Citizen Architect - Frank Zilm, FAIA

Frank Zilm has led a life of service and advocacy. His introduction to local AIA chapters came just after high school and instilled in him the notion that architects must give back—to their communities, their professions, and the schools that launched their careers. Zilm has been a Citizen Architect ever since. As AIA Kansas City chapter president, Zilm built a scholarship program that fosters the next generation of architects. (Privately, Zilm and his wife also have established and sponsored two other scholarship programs.) As a college professor, he has helped students understand how architects can improve the health and safety of marginalized communities. As a citizen advocate, he has led volunteer coalitions that are shaping the policy answers to society’s most pressing challenges.  

Frank Zilm established his own healthcare design consultancy in 1978. The firm led the planning of more than 300 projects, including at Saint Louis University Hospital and Stanford University Hospital. While building a flourishing practice, Zilm lectured at the University of Kansas School of Architecture Design & Planning where, in 2008, he was named the Chester Dean Lecturer on Healthcare Design. Zilm became director of the school’s Institute of Health+Wellness Design in 2016 and quickly created a collaborative internship and research support program with design firms throughout the United States. He also worked for five years on the Kansas City Planning Commission. Zilm still teaches and serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Health Environments Research & Design Journal.

Zilm also has served as president of AIA Kansas City, as treasurer and on its Executive Committee and Scholarship Committee. He has been a member of AIA’s Academy on Architecture for Health since 1979, serving as chair in 1989, vice chair in 1988, and two terms on the steering committee (1986–1990 and 2002–2004). Zilm was founding fellow, regent, and first vice president of the American College of Healthcare Architects and was honored with the college’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Kansas and holds a Doctor of Architecture degree from the University of Michigan.

Frank Zilm might not have gone to college if it had not been for his local AIA chapter. A St. Louis native, Zilm was three weeks from starting his freshman year in college when he got a letter. The financial aid Zilm was expecting was no longer available. Since he was planning to study architecture, Zilm called the AIA St. Louis chapter to see if it offered scholarships. It did, but not for freshmen. Zilm asked chapter leaders to let him apply. He met with the scholarship committee and left that interview “with resources to start my education.”

Zilm still has the letter from the school, and fact that AIA St. Louis was there to help him influenced his view of service.

“It was a turning point in my life. I learned the importance of the AIA and of being involved,” Zilm said. “Small events can have a big impact in a person’s life. That scholarship was my introduction to how we as professionals can take action to help our community.”

Since then, Zilm has been a lifelong advocate for architecture students and the profession. He also has shaped local, state, and federal policy, and has worked internationally to improve the built environmental in developing countries.

At the local level, Zilm’s efforts include critical contributions on two issues consuming  policymakers today: climate action and the COVID-19 response.

As the pandemic was taking hold in early 2020, Zilm worked with hospitals and officials in Douglas County, Kansas, to assist with surge planning. He also helped create AIA’s COVID-19 ArchMap, which provides information about how healthcare facilities, including alternative care facilities, are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Zilm’s efforts were built on research done after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when Zilm had engaged with federal officials to provide recommendations for how hospitals and emergency departments could respond to terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and disease outbreaks.

Regarding energy policy, Zilm has been instrumental in shaping code adoption efforts in Kansas City, Mo., providing expertise and testimony that led the mayor and city council to unanimously express support for a national revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend system that will help the United States meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement. Copies of the city’s resolution were shared with Missouri’s congressional delegation, President Joe Biden, and other public policy leaders.

Zilm also helped convene a coalition that included AIA Kansas City, the Sierra Club, and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby that asked Kansas City Council members to adopt the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). According to Zilm, before the coalition got involved, local leaders were considering only modest revisions to a code that was badly out of date. “We quickly formed a team to actively engage with city council members. We were impressed by their responsiveness and willingness to listen,” Zilm said.

One of the reasons officials were responsive is their positive view of architects and the architecture profession.

“A trusting relationship allows the chance to explore ideas you might not be able to otherwise explore,” Zilm explained. “There is a formula I love from the author David Maister: Trust is competence, reliability, and intimacy divided by self-orientation—or what most people who call self-interest. Public officials understand architects are objective experts who look at issues from a multigenerational perspective. We have the chance to make a real impact because have trust.”

As a result of the coalition’s and Zilm’s efforts, Kansas City is on track to have one of the most progressive energy codes in the country and to meeting its goal of reaching net zero for emissions from electricity by 2030. The new code also will protect residents from poor indoor air quality while reducing renter and homeowner energy costs.

Over his career, Zilm has seen a shift in how architects regard grassroots advocacy.

“In the past, some people saw getting engaged in political activity as teetering on unprofessional,” Zilm explained. “We know now that part of being a good citizen is being engaged with what’s going on, and being active in what’s going on.”

In particular, Zilm said he sees a lot of energy from younger architects when it comes to the issue of sustainability. How can they channel it?

“Get involved in your local AIA chapter,” said Zilm. “You can really be a pioneer. As Kansas City has demonstrated, the local chapter can play a major role in the community and nationally in terms of trying to influence public policy.” AIA local chapters also can help young architects find other professionals who are interested in the same issues and “who are trying to achieve the same things.”  

“It’s just going to expand your world,” Zilm said.

Zilm’s career has taken him back to the University of Kansas—the school he attended using the AIA St. Louis chapter scholarship. In 2008, he began teaching at the School of Architecture, Design & Planning. “I wanted to give back to the school that had been so instrumental in my career,” Zilm said.

As a professor, Zilm brings the concept of service and advocacy to life for students. In spring 2021, he and his students partnered with a nonprofit organization to help a women’s hospital in Ethiopia design a new birthing center. Over the past decade, the healthcare architecture program also has assisted a Haitian birthing center in the development of a building plan.

“We try to encourage students to be good citizens and to look at how architecture can help the whole community,” Zilm said. “Through advocacy and service, you can stand on the shoulders of others who have done good things.”

- As told to Kerrie Rushton

Image credits

Frank Zilm, FAIA pictured smiling at an event.

Frank Zilm