Guest Post: Emily Axtman – “Finding Our Voices” – recap of AIA Grassroots 2017

This week’s guest post is by Emily Axtman, who recently attended AIA Grassroots in Washington D.C. as a representative of the AIA Colorado North Section. The following post originally appeared on the WORKSHOP8 blog (it has been edited to fit this format).

emily grassroots

I have had the opportunity over the last year and a half to serve on the Colorado North AIA Board as the Associate Director (2016) and now the President-Elect (2017). Every year, the President-Elect and President of each region travel to Washington, D.C. for the annual Grassroots Conference, an AIA leadership event. Grassroots brings together AIA members from around the country to talk about the most pressing issues we face within our communities and how architects can take leadership roles to create healthier, more sustainable architecture that will improve the built environment for all. It was an eye-opening, inspiring three-day event that will have a lasting impression in my mind for years to come.

A few B I G picture items came to me on this trip:

  • Exposure to diversity is key to combating fear. In this political climate of fear, diversity is key.
  • I have a voice. I have an opportunity and a responsibility to use that voice.
  • We really are stronger together.

Lesson 1: Exposure to diversity is key to combating fear: Public transportation is an amazing way to expose yourself to diversity. It provides a means for every walk of life to get from point A to point B. When you are put into situations where you are in close proximity to those whom you do not know, you are more likely to understand that he and she are actually quite similar to you. While traveling to D.C. I witnessed a few situations like this: a Latino man and a European man striking up a conversation about their pasts and similarities, a Muslim airport worker leading a blind man onto the tram, and a train security guard helping out two homeless people on the train. Watching people of varied backgrounds show each other compassion and understanding re-affirmed that all is not lost– and that public transportation rocks!

Day 1

On the first day of the conference, we had the chance to sit down with members of Congress to discuss federal issues that are important to our AIA Members and our professional community. Stacee Kersley, the North President, and myself sat down with Congressman Jared Polis’ Senior Legislative Assistant, Blaine Miller-McFeeley, to discuss ways in which young architects can help serve their communities in exchange for student loan assistance. It was a successful and rewarding conversation; and a great experience for me as a young designer. After visiting Congressman Polis’ office, we sat in on both the House of Representatives, as well as the Senate. It just so happened that the very day we were visiting Capitol Hill was also International Women’s Day. As I walked across the US Capitol lawn, I stumbled upon a women’s equal rights protest. It was awesome– free speech! It made me proud to be a woman, a designer and an American- with a voice.

Lesson 2: I have a voice. I have an opportunity and a responsibility to use that voice.

Day 2

The second day of the conference was the official kick-off. We spent the day getting to know the AIA National Board, learning about what professionals are doing around the country to better their communities and gaining skills to become more effective leaders.


Jeff Speck, City Planner and Urban Developer of Speck and Associates, blew me away with his lecture on “Walkable Cities”. Check out his new book “Walkable City” here. TED talk here.


Jean Carroon, Principal at Goody Clancy, reminded us of the importance and value that existing buildings have in contributing to our future urban fabric in her lecture “Heritage Cities”. She stated that there are thousands upon thousands of square feet of existing buildings waiting to be re-used. And that “Old is the new, new”. Check out her book “Sustainable Preservation: Greening Existing Buildings” here. One of her lectures on historic preservation here.


Michael Berkowitz, President of Resilient Cities and Managing Director at the Rockefeller Foundation, spoke about the necessity to equip cities around the world with tools to be more resilient against the physical, social, and economic challenges we currently face.


Tom Dallessio, President, CEO & Publisher of Next City, Philadelphia, challenged architects to think critically about what a 21st Century City is and how architects have the ability to shape our cities in positive ways.

And all this was before noon. The rest of the day focused on leadership workshops and gave everyone the time to connect with like-minded professionals. Throughout the day as I connected with more and more people, I realized that we are all working towards the same goals and had similar outlooks and hopes for the future. I felt as though I was a part of this big national team of designers, all pushing forward with support from each other.

