Design is Not Enough
Illustration: Viktor Koen

For young architects and architects-to-be, the numbers are daunting. A 2012 survey conducted by the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) found that the average architecture school graduate holds nearly $40,000 in federal loan debt. That figure doesn’t even include the averages for private loans ($15,000), loans from family members ($8,100), or credit card balances ($2,000). [See “Loan Me A Dime (x 250,000)"] The millstone of debt, coupled with the arduous path to licensure and elusive job prospects, have many wondering if the profession should brace itself for a dearth of talent.

Andrew Goldberg, Assoc. AIA, the AIA’s managing director of government relations and outreach, can relate. He’s a member of what he calls one of the “lost generations of architects” that finished school in the early 1990s, couldn’t find work at architecture firms, and followed alternate career paths. Today, Goldberg and his colleagues on the AIA’s advocacy team are working to make sure that those who want to become licensed, registered architects can do so by reducing the debt barrier with the National Design Services Act (NDSA).

NDSA is a 2013 amendment to the 1974 Housing and Community Development Act originally presented by Representative Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) to the particularly unproductive 113th Congress that would allow the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to establish a loan forgiveness program for architects that provides volunteer services through community design centers in high-need areas.

Translation: Architects can work off their debt, freeing up capital to reinvest in their practices or simply to live. While Perlmutter and the advocacy team are tweaking the original bill before its reintroduction this summer, the crux remains the same. Young architects who volunteer their services for a specified length of time—the original bill called for one year—can have some of their debt forgiven, much in the way other licensed professionals are able to do.

“The important thing is that we have the concept,” Goldberg says. “There are worthy programs for doctors, lawyers, and veterinarians, but architects are just as important in communities, and we need to help those students as well.”

The marriage of service and young architects is a comfortable one, says Stephen Parker, Assoc. AIA, the former advocacy chair for the AIAS. While drumming up support for the NDSA among fellow young leaders, Parker saw tremendous engagement when students were empowered to speak to their representatives about their willingness to serve and the profound effect student debt has on their future. And, for over 10 years, the AIAS has facilitated Freedom by Design, a program that encourages students to serve low-income and disabled individuals by solving issues of accessibility in their homes.

“Many students would do a really incredible project through Freedom by Design and realize the idea of design as an advocacy effort. That’s really what students want to do through community design centers as they work off their debt,” Parker says. “I found it really powerful when students were able to get in front of the right people and make a passionate argument about how student debt is affecting their lives, and how they would make a positive impact on their community.”

Cindy Schwartz, who has 25 years of experience as a legislative and political organizer with groups like the League of Conservation Voters, recently signed on as the AIA’s senior director for advocacy. She’s hoping to duplicate the energy and optimism seen in emerging professionals and cultivate it among the AIA’s 86,000 members, equipping them with the proper tools to amplify their voice.

Advocacy efforts, like passing the NDSA, can protect the future talent of the profession. The AIA is constantly working on national, state, and local levels to ensure the profession itself remains healthy, Schwartz says. In tandem with the Institute’s advertising and public relations campaign—the first phase of which, “Look Up,” is seeking to disambiguate the concept of an architect to the world at large—the AIA has designated 2015 as the Year of the Advocate.

“It’s about creating a richer, deeper program to empower architects to understand the power and importance of doing this kind of advocacy work, and why it matters to the profession, as well as the future of the profession,” Schwartz says. “It’s to get them to speak up for themselves.”

Schwartz is looking to educate architects on everything from campaign development and the political process to proper messaging and access to tools to deliver those messages in the most effective way possible.

“Just like in writing,” she says, “there are particular ways to say things. In the political world, there’s messaging. The way that you phrase things, particularly to the public, makes an enormous difference. As it relates to getting others engaged, there is an entirely different way to thinking about how to craft those kinds of messages.”

