Citizen Architect - Brett Moss, AIA

Brett Moss began his architecture career with Marriott International, the global lodging corporation. While the company’s headquarters are located just outside Washington, D.C., Moss’ journey as a Citizen Architect did not begin in the nation’s capital. It was not until he and his wife moved to Key Biscayne, Florida, a square-mile-wide village on a barrier island near Miami, that Moss took a serious interest in civic affairs. After starting out on the local PTA, Moss was elected to the Key Biscayne Village Council in 2016. His firm, Moss Architecture & Design Group, was named the AIA Miami 2017 Firm of the Year for outstanding achievements in design, education, and service to the community and profession.

Moss is managing principal at Moss Architecture & Design Group in Miami. He has served as an adjunct professor at the Florida International University School of Architecture, where he helps students understand how architectural production and design impact the environment. In addition to serving on the Key Biscayne Village Council, Moss has chaired the Key Biscayne Education Advisory Board and was a member of the Key Biscayne PTA Facility Committee and the Key Biscayne Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. In addition to architecture degrees from Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Moss holds an MBA and a master’s degree in human resources, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

An individual doesn’t have to binge watch The West Wing to be called to politics or civic engagement. Brett Moss says that during his first race for elected office his parents told him they thought he was the “last person who would run for city council.”

Moss’ parents have probably changed their minds.

Their son is now in his second term on the Key Biscayne Village Council, and has been honored by both his local and state AIA chapters as a Citizen Architect. Moss’ desire to serve his community does not come from a love of the political fray, however. He wanted to solve problems in the community where he and his wife were raising their three children.  

“I’m not a politician. This is community service for me,” Moss says. “I love to look at very complex social problems, listen to different people, and weigh different options to come up with a decision that’s best for the community. It’s been a lot of fun to do that. Not easy at all, but fun.”

Moss’ Citizen Architect journey began when he and his wife attended a back-to-school night when their oldest daughter, now 12, was entering kindergarten.

“I thought, well, I’m an architect so maybe I can help,” Moss says. He signed up for the facilities committee, which was very active. The school was overcrowded, so committee members met regularly with the mayor and village council members to petition that the school be expanded.

“I showed up,” Moss says. “It was the first time I stepped into the council chambers.”

It may have been Moss’ first foray into politics, but his fellow parents quickly took notice. At the end of the year, some mothers on the PTA board approached Moss to ask if he would consider running for a village council seat that was open. Moss demurred, arguing that he needed to focus on the architecture firm he was building.

Instead, Moss sent his name to be on the village’s Education Advisory Board. The mayor chose him to serve. At the first meeting, the mayor asked who would like to chair the committee. No one else raised their hand, so Moss did.

While Moss was chair, the committee negotiated a compact between Miami-Dade County Public Schools, one of the largest school boards in the nation, and the village of Key Biscayne to improve student achievement, community involvement, communication, and facilities. The committee also worked with the state department of transportation to create new walkable routes to school.  

Six months into his Education Advisory Board tenure, Moss rethought his decision about the village council. He ran in 2014.

And came up short.

Instead of letting that loss defeat him, Moss became an even more engaged citizen. He attended almost every council meeting between November 2014 and November 2016—even though he lost his bid for office—learning all he could about how the governing body worked.

“I wanted to study. I wanted to understand the issues and the personalities on the council,” Moss says. Voters rewarded his efforts in November 2016, when he was elected to his first term. He says his period of study helped. “Once I was elected, it was much easier to get up and running. I understood how to work with the other council members and the art of getting things done.”

Voters reelected Moss this past November. His main focus now is reforming the village’s residential zoning code.

“I think it’s important that we have a code that responds to sustainability and resiliency, especially since we’re in a low-lying area,” Moss says. The council is focusing on residential zoning first, working with the local construction and design community, and for the last year with housing advocates to get a proposal together.

Moss also engages members of the community to help achieve the council’s environmental goals. This month, the village will host a workshop that will help families understand how they can build on higher ground and use solar panels to improve efficiency.

Because of his experience as an architect, Moss says his fellow council members have looked to him to take the lead on zoning matters. They also look to him to find others who can provide advice. “On council, we look at each other for expertise,” Moss says. “But we also look for experts in the community. I used to think it was hard to get involved, but community organizations are always looking for good people to help.”

Whether at the PTA, or a Rotary Club that raises money for charities, Moss reminds others in the design community that he started out as a Citizen Architect by “focusing on my hometown.” Moss says new advocates also should focus on issues about which they are passionate. “There are so many places out there to contribute, just show up,” Moss says. “I was passionate about my daughter, so I got involved in the PTA in kindergarten. Start by putting time into one thing you really care about.”    

With Moss’ help, the village council also created a Vision Board to consider Key Biscayne’s future. Key Biscayne engaged DPZ CoDesign, the global urban design firm based in Miami, and sustainability is a primary focus of the effort.

The goal of creating a more resilient hometown brings Moss back to where his advocacy journey started: with his children. “I want them to stay here,” Moss says.

Moss says his children are aware of the impact he has made on their community. “You can tell it really rubs off on them,” Moss says. “Sometimes they tell me they want me home more, but I think they see the effect a person can have. They have it in their brain how one individual can help their community.”

Advocates in the making? Key Biscayne can only hope.

- As told to Kerrie Rushton

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