Changes and opportunities

The American Institute of Architects’ national convention this June in Miami provided a good opportunity to get away from day-to-day concerns about work, and to convene with like-minded professionals. With the economy in a quagmire, the challenges associated with residential practice seem overwhelming, but after the synergy of the convention, I feel a sense of renewal among our profession.

Apart from the educational and networking opportunities, one of the most engaging experiences came at the board of directors meeting on Saturday. A position paper from CORA (Congress of Residential Architecture) was presented to the governing body in the form of a resolution. Just the fact that CORA was given an audience with the board was significant because its membership is open to non-architects such as designers, suppliers, Realtors, the general public and anybody interested in promoting residential architecture. I believe it is unprecedented for the directors to consider a resolution from such a diverse community.

The paper was prepared and presented to the contingent by several architect representatives from CORA. The essence of the eight-point proposal was a number of concerns that have plagued the practice of architecture and the lack of representation for residential architects within the AIA. The list of concerns ranged from faults within the architectural education system, to the lack of restrictions on home design practice, to the need for strengthened professional designations, etc.

As national chair of CRAN (Custom Residential Architects Network), I was particularly interested in participating in this dialogue. We have maintained an open conversation with CORA members and share their focus of raising awareness for residential architects. The CORA resolution unfortunately failed to pass by approximately 2 to 1, but it created a very spirited discussion about the problems that residential architecture faces.

As a 2005 addition to AIA’s Residential Knowledge Community, CRAN provides a voice for these residential firms at the national level. It is one of the most active subcommittees, and as such is gaining momentum within AIA and garnering support from an increasing number of residential architects. It’s interesting to note that an astonishing 70 percent of AIA membership consists of small firms, and the majority of these are residential.

It is clear to me that we most often try to blame our educational institutions, our regulatory institutions, prohibitive insurance costs and others for our profession’s failings. I am now convinced, however, that the solutions to all of these challenges lie within our own resolve to improve our professional practice through change.

As a whole, we’ve become team players rather than project leaders, allowing homebuilders and other disciplines to run the show. The same is true in commercial and institutional architecture, where general contractors rule, especially in the design/build world. Perhaps due to the intrinsic costs of contingent liabilities or because we’re chasing the next great design project, as a profession we have rejected our origins as master builder. We must get back to our architectural fundamentals.

For example, while sustainability and green building are reasonably at the forefront of continuing education and research, it remains essential to also strengthen our education in the areas of structures, systems, cost, and just plain-old construction details about how materials and methods come together.

The AIA is in transition and there is great opportunity for involvement. The economic downturn has forced AIA to rethink its organization, allowing grassroots organizations to take root. Attending these conferences and being involved in my local chapter has given me a close-up view of this promising phenomenon.

It’s exciting to feel part of a new movement that is trying to regain what the architectural profession has lost during the past 60 years. I hope you will see some glimpses of this in your own markets and local chapters. If so, jump on the wagon. If not, find some like-minded colleagues and get something going.

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