Last month, the American Institute of Architects made a series of significant announcements. Its highest honor, the Gold Medal, for 2021 will not go to an architect who is famous as a form maker but to the environmental innovator Edward Mazria. The Architecture Firm Award will be bestowed on Moody Nolan, the first African American-founded practice to be so recognized. And, after years of refusal, the AIA board voted to amend its code of ethics to bar its members from designing chambers of execution, torture, and solitary confinement. In a wide-ranging conversation with record editor in chief Cathleen McGuigan, CEO Robert Ivy talked about the current direction of the AIA. While he touched on ongoing activities including lobbying, advocacy, and research—as well as its recent deal with True Wind Capital, a private equity firm that is investing in the Institute’s AEC contract documents program—Ivy focused largely on key principles underlying the organization’s current mission such as action on climate change and equity, diversity, and inclusion. Here are highlights, condensed and edited for space.
RECORD: Let’s start by talking about the presidential election.
Robert Ivy: We’re in a very different place than we were four years ago. The 2016 election caused us to take extreme actions that actually propelled the organization forward. We quickly issued a statement of values and continue to issue statements of values to underscore what architects within the association thought mattered—everything from immigration to sexual harassment.
But in 2016, your public statement to president-elect Trump, the day after the election, was extremely controversial and upset many AIA members.
It was a controversial statement, but it was highly misunderstood. It was a lobbying letter that offered no congratulations. We wanted to advocate for infrastructure that included architecture because the country needed that. However, the response to that letter, and to the election itself, really required the association to make explicit what it cared about— including climate action, which is now No. 1 in our strategic plan—social equity, correcting systemic racism, and a variety of other statements that came into play because so many people were upset over the election itself. It actually strengthened the values of the association and made us take positions that we held independently or collaboratively but had not made explicit. Today the association is in a very different place from its position in 2016.
Now in the current post-election period, did the AIA reach out to president-elect Biden and the transition team?
Absolutely we have. President-elect Biden has made infrastructure one of the major areas that he is promoting—and we think it may, in fact, come to pass. It’s also encouraging that explicit language that we had in place on climate action, which made its way through a Congressional subcommittee, already has made its way into the Biden work. And we’re pushing to be party to the Paris accord again because, obviously, that is one of the key areas that will help advance climate action.
You said climate is now No. 1 in the AIA strategic plan. That the next AIA Gold Medal is honoring Ed Mazria for his environmental leadership sends a powerful message.
Yes, as the founder of Architecture 2030 and an impassioned spokesperson for climate action, Ed Mazria will use the Gold Medal to propel sustainability worldwide.
The AIA 2030 Commitment is demanding. [Based on goals set by Mazria’s nonprofit, the AIA’s voluntary program asks firms to pledge to submit energy-use data for their projects with the aim of making all new buildings carbon neutral by 2030.] So far, we have more than 600 firms signed up: it doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is millions and millions of square feet of projects, including from some of the largest firms.
Of course, America’s architects have been engaged in solutions to climate change for decades. The Committee on the Environment (COTE) was a group of architects within the Institute who created the COTE awards program and have carried the banner for climate action.
But aren’t we moving into a time where designing to address climate change is no longer in its own lane, a check-the-box after the fact? How is the AIA promoting climate action to be part of the entire architectural culture?
We have a strategic plan for the next five years or so that puts climate action at the peak, informing everything we are addressing right now. This is a profound change, and we have applied it to all honors and awards, taking the 10 criteria of the COTE Top Ten Awards and bringing them to all architectural projects. And that includes such questions, for instance, as, Does a project contribute to an equitable community?
So does expanding the environmental standards for all AIA awards in different categories mean an end to the COTE awards?
Not necessarily—the COTE awards currently have their own agency and their own criteria.
Let’s talk about some of the other initiatives the AIA is focusing on, particularly equity.
Like many elements in contemporary society, the association was profoundly affected in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, and quickly issued a statement, and then issued a more profound statement shortly thereafter. But words are words. Action really becomes the question. The AIA had been committed to making a difference in terms of equity, diversity, and inclusion, but it became power-charged after that sequence of events. We released what we call guides for equitable practice, beginning in late 2018, that are being upgraded now, so they can be used by other groups, including schools of architecture.
