For much of recent memory, the news about Congress has more often been about partisan gridlock than about progress. Congressional job approval ratings last year averaged a near-historic low of 15 percent. Even so, the AIA managed to move some important legislative priorities through the system, according to Andrew Goldberg, Assoc. AIA, managing director of the Institute’s Government Relations & Outreach. “In 2014, we were able to get two key pieces of legislation passed,” Goldberg says. “The tax incentive for energy efficient buildings had expired and the AIA helped lead a big coalition to get it back in the books. We also made some strides towards reforming the laws on how the government does design and build.”
Some strides, yes, but a lot of work remains. In 2015, a record number of members—nearly 6,000—contributed to the AIA’s annual call for legislative priorities, which informs the Institute’s four-part legislative plan. They overwhelmingly asked for a strategy to support and protect their work. “Members want policy that promotes the value of what they do every day for their communities and policies that help position architects and their firms to design better buildings,” Goldberg says.
Reforming the procurement process used by the government to award design and construction contracts remains a major agenda item. Federal rules currently inhibit many firms from even applying. Between 2007 and 2011, firms competing for public sector bids spent a median of $260,000, while shortlists grew to include as many as 10 competitors. “Many firms have to do 80 percent of the design work in order to compete for government contracts with no guarantee they’ll get that work,” Goldberg says. “They are working for free.” Even when firms win the bid, the way that federal contracts are written can prevent the work from being profitable. “There’s a statute going back 60 years that limits what an architect can charge—the fees are limited to 6 percent of the estimated cost of the entire project—but then change orders come in, and firms have to eat those extra costs,” Goldberg says. This winter, the AIA will convene a roundtable of architects and federal agency representatives to explore potential modifications to this process.
Another place where architects can face undue fiscal burden is in the rebuilding of communities hit by disaster. While the AIA plans to advance policies that would help mitigate natural and manmade disasters in the first place—better building codes and investments in infrastructure, for instance—the Institute also wants to enact a national Good Samaritan law. “Good Samaritan legislation protects architects and engineers from unnecessary liability when they volunteer after disasters,” Goldberg explains. “We’ve had situations where architects are poised to go in, but the state doesn’t have Good Samaritan protection. They want to help, but they don’t have insurance to cover it. We want laws in place that allow architects and engineers to help rebuild.”
Perhaps the most pressing issue, however, remains taxes. President Obama made it clear in his State of the Union Address that tax reform is a priority, including an overhaul of the corporate tax structure. Nearly 70 percent of AIA member firms are considered small businesses, making less than $1 million a year. Most firms—about 80 percent—are structured as pass-throughs rather than corporations, according to Goldberg. This means that those firms operate under individual, not corporate, tax code. The AIA has partnered with organizations such as the S Corporation Association to make sure that tax reform ensures an even playing field. “Our number one priority is to make sure that Main Street companies are equal partners,” says Brian Reardon, president of the S Corporation Association. “The bottom line today is, if you’re an S Corporation or a partnership and you’re profitable, your top tax rate goes up to almost 45 percent. For C Corporations, the top rate is 35 percent. Architects need to make sure politicians understand that the companies they work for pay a lot of tax, and right now they are paying more than corporations. We need to restore parity.”
Looking to the future, the AIA also wants to mitigate student loan debt to support future architects entering the profession. Obama mentioned student loans in the State of the Union, and the AIA hopes to capitalize on a growing national concern about debt by passing a National Design Service Act. This would allow students to offset some of the cost of their education through design service.
The future of the profession not only hinges on educating emerging architects, Goldberg points out, but also the incoming Congressional representatives themselves. Many successful pieces of legislation—like the 2030 federal targets—were passed before some members of Congress started their terms. “One of our priorities is educating Members of Congress about the importance of existing policies so that they understand their value,” Goldberg says.
The AIA also hopes to better inform its members about how they can help lobby a shared agenda. Just as architecture has become an ever more layered and complex process, so, too, has politics. Making sure that policymakers hear and understand your goals is a multifaceted approach. “The days when you could simply have the D.C. lobbyist go up to the Hill are gone,” Goldberg said.
To that end, the AIA is calling this the year of the advocate. “We are working to empower architects so that they can advocate in D.C., at the state level, and within their local government,” Goldberg says. “It doesn’t have to be much. It can be a small investment, like sending one message to Congress, or sending a small contribution to a PAC. Every bit helps.”
In addition to the usual tactics—lobbying, contacting representatives, writing and placing op-eds in key publications—things like social media are becoming invaluable, Goldberg says. We live in an era where a hashtag can be as powerful as a trip to Capitol Hill. “Politicians are looking at Facebook and Twitter, and you have to use those tools to break through the news and the clutter,” Goldberg says. “Decisions are going to get made this year about the built environment, whether architects are there or not, so let’s make sure that we’re engaged and at the table. We’re not small. Eight-six thousand members can do quite a lot.”
Politics and Practice: A Primer
Susannah Drake, AIA, founder of Brooklyn, N.Y.–based Dlandstudio, understands how political cycles affect a firm’s business. Drake has navigated several complex, multiagency projects through the political system, including Sponge Park, her design for an environmental overhaul of the Gowanus Canal. That project alone required more than 200 permits. “I have a vision in my practice that is rooted in community and environmental activism, and to the extent that I can make that vision align with a political vision, I can get more done,” Drake says. Here, she offers a few tips for architects hoping to use the political system to support their work:
Get to Know Your Local Leaders
When Drake was a young mother, she would sit on the front stoop of her house in Brooklyn with her kids. Inevitably she would have conversations with neighbors and others about local politics, and Drake soon got to know the key players who made things happen in her community. Wherever you live, Drake says, find your equivalent of that front stoop. “I make sure to run into community representatives on the street and at events in order to maintain these ongoing, casual conversations.”
Follow Politicians on Social Media
Drake follows the blogs, tweets, and Facebook pages of her city council people and of those in neighboring districts. By staying on top of their personal priorities, Drake can more successfully advocate for her projects by showing how they dovetail with political agendas.
Get to Know Staffers
The electorate can be fickle, and politicians come and go, but agency staffers often survive multiple administrations. “My city council person has term limits, but there are staffers who have worked there for 20 years,” Drake says. “That history of how things have happened, and how things get done, is critical.”
Think Like a Designer About Politics
Drake equates politics to urban design, with myriad hidden influences affecting how things happen. “There are all of these different agencies controlling the city, and it’s the same thing for the political decision process,” she says. “Designers are skilled at unpacking complicated systems. So apply that to politics to understand the true reasons behind the way politics happen.”