As some members of Congress are making progress in uncoiling the Gordian Knot of the U.S. tax code, it’s doubly important for architects to make sure their messages are heard loud and clear. Countless firms rely on tax credits to function, most notably historic preservation incentives (enacted in 1976) and a tax deduction for energy efficient buildings called 179D (enacted in 2005), which offers a maximum deduction of $1.80 per square foot for the creation or renovation of energy-efficient buildings.

“Tax reform is a pretty dense subject, but the impact on every architect, every firm, and every community is potentially enormous because tax rates could change, affecting your cash flow and bottom line,” Goldberg says. “The kind of incentives and financing available for different types of projects could either be increased or go away.”

While the Institute’s advocacy efforts were responsible for the extension of 179D through the end of 2014, the aged historic preservation incentives are of particular concern. “The Second Annual Report on the Economic Impact of the Federal Historic Tax Credit,” a 2011 study released by Rutgers University, concluded that the Historic Tax Credit has leveraged $117 billion in private investment and created 1.5 million jobs, all while underscoring the idea that the most sustainable building is the one that’s already built. To date, architects have rehabilitated more than 40,000 historic buildings in connection with this credit.

The issue to be most worried about is the credits’ age. Most members of Congress today were not around in the early ’80s and therefore may not be aware of its existence. “When they’re looking for things to change in the tax code, if they don’t hear from architects about why it’s important, it could get thrown out,” Goldberg says. “That’s why we need to be there talking about it.”

And, don’t forget about legal changes at the state level, too. In every region of the country, architects have faced some level of encroachment by other professions seeking to carve out a piece of design business for themselves, says Mattia J. Flabiano III, AIA, a senior principal at Dallas-based Page, and a member of the AIA’s Political Action Committee. Flabiano sees lobbying efforts as one of the major ways that architects can effectively assert themselves.

Looking at one example in the Keystone State, one can see why. In 2014, the Interior Design Licensing Coalition of Pennsylvania backed an amendment to AIA Pennsylvania’s mandatory continuing education bill that would have codified interior design practice as a separate practice from architectural practice. Unlike the law on architectural practice, however, it lacked any thresholds, meaning retrofits and renovations of any building type, complexity, or size (publicly funded or otherwise) that didn’t involve structural elements (as would purportedly be identified by the interior designer) would be swept into the new law.

This would have meant that building owners could still choose to hire an architect for their renovation projects, but they could instead choose to contract only with an interior designer without an architect’s supervision and seal. Equally disconcerting—and a public safety issue, no less—to satisfy the minimum education and training requirements in the legislative proposal, a person could possess an associate’s degree from an unaccredited college and have a mere four years of work experience. The bid was an attempt to overturn language in Pennsylvania’s Uniform Construction Code that stated individuals could provide design services as long as they weren’t compensated, notes Scott Compton, AIA, a principal at Entech Engineering who chairs AIA Pennsylvania’s Government Affairs Committee.

So, what was intended as language to allow homeowners to make small alterations to their homes without requiring the services of an architect was misconstrued, Compton says, and nearly cost architects dearly. It was only through 11th-hour grassroots efforts to block the amendment that architects in the state were able to dodge this particular bullet.

And rather than wait for a last-minute phone call urging action on an issue, Flabiano sees advocacy arising organically when it is embedded in firm culture. With offices in the urban core of six major cities, he urges all young architects joining his firm to get involved in what he calls the “downtown issues” that concern them, whether it’s homelessness or affordable housing, as examples. To foster that involvement, Page sets aside several days per year—typically Fridays—for employees to volunteer and get involved in such issues.

But regardless of when and how the seed is planted, Flabiano believes that architects are particularly well-suited to play the role of advocate. And it’s time, he believes, for architects to boost their advocacy efforts.

“Advocacy has a huge impact on the business of architecture, but I don’t think that all architects understand that,” he says. “We’re trained to be good listeners, we work collaboratively in groups, we look at all ideas, and we’re problem-solvers. We have not been as loud in the communities because we’re too busy practicing our trade, as opposed to advocating for our profession and what we do to enhance people’s lives.”