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Redefining Success

Mark McConnel, AIA
Roanoke, Virginia

Success for most design professionals is an illusive concept; difficult to define and almost impossible to place on a professional timeline. We read about the instant “stars” in the architecture world, launched from obscurity into success by winning the competition of a lifetime. But for most of us success is a moving target defined on a daily basis. Particularly when working with developers as clients, design professionals need to measure very carefully the answers to real questions as well as rhetorical questions arising from self examination where success is involved.

Success is so hard to define in part because one of the missing components in this architectural age has been the large issue or pressing question that demands effort, research, advocacy, and whose answering validates our societal usefulness. Money has rushed in to try to fill the void but architects, seldom selecting this career path because of the earning potential, feel the emptiness in this measure of success. We are professionals and part of being a professional is the need to profess something.

At last, one issue is beginning to fill the void. One issue to which the architectural community is the rightful heir and through which we can address the very fabric of our built environment on a global scale. We can answer the questions that an awakening public has the right to ask and is going to ask.

Some people began grasping the concept of livable communities through the well-publicized advent of New Urbanism with communities such as Seaside, Florida. I now recognize my own embracing of the anti-sprawl message of New Urbanism as the first step in my education concerning livable communities and sustainable design. We all start somewhere. The important thing is to start. What followed were a few years of quiet study and research on my own time. This is important; because our clients do not expect to pay us to understand what we are trying to convince them is the right thing to do. A few dozen conversations with the wrong people at the wrong parties and the press – hungry for a story – asked me for some information. So, six years ago, I ended up doing an hour long radio show on the local PBS affiliate, explaining the short and long term effects of sprawl and demonstrating the economic and environmental un-sustainability of typical suburban growth. Still, I had never done a sustainable, deliberately livable, or “green” project. I was waiting for the right client to ask me to do the right thing.

Imagine my surprise when that “right” client never materialized. Instead, a developer with whom I had been working for several years called and asked if the project upon which we were working could be LEED certified. Success! As you might imagine, he was not willing to pay much more for the privilege of doing the right thing (mostly because I had convinced him that being a little more environmentally sensitive did not necessarily cost more than his normal high quality building) but he wanted to explore the concept. My career had taken a giant stride and I had just passed through what I now define as one of the most successful moments in my professional life. But that was not all. While working on another 130,000 square foot LEED project a year later with the same developer he turned to me and asked “What is this going to do to the neighborhood?” Naturally, I thought he was inquiring about where the next spin-off project would be. “No,” he said “what will this do TO the neighborhood?’ I sat their open-mouthed in astonishment and one word formed in my mind “SUCCESS”. He was really asking “Is this community going to be more or less livable as a result of this project?” He just didn’t know the architectural euphemisms.

I don’t know if my developer/client has really become concerned about the world in a way we would like, but I do know this: six years after I made enough noise about livable communities to be considered some sort of spokesperson for the concept, I finally have a client and project that may actually make a difference in our world. Interestingly, both are the product of a long journey and some considerable effort. I consider both the development of the individual and the project as two of my greatest achievements.

Sure, there are opportunities to go to work for architectural powerhouse with established sustainable design practices, but this may not be a feasible option for us mid-career types. More likely we will run across a (true) scenario like the following. Questioned by a developer/client about why we wanted to add a particular engineering firm to our team we explained their various strengths and added “they are very adept at incorporating sustainable design elements and technologies into their mechanical systems.” To which the developer replied in all seriousness “That is reason enough to fire them, right there.” True to form, they have not let us add this engineer to our team for their project. Undaunted, we go forward.

For most of the architectural community; we will create sustainable clients and then sustainable and livable communities. After all, architecture is not about steel and glass or straw bales and solar panels; it is about people. You, me, and our clients doing the right thing to bring success to all of us.


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