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AIA Wisconsin Field Visit and Early May 2012 Interviews, AIA Repositioning

During the week of May 1, 2012, Jane Kolleeny, AIA consultant to the repositioning initiative, met with AIA Wisconsin members, as well as architects from Washington D.C., Milwaukee, Ohio, Delaware, and Kansas City to discuss the AIA’s repositioning initiative.

The following key observations were documented during those meetings.

Key Observations

  • In general, our society is not comfortable with paying for non-commodity-based services and has a hard time gauging their value. Architecture is one of the few “custom” services left in our modern world. Also, when a client embarks on an architecture project it’s a big deal—a huge expense and investment for the client, psychologically and physically. So there’s tremendous anxiety around the endeavor.
  • The public has no real idea what architects do. One architect felt AIA National should lay off half of their staff and hire a national marketing firm to do an ad campaign promoting a 21st century version of what architects do. Some feel the profession continues to promote a version of architects being on the “bleeding edge” of design, which scares the typical client away who perceives them as expensive, spoiled, unnecessary, and difficult.
  • Architects interviewed feel academic institutions do not adequately prepare students for the realities they will encounter in the marketplace. Students have not been prepared for the workplace and the exam has become extremely complicated, expensive, and long-winded, providing additional challenges for students. Firms are not keen on being burdened with the task of educating incoming emerging architects as it is expensive and time consuming for them.
  • One young woman who is trained in both architecture and engineering is starting a school that takes a multidisciplinary approach to training architects. Among other things, the school will have a degree program in disaster relief. There is a strong entrepreneurial spirit among the younger generation.
  • Architects don’t spend enough time walking in the clients’ shoes and listening closely to envision how they see their world. Architects are not strong at reading the client and listening; in fact, they think their job is to turn clients to their way of seeing rather than responding to the client’s needs. They also have a low tolerance for change.
  • Architects feel the current AIA organization is guaranteed to fail. The board is too large, the staff is balkanized, people can’t make decisions, nobody has answers, and phone numbers are not on the website. Local chapters are more responsive and on the ball. In a bureaucracy like national, employee’s status in the hierarchy becomes more important than doing their job.
  • AIA is the architects’ Library of Alexandria, the keeper of the flame.
  • Architects have been talking about the disconnect with respect to “the value of architecture” for a long time—this value issue is nothing new to the industry. However, as the tasks of the profession are marginalized due to more efficient project delivery systems, architects need to be astute about going beyond design into the construction side to maintain relevance and profitability. This could be preconstruction, post design, construction administration, and commissioning services, among other services, which are now commonly taken care of by other team members. Some of these services used to be part of architects’ standard repertoire but are no longer. If you hire a contractor the costs are hidden, whereas architects state them out front, contributing to the disconnect.
  • AIA should be far more focused on the small practitioner, who is the primary constituency of membership. As it currently stands, AIA national is focused on the large firms who can afford to offer staff to volunteer to work on the committees.
  • AIA needs to develop resources to serve the nontraditional roles in architecture, which are becoming increasingly important especially among the younger generation.
  • Architects routinely provide free services due to their fear of losing a project. This undermines them, the profession, and the prospect of reasonable fee structures. Architects are generally bad at valuing their services.
  • One of the key considerations of design is social responsibility. Architecture lasts a very long time—thus designs should accomplish a great deal and not be irresponsible. Architects have a duty to society to ensure its well-being. Because the developer’s view is profit based and politicians are short sighted, there is a mismatch there.
  • The behavioral research on how design affects health and productivity is growing. Information like this could be a great benefit to increasing the appreciation of the profession in society.
  • AIA would do better to hone in on doing a few important things really well instead of dabbling in everything. For example, contract documents are the best in class for 30 years.
  • There seems to be two distinct functions cited among architects—the project management side and the creative, design side with two very distinct skill sets. Some architects fall into one and some into the other and only a few excel at both. A familiar refrain has been heard that schools primarily focus on design excellence.
  • Young architects need mentors, not just formal ones that sign off on their internship paperwork but mentors who actually guide them in their career. Our current needs are contrary to the charrette tradition that has been passed down, which is not real mentoring, but using the students as CAD monkeys, and that they should tolerate and appreciate that.
  • Distance learning in the form of webinars is great for firms in remote rural areas.
  • Architects interviewed continue to applaud AIA’s advocacy values. On the other hand, some architects feel AIA lacks teeth in its lobbying efforts and needs to be more persuasive.
  • “Architecture” in the AIA acronym is invisible—the public doesn’t know what it stands for. The word “architect” ought to be stated in the name of the organization.
  • The AIA is more of a professional organization not a public institution—its usefulness is internalized in the profession and doesn’t have an outwardly facing demeanor but needs one.
  • Many architects have referred to some tangible member benefits that AIA could provide that would be truly valuable to members. These include job banks, which have been mentioned repeatedly, as have medical insurance, 401K insurance, and pension plans. Lawyers have such services in their association. One architect suggested enormous saving would be possible for architects and for AIA if such benefits were consolidated to the national level—economies of scale. Also, another architect mentioned some kind of recession insurance as a great benefit.
  • Comments about the logo continue—that it’s dated (around 1986), masonic, and conservative. AIA’s 150 year old history is reflected in the logo’s authority and wisdom, but one has to be careful that’s not lost if it tries to become younger and hipper because it takes a long time to become the elder.
  • Some architects have mentioned that all design is not good design, i.e., not all architects are very good at what they do. Also some architects provide questionable quality drawings for contractors, thus it’s no wonder contractors choose to do without them.

Learn more about the AIA’s repositioning initiative at


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