Advocacy, SpeakUp, & (1) Pun

Last summer I had the opportunity to participate in the national AIA SpeakUp conference that was hosted here in Denver. The purpose of the conference was to give participants a crash course in what it means to advocate and lobby for the architecture profession. At a hotel ball room in downtown Denver, I met dozens of architects, designers, lobbyists, and AIA staff members from across the country as we attempted to learn the ropes of what it means to advocate for our profession.

Now that I am a handful of months removed from the conference, I’ve taken the knowledge gained over those three days and apply it to the rest of my AIA life. So, I figured now was as good a time as any to attempt to share my impressions with more than the few people who have had to listen to me over the last few months.

One of the first things that dawned on me at the conference is that advocacy exists on a spectrum. There are some people that will be willing to go up on the hill and testify in front of Congress and there are those that would like to sign a petition once in a while and move on. While having experts available to meet face to face with Representatives and Senators is vital, also having a large pool of architects who are willing to mobilize for a cause is the foundation of a robust advocacy effort. If people care about their profession then they need an avenue where they can direct their attention.

Which brings me to my next point: people need a variety of ways to get involved and be invested. The more focused options that are available to people, the more the base of people willing to help will grow. Here in Colorado, our AIA chapter has a variety of methods that are already in place. We have a full time lobbyist who works tirelessly on the hill standing up on behalf of architects. We have a full time staff member whose role it is to manage and direct all things related to state government affairs and how it relates to architects. The Government Affairs Committee sifts through the hundreds of bills that come through the state congress every session and helps to direct AIA Colorado’s position on those bills and issues. And finally, the local advocacy directors serve as the conduit between the state board, AIA Colorado, and local members. However, most of these efforts require something beyond volunteers and time commitments. They require funding.

Political Action Committees (PACs) are the backbone for AIA advocacy efforts. These exist on a federal and state level and the funds are allocated accordingly. The bipartisan group identifies candidates, existing members of congress, bills, causes, and efforts that we as architects can get behind and whose support can benefit us from a policy level. Regardless of your feelings on such groups, they are part of the political landscape and it is critical that we as architects are able to have a seat at the table. Even our small donations can make a long lasting impact on candidates and policy makers. In fact, these small donations, especially ones handed from an architect to a politician (instead of being given by a lobbyist), can have one of the most meaningful impacts for our efforts. One of the sayings that most resonated with me at SpeakUp was from a staff member at AIA National: “if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu”.

Finally, from a purely logistical standpoint, I realized that it is crucial to provide small victories and milestone goals. Often, our greatest advocates are not people that are paid to do it, but are ordinary AIA members who volunteer their time. However, these efforts are only sustainable if they are maintained. It’s easy to rally around a cause in short bursts, but keeping that effort up over the long haul is a big ask. It’s critical to set smaller and attainable goals on the way to the larger goal so that we don’t burn out our volunteer efforts. Quick and achievable wins are the surest way to keep people engaged and helps to build a solid base of volunteers and advocates.

In the coming year, AIA Colorado and AIA National will be focusing even more on our advocacy efforts, especially on a state level since that is where most of us can have the greatest influence. I would urge you all to take a look at existing programs and tools (and, of course, make a contribution to the PAC), and to keep your eyes out for more opportunities in the near future. The best way to make your voice heard is to reach out. The greater our base, the larger our resources and the louder our voices become. We just have to be willing to speak up, first. (See that? See what I did there?)

The Crippling Effect of ‘No’

At this point of the year, most architecture offices have either had a summer intern or have hired a recent graduate. These people come in with varying levels of experience, but for the most part, can be defined with a single term: enthusiasm. Most are younger and full of energy. They are coming from institutions that inspire and encourage thinking “outside the box”. The optimism is practically written across their foreheads.

Cut to a scene of a typical architecture office.

Most of us have lost a bit of the ‘fresh out of the box’ shine after a few years or even a few decades. We get bogged down by the limits of construction budgets, office politics, project schedules, and a myriad of other “they didn’t teach us this in school” subjects. It can be difficult to not project these extracurricular worries onto younger people that are fresher into the workforce. It can be hard not to see their optimism and eagerness and want to counter it with an underhanded comment about “in the real world” or “when you get further along in your career”. The biggest issue with countering enthusiasm with negativity is that it takes the momentum that people have and throws an emergency brake on it. Not only does it have the likelihood of curbing the current zeal for working in architecture, but it will also prove to be much more difficult to instill a sense of gusto in the future. People that have a sense of enthusiasm for work and the obvious want to do more should not have their energy stifled, but should be encouraged and guided.

