Birch Thomas

Recently, someone in my office asked me how I define project success. My answer: Project success occurs when a project not only performs the required function but also exceeds the vision of the client to create positive impact. Project success is when we make the ordinary extraordinary in the places where people live, work, play, and learn.

At an AIA event a few years ago, I heard Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts, speak about leadership. Her personal motto was, “To serve is to live.” She did two things at the beginning of her tenure: She vowed to defend the timeless core values of the Scouts and recommitted the organization to its enduring mission of helping girls reach their highest potential. Beyond that, everything else was open to change. She believed that any girl in America—regardless of socio-economic status, urban or rural location, or racial or ethnic background—should be able to picture herself in the organization. She grasped a central paradox of change: The organizations that best adapt to a changing world know what should not change.

For us, the power of design will never change.

At AIA, our mission is to inspire and empower architects to transform the world. One of the highlights of being AIA president is recognizing and celebrating the excellent work of our colleagues through the AIA Honors & Awards programs, many of which are featured at this year’s AIA Conference on Architecture. Although the power of design has not changed, we have shifted how we define good design so that it is more responsive to the complex challenges of our time.

Enter the AIA Framework for Design Excellence. The plan comprises ten principles—integration, communities, ecosystems, water, economy, energy, well-being, resources, change, and discovery—which were developed by the AIA Committee on the Environment. It reminds us that an architect’s call to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public has a new and broader meaning amid increasing climate extremes and social inequity. It offers a holistic approach to addressing the interdependence among people, buildings, infrastructure, and the environment. Every line drawn should be a source of good in the world.

Juries for the AIA Honors & Awards programs evaluate entrants through the Framework of Design Excellence lens, and winners represent both ordinary and extraordinary designs, from 2023 Gold Medal winner Carol Ross Barney’s city-enhancing Chicago Riverwalk to 2023 Firm Award recipient Mithun’s 70-year history of work steeped in place and community. They highlight ideas that engage and challenge the profession to grow and learn from peers and colleagues in the built environment. I invite you to learn more about this year’s celebrated winners and draw inspiration from them. You, too, can build on these principles in every project you design.