Lesson 3: We really are stronger together.

Day 3

The third day focused on leadership workshops such as “Speak Like a Pro” and “Managing Cultural Differences.” The final keynote speaker: Catherine Pugh, Mayor of Baltimore, spoke of the unique capability architects have to create change for the better.


Overall, the 2017 Grassroots Conference was incredible. I am thankful to the AIA Colorado for this experience and to WORKSHOP8 for supporting me throughout my AIA Board roles.


What’s in a name?

Intern. The term that has been the source of debate, ridicule, scorn, and general hair pulling for years. Until this past December, the AIA regarded all unlicensed persons practicing architecture as “interns”, much to the dismay of… just about everyone. The term was seen as demeaning to those who go to work every day and put in the time and work at a professional architectural practice. It was seen as a title that should have been left behind as soon as that person walked across the stage and was handed a diploma from their NAAB accredited program. Finally, though, there is movement forward.

In December of 2016, the AIA opted to pivot away from using intern to describe all unlicensed persons working in the field of architecture. Instead, it will now only refer to those that are still in school and working at a professional architecture practice. Those that are unlicensed will now have the titles of architectural associate or design professional. I cannot speak for everyone, but it seems that this shift is a long overdue step in the right direction.

Without doubt, these two titles will not please everyone. In my own experience at work, the title “associate” is used to describe someone that has been elevated within the firm to a position of leadership, so using that term will most likely not work for our office or a great many other offices. The term of design professional indicates a level of professional aptitude, but omits any reference to architecture, so is inherently vague, which is possibly by design so that it encompasses those not directly working in the field of architecture.

Each term has its own positives and negatives, but all in all, the move is a positive one. A person that is forty years old and has been practicing for fifteen years, moved up within the profession, and is highly regarded by their peers, but never got around to taking their tests should not be referred to as an intern the same way that a twenty year old student with three months of experience is. It defies logical reasoning.

Regardless of how the architectural community responds to the change, it is a positive step for the AIA to be taking. The organization has taken its share of backlash over the years and even more so recently. However, the American Institute of Architects still holds, and will continue to hold, major sway in the architecture community, with government entities, and with the general public. The name carries with it major influence and represents a wide array of members. While AIA may be a bit tardy in catching up with the shift away from outdated terminology, steps are being made to set things on the right track. That being said, I will leave you with this: the best way to ensure the AIA is representing architecture and all members is to continue to stay engaged, demand accountability, and to relentlessly push forward on the issues that matter. This change would not have come about if not for a strong push from members. It’s a small step, but it is indicative of the influence that members have and will continue to have.

On the topic of homelessness… (Part I)

Most will agree that the Denver transient population is difficult to ignore. Take a stroll down the famous 16th Street Mall and you will be confronted by the situation on every corner and multiple times in between. Drive up Park Ave. from downtown to I-70 and you will see some of the highest concentrations in the city centered around the Denver Rescue Mission. Even in neighborhoods that are more removed from downtown have an ever present population of homeless persons in parks and in back alleys. This issue is not unique to Denver and is, in fact, a fairly common scene in larger cities. However, it has become a highly contentious issue and is debated in various venues from city hall to neighborhood bars to the netherworld of internet comment sections.

When it comes to homelessness, almost everyone can agree that it needs to be addressed, but the method in which it is addressed becomes the main concern. There is a general sentiment that people do not care to have a high transient population in close proximity to their everyday lives. People do not want to be confronted by panhandlers on every corner, nor do they want to be on edge walking down the street for fear of being physically or verbally assaulted. It is unfair to paint an entire group of people with the same brush, but recent incidents around Denver have tainted many people’s views on the matter and have thus caused great unrest.

