Rachel Kapisak Jones

Architecture in 2022—like many industries—was defined by flux.

Let’s start with a net positive, as well as a first: As highlighted in this month’s AIA Now statistic, renovation outstripped new construction this year in the areas of industrial, commercial and institutional design for the first time in the 20 years that AIA has been collecting data on firm billings. AIA’s chief economist Kermit Baker, Hon. AIA, doesn’t think these numbers will change anytime soon.

“This is a long-term trend; our economy is growing slowly—a lot slower than it has in recent memory—and I think that means we don’t need new things so much as we need to reuse what we have,” Baker said in an online piece for AIA in May of this year. “Until we reverse this trend, which I don’t see happening, we are going to move toward an increased share in reconstruction and a decreased share in new construction.”

While the trend isn’t solely driven by an uptick in sustainability-conscious clients—AIA data reflects that only 3.8% of renovations are undertaken to explicitly improve building energy performance, while 1.6% are undertaken for improved resiliency—building reuse is still a critical part of reducing the carbon footprint of the built environment.

The value of renovation and reuse was reflected in one of the winners of AIA’s 2022 COTE Top Ten Awards, the Roxbury Branch of the Boston Public Library. Located in Nubian Square, a longstanding hub of African American culture in the city, the redesign of the Brutalist building prioritized community connection. By repositioning the front door of the library and its relation to the street, architects at Boston-based firm Utile made the library “a real and connective front porch to the community,” project architect Michael LeBlanc, AIA, told writer Anjulie Rao in “Who Cares?” in the September issue of ARCHITECT.

In the process of creating a building that was welcoming rather than forbidding or inaccessible, the Roxbury Branch retrofit also drastically lowered the building’s heating and cooling costs, demonstrating that—whatever the reasons driving a renovation—sustainability and public care can, and should, complement each other.

“Care is a less-conventional lens through which to see sustainability practices in architecture,” wrote Rao.

She continued, “In many ways, the AIA Framework for Design Excellence—which asks architects to create narratives around their efforts to address ideas like ‘equity’ and ‘community connectivity’—forces architects to think clearly about care as a linchpin to ‘sustainability’ work.”

The theme of care in architecture in 2022—and the tenets of the Framework for Design Excellence—was reinforced through the bestowal of the AIA Gold Medal on Angela Brooks and Lawrence Scarpa, co-principals of Brooks + Scarpa, who are, as AIA stated in a press release, “potent form seekers and socially responsible practitioners, a combination not easily replicated.” Brooks and Scarpa made their names partially through their designs for affordable housing and sustainable architecture, with projects like Step Up Special Needs Housing in Santa Monica, Calif., and the SIX Disabled Veteran Housing in Los Angeles. Their legacy was formed not just through innovative and visually stunning design but also through a sense of communal responsibility.

“Our design solutions affect more than the client and current occupants,” wrote Dan Hart, FAIA, this year’s AIA president, in his September Perspective column for this magazine. “Good design positively impacts future occupants and the larger community.”

Care Inside and Outside the Profession

Extending the idea of care to those working within the profession was another key theme of 2022. AIA’s most-read ARCHITECT piece this year, April’s “The Burnout Problem in Architecture,” addressed a troubling statistic: Of 225 architects surveyed in 2021 by architectural software company Monograph, 96.9% reported experiencing some form of burnout. Anecdotally, AIA found that increased workloads during the pandemic, as well as the exacerbation of already present challenges that women and people of color face in architecture, were forcing many to reconsider their relationship to architectural practice—and in some cases, leave the profession altogether.

There was no doubt that the shock waves being felt in architecture had the potential to impact what the profession looks like for years— even decades—to come.

These elements had a role in fomenting support for a labor movement in architecture this year, calling into question long-standing assumptions about what architectural workers deserve and how workers should go about attaining better pay and working conditions.

In 2021, architectural workers in New York formed Architectural Workers United (AWU) under the umbrella of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. It was the first union organizing in the profession in over 80 years, when the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists and Technicians (FAECT) folded during McCarthyism. AWU’s goal was to prompt changes to industrywide problems like long hours and pay that can be substantially lower than what other highly skilled professionals earn, especially considering architecture’s long educational and licensure processes.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey data for 2020, women, Black, and Latinx employees are underrepresented in architecture, which is congruent with AIA’s data. Women architects, the survey stated, also earn 18% less on average than male architects.

