Citizen Architect - F. Michael Ayles, FAIA
After graduating from Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, Michael Ayles, FAIA, settled in his hometown of Guilford, Connecticut. Within a couple of years, he became involved in his community, serving in appointed board positions for nearly a decade before becoming an appointed (then elected) member of the town’s Board of Finance. Ayles, who was appointed as chair by his board colleagues in 2017, is going into his 16th season overseeing the preparation of the town’s annual budget, setting the annual mil (tax) rate, and reviewing monthly expenditures of town and Board of Education funds. His proudest achievement, however, is stewarding the approval, design, and construction of a new Guilford High School. In doing so, he and his community colleagues demonstrated how a quality physical environment can positively impact education outcomes. While serving the residents of Guilford, Ayles also has shared his wisdom with other citizen architects by serving on AIA committees concerning civic leadership, advocacy, and civic engagement.
F. Michael Ayles, FAIA, is principal/president of Antinozzi Associates in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He has served on the Guilford, Connecticut Board of Finance since 2007 and is now chair. Ayles also currently serves as treasurer for the Town Political Committee. He has been a member of the Guilford Standing Building Committee (1999–2006), Guilford Historic District Commission (2003–06), and Guilford Town Center South Committee (2004–06), and has served AIA in multiple capacities at the local, state, and national levels. Ayles is beginning his second three-year term on the AIA Connecticut Board of Directors. He earned his B.Arch from Roger Williams University where he was a member of the university’s AIAS chapter and co-captain of its varsity baseball team. Ayles received the university’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2015.
An architect’s understanding of meeting the infrastructure needs of a school or community are critical now as states and cities invest in the built environment after two years of the pandemic. Citizen architects working with state and local governments, like F. Michael Ayles, are in a prime position to sow the seeds for a stronger community.
As a citizen architect, Ayles has devoted his career to working in a firm that focuses on improving schools in his state and region. Although he is now in the middle of his fourth full term as a member of the Guilford Board of Finance, he never planned on running for office.
Ayles settled back in his hometown after earning his degree and was building his career and a family. “I had this feeling to give back,” he explained. He was unsuccessful in gaining a seat on a planning and zoning committee, but was offered a position on the Guilford Standing Building Committee instead. He went on to serve on the town’s Historic District Commission and to join the Guilford Town Center South Committee.
In 2007 Ayles was appointed to serve out the last year of a retiring board member’s term and ran for his first full-year term later that year. He has been reelected every four years since.
“It’s much easier than people think. A lot of architects could easily take the path I did,” Ayles said. “It’s not a scary thing to run for local elected office. You find something you’re passionate about and you get involved.”
“It’s much easier than people think. A lot of architects could easily take the path I did. It’s not a scary thing to run for local elected office. You find something you’re passionate about and you get involved.” - F. Michael Ayles
School design is one of Ayles’ passions, and he has advice for architects and firms working with local officials on a project or bid: Dismantle the notion that schools are not about bricks and mortar. “Everyone involved in the school system is focused on curriculum. They are experts in pedagogy, but they don’t realize how much the physical space can affect how the curriculum works,” Ayles said.
Leaky roofs, lighting, color, and air flow all influence students’ ability to learn. Ayles said design experts must dig deep to identify what a community and its students really need. When it comes to issues like safety and other non-curriculum matters, Ayles said architects must lead with their expertise and “get to know what keeps school and Board of Education officials up at night.”
One of Ayles’ proudest achievements from his Board of Finance tenure is stewarding the approval and construction of the new Guilford High School. Ayles was involved in the project from the very beginning. Part of his job was to engage the community and explain why a new building was necessary—even if it meant raising taxes significantly.
Ayles said transparency and a willingness to listen are two keys to success when serving in local government, especially when it comes to getting new infrastructure built. He believes design and construction experts are particularly well suited to help articulate to residents the value that a piece of infrastructure will bring to a community.
“You’re always going to get ‘no’ votes, whether a budget or school referendum project, but through collaboration and engagement you can convince those people on the fence of the merits and get them to vote positively,” Ayles said.
Ayles’ advocacy worked. Voters approved the bond for the new high school by a margin of three to one.
The new school has been a success. Guilford High School now routinely ranks near the top 1,000 high schools in the entire country. Ayles attributed that in part to the fact that students now have a better, brighter, and healthier place to learn.
Ayles credited his early experiences with AIA for preparing him for political office and a life of service to his community. “I was never that person in high school or college who wanted to run for office. I just got involved, starting with local committees, and it parlayed itself into more from there,” Ayles said. “If it wasn’t for AIA—and getting involved when I got out of school, and having a firm that supported me doing it—I would have started my journey as a citizen architect later and I wouldn’t have had as much impact.”
- As told to Kerrie Rushton