There are really two prevailing strategies to the issue: provide assistance through shelters and programs or move the transient population away from highly used areas. One could make arguments as to the effectiveness (or lack thereof) for either approach. While shelters and programs are noble causes and, in most people’s view, the right move, many of those living on the streets are unable or unwilling to take advantage of them for various reasons (lack of space, check in times, inability to bring all personal belongings into the shelter, etc.). On the other hand, simply relocating homeless persons away from certain areas doesn’t solve the issue, it only moves it. By taking the “not in my backyard” approach, the issue is just moved to another person’s backyard and starts all over again.

While either approach may be effective for some, they are both usually focused on temporary fixes. Often, a person living on the street may only be concerned with the next meal or the next place to rest, but as citizens in this city that do not have to worry about these problems, we should take it upon ourselves to look at the bigger picture for more holistic answers.

It is highly doubtful that there is, or ever will be, a “one size fits all” solution to the question of homelessness. The issues that lead to people living on the streets vary from financial struggles to mental health to substance abuse. The resolutions are as wide ranging as the issues that these people are confronting, which makes the task even more daunting. However, as architects and designers, I believe that we have a role to play in finding those answers. Whether that be through our buildings and designs, community action, civic engagement, or simply volunteering our time and skills, we can begin to set efforts in motion that address these multi-faceted and complex issue. We may not be able to solve everything ourselves, but we certainly can bring valuable insight to the conversation.

As Robert De Niro once said: “…you’re either part of the problem, you’re part of the solution, or you’re just part of the landscape.”

Trouble with the (Learning) Curve

Recently, I have had the privilege to experience a project from beginnings to final permit drawings to construction. This multi-acre, multifamily project is designed for low income families and underserved seniors. The hundreds of units will add a much needed housing typology to the area and create a vibrant new neighborhood for those in need. At least, these are all the things that we say throughout the process in order to justify the long hours and endless headaches. While they might be true, by the time the last unit receives it’s certificate of occupancy, this project will have lasted over three years, seen it move from sketches to full construction documents, and gone through hundreds of hours of back and forth with contractors, consultants, clients, and internal vetting in order to realize this project through to the final product.

This is the first large scale project that I have been part of from inception through completion. Currently the first few buildings on this very large site are nearing the point of being completely framed out which, as most will agree, is one of the first points on project where a person really starts to feel like the things that they sketched months ago are starting to become realities. However, to get to this point, and especially at this point, the questions and shortcomings of our documentation process are being highlighted and pointed out to all parties involved. This won’t be news to anyone that has been practicing for years and it wasn’t especially surprising to me once it started happening, nor is this an indictment of other team members on this project, but this is a brief “lessons learned” bit for those about to embark on a similarly long project venture.

Every project that anyone ever works on will have its fair share of “what were we thinking?” moments. No one is perfect and no project will ever be perfect. Coordination can always be tighter and decisions more thoroughly vetted. However, there are always opportunities to learn; where we think to ourselves “I will never do that again” or “hey, that was a good idea and I should remember that for the future”. Whether that be a BIM coordination issue, initial decisions that were held on to for far too long, or just general project structure and management style, these lessons will resonate with me for the entirety of my career.

Among the countless lessons I have learned throughout the process, one particular aspect that has had an incredibly lasting impact on me is the value of the people that we work with on a project. It would be easy to go on incessantly about the merits of working with a housing authority and those that we serve with the final product, but instead I would like to focus internally. I had the privilege of working with a team that showed me the importance of working with others and valuing one another not for hours worked or documents produced, but more for how various individuals can work towards a common goal.

Ultimately, the value of the architecture that we produce stems from a team of people with wide array of principles and goals. We cannot assume that all people have the same values and are striving to reach the same end. However, I have learned that it is crucial to view team members as people first and not as a means to a production end. Managing various personalities and sets of values, and above all else, viewing one another as people first will lead to a successful project and team dynamic.

