Adding diversity to design

Why are you involved with the AIA? What drives your involvement?
Throughout my professional career, the AIA has provided me with the information, knowledge, and resources I needed, first to enter the profession, then to practice and then to teach. It has provided me with a community of colleagues, a professional network with whom I enjoy spending time and to whom I turn for assistance and inspiration. And it provides me with the power of a collective voice in government and public advocacy.

Pragmatically, I am involved because I benefit from that involvement. Additionally, however, I am involved because I think it is a professional responsibility to be involved. Like all professional organizations, the AIA is its members, and thus is only as strong as its members make it. Right now, with record membership, strong leadership at many levels, a strong economy, and most importantly a clear public advocacy agenda, there are very tangible benefits to involvement.

What is the greatest need of residential architects today? How is AIA fulfilling this need?
Like all architects, those who specialize in residential work need the knowledge and tools to provide the best expertise and services to their clients and communities. AIA fulfills the knowledge need through continuing education and its knowledge communities. Those of special interest to residential architects include housing, design, small projects, the environment and sustainability, and practice management, to name just a few. Special tools needed by these practitioners that the AIA provides include contracts specific to this market, housing market data, and even things like access to affordable healthcare policies for employees.

What is the greatest threat faced by residential architects? By all AIA members?
The greatest threat faced by residential architects and all AIA members is the lack of demand for their services due to a lack of understanding from clients and potential clients about the value architects bring to projects. To overcome this threat, residential architects must consistently prove their value through successful projects that have measurable outcomes, such as saving money, energy, and/or time; improving resale value of individual buildings and neighborhoods; and enriching individual residents’ lives and health. The AIA then has the responsibility of promoting these stories, of advocating to the public about how design matters and that the design expertise of residential architects brings value to homeowners.

While a lack of demand is a historic and perennial threat to the profession, I would say that right now demand for the services of architects in most market sectors is outpacing supply. Almost everywhere I travel in this country and abroad, firms are having a hard time finding enough staff to meet demand. This is partly due to a periodic economic cycle, but I think it is also because we are in an age in which consumers are better educated about the value of good design in many consumer products, and many homeowners and other clients are understanding the value that architects bring to projects.

How can residential architects “leave the place better than how you found it” as you have said?
In addition to designing more beautiful and accommodating places for people to live, work, and play, all architects must take on the responsibility for sustainable design. For residential architects to “leave the place better than they found it,” they can and must drastically reduce energy consumption by designing more energy-efficient buildings in more energy-efficient communities. The AIA recognizes a growing body of evidence that demonstrates current planning, design, construction and real estate practices contribute to patterns of resource consumption that seriously jeopardize the future of the Earth’s population.

Buildings use almost 50 percent of the energy consumed in this country. Fifty percent! We’ve made this recognition known through the hosting of a sustainability summit in 2005 and also through release of a public position statement on sustainability. Our commitment to sustainable design is strong: Through it, we advocate (among other things) achieving a minimum 50 percent reduction from the current level of consumption of fossil fuels used to construct and operate new and renovated buildings by the year 2010. This is an ambitious goal that requires all of us working together and educating clients and communities.

Your research and writing focus on the profession’s image. What is that image, does it need to change, and what will the image be in 20 years?
Research done by the AIA, and others, suggests that the public image of the profession is quite positive. In public opinion polls, architects are considered trustworthy and creative, both very positive attributes. Architects are also, however, almost always thought to be white and male and gray-haired, focused only on single buildings, and often thought to be a little too idealistic and/or impractical. Idealism can be positive, but being too impractical is rarely positive, and lacking gender and racial diversity is a definite negative.

In 20 years I think the image of the architect will be slightly different. It will no longer be limited to white males of a certain age, but will be more reflective of the make-up of society. It will no longer be limited to designers of single buildings, but will be more accurately expanded to designers of communities. And, it will no longer be idealistic and impractical, but will be idealistic and pragmatic, designers of and advocates for more valuable, healthy, secure, and sustainable buildings and cityscapes.

How has residential architecture changed in the past few years, for better or worse? How have homeowners’ expectations changed in the past 10 to 20 years, and how have these changes affected the way residential architects operate?
The expectations of homeowners increased significantly in the past 10-20 years, as they, and all consumers, grow to be more design-savvy and educated. These expectations changed residential architecture for the good and the bad. On the good side, there are more and better products and building materials for residential design; there is more acceptance of and demand for regional styles and materials; and there is more demand for high-quality design. On the bad side, homeowners too often prize quantity over quality, confusing big with good. This focus on bigness has many negative consequences for our built environment and on our use of materials and energy.

As only the second woman president of 82 AIA presidents, in a group that has been around for almost 150 years, a casual observer might think diversity is lacking from the architecture profession? Is this an accurate assessment? Why or why not?
Regrettably, gender and ethnic diversity is currently lacking in the profession. Of our licensed members, 11 percent are female, 2 percent are Asian, 3 percent are Latino, and less than 1 percent are African-American. Of our Associates (those not licensed), the numbers are more encouraging: 33 percent female, 7 percent Asian, 7 percent Latino, and 5 percent African-American. Our 2003 AIA Firm Survey also shows improvements:

  • As of 2002, women comprised 27 percent of architecture staff at firms, up from 20 percent in 1999.
  • Racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 17 percent, up from 9 percent three years prior.
  • Of registered architects, women account for 20 percent, up from 14 percent, while racial and ethnic minorities were over 11 percent in 2002, up from 6 percent.
  • In 2002, women accounted for nearly 21 percent of principals and partners at firms, up from 11 percent in 1999.
  • Racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 11 percent of principals and partners, up from 5 percent.

We still have much work to do. A recent Diversity Data Collection project illustrated that in addition and/or related to an under-representation of women and minorities, there are barriers to diversity in education, there is inequality of opportunities in practice, barriers to licensure and registration, and corresponding attrition of women and minorities. The AIA is now working on many fronts on ways to expand the path to practice, improve licensure rates and reduce attrition, and ensure equal opportunities.

How will more diversity change the profession, and the structures created by those in it?
Diversity is critical to our profession’s relevancy and success. Our industry must have access to a complete and inclusive labor pool to be knowledgeable and innovative enough to deal with the issues of the 21st century. Without access to every ounce of the rich cultural, genetic, creative and spiritual energy that is a unique blessing and precious resource of our multicultural society, we will be drinking from a too-limited collaborative pool. Success in achieving a diverse and inclusive profession that mirrors the society we serve will not only improve our marketing and technical edge, it will also inevitably lead us to be better designers for an inclusive society, and stronger advocates for the public good, a mandate for all professions.

As associate dean of Iowa State University’s College of Design, you’re in touch with many young architects. How is their approach to architecture different than students’ approach when you were an undergraduate?
Students today enter college with more life experiences than previous generations of students. They enter college as students and consumers with high expectations of the college experience. Many students have traveled extensively, and worked at various jobs. Many have significant computer experience, so much so that they end up teaching the teachers how to maximize the use of these new toys and tools. Their approach to architecture is thankfully and appropriately equally idealistic and optimistic as have been the approaches of every previous generation of students. They enter architecture education because they want to use their creative abilities to make a difference in the world, to make the world a better place. Today, they have more experience and technology to help them make that difference.