This doesn’t just go for being a wet blanket when met with an overly peppy person. When they come to more experienced people within their offices with questions or ideas, the response should never be “ask someone else”, “we can’t do that”, or any other momentum killing “no” comment. It’s like the old adage of improvised comedy or acting: never say no. If someone comes to you with an idea in an improv sketch, you are not allowed to say no. Instead, you must take what the person has presented to that scene and play off of it in order to keep things moving forward.

We all have days (or mornings for some of us) where it’s difficult to find the enthusiasm and patience to deal with things that aren’t our own laundry lists of tasks. On the other hand, we have all been in the situation of being recent graduates and wanting more out of our careers and desperately wanting to prove that we are capable and worthy of being trusted.

We all have the responsibility of listening when people have questions, ideas, or just something to say and not shooting it down. Instead of stopping momentum in its tracks, we must guide it and turn it into productive learning because if we curb momentum early on, it will be just that much harder to start again later.

Five Years Out: advice to my past self from my current self

Over the last month or so, I have seen numerous pictures and heartfelt posts from recent graduates flooding the social media channels. It made me think back fondly of when I graduated from architecture school five years ago and even, as shocking as it may seem, made me think fondly of being in architecture school (I guess it’s true: time does heal all wounds).

This past week has proven more taxing than most as I was reminded that I still have a long ways to go in figuring out the whole “being an architect” thing and what that entails. It brought me back to my post-graduation days of thinking that I had a firm grasp on what I was supposed to be doing and how much I actually knew about architecture. This has led me here: to the ever cliché format of “what advice would I give my younger self?” So, without further ado: here are a handful of tidbits that “five years out of architecture school and recently licensed Drew” would give “just graduated and trying to figure it out Drew”.

  • It’s okay to not be working on your dream projects. Architecture school is, more or less, built around the idea of teaching us to THINK like architects, while professional practice is where we figure out all the other aspects that make up actually being an architect. It’s hard to go from dreaming up grandiose projects in school with no client and no budget and then move into the realm of construction budgets and numerous outside sources trying to influence the project with their own priorities in mind. It takes time to wrap your head around even the simplest building projects. Be patient and try to absorb the lessons that will come at you daily.
  • You won’t know how to do everything that people ask you to do. That’s okay. People are (usually) willing to help you out because they remember how it felt to be in your situation and they would rather spend the time showing you the right way to do things than have to tell you to fix them later. I spent a lot of time afraid to ask questions because I didn’t want to bother people because everyone seemed so busy. However, once I decided to take the initiative and speak up, the amount of things that I learned on a daily basis skyrocketed (and continues to grow every day).
  • Don’t be afraid to walk away from thing that are not the right fit for you. We often find ourselves in circumstances, be it jobs, workplaces, project teams, or just life situations, where we know that it’s not going to work out. If you are able to walk away from these things and better your circumstances and your own mental health, do it. Change can be frightening, but it’s even more frightening to think back on times that you wasted in situations that made you unhappy.
  • Get licensed ASAP. Seriously. You probably have as few responsibilities right now as you will ever have. Find a method of studying that works for you and stick to it. Find a person or group of people that you can lean on for support and pick their brains as much as you can. Don’t waste time thinking about getting licensed. Just go for it and don’t stop until you get to the end.
  • It will take time before people to take you seriously. It won’t matter how much prior knowledge you have on a subject, people will see that you are recently out of school and immediately assume that you know less than you do and treat you as such. It will be frustrating and at times cause you great angst, but do your best to let it roll off your back. It takes time to build up a working relationship with your project teams and clients before they trust you, so just give it time and try to take things in stride.
    • Side note: I am a white male, so if it’s this way for me, there are many others that will experience this same thing ten times over and, potentially, for much longer.

These points probably seem obvious to many if not most. However, that doesn’t make them less true. I wish someone had sat me down five years ago and vehemently made these points. On top of that, these are all things that I continually have to remind myself of even today. The learning curve is ever bending and all we can do is to try to keep things in perspective and continually grow with it.

Hopefully I won’t be writing the same thing in five more years about my current self. If so, with any luck we will have time machines by then.

