Grassroots 2019


At the Institute’s annual leadership conference, a focus on building partnerships complemented an underlying passion for design that makes a difference.

This week, Washington, DC, welcomed AIA leaders for the annual Grassroots conference. Centered on the theme People. Purpose. Partnership., the event brought together architects and chapter leaders from across the country for engaging discussions about the value of architecture in society.

More than 600 of these individuals converged on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to meet with members of Congress, united by a common desire to elevate design’s role in solving some of the most pressing concerns of our time. Over the course of the conference’s opening day, architects conducted meetings with 137 members of Congress and 337 Congressional staff representing 50 states, marking the biggest day for AIA advocacy efforts in the Institute’s history.

“By having such a strong presence here in Washington, we are ensuring that the voice and the perspective of the profession are heard by our elected leaders,” said Jane Frederick, FAIA, 2019 AIA first vice president and Grassroots 2019 chair, to architects visiting the Hill. Speaking about legislators they would soon meet, 2019 AIA President William J. Bates, FAIA, said, “We want them to hear how architects are more than designers of structures and spaces.”

Topics such as sustainability, school safety, and housing serve as the foundation of AIA’s advocacy initiatives for 2019. At Grassroots, AIA members emphasized supporting two related federal issues: first, a tax deduction that will increase energy efficiency in the built environment, and second, federal funding for school design and a clearinghouse to help officials design safer schools. Robert Ivy, FAIA, AIA’s executive vice president and chief executive officer, urged architects to really connect with members of Congress and assert themselves as valuable contributors to policy. “The difference we can make is enormous,” he said. “We make people safer, healthier, happier. That’s the power of design.”

“People are at the heart of what we do”

On Thursday, that power was underscored again by Institute leaders. “First and foremost, people are at the heart of what we do,” Bates said in his remarks to a packed ballroom at the Renaissance hotel in downtown DC. “Our purpose is to leverage our love of design and unique problem-solving skills to advance our vision of a more sustainable, just, and inclusive society.”

After the 2019 candidates for elective office described their vision for AIA’s future, the importance of meaningful partnerships dominated the morning’s conversation. In architecture, partners come in many forms—clients, consultants, fellow architects, emerging professionals. Conference attendees were reminded to seek partners outside these norms, from legislators on Capitol Hill to local officials and community members. “Partnerships will be crucial to sustained positive progress because no single group, industry, or even nation can successfully tackle the many interconnected challenges we face,” Frederick said to the crowd. “Long-term and lasting success will be a society-wide effort.”

For the third year in a row, mayors and elected officials played a key part in the Grassroots program, demonstrating that civic leaders are grasping the valuable role architects play in their communities. They discussed the ways they engage with designers, noting that the built environment characterizes the way people understand and conceive of the places they call home. “The opportunity to help shape our cities for the next generation is happening now, and it’s happening locally. We need architects involved,” said Steve Benjamin, mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, and president of the US Conference of Mayors, an organization AIA has been working with to promote the value of architecture.

Solving the problems of today

The conversation extended far beyond the basic need for collaboration between architects and government. The elected officials—from cities large and small—talked about real problems their residents face. Disaster-related stressors like flooding and social and economic concerns like gentrification are putting the health and happiness of their communities at risk, and they are looking to architects to proactively identify and reactively address their effects. The panelists specified they’ll need the most guidance regarding climate change, transportation, and infrastructure in the coming years, and agreed that architects are perfectly positioned to provide it. “Architects are the people that a community looks to,” said Nannette L. Whaley, mayor of Dayton, Ohio, adding that in her city, “when an architect comes with an idea, people pay attention.”

“Architects are the people that a community looks to. When an architect comes with an idea, people pay attention.” – Nannette L. Whaley, mayor of Dayton, Ohio

Bringing community engagement to the forefront, design professionals from San Felipe, Panama; San Antonio, Texas; and Atlanta spoke to Grassroots attendees about how they infuse equity and justice into their design work. They outlined how they use their talents and passion to combat homelessness, discrimination, and displacement through equitable development practices. Like the mayors, the designers emphasized a commitment to understanding the issues that impact and motivate a community. “Our focus as architects needs to be on the challenges we face and the people who not only occupy buildings but bring life to them,” said Rick Archer, FAIA, principal at Overland Partners.

A series of personal stories told by AIA members, along with workshops for architects and chapter leaders alike, dove deeper into Grassroots’ People. Purpose. Partnership. theme, amplifying the usefulness of AIA’s network and resources. Among them all was a common thread: navigating the challenges of a 21st century society is dependent on architects to collaborate and use their voices to lead.

“Our focus, as a profession, as Americans, and as global citizens,” Frederick said, “should be to use our unique skill set in service to our society, and ultimately, to leave a world that is better for our time and our talent.”

Kathleen M. O’Donnell is a writer/editor at AIA, specializing in practice and professional development topics and Institute coverage.

Sam Kittner is the photographer of the featured image of this piece.