Jeff Potter, FAIA, 2012 President
William Stewart Photography Jeff Potter, FAIA, 2012 President

This issue of the magazine lifts a curtain on what’s in store for the profession in the years ahead. Based on what I’ve heard from you and seen in my own practice, this much is clear: Don’t expect a return to the heady days of boom times past. I’m not saying that irrational exuberance is dead, but I believe that our economy, and the public behavior that generally follows, will assume a more tempered character. What we’re experiencing is not a momentary blip; it’s the new normal.

Firms that embrace this evolution have changed their business plans. What follows are a few common themes:

Global practice. As the novelty is starting to wear off, more and more firms have some connection to practice beyond our borders. There’s work in China, India, and other emerging economies—the outcome of the pent-up demand of billions of people who have been underserved by 20th-century development. From my engagement with architects at the UIA Congress in Tokyo this past September, I know that our model of practice and abilities are highly admired around the world. What is of concern is our sensitivity to regional cultures while sharing best practices. If you think your practice is too small to be part of a global profession, talk to some of the architects waiting in airport lounges for international flights.

Respecting our practice. Throughout 2012, I’ll be working to speak for practice in AIA communications to various publics that admire us but don’t quite know what we do. We all seek a business environment where our process-inspired service trumps any perception of commodity, and our investment in lifelong learning gives us an advantage in contract negotiations.

Institutional work. Colleges and health facilities are growing. Firms engaged in master planning, designing new buildings, and retrofits will continue to have access to some of the few bright areas in this economy. These will stay bright as demands for an educated workforce increase and we grapple with the needs of aging baby boomers.

Engagement in the community. Increasingly, public service will not be something architects squeeze in during off hours; it will be an integral part of what we do. We have much to give, whether it’s on the school board or helping neighbors clean up a nearby park or stream. A slow economy is the right time to be out and about. When a project does come along, people will know you by your first name; more importantly, they’ll know you care about the community. Once your office is busy, don’t slack off on your commitment. After all, you and your neighbors have a shared goal in shaping a more livable, healthy, and sustainable community.

Quantifiable data. Firms able to demonstrate to their clients that the impact of what they design can be objectively measured will have a leg up on the competition. The prospect of the adoption this year of the International Green Construction Code (IGCC) will drive this outcome. No architect wants another codebook on the shelf. But establishing measurable standards for performance that are coincident with construction permitting reinforces architects as master collaborators in sustainable communities. Not to mention the firmer footing we will enjoy in advocating for practice in state and federal settings.

Disaster mitigation. As we grow to understand the ripple effects of catastrophic natural disasters, in terms of economic, social, and environmental impacts, we learn that there are more of us in harm’s way. Be it putting back together a community or preventing harm by designing resiliency into the built environment, this is a task for which our profession must take a leadership role. While in Tokyo, I had the privilege of seeing firsthand the work of teams of architects and students leading the efforts to heal the northeast coast of Japan that was devastated by last year’s earthquake and tsunami. We may not be first responders, but officials in countries both developed and undeveloped are realizing that the planning process must begin right away.

Architecture and health. In discussions with the public, decision makers, and, unfortunately, the medical profession, the role of architects and architecture seldom comes up—unless the talk is about hospitals and health facilities. In future conversations about the nation’s health, I predict that the role played by the built environment will increasingly be raised. Now, as never before, we have such an opportunity to make the case that health is a design issue.

Health, disaster mitigation, sustainability, community service—these are some of the most obvious ways in which architects and architecture can change lives. Yet there’s no broad public understanding of the power inherent in architecture. We’ve got to change that, and I’ll be writing about these and other issues in the months ahead. When I ran for AIA President, my proposition was to tell your stories and to speak for practice. I plan on lifting the bar to a new normal in the way that the public and our clients appreciate architecture and architects. In the months ahead, I will advocate for nothing more—and be satisfied with nothing less.