Filling the Gap

This week’s post is from our newest EP Blog contributor: Rachael Johnson. Rachel recently moved to Denver from Washington D.C. and brought with her an amazing program called the Christopher Kelley Leadership Development Program (CKLDP). 2016_ckldp_grad_slideshow

Filling the Gap by Rachael Johnson

As one of the few official “professions” – those jobs that require continuous improvement, evolution, innovation and training – lawyers and doctors have us architects beat when it comes to post-graduate school professional training and development. We emerge from a rigorous, often heavily theoretical education and begin our new professional lives as bathroom elevation trainees – interns. We learn and test our skills and knowledge until – BAM! – We’ve passed our tests and now have the credentials to do some real good (or damage – depending on how much we have actually learned and experienced). Aside from informal learning opportunities at an occasional lunch’n’learn with a vendor and those lucky chances to shadow a mentor, there is little regular and formal professional education built into an emerging professional’s early career.

Over the years, the professional architecture community here in Colorado has recognized this lack of guidance for interns and responded with various committees and programs including mentorship programs and testing support. There is still a gap, though. For freshly licensed folks who have collected mentors over the years and have exhausted many of the professional learning opportunities out there, there is still a gaping hole, an education void impeding the path to expertise, leadership and partnership. The knowledge needed to run a firm competently or reach a peak level in the profession is seemingly absorbed through osmosis (or perhaps through many iterations and subsequent failures and successes). I do not discount the hard work and raw talent that got our industry leaders where they are today, but I also recognize (and venture to guess that the architecture community at large agrees) that there is new talent out there that could not only enhance, but lead the next era of the practice of architecture. Let this serve as a call to action – We must empower and equip those eager to innovate and lead!

Enter stage right… the Christopher Kelley Leadership Development Program. This 9-month program serves as an opportunity for those bright, young professionals to think, dream and grow with like-minded young architects and leaders in the local community both within and outside the profession. Just by its inherent qualities and syllabus structure, the program has proven (over four years in Washington DC and now one in Denver) to be not only a plentiful environment for learning and exploring, but an incubator for daring, curious, diligent leaders. Each May, the local architecture and design community has the privilege of welcoming 16 empowered, fresh and enthusiastic candidates into the highly-qualified pool of leader candidates – the future of our profession.

Send us your best and brightest: scholars, speakers and collaborators!

*For more information – to sponsor, apply, contact – please visit:

Automobile Speech (‘Car Talk’ is already a thing, I guess)

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to work in a variety of roles within an architecture office. Recently, I have been leading the CA effort on one project, while leading the design of another. Working on these two wildly different projects has opened my eyes to an idea that is never taught in architecture school, never comes up on the ARE, and has no hours to be logged via AXP: how do you work with and manage a wide variety of people throughout a project?

A few months ago I had a much more experienced architect in my office lament to me about not being able to motivate some of the younger staff (of which I am one, but that fact seems to have gone unnoticed). This got me thinking about ways that humans are motivated, both in a professional and personal manner. I realized (unfortunately after the conversation took place) that everyone is motivated through different stimuli and that the best way to motivate and work with people is to observe what works for those people and adjust your own style to work with them instead of hoping that they eventually come around to your way of thinking and working .

As people who know me will attest, I am a big fan of using unlike stories to illustrate a point. That being said, here it goes: working with and managing people is like moving a car without a key. Sometimes the car is broken down and needs a good push so that it can fall into gear. Once it’s in gear, it will run just fine like nothing ever happened to it. On the other hand, sometimes the car is already rolling downhill and your job is to absorb its momentum and navigate it in the correct direction. If you try to force your will upon the car that moving car, it will run you over and then end up in a ditch.

That seemingly obscure analogy lends itself to each project in the following ways: on one project, it took some real effort to motivate many team members, both internally and externally, to care about the project. Once people became invested in the project and felt ownership over it, though, everyone gained momentum and they no longer required as much pushing in order to move the project forward. On the other hand, the polar opposite was experienced on a different project. I came into the process about halfway through schematic design and the team was already wholly invested in the design and nuances of the project. At first, I came in with the same mentality that I had had to “push people in the direction that I wished them to go”. However, when the team already had momentum, it became twice as difficult to move things to where I thought they should be. Instead, I took a step back and used the momentum that was already in place and gently shifted decisions and ideas one way or another. While neither method is perfect and both require effort, I am sure that I avoided many headaches by tailoring my approach for each project.

Ultimately, what I have learned is that the best way to motivate and lead a project team is to adapt my approach to each team and even each team member to what they require. There can’t be a “one size fits all” approach because people are about as varied a species as there is. We can shift and customize our approaches within a spectrum, but it is important to recognize that people and situations will always vary and we need to be flexible enough to adjust accordingly. It’s just too bad I couldn’t think of all this when the question was originally posed months ago.