Rachel Kapisak Jones

Nationwide protests to end racism, police brutality, and calcified structural inequities; fraught economic forecasts; atrophied state budgets for public education and infrastructure; an ongoing pandemic; a polarized electorate in a polarized election; polar ice sheets losing mass; and CO2 at the highest levels in 650,000 years.

You don’t need 20/20 vision to see why 2020 is a pivotal year, to say the least, but will November be a pivotal election? It’s often said that “this election will be the most important in our lifetimes.” With all of these challenges looming, perhaps 2020 will be the year that rings true.

What does that mean for architects? Without endorsing a candidate or picking a side, how do we ensure that our profession’s priorities and concerns are addressed by the candidate that wins in November? It starts with setting a clear vision on what those priorities are.

“Mindy Fullilove talks about a just and moral world, and if you can imagine climate action, healthy communities, and equitable communities in a Venn diagram, at the center is the architect’s role,” says 2020 AIA President Jane Frederick, FAIA. “If we don’t fix climate health and structural racism, we will fail.”

This month, AIA’s Government Advocacy Committee published the Policy Platform ahead of this month’s Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee conventions to create clear guidance for the next administration in three areas. First, the economy: to prioritize job creation and equitable access to work opportunities, leverage private investment, and adopt business-friendly tax policies. Second, climate: to rejoin the Paris Accord, transform how we use energy (and the sources we develop), address the disproportionate impact of climate change on BIPOC communities, and to commit to zero-carbon building practices. Third, healthy communities: to invest in housing and infrastructure, confront ongoing discrimination, reinvest in public places and preservation, and strengthen resilience in the aftermath of increasingly more severe weather events.

“The platform we’ve defined helps us align with current conversations that are happening on both sides of the political aisle, as our society grapples with these issues: safety, poverty, systemic racism, injustice, and climate change,” says Timothy Hawk, FAIA, chair of the Government Advocacy Committee (GAC). “We have a responsibility to explain the gray areas to leaders, and this is broader than an election cycle pinned to November.”

AIA’s broader responsibilities to speak out against deleterious racism (both overt and covert) and reproach inequities that keep a 21st century profession squarely in the 19th century are urgently felt from first-year studio students to AIA Fellows. Racism’s reckoning is based in realities that are as pervasive as they are deeply rooted, affecting the outlooks and opportunities of tens of millions of Americans. This extends to the 30% gap between the homeownership rates of white and Black households, to the 10-to-one disparity between the net worths of white families and Black families, and to the broken promise of economic mobility and opportunity in the United States.

As GAC chair Hawk points out, these realities demand new and uncompromising ethics of decency and equity when you put them all together. Alone, these realities need to be addressed in specific ways by architects working within their communities and with their elected leaders.

Emily Roush-Elliott, AIA, also serves on the GAC, and advocated for strong affordable housing policies within the Policy Platform. Affordable housing is something her eight-person firm, Housing and Community Development based in Greenwood, Miss., knows a lot about.

“The reason my firm exists is because of racial inequities. Every family whose home we’re working on right now has to double-up or triple-up to save money because of the economic crisis,” she reports. “In some cases, the structures they occupy are physically unsafe, and in other cases, they are spectacularly inefficient and their utility bills are $400 a month. So, I am an architect, but my job here in the Mississippi Delta is also about helping people be safer in ways that are very personal and specific.”

Political Will and the Public Good

Buildings are responsible for 40% of the world’s total CO2 emissions, and deferred maintenance or bioremediation has made many of them dangerous and toxic. Buildings that define the most disenfranchised neighborhoods rob people of their health and leave them vulnerable to the unpredictability of a changing environment—from weather events, to infestations, to mold. Yet, architects work at the leading edge of a $1 trillion construction industry that determines many aspects of our lives. Architects are therefore in an ideal position to advocate for changes.

Investing in the public good is a question of design as much as it is a question of political will, Frederick says.

“The ‘public good' is about what is sometimes called the ‘third place,’” she says. “Not home, school, or work, but the in-between places where we walk our dogs, sit and have coffee, or ride the bus. The streetscape, the park, the restaurant. Those places are meaningful and should be cultivated, protected, and made sustainable through zoning, community initiatives, and basic civility.”

To see this vision become a reality, architects must be recognized as a powerful political force. That means voting in November for whomever you choose. Since 2019, AIA has maintained a series of presidential profiles on all those running—an even-keeled chronicle of an otherwise wildly uneven field, which has been whittled down to two. In the profiles, AIA maps their respective positions to issues relevant to the AIA’s “Where We Stand” statements and its Directory of Public Policies and Position Statements. The AIA has policy priorities in climate action, housing, student debt, school safety, tax on business, and resilience. So do the candidates, though they disagree with each other on many of the details.

It also means direct advocacy. Most architecture firms meet the federal government’s definition of small business, and for the firm leaders who run them, time is their most precious asset. In response, AIA has created the Architect Action Center on its core issues, with prepopulated email templates that allow you to contact your federal and state legislators. There’s one for the student loan crisis, one for affordable housing, one for sustainability and resilience, and one for the INVEST in America Act to create jobs for architects, spur projects for firms to secure, and improve communities through infrastructure and transit investment, among other measures.

November is also significant as it marks the final month of Frederick’s tenure as AIA President. In December, Chicago architect Peter Exley, FAIA, takes over to advance the Policy Platform.

“The most successful architecture projects embrace the public good,” says Exley, “but we must be much stronger and insistent in advocating for the public good and articulating the evidence of its power to improve lives. That means evidence-based design and codes, of course, but it also means talking about the value we bring to our clients, to job sites, to developers, and especially to end users and elected officials.”

In doing so, both Frederick and Exley see both the current public health crisis and the crisis of conscience that racial justice demands as catalysts for architects to demonstrate the ethical core that distinguishes their work as individuals and collectively as a profession.