We have employed two senior staff within the national office who are helping to drive this all through the association. We were already in dialogue with NoMA, the National Organization of Minority Architects, but we are working on a more formalized relationship. They’re helping inform us about EDI (equity, diversity, and inclusion) in general and the role of EDI within the architectural practice. We are now aiming scholarships, through the Architects Foundation, primarily at minorities.
We also have been invited by the NAACP to participate in their 2020 diversity report card. They are going to evaluate the association and our staffing, our programs, our services, our procurement, our governance. This is part of their program, looking at the sustainable-building sector, including design firms, professional organizations, and higher education. They’re going to issue a report card in 2021, at our request. We may hear things that are uncomfortable for us to hear, but we say bring it on, and let’s make the changes that are required.
One way NoMA has already assisted you is in the discussion over the AIA’s change in its ethics code, to bar members from designing chambers for execution, torture, or solitary confinement.
Yes, they have been part of the dialogue about architecture for justice.
The controversy over designing those spaces has been brought to the AIA by Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) for years. Is it fair to say that the board restructuring has made the AIA more nimble in making key decisions?
Setting values is really the primary goal, and, yes, frankly, some changes have made it easier to accomplish, like reducing our board of directors from 56 people to a board that is now 14 to 16 people—that is a dramatic and singular change to an institution founded in 1857. It had built up over time into a very large and really unwieldy group; although well-intentioned, it was slow to act. This board acts quickly. If they see an opportunity or a need, they’re able to have a lively debate and they do debate. But they take action, and they are diverse. They have set out the values of the association. Does everybody agree with them? Absolutely not. But the fact is that the members have stayed with the association. We had a high point of 95,000 going into the pandemic. And at the end of this year, we’ll still have 93,000, the largest number in the history of the association.
Are you attracting younger members? Is that a challenge?
Let’s just say it’s an ongoing mission. We need a new generation of architects constantly coming forward to produce the work the world needs. We need people to do new housing. You’re talking about a homeless problem, and huge social issues. Who better than a fresh crop of young, bright architects to tackle the intransigent problems of our culture, our society, our civilization? Yes, we are dealing with that generation. We have a student member and an associate member on our board of directors. Our associate community is extremely vocal and active—architects who’ve just graduated and gain automatic entrée into the association for a period of time. Our goal is to convert them to be full-time members.
The elephant in the room in the profession, which requires a rigorous education and licensing process, is that many architects—particularly in the numerous small firms—find it hard to make a good living. Now, in this difficult economic period, how does the AIA help young architects who are being furloughed or laid off?
Regarding just the basic economics of the practice of architecture, I think this is a profound change from 2016, with an advocacy effort—with volunteers and staff members both nationally and throughout the country—that is much more vibrant than it has been in many years.
During the pandemic, we were a party, with other organizations, to advocacy for PPP (the Paycheck Protection Program). We’re working constantly now for assistance in architectural education and the debt that so many young architects carry. That’s one place we’re trying to help.
And not every answer to every question comes at the national level. In the network of 200-plus chapters, most of the services are provided for all member architects. We have executive directors for roughly half of those chapters who are committed to organizing meaningful programmatic work about education and jobs. The local chapter serves as a real support system for the younger architects.
Robert, you are at the 10-year mark of your tenure as CEO of the AIA. Do you plan on being there a good while longer?
I’m certainly here for the foreseeable future, through 2021. I have much to do—we’re discussing the revitalization of our headquarters building, and I want to be present for that.
So how would you like to see both the AIA and the profession of architecture evolve in the next 10 years?
I would like to see a greater appreciation for architects and their ability to make the world a better place. Most people do not know what architects do. Fewer than 130,000 people are licensed architects in the U.S., and that small number is responsible for making the primary changes to the built environment. So the promotion of the value of architecture is the primary concern I have now, and always will have. It’s something that moves the human spirit, and it will continue to do so if we’re successful. So the association that I could see in the future is vibrant, quick, inviting, but holds out this larger vision of a better world that a group of people can join together and help to make.