AIA 2023 President Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA, on mentorship, sustainability, and more
Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA, will be sworn-in as AIA's 99th President in 2023. In the second part of a two-part interview with Grandstaff-Rice, we speak with her about her mentors, advice for young architects, why sustainability is crucial in the profession, and much more. Read the first part here.
Who is/was your biggest mentor(s)? How did they help your career? What advice do you have for seasoned architects who want to mentor younger architects?
Reflecting on mentors is like revisiting your favorite eclectic playlist. I have been fortunate to have many over the course of my career. There’s a bit of each one of them that has stayed with me. Sometimes it’s what they say—“work expands to time allotted” (Adolfo Perez, RA) or how they taught me how to communicate with intention (Matthew Tether, AIA).
My first architect mentor was Eugene Mackey, FAIA, a recognized architect in St. Louis. He would spend a day every year at my high school riding around with us on a school bus visiting significant buildings and sketching them. Through these day trips, I would learn the stories behind how the buildings came to be—the terracotta tile details on the Wainwright Building or the stonework at Washington University. I began to see my surroundings in a new way. I think a lot about access to this profession and how so many architects I know professionally become interested because they had a family member or a close friend in the field. I didn’t have that, but I did develop an understanding of the opportunities before college due to the opportunity to meet Mr. Mackey. I remember this when I speak to kids, especially on my projects. Who I am and what I do can make a difference, not just in the project work, but also inspiring others that architecture can be a fulfilling, exciting career.
Sometimes you don’t realize the influence mentors have until later in your career. During the summer before my final undergraduate semester, I was fortunate to work at a large firm in Albany under the supervision of Beth Lacey, AIA, who at the time was pregnant with her first child. Working alongside her, I saw how to navigate multiple roles—both professional and personal—as well as learning how to use my voice as an emerging professional and female. She was a fantastic role model.
My advice for seasoned architects is that you have so much to share. Mentoring is more than telling stories about how you did things or anecdotes from the field. It’s about creating a connection and guiding someone through discovering what they really want to do which may or may not be similar to your path.
How can architects take sustainability efforts to the next level? What AIA tools do you recommend to that end?
Every project can make a difference. Every decision is important. Often, architects think pushing sustainability is only on projects where the client is like-minded and in agreement, but I would challenge that part of our responsibility is to educate clients and advocate for healthier materials, more efficient systems, and responsible design strategies on every project. It’s when we advocate that we can make the greatest change. Collectively, as a profession, we are moving forward but not fast enough sometimes.
Often, architects think pushing sustainability is only on projects where the client is like-minded and in agreement, but I would challenge that part of our responsibility is to educate clients and advocate for healthier materials, more efficient systems, and responsible design strategies on every project.
The AIA Resilient Project Process Guide, Justice in the Built Environment, Healthier Materials Protocol, and ROI of High-Performance Design are immediate resources to help architects have conversations with our clients. The Framework for Design Excellence, as a holistic and expansive definition of what good design is, is a game changer. It allows us to think about design through multiple lenses. It reinforces the value of design and what an architect does in advocating for design. A byproduct of the framework has been the deeper conversation about the impact of architecture.
What advice do you have for young people who are thinking about becoming architects?
Architecture is a social art. At the core of it are people. Getting engaged in your community and understanding other’s needs will make you better at what you do. This involves listening and co-creating. We are trained to find solutions to design problems, but sometimes we don’t take the time to fully understand the issues before diving in.
An important aspect of our work is not just creating but communicating our designs. Learning to be comfortable speaking in the public, understanding how to advocate, and recognizing that your work impacts a larger group of people are key lessons I have learned in my career. I understand now that advocacy is part of what we do. It is also what makes us leaders.
What would you say to a student or young professional who is struggling with whether they want to stay in the field of architecture?
There’s no one way to practice architecture. It’s such a diverse profession, whether it’s different disciplines that you practice in, whether it’s inside a firm or outside a firm, whether it’s in something adjacent to architecture, you’re not less of an architect if you don’t practice in a traditional way. And really, in a post-pandemic world, what is traditional anyway?
Often, I heard the struggle is within the context of the traditional framework. I say to them that you have so much more opportunity than you might think that you do. We need to expand the concept of what an architect is and what an architect can do. Again, there is no one way to practice. We need advocates and thinkers in all realms of the built environment.
Magic wand question: If you could wave a magic wand, what is one thing you’d change about the profession?
I would solve the issue of greater value for our work. Sometimes, as architects, we get in our own way. Our prosperity both in compensation and agency depends on the work that we do resonating with our clients, our communities. I love the idea of architects getting more involved in the development of projects prior to schematic design and then after a project is complete. Our work contributes to making our clients’ businesses better, students to learn and grow, housing security, and so much more. These are really important. Continuing to make positive change in the built environment, being proud of it, and being about to be clear about our value—magic wand or not—I am working to change how we talk about what we do.
Paige McWhorter Photography