Conversations addressing the latter continued to gain momentum this year. AIA facilitated several of these, particularly through its Women’s Leadership Summit and accompanying webinars tackling mental health in the architectural workforce. Norms and expectations around workload in the profession are changing as mental health professional Dr. Akua Boateng pointed out during a mental health webinar in June. “Culture begins to shift when we realize what’s good for our collective and not just for our products,” she said.

The Future of Sustainability

The profession of architecture continued to advance its sustainability goals this year via wins both big and small.

There’s no doubt that architects are now working from a solid foundation of knowledge in the design of low-emission buildings. “We [architects] are really starting to make progress on climate action,” Lori Ferriss, AIA, told AIA in June. Ferriss, director of sustainability and climate action at Goody Clancy, presented at AIA’s 2022 Conference on Architecture in Chicago on the panel “Design for Climate Action & Climate Justice: Redefining Value.”

Ferriss continued, “Even if we don’t always implement as much as we could on our projects, we really understand how to design for decarbonization and how to think about resilience and designing for the future climate.”

Convincing clients to invest in green design is one of the biggest pieces of the decarbonization puzzle, as William Richards acknowledged in his April ARCHITECT article.

He wrote, “According to everyone interviewed for this piece, scaling up or down one’s ambitions to decarbonize architecture, or even scaling up or down in how it can work in terms of gross square feet, might not be easy or straightforward. But, all it takes is seeing the opportunities every day to create, select, and promote strategies that eliminate carbon emissions by setting targets, making goal acquisition part of normal practice, and advocating—at the personal level and the policy level—for these strategies.”

There were, in fact, several large wins this year at the policy level that Richards refers to. Supported by AIA, the Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law by President Biden in August, was heralded as the largest climate investment in U.S. history by pundits and news outlets. The legislation is estimated to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. by 40% by 2030 compared with a 2005 baseline. It includes another $330 million in grants to states and local governments to adopt the latest energy codes and an additional $670 million to adopt and implement zero-energy stretch codes—a top AIA priority for 2022.

This built on the momentum started by AIA’s support of the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act (IIJA), passed in late 2021, which included $2 billion for FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) Program, $500 million for energy efficiency upgrades to public schools, and $225 million to stimulate cost-effective building codes implementation. All of these provisions will make it easier for architects to implement the greenest designs possible.

As Greg Menti reported for AIA in October, the pledge, which aims to serve as an actionable set of standards and goals for reaching net-zero emissions in the built environment by 2030, faltered a bit in its targets over the last few years due to the pandemic, supply chain disruptions, and an uneven political landscape that found sustainability taking a backseat.

“Frankly, one of the most interesting metrics is that we’re only tracking about a 50% reduction over our original baseline while the current target is 80%,” 2030 Commitment co-chair Ashley Mulhall, aia, told Menti. “We’ve plateaued as an industry, and we’ve been trying to get to the bottom of it and help firms get past that hurdle.”

Mulhall continued, “There was an increase in signatories, which means a lot of firms are just getting started and moving a bit slower. But we also need to stop thinking of 80% as our target, and make movements toward 100% net zero as the real target. That’ll move the needle faster.”

The Future of the Profession

Making the profession of architecture more equitable and diverse is a stated goal of AIA. As of 2021, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) reported seeing growth over the last decade in Asian and Latinx populations, leaving representation of Black and African American professionals around 2%. This is an area for growth that architectural education, and the profession at large, will need to continue to address in the next year and beyond.

Susanō Hideko Surface, an instructor at a Seattle-based design and visual arts program, is one of a handful of educators in the U.S. today taking a new approach to better prepare students for professional practice in an industry where the odds continue to be stacked against women and minorities.

“Like other instructors, I teach the basics of how to understand and edit contracts, and how to minimize risk,” they say. “In addition, I emphasize negotiating fair wages, fees, and working conditions. I teach how to document workplace harassment and how to talk to lawyers in a free, 15-minute consultation to see if they’re a good fit for an antidiscrimination case. In short, I offer guidance on how to survive in white, capitalist, professional culture so artists and designers can function without internalizing orthodox thinking about how practice works.”

Again and again this year, we saw that tough conversations are often an imperfect starting point for change in the profession—but they don’t need to be perfect to be impactful. Indeed, there’s no other place to start.