AIA celebrates 150 years

The AIA’s astonishing milestone — 150 years since its founding — is something to admire. AIA was established to give architects a voice, a place to commiserate, network and learn about architecture. There’s no doubt these goals, and more, have been achieved.

In 1857, 13 architects led by Richard Upjohn created the New York Society of Architects. Sixteen more architects were invited to the second meeting held March 10, 1857. It was at this meeting that Thomas U. Walter came up with the name we know today: The American Institute of Architects. One month later, this group of elite professionals stood before a judge at the New York City Hall and filed a certificate of incorporation.

Ten years later, architects across the country expressed the desire for a voice similar to what AIA offered to the New York area. AIA realized that chapters were the next logical step for the organization. The New York Chapter thus is considered the first official chapter.

The front (left) and back of the AIA Gold Medal.

In 1884, a competing organization was created in Chicago called the Western Association of Architects. Five years later, both the AIA and WAA realized the benefit of merging into one collaborative effort and became one organization.

Through its 150-year history, the AIA has grown while celebrating architects and their creations. The organization celebrates important and influential architects by awarding the Gold Medal. Designed by A.A. Weinman in 1906, the Gold Medal was first awarded to Sir Aston Webb in 1907. The most elaborate Gold Medal ceremony was held in 1923 when Henry Bacon, architect of the Lincoln Memorial, was presented with the award by President Warren G. Harding.

Throughout AIA’s history, conventions have been important to its members. In fact, the AIA constitution originally required a special meeting to be held annually on Feb. 22. The reason for this specific date was to celebrate the creation of AIA and George Washington’s birthday. On Oct. 22 and 23, 1867, AIA held its first convention in New York City. The largest convention was in 2006 in Los Angeles with 19,453 attendees.

The 2007 AIA convention is in San Antonio, May 3-5.

As AIA commemorates 150 years, multiple celebrations are planned. One such celebration is AIA’s Green 150 Project, which includes a planting of 150 trees as a gift to San Antonio to acknowledge its commitment to the local community.

Another celebration of 150 years is AIA’s Blueprint for America. This program is an opportunity for architects to give back to their communities. Throughout the country, architects and AIA chapters are working with government officials and citizens to explore areas of improvement throughout their communities. Indirectly, these efforts will express the importance of how architects can contribute to a better way of life. On the occasion of AIA’s 150th anniversary, AIA will give the nation a gift of these blueprints that point toward the future.

The member experience

To learn more about personal experiences of being an AIA member, Residential Design & Build magazine interviewed two chapter presidents, Tom Meyer, FAIA, president of AIA Minnesota and Mark Smith, AIA, LEED AP, president of AIA Florida. Both expressed that being an AIA member is important to their practice as well as their growth.

Mark Smith, principal of Smith Architects in Sarasota, Fla., has been involved in AIA since 1983. Tom Meyer, principal of Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle in Minneapolis, has been involved for 25 years. The two presidents were driven to join the AIA by different factors. “After I (became) registered as an architect, I joined to do what is the norm — to complete my professional affiliations. [To become a member] seemed like the natural thing at the time,” Meyer says.

Smith, on the other hand, was encouraged by his boss. “He was the president of the St. Petersburg section of the Tampa Bay Chapter. Through meetings and things like that I ended up becoming an officer,” Smith says. After Smith moved to Sarasota, he took a few years off before getting involved in the Gulf Coast Chapter. Here he held positions as chapter director, vice president and then president.

Meyer adds that one of the benefits AIA offers its members is the ability to choose how actively they participate. “It can be used as only a resource without actively participating. You can use its contracts, knowledge areas on the website, go to conventions, and partake in continuing education — a more passive function. Or if you want to get involved, if you have a passion for something, AIA is great for that, too. Here in Minnesota we have 23 different committees working on state and regional issues. If you want to go to meetings, make something happen in your community or meet like-minded people, there’s a lot of opportunity,” he says.

Both presidents say the networking opportunities offered by being a member of AIA are rewarding. “I enjoy the camaraderie and meeting other architects. We get together and share war stories. It’s a healing process to know that you’re not the only one out there with problems or challenges with building officials, owners or contractors,” Smith says.

Smith explains that there are two types of networking: office networking and business networking. “Sharing ideas professionally is office networking. Then there’s business networking. As an AIA officer, I’ve spoken before the county commission, city commission, city planning board and county planning board. I’ve been interviewed by magazines, newspapers and TV. That has all helped in name recognition and is an opportunity to get your [business] name out there,” he says.

In the end, both chapter presidents find that being a member of AIA is a great resource for education, networking and growth. “AIA provides a way to distinguish yourself and show that you’re at the top of your game. It’s a terrific way to advance yourself through membership both from a layer of prestige but particularly for the resources and connection,” Meyer says.

Smith adds that AIA is the only professional organization that’s looking out for the best interest of architects. “The larger our numbers, the stronger we are. Without the AIA, you wouldn’t have the great documents, or the voice in Washington,” he says. “It’s a great way to be represented. [Architects] will enjoy it.”

AIA plans for a greener future

A variety of knowledge communities meets the needs of all architects. Plus, AIA grows its focus on sustainable practice.

RK Stewart, FAIA, president of the American Institute of Architects, answers several questions from Residential Design & Build about the architecture profession, the health of AIA, and what’s in store for the next 150 years of AIA.

Q: You were elected twice as vice president. How were these terms successful?
In my first term, I was focused on issues of emerging professionals. In that capacity, I worked with the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards and our memberships to deal with issues of the internship process. We developed the Emerging Professionals’ Companion as a case study document that interns and young people in the profession can use to gain experience and move forward in licensure. We also dealt with issues around scholarship and mentorship.

