Citizen Architect - Valarie Franklin, AIA
Nashville, Tenn., is one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the United States. Citizen Architect Valarie Franklin has used her knowledge to help shape Music City’s growth by envisioning spaces that appeal to the diverse communities they serve and that contribute to the culture and vitality of one of America’s most storied towns. Franklin is especially passionate about lending her voice to help solve problems that impact underserved and underrepresented citizens who have seen their neighborhoods change rapidly.
A Nashville, Tenn., native, Franklin has worked with award-winning architecture firms in Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma, and Alabama for more than 20 years. She currently is senior associate/client relationship manager at Moody Nolan, and until earlier this year was a project architect/associate at Gresham Smith. Franklin currently is the Nashville Chapter president of the National Organization of Minority Architects and president of the Tennessee Architects’ Political Action Committee. She sits on the board of directors of AIA Tennessee and Nashville’s Civic Design Center, and is a member of Nashville’s Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency Design Review Board as well as the Board of Plumbing Examiners and Appeals. In addition to her project design and advocacy efforts, Franklin developed a love for educating and mentoring as an adjunct professor at ITT Technical Institute, where she taught drafting and design courses for several years.
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke many times in Valarie Franklin’s hometown of Nashville, Tenn., but it is remarks he made in Washington, D.C., that guide Franklin’s work as a Citizen Architect. In his 1959 speech to students, Dr. King said, “Whatever career you may choose … let me propose an avocation to be pursued along with it. Become a dedicated fighter for civil rights. Make it a central part of your life.”
Franklin remembers reading those words while doing work for the United Way, and she understood the challenges contained within them: No matter one’s chosen profession, you must advocate for a better world for all humans.
This devotion is especially important in a rapidly changing city like Nashville. Franklin grew up in the city, and most of her family still resides there. She said that when large-scale development started happening in her parents’ neighborhood, she embraced the modernization but, because of her father, she also understood the complications and loss of community that can accompany growth. “He told me he couldn’t even simply ask his neighbors for a cup of sugar anymore,” Franklin said.
Franklin is actively guiding Nashville’s growth through her position as a member of the city’s Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) Design Review Committee. This eight-person panel examines plans for new construction and renovation in redevelopment districts, and aims to fulfill the MDHA’s mission to strategically reverse disinvestment and blight, and promote redevelopment that is sustainable from economic, environmental, aesthetic, public safety, and historic preservationist perspectives.
“The people in our communities are looking for advocates that have the power to influence policies that affect their prosperity and livelihood,” said Franklin. “I’m committed to being that advocate, that representation, that inspiration. It is my way of giving back.”
One day, Franklin and her Design Review Committee colleagues might be examining how a new or renovated single-family home will alter a neighborhood’s landscape. The next, they might be determining the impact a large-scale commercial development will have on Nashville’s culture and economy.
Given Nashville’s enormous growth, design industry voices are especially important. “Architects can be among the most effective voices for equitable development,” Franklin said. “Along with engagement with the community, architects have the creativity to develop ideas with impact. If we keep in mind that we are designing not only a building but an experience, we can understand the impact our voices can have.”
Franklin also sits on the Board of Plumbing Examiners and Appeals, which hears all appeals for new and renovation projects. How do pipes and drains fit with her work as a Citizen Architect? Franklin explained: “Service to this board is important because we ensure projects and artisans are committed to safety, and comply with the spirit of the building code and Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA].”
At the center of all Franklin’s work is giving voice to underserved and underrepresented individuals. She founded and now leads the Nashville chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMAnash), a national organization founded in 1971 to inspire minority youth and promote access to quality design to all people regardless of race.
NOMAnash received its charter in 2018. Among its chief goals is revealing to minority youth the possibility of a career in architecture. As part of this effort, Franklin and her NOMAnash team created The Coloring Book of Architecture that promotes architecture. The book is available on Amazon, and Metro-Nashville Public Schools features it in its Makerspace libraries. Franklin hopes the book will inspire a love of architecture in children and even expose them to the idea that they can change their neighborhoods, or even world, through design.
Franklin has received several awards for her work. In 2019, for example, Gresham Smith awarded Franklin its annual Community Impact Award. In a tribute to Franklin’s efforts as a Citizen Architect, NOMAnash Parliamentarian Derek Howard, AIA, said Franklin “is an advocate for others.” Colleague Patrick Gilbert, AIA, said Franklin is “out there in the community, looking at and touching people and bringing them up collectively.”
Along with advocating for Nashville residents, Franklin advocates for her industry. As president of the Tennessee Architects’ Political Action Committee, she recently helped remove language from legislation that would have forced Tennessee architects to register as lobbyists and barred lobbyists—including architects—from serving on city boards and commissions.
“This legislation would have kept architects from the critical roles we play within the city,” explained Franklin. “Fortunately, by engaging with the bill’s sponsor and educating her about how architects guide development, we were able to get the bill changed.”
Franklin hopes future generations of architects will continue to serve on boards and commissions, including planning, zoning, historic, codes, and design review panels. For her, it is still very much part of fulfilling Dr. King’s vision.
“The buildings we design are not for us—they are designed to impact the communities in which they reside after we are long gone,” Franklin said, “I encourage professionals in the industry to be involved in the communities where they design. If you are able to sacrifice just a little of your time, it can make a huge impact in the life of others and possibly generations after them.”