The team that I worked with taught me the value of viewing one another through the lens of treating one another first and foremost as a fellow team member that I would go out of my way for. Ultimately, we are all pulling in the same direction and when we are presented with the opportunity to help one another, whether that be with BIM issues, picking up some extra slack, or recognizing that people have lives outside of the office, it is crucial to the success of the project to be there for one another and help others whenever the opportunity presents itself. This not only leads to a more successful and thoughtful project, but also allows those relationships to resonate throughout our careers.

Everyone will have different project/CA experiences and maybe no one else will take these same lessons away from theirs. I could have spoken for pages and pages about the merits of early coordination, constant vetting, and being overly critical of execution and decision making, but ultimately it is those around you that will get you over the finish line. If we look out for one another, the project will look out for itself.

Architecture + the PR Dilemma

One of the most prevalent complaints from architects in regards to the general public is that people don’t understand or know what we do on a daily basis, and thus might not be able to value the impact architects have on the built environment. When we tell people that we are architects, we are invariably met with responses such as “Do you do commercial or residential architecture?” or “oh… I thought about being an architect”. Unfortunately, architecture is often seen as an insulated profession that too often works in a vacuum and excludes the general populous from its discussions, aspirations and achievements.

People will counter this argument with websites and magazines such as ArchDaily and Architectural Record, among many others. These are great resources, but they are made specifically for architects by other architects and designers. We can sit around all day patting ourselves on the back about how amazing our ideas and designs are, but if we don’t make those ideas apparent and accessible to everyone else, no one will care.

I’d like to offer the example of alternate fields like science and technology (this will seem like a bit of a stretch, but stick with me). Let’s say that a new satellite is launched that will improve WiFi capabilities in every US city and is being put forth by a very ‘brand name’ technology company. If you turned on the local news that evening, opened a news agency web page, or listened to the radio on your way in to work the next day, it would be nearly impossible to not hear about it at least in passing. When a technology company develops an innovative gadget or piece of software, people hear about it. If an architecture firm designs a new and innovative building that will revitalize an area of a major city, people will be lucky if they know about it before the first shovel is put in the ground.

Science and technology sectors are more far reaching than most architectural projects, so those companies have an easier time conveying these innovations and discoveries to a larger audience. Architectural projects usually do not directly affect a wide array of people unless they are massive in scale or are put forth by world renowned architects. This does not mean, though, that there is not an audience that is willing to listen or even longs to know about some of these projects and how they will change the landscape of these cities. If there was a larger push from various media sources to report on architecture and development projects, I believe that we would expand our audience, increase our value, and make architecture more accessible and understandable to more people.

In addition to a heightened awareness of architecture, a campaign such as this has the potential to lead to a more thoughtful architectural process. Often architects design projects through the lens of being an architect. However, if we make the effort to make our designs more digestible to the public at large, we frame our designs in a way that are meant to be more readily perceived and understood by everyone. In doing so, this sort of campaign can become more of a dialogue between architects and the public and not just a grandiose marketing scheme.

Between the “I look up” campaign that was pushed by the AIA, various online and print magazines and blogs, and social media in general, it would seem like architects are on the cusp of creating a wide spread and focused media campaign. Imagine if you turned on your radio on the way into work in the morning and right after you hear about the latest political gaff in the presidential race, you are then told about a new public housing project designed by “_______ Architects” that seeks to revitalize an area of the city in which you live. Or, if you turned on the nightly news when you got home, and heard about how Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects are being tasked with designing a new presidential library and what that will mean for Chicago and President Obama. Instead of burying these topics within the “arts and design” pages or on obscure blogs in the depths of the internet, there is an opportunity to push these stories to be front and center and to make them relevant in people’s lives. We need to move beyond the efforts of “hey look at us because we are important” and “look, other architects, we have created a wonderful piece of architecture” and push the initiative of “hey populous, architects are important and here are these projects that show you why. Now let’s talk about how to make things better”. Maybe these topics won’t resonate with every person out there, but they will surely resonate just as much as hearing about a new weight loss diet or the latest fashion trends for the summer.