AIA volunteer opportunities: Grow your network, support the profession

Headshot of Kevin Harris, AIA

Are you interested in building your expertise, expanding networking skills, and learning from others?

Volunteering on a national committee may be just the experience for you. AIA offers a variety of opportunities to grow your network, give back, share knowledge, and support your profession’s growth and development.

We spoke to Kevin Harris, Associate AIA, about his volunteer experiences. Harris is director of sales and marketing for AGS Stainless, Inc., a Bainbridge Island, Wash.–based company that designs and manufactures prefabricated stainless steel railing systems. Harris currently also serves as secretary of the executive committee of the Custom Residential Architects Network (CRAN®) Knowledge Community, which develops knowledge and information to benefit architects engaged in custom residential practice.

What inspired you to volunteer with AIA?

I’m in sales and marketing for an architectural product manufacturer. We have a very specific product—stainless steel railing—that usually is installed toward the end of the building process. At that point, budgets often are very limited. There are less expensive materials than stainless steel out there, and if the budget is tight it’s sometimes easier to go with another material choice for the railing. So when you see our product in a building or a custom home, it’s generally because an architect chose us and then defended keeping stainless railing in the project.

When I realized that a lot of the work we were doing was the result of an architect’s decision-making, I wanted to get more involved in the community and support it. I wanted to help especially those architects in small cities, rural communities, and those who primarily practice residential design, since their voices often aren’t as loud. I wanted to give them some love, and I just thought I could help them get their message out. My strength is communications and marketing. I wanted to use these skills to advocate for the architects who were choosing us.

AIA gave me an opportunity to do that.

What’s the most inspiring experience you’ve had as an AIA volunteer?

Running for at-large director for AIA national last year. You need to have at least two chapters in different regions sponsor you. Even getting on the list of candidates requires you to meet people! Once on the ballot, though, the real work starts. You have to get votes. That work takes you all around the country. I met hundreds of architects over the course of six months, which helped me take the pulse of AIA members and to understand the barriers they face. I was particularly struck by the challenges rural architects deal with every day.

This experience forced me to put some creative thinking behind my platform, and it informed my ideas for a number of programs that I felt could strengthen the connection between AIA national and its members in rural communities and small cities. One such idea is the Rural Practice Acquisition Fund. This fund would match retiring architects with someone who was at the point in their career where they wanted to start or acquire their own practice but lacked some of the resources necessary to do so. A lot of younger architects want to go into private practice, but they are burdened with so much student debt that they have no clear path to firm ownership. Because of this, they choose to continue working at larger firms. Meanwhile, we have rural architects who don’t have anyone qualified to whom they can sell—or to whom they would trust with the business they carefully built. This program will help connect these two groups. Not only will this fund help with continuity in the design sector; it will help keep jobs and employers in the community. This is an idea that has received some support among AIA members, and I am hopeful that support will lead to good things in the future.

How has volunteering with AIA helped you in your work and career?

Most architects get involved in their local AIA chapters first, and then work with the organization on the regional and national level. For me, it was the opposite. AGS Stainless and I were really involved with AIA as a national corporate sponsor first, supporting AIA components all over the country and providing continuing education to their members.  

When I reached out to the local community, however, it was very nerve-wracking for them. They were unsure about having a product manufacturer at  their roundtable. Ultimately, I proved myself by just getting involved and helping. Then they understood that I was not there to sell but to provide meaningful support to individual architects and to help the chapter achieve its mission.

We are all part of the same community that is delivering the built environment. Whether you’re a builder or a product manufacturer, you can provide valuable resources that help architects deliver safe, sustainable projects. I’m also part of the National Association of Home Builders. I often have builders contact me looking for architects who have a certain specialty, like designing high-performance homes. Because of AIA, I can provide that input and make connections across the community.

If I can help the architects that I’m working with grow their business and serve their communities, I will be better off. When you help others to accomplish their goals, you will reach your own.

How does volunteering with AIA support the profession and your community?

From the architect’s perspective, AIA expands the world of experience that you have access to, and that access will help you grow more quickly in your career.

Volunteering allows us to share knowledge. Whether it is the Committee on Design (COD), or the Committee on the Environment (COTE), or the Academy of Architecture for Justice (AAJ), there are  21 Knowledge Communities that make it really easy to get involved. For younger architects, getting involved in AIA Knowledge Communities gives you the chance to ask questions of, and learn from, experienced practitioners all across your community. It expands your world beyond your own firm. This access is particularly important for architects at smaller firms. At monthly meetings, you’re going to run into incredible force-of-nature–type people from 40 or so other organizations working in the same field of practice.

What would you say to someone considering volunteering with AIA?

Whether you’re an architect, a custom home builder, or a product sponsor, getting involved with AIA will help you grow your practice and business.

Right now, we’re in a big boom time for residential design and construction, but that cannot last forever. Getting involved with AIA as a volunteer is going to put you in a position to expand your business through all of the cycles of the economy—not just during the periods of super-abundance. There are a lot times at CRAN® when I’ve seen architects at more established practices pass off business to someone they have gotten to know at their local monthly committee roundtable. These personal referrals almost always turn into jobs.

If you are a product representative for a building products manufacturer, you should get involved, because you can help architects with something they typically don’t like: promotion. We can help architects better explain to their target audience the value of design, of sustainability, and all sorts of other things. Again, we are all part of the same community, and we can help each other by building trust, sharing our knowledge, and supporting each other as we work toward our common goal of creating a more resilient, sustainable, and inclusive built environment.

The application process closes at 5pm ET on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021.  Recommendations will be reviewed by the 2022 AIA President; selected individuals will be notified and appointments will be emailed by Jan. 15, 2022. For more information, visit

The application process closes at 5pm ET on Monday, November 8, 2021.  Recommendations will be reviewed by the 2022 AIA President; selected individuals will be notified and appointments will be emailed by January 15, 2022.

- As told to Kerrie Rushton

Image credits

Headshot of Kevin Harris, AIA

Kevin Harris, AIA