for construction of new energy-efficient homes. “We have a strong relationship with architects,” says James Tobin, chief lobbyist at the NAHB. “We like to bring architects with us to Hill meetings because we want to show the diversity of industries impacted by energy efficiency. And certainly, architects play a big part of the success of these issues.”

Consider also the AIA’s work with the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), which represents 30,000 contracting firms and owns a townhouse on Capitol Hill, where its five in-house lobbyists work full-time. AGC’s PAC doled out $985,249 to federal candidates in 2010, of which 76 percent went to Republicans and 23 percent to Democrats. While AGC doesn’t employ any outside lobbying firms, it does bring in several hundred of its members to Washington, D.C., three times a year to lobby and reinforce its advocacy message on the Hill. The organization’s local chapters also regularly arrange fly-ins to Washington to meet with lawmakers. AGC’s top priority is infrastructure spending, which dovetails nicely with the AIA’s priorities. The two organizations also lobby together on workplace safety and sustainable-infrastructure issues.

“We are thrilled to work with the architects because they are a leading indicator for construction, so when we go in and talk to lawmakers with them, they paint a fuller picture of whatever we are advocating for,” says Brian Turmail, spokesman for the contractors.

Joel Zingeser, FAIA, vice president of planning and business development for Rockville, Md.–based Grunley Construction Cos., is an AIA member and sits on AGC’s executive board. He says that the two organizations work well together on everything from tax issues to sustainable-energy policies.“The AIA coupled with the AGC has a significant voice,” Zingeser says.

Boots on the Ground
For all the progress that architects have made in refining their efforts on the Hill, one pointed criticism remains: They come to Washington to lobby as citizens far too infrequently. Very few of the AIA’s 80,000 members meet regularly with lawmakers in the capital or in their home offices apart from the annual Grassroots campaign, according to interviews with lawmakers for this story. Compare that with the National Association of Home Builders, which is helping to arrange for its 140,000 members to come to D.C. and meet with lawmakers throughout the year.

“The home builders are in my office much more often than the architects, by a wide margin,” says Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., who ran a roofing and construction company before his election to Congress. “I’d like to see the architects in here more.”

One reason why architects haven’t been as engaged in national public policy is that the profession demands long hours. “It takes time to lobby,” says Virginia architect Dennis Findley. “I think it’s also that architects don’t know how politics and Congress works. It’s intimidating. But architects, I think, can be very effective as lobbyists.”

Rep. Blumenauer, a former Portland, Ore., city commissioner and a strong supporter of the architects’ public policy agenda, has another theory. “Part of the problem is the nature of the profession. I have said, and no one has contradicted me, that architects remind me of a bunch of artists who pretend to be small businessmen and businesswomen. They are about design and care about some of the nuts and bolts of politics and legislation, but it’s not the first thing on their radar, or their second, or their third thing.”

Blumenauer says that he is continually prodding architects to get more involved in public policy. “The design community plays such a critical role in knitting together our infrastructure investments and how we relate to our natural environment,” he says. “For every 10,000 architects we can engage and energize, it ratchets up the discourse, the policy level, and the political process.”

Blumenauer points to the National Beer Wholesalers Association, which represents a tiny profession—just 3,300 wholesalers—but is highly visible on Capitol Hill and in state and local politics. The beer wholesalers employ six in-house lobbyists and three K Street firms, and spent $930,000 on lobbying in 2011. Their PAC is the second-largest donor of any industry in the 2012 cycle, contributing $1.5 million so far to federal candidates. (The largest PAC, the Realtors, have contributed $1.6 million so far this cycle.)

The beer wholesalers “are very focused, have an agenda, and everyone on Capitol Hill knows what it is,” Blumenauer says.

Robert Ivy, the AIA’s executive vice president and CEO, responds that his goal is to double the number of member donors to his organization’s PAC and to do more to persuade members to engage in politics. “Realistically, we’ll never be the Realtors, but we have a highly articulate group of individuals who are passionate about the built environment,” he says. Architects have become more engaged in local politics: Currently, at least 1,250 AIA members have joined various organization boards or have been elected or appointed to local and state positions. The AIA has created the Citizen Architect program to recognize their work. Such ongoing local lobbying efforts will translate up to the national level over time, Ivy says.

When Rep. Edwin Perlmutter, D-Colo., served in the Colorado state senate, for instance, architects helped him to pass energy-efficient building legislation. In November 2006, Perlmutter was elected to Congress and has since become a leading advocate for architecture, co-sponsoring the Capital Access for Main Street Act, which would encourage small community banks to provide more loans to small businesses, including architecture firms. “The architects and I have had a mutual-admiration society,” Perlmutter says.

As architects descend on the capital for Grassroots, they’ll hopefully be building the foundations for similar relationships with other lawmakers. The profession’s future may well depend on it.

Bara Vaida is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist who writes about lobbying, healthcare, and technology policy.