Each March, architects storm the nation’s capital to meet with elected officials and make their voices known. This annual outreach organized by the AIA, called Grassroots, is one of the main forms of advocacy taken on by the profession in hopes to better educate and influence those making laws regarding the built environment. This year, three local architects traveled to Washington, D.C. with AIA Pittsburgh’s executive director, and in an effort to create a greater awareness locally, as well as build momentum for the good that advocacy can do, here are some take-aways from their experience.
In preparation for Grassroots, AIA PA spent weeks working with congress members and scheduling meetings with their offices so everything was set up when we arrived in D.C. Issues that we discussed with the staff of our congress members were:
1. To promote financing for energy efficient buildings: Tax incentive 179D “Energy Efficient Commercial Building Tax Deduction” was introduced in 2005, but expired at the end of 2013. We recommended that congress extend 179 this year while they are sorting out long term tax reform (which may take awhile…). It’s worth knowing that on government agency buildings, that tax relief can be transferred to the architecture firms who designed the projects.
2. Reform procurement laws that block good design: HR 2750 “Design-Build Efficiency and Jobs Act” would require agencies to shortlist no more than 5 teams unless they receive approval from the head of their agency, thus ensuring that design-build competitions provide more opportunities for shortlisted teams to win. This is a big one for any firm who goes after government contracts.
3. Help young architects help their communities: HR 4205, “National Design Services Act of 2014” would enable architecture students and recent grads to work with community design centers for a set period of time in exchange for student debt relief. This is a great opportunity for emerging architects (yes, even unemployed recent grads) to tell their story to their representatives. You may have little or no experience working in a firm, but you are the expert on this issue.
You can find more info on the 3 issues here: http://www.aia.org/advocacy/federal/AIAB101670. The link also provides materials you can leave with your legislators, answers to difficult questions that may come up, and general talking points.
I would also strongly encourage architects to contact their legislators to develop a relationship, even to discuss an issue that may not be listed above. The decisions that these people make really do affect the relevance of our profession and our opportunity to get jobs as individual firms. A few surprising facts I’ve discovered are:
1. Most senators and house representatives don’t know much at ALL about what architects do. They generally associate our field with aesthetics of buildings and that’s pretty much the limit of their understanding.
2. If a congress member is out of the office, it’s VERY helpful to meet with a staff person. You’d be surprised at how powerful the staff members are in distilling information and making decisions.
3. A senator from PA stated the following at last year’s PA Architect’s Day (although relevant here)- “It’s easier to vote against someone you don’t know. It’s very hard to vote against someone you have a relationship with.” He also said, “We don’t intentionally want to harm anyone’s industry, at times it just comes down to the fact that we just don’t know.”
As you know, AIA Pittsburgh provides a wide variety of programs each year to support membership and promote our profession in the community and region. However, it may come as a surprise that annual “local” member dues only provide about 28% of the chapter’s operating revenue. The balance – 72% – is provided by event ticket sales, fundraising, sponsorships, and advertising. One conference session I attended, “Maximizing Your Components Non-Dues Revenue Potential”, explored this topic. The executive directors of AIA Houston, AIA Austin, and AIA Central Oklahoma outlined a few of their marquee programs including a very successful design entry house tour, an industry-wide gala partnered with a number of allied professions, and a variety of packaged annual sponsorship programs. I was surprised to learn that all three chapters relied on these and other initiatives to support as much as 70% of their annual operating cost. So in some small measure it appears that we at AIA Pittsburgh are in good company. On the other hand, the session presenters each stressed the importance of evaluating programs annually, carefully considering the evolution of mission and continually testing member value, costs in dollars and time, as well as the potential of programs not undertaken because resources remain committed to an existing slate of activities.
Another interesting conference session was “Leadership Programs that Enhance Career Advancement,” presented by chapter officers and staff from AIA Cincinnati, AIA Northwest Pacific Region, and AIA Illinois, which outlined three very different formal leadership programs for emerging professionals. The programs range from fairly low cost, one-day emersion retreats to year-long courses with up to 10 sequential sessions. Each of the programs targets architects at different stages of professional development. AIA Illinois and AIA Cincinnati focus programs on recently registered architects with less than 10 years of experience, while AIA Northwest Pacific Region focuses on students in their 4th and 5th year of architecture school. One common theme voiced by all presenters is that more follow up and tracking is needed to understand the extent to which these types of programs are creating stronger leaders in practice, in the community, and in the AIA.
These examples offer some interesting insights for us to consider. We hope the discussion will continue as we explore programs, funding approaches, and opportunities for professionals to find a voice and contribute. If you would like to read more about AIA Grassroots, please follow the link here.
I was thrilled to be able to attend Grassroots for the second time, advocating along with my AIA Pittsburgh colleagues. As Associate Director of AIA Pennsylvania, promoting the National Design Services Act (HR 4205) was my primary focus at the event. The congressional staffers that I met with seemed to support this endeavor, each identifying with the burden of student loan debt, and agreeing that architecture should have a program to give back our talents to our communities in exchange for lessening the burden.
HR 4205 aims to create a service program, akin to programs available to doctors, lawyers, and teachers that “would enable architecture students and recent graduates to work with non-profit community design centers for a set period of time in exchange for student debt relief. This bill will help revitalize underserved communities while relieving the financial burdens on the next generation of architects.” The only problem that I had with the resolution was that it seemed to leave too many blanks yet to be filled in. The details of the proposed program are murky, and the AIA leadership placed the ball in the court the legislators to hash out the details; I find this troublesome. For example, the AIA briefly listed $40,000 as an average student debt, which we agreed was an absurdly low number. While it was refreshing to meet other associates from across the states who are equally as passionate about this cause, I wish that it was further developed, so that our legislators didn’t have to do so much legwork. I am whole-heartedly in support of this program, and am hopeful that it progresses. Such a program could help myriad students traverse the post academia waters in pursuit of gainful employment.