Citizen Architect - David Carroll, AIA
David Carroll’s journey as a Citizen Architect began simply. “I just started volunteering,” Carroll said. One of his first volunteer projects was to help design, build, and crowdsource funding for a micro-chapel for Mobile Loaves & Fishes, an Austin, Texas–based nonprofit organization that serves homeless individuals. A book written by the organization’s founder now features a photo of the building. Today, Carroll leads AIA Austin’s advocacy efforts, sits on two Austin City Council–appointed committees, and works with a local neighborhood revitalization corporation to address the city’s growing affordable housing needs. As part of his volunteer efforts, Carroll is helping Austin policymakers reform the city’s Land Development Code and its Urban Design Guidelines. While reform can take time, Carroll said he has learned that city officials genuinely want architects as partners and their expertise at the policymaking table.
Carroll is director of multifamily architecture at Urban Foundry Architecture in Austin. His volunteer efforts are well-aligned with the firm’s mission. Launched in 2013, Urban Foundry Architecture aims to “make the world a better place through great design in urban places.” Carroll was appointed to Austin’s Design Commission in 2014 and now chairs the panel. He also serves on the city’s Joint Sustainability Committee, where he advises officials on building sustainability and recently helped update the city’s Community Climate Plan. In 2020 Carroll served on the city’s Historic Landmark Commission Working Group, which created Austin’s first Historic Design Guidelines. Carroll joined the AIA Austin Board of Directors in 2020 as advocacy commissioner and also serves on the board of the Chestnut Neighborhood Revitalization Corporation, a nonprofit organization that addresses affordable housing needs in Austin.
In 2012, local officials in Austin, Texas, outlined a process to update the city’s land development code. The regulations had been last updated in the 1980s and, as a result, do not reflect current best practices and are not well-suited for a city that is one of the fastest-growing urban centers in the country, Carroll said. Two years later, Carroll was appointed by city councilors to Austin’s Design Commission and organized AIA working groups to help rewrite the code and test the proposed regulations.
“We felt like this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to shape policy,” Carroll said of AIA’s interest in the project.
Carroll and AIA Austin’s advocacy team reviewed each of the city’s draft proposals and held design charrettes to test them. The first charette was held at a local university and involved more than 80 architects, engineers, and other design professionals. “We wanted to see if our outcomes matched the city’s stated goals,” Carroll explained.
After that first charrette, AIA Austin submitted a 100-page report outlining how the proposed regulation could be improved in its next iteration. Over seven years, the city and AIA went through this process five times. The Austin City Council was set to cast its final vote on the new land development code in April 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the project was put on hold. Then, in November 2020, the city held council elections. The new panel will have to restart the approval process—something Carroll is now advocating for as chair of the Austin Design Commission and head of advocacy for AIA Austin.
“We’ve received so many letters of support for our efforts,” Carroll said. “Even if we have to restart the process, there is a lot of good work that has been done. We are still working hard to get this done.”
While land development code reform was on hold, Carroll and AIA Austin worked during the COVID-19 pandemic to change city policy to aid their design industry colleagues. Austin regulations formerly stated that building permits would expire if work on a construction site halts for a certain period. When COVID shutdowns went into effect, Carroll and his colleagues convinced the mayor to extend all permits through the end of 2020, saving builders, architects, developers, and residents a significant amount of money.
In addition to continuing his advocacy for an updated land development code, Carroll is currently overseeing the rewrite of Austin’s Urban Design Guidelines, written two decades ago. This spring, with his colleagues on the Austin Design Commission, he submitted a formal plan to the City Council to update the guidelines. Additionally, they shared it with a timeline and budget for work completion. Members of the Downtown Austin Alliance, a nonprofit organization that represents the owners of nearly 900 commercial properties in the Austin Downtown Public Improvement District, will also be involved in the project.
“The city really wants to get projects like this one right,” Carroll said. “And the design community can have a great influence because local officials trust us and look to us as experts.”
Carroll said his interest in advocacy comes from his belief that “everyone has a duty to serve their community.” Architects are well-positioned to do so, Carroll said, since they have unique knowledge that can help advance the public good.
“We really should not keep our expertise to ourselves,” Carroll said.
Carroll is hoping to convince more members of the design community to join his efforts to change Austin’s Urban Design Guidelines. The Design Commission will soon launch several public working groups to help generate ideas for city officials to consider.
“Working groups like these are a great way to volunteer and to make an impact,” Carroll said.
In 2016 Carroll won AIA Austin’s President’s Award for his work in advocacy and urban design–related issues, and in 2018 he received the AIA Austin John V. Nyfeler Community Service Award. As one of Austin’s most in-demand Citizen Architects, Carroll must be intentional about his volunteer commitments.
“My advice to architects is to determine where your skills will be most impactful,” Carroll said. “If you have knowledge about historic preservation, start there. There is a lot to be accomplished at the local level. It’s easy to make a difference.”
- As told to Kerrie Rushton