In my second term, I was lucky enough to be chair of the Advocacy Committee. We focused on the issues of government affairs and legislative initiatives, primarily at the federal level but also supporting those efforts at the local and state levels.

Q: What do you plan to do differently as president of AIA?
I’m continuing my interest in emerging professionals and the way we attract people to participate in the profession. And, how we move them through education and licensure to join us in creating the built environment and creating wonderful

I’m also interested in how we can change the diversity of the profession so that going forward, the profession reflects the communities we serve in terms of ethnicity, gender and age. We have a broad spectrum of people contributing to the creation of the built environment.

And lastly of course is the issue of sustainable design. We’ve come past the tipping point where the general public understands that the way we inhabit the planet is threatening the future of humanity. I’m spending a lot of my energy on trying to get the general public to understand that it’s buildings, and not what they drive, that pose the greatest threat to the issues of climate change.

Q: Please expand on what AIA is doing in regard to sustainability.
AIA’s position is that we as architects really need to change the way we practice our craft. We’re working hard to develop the necessary tools for our members to be able to do that; to take on that challenge as we continue to get people’s understanding that buildings are important. We’re finding some great allies in that effort.

Last year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed their Resolution 50 which recognizes AIA’s position. It calls for a 50 percent reduction in carbon and use of fossil fuels, and the design, construction and operation of buildings, and the continual reduction in fossil fuel use so that we become carbon neutral by 2030.

We’re working with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, supplying them with resources — as we’re also supplying our members with resources — to be able to address those things as they move forward to work on that reduction goal. We’re also going to Congress, and lobbying for legislative and regulatory changes that will help our cause.

Q: How is AIA educating and supporting residential architects?
We have 26 knowledge communities that come together around certain issues and areas of practice. In fact, we have one that is specifically organized around housing and the custom residential community. Within that knowledge community there are five networks: affordable housing, custom architects, green housing, production housing and multifamily housing. All this information is available on our website at

Through our website, we provide news, competitions, best practices and case studies. We work on a regular basis with the Gallop organization to do surveys on design trends. We’re also working with RDB magazine on a survey of general contractors to establish trends that our members and readers of the magazine can utilize (see survey results on pg. 52).
In October 2007, the Custom Residential Architects’ Network is sponsoring a symposium in Chicago. It will focus on issues of practice on residential projects. It’s a good opportunity to share information on client-contractor relationships, emerging technologies, how to convey the value of working with a design professional, and what marketing materials are important.

Q: How did you get your start in architecture?
I got started when I was in high school, as many do, looking at the buildings and built environment where people live, work and play — things that are the backdrop of our lives. And what it meant to create places people inhabit. The interest in that spurred me into the university and into practice.

Q: How did you become involved in AIA?
After teaching at Mississippi State University and Louisiana State University, then practicing in the Midwest and East Coast, I moved to San Francisco. Given the nature of the regulatory environment (in San Francisco) between building codes and planning codes, I became increasingly frustrated with the way those regulations made it difficult for us to do the things we wanted to do to satisfy our clients. I became active in the institute and participated in the Urban Design Committee within my local chapter which led me up the ranks to the presidency of AIA San Francisco in 1996. From there, I became president of AIA California Council in 2000, then to the national board and to the national presidency.

Q: How long have you been involved in AIA?
My first involvement as a member of the Urban Design Committee dates back to 1985 or 1986.

Q: How do you feel about being president as AIA celebrates 150 years?
It’s an incredible opportunity. As we look back 150 years at what has been achieved in this country in regard to the role buildings, structures and places have played to support the nation’s development, it is incredible.

Q: What do you see in store for the next 150 years of AIA?
What we’re doing to engage communities to strengthen the skills of our practitioners and inspire them to do great work is really what the Institute has done in the past and will continue to do in the future.

RK Stewart, FAIA, is the 2007 president of the American Institute of Architects. He is principal for Gensler in San Francisco, joining the team in 1988, where he manages large-scale projects. He has extensive experience in renovation, urban mixed-use, office building, planning and urban design, low/mid-rise office, civic/cultural and public facilities, workplace design and hospitality projects. Stewart holds a master’s of architecture from the University of Michigan and a bachelor’s of environmental design from the University of Kansas. He has presented at many speaking engagements in the architecture field.

Feb. 23, 1857 - Thirteen architects met in Richard Upjohn’s office and created the New York Society of Architects.

March 10, 1857 - Second meeting of 13 architects with an additional 16 other invited architects. Thomas U. Walter suggested The American Institute of Architects as a name.

April 13, 1857 - The current members of AIA went to New York City Hall and filed a certificate of incorporation.

1866 - The first contract document adopted by AIA was a fee schedule.

1867 - Chapters were created within AIA to include other cities. The New York chapter was considered the first official chapter.

Oct. 22 and 23, 1867 - AIA held its first convention in New York City.

1884 - Western Association of Architects was founded in Chicago.

1886 - Louise Bethune became AIA’s first woman member.

1888 - The first construction document adopted by AIA was an architect and owner agreement.

1889 - AIA and WAA merged into one group.

1889 - Bethune became the first woman Fellow.

1898 - AIA moved to Washington, D.C. The Octagon House was the headquarters.

1907 - The Gold Medal was first awarded to Sir Aston Webb.

1920 - Fellowship rules were changed requiring a jury of Fellows to select candidates from AIA chapters; then chapter members would choose those who would get full membership.

1923 - The most elaborate Gold Medal ceremony was held honoring Henry Bacon, architect of the Lincoln Memorial.

1935 - Fellowship rules changed again. The process gave full power to the Jury of Fellows.

1952 - College of Fellows was established.

2006 - Largest AIA Convention in history with more than 19,453 attendees and 24,793 registrants.

Following is a sampling of products to be on display at the AIA convention.