Citizen Architect - Jenine Kotob, Assoc. AIA
From clients to other architects, educators, parents, end users, even civic leaders; we’re trying to think about everyone who has a stake in schools. As the number of mass shootings continues to rise, we as decision makers – from the designer level all the way to administrators – are being assessed critically and held accountable. Architects are being asked, “What are you doing to keep our kids safe?”
Jenine Kotob, Assoc. AIA, has devoted her career to designing safer, more secure schools. For her, that means more than just tackling projects as they come. She’s a part of the Committee on Architecture for Education. She serves on her local neighborhood board. She even traveled to Capitol Hill as part of Grassroots 2019 to speak on school safety. She’s a citizen architect in every sense of the term, an active participant in advocacy efforts and a designer who leads by example. “I don’t want to be labeled an expert,” she says. “But I think it’s important to speak up and share what I know.”
In my current role at Hord Coplan Macht, almost every project I work on deeply considers the occupants’ well-being. Security is no longer a checkbox item; it’s much more. Safety is always a component, and we integrate it to support the overarching educational mission. It cannot be a hindrance. That’s a big shift for architects; safety used to be about cameras and devices. Now, it’s being flipped upside-down and discussed in a more positive way.
The advocacy work that I’ve done, with AIA and beyond, has been targeted toward several audiences. From clients to other architects, educators, parents, end users, even civic leaders; we’re trying to think about everyone who has a stake in schools. As the number of mass shootings continues to rise, we as decision makers — from the designer level all the way to administrators — are being assessed critically and held accountable. Architects are being asked, “What are you doing to keep our kids safe?”
In a sense, security is becoming this huge disrupter in the school design market, forcing innovative solutions. Many are looking for rapid change and immediate answers. However, we’re learning to respond to a topic that is sensitive and emotional in a measured and strategic way, so we don’t undermine the great advances that we’ve made in school design over the last few decades.
Even more so, we’re learning to broaden the conversation. It’s not just about mass shootings and gun violence but suicides, abuse, and mental health. I’ve been really impressed with how architects and designers are leading the way in critically thinking about health and wellness. In the past, it was so taboo to discuss mental health, but now we know how important it is. It goes beyond something like test scores. In a way, we’ve taken this horrible national crisis and are using it to tackle these other threats to students and schools.
At Grassroots 2019, we had the opportunity to speak with key leaders on Capitol Hill about AIA’s school safety initiatives. Most notably, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was very receptive to our efforts and understood — at the most basic, human level — why what we do is critical for our nation’s future. Since then, our hard work on the Hill and at various other events has led to a bill passing the House that allows local school officials to use federal grant money to design safer schools.
Architects are very uniquely positioned to be civic leaders if they want to be. As designers, we think in creative ways. We’re also trained in the art of problem solving; some might even call it conflict resolution. We’re good at listening to stakeholders, dissecting their wants and needs, and finding answers that everyone can get behind. It’s an important skill set to have.
There are an endless number of missions and important causes; becoming a successful advocate is about finding the one that means something to you. If you pursue a cause you truly believe in, it’ll give you the courage to face any obstacle that comes your way.
–As told to Steve Cimino