How do you . . . maintain active involvement in the AIA despite the challenges of the economy?

by Emily Grandstaff-Rice, AIA, LEED-AP and Jack L. Baumann, AIA, LEED-AP

With the downfall of the economy, many architects are facing a specific pressure: how to fulfill their obligations to their firms and maintain their level of involvement volunteering for the AIA. Some architects experienced a reduction of sponsorship from their firms with regards to compensation for travel or time away from the office. Others have found that time spent out of the office was looked down upon by their peers or superiors. After all, they were “taking time away from their careers.” Jack Bauman, AIA, and Emily Grandstaff-Rice, AIA, are two young architects who devote much of their personal time to the betterment of the profession by volunteering at the local, state, and national levels. They have found it challenging at times to continue the same level of contribution, but because they both belong to supportive firms, they have been able to maintain a respectable amount of dedication towards what they are passionate about.

Here are their stories in their own words.

Emily Grandstaff-Rice, AIA

I volunteer my time both with the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) and the AIA because I learn from interaction with my peers. I know my efforts have an impact in shaping the profession that I love—helping me, my colleagues, and the next generation of designers. My resolve to be engaged with the AIA is recession-proof, although like so many of my peers, my resources are not. Among these resources, I consider my time, my skills, the support I receive from my firm, and the amount of money I can personally devote to professional organizations. Within the last six months, I have had to rebalance the mix.

I am very fortunate that the firm I work for, Cambridge Seven Associates, generously pays for our AIA dues and supports our involvement in activities. This financial support has not changed for me, although many of my peers at other firms pay a portion or all of their own dues out-of-pocket. Beyond the personal benefits I receive from my AIA activities—networking, leadership skills, community involvement, and professional develop—I have a responsibility to both the BSA/AIA and my firm to be an active member, especially since they have made a financial commitment in my membership.

Do I think twice before I have to take a day off to attend a BSA board meeting? Absolutely. I understand that this support is not possible unless the firm is solvent and healthy. However, making sure that employees continue to develop and grow also adds to the health of the organization and, ultimately, their own careers. It basically comes down to time. With the economy putting pressure on all, I have seen an increase in Web-based collaboration tools and virtual meetings. These are sustainable and allow architects to better integrate work with AIA activities. Using new technology to create a new way to volunteer helps both the organization and the individual. For a recent example, look at the AIA 2009 National Convention Twitter reports. I’ve also seen many AIA committees use LinkedIn to virtually continue discussions that only used to happen at face-to-face meetings.

The embedded time to travel and meet has been one of the reasons I chose to focus my AIA involvement more locally this year. Last year, I served on two national committees, attended Grassroots and Convention, and felt like I had a good pulse on the activity of the Young Architects Forum. However, with the travel involved, I questioned whether my time away from the office was truly as productive as it could have been, and it was frankly more difficult to negotiate the time away from other work pressures. Now I sit on the board of the BSA, working on developing a new communications framework. For now, I happily trade the convenience of only having to travel 20 minutes via subway, rather than through airport security. Although I am not involved on the larger, national scale, my local impact has been equally rewarding. And, in a more personal way, I can have greater direct interaction with peers in my community.

I did not attend the national convention this year. There is a conference later this year in Chicago that I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford on my own. I miss the larger discussion of architecture as a profession, but I know that I don’t have the personal resources to devote to this connection with the AIA. Opportunity or not, I believe strongly that my involvement is important, even a responsibility, since we as a community of architects can advance the profession stronger as a group and learn more from each other than in isolation. This is essential at every stage of one’s career.

Jack Baumann, AIA

I have served the AIA in many facets over the past seven years, but only recently got involved in the regional and national level. By getting elected as the 2009 National Associates Committee (NAC) Knowledge Director, time spent with the AIA has increased exponentially and has become a regular part of my workday within the office. Whether it is e-mails, letters, or conference calls, my involvement is evident to my coworkers and superiors. Lately, I have had to travel at least once every couple of months for one meeting or another, and taking that time away from the office can be awkward. But, luckily, my office understands.

Having worked for the same firm, Braun & Steidl Architects in Akron, for the past 12 years, I am fortunate that the office supports my AIA involvement and that my time spent with the AIA is never questioned. I have never had to take vacation time for working on AIA issues or any of my travels that take me away from the office. If I know I am going to be gone for a period of time because of a meeting or a conference, I just let our partners know when and where, and the response I get is “have fun.” Sure, the pressure of keeping up with office tasks still lingers on my shoulders, but the trust that has been created between the office and me ensures the partners that my dedication on office projects will not lapse.

This sentiment exists within the office because our office has always been involved in the AIA. In 2005, Doug Steidl, one of our founding partners, served as the AIA national president. Even if Doug had not been president, AIA involvement would still be encouraged, since many of the partners and staff take active rolls in both local and state activities. Braun & Steidl’s support of my AIA involvement is strong because they understand the value of being a leader in the AIA and how the firm as a whole can grow from each and every experience I may have.

My involvement with the AIA has given me the opportunity to meet and work with dedicated individuals for the betterment of our profession and local communities. With my firm understanding of this opportunity, not only for my own professional growth, but the firm’s growth as well, it makes being a part of AIA leadership that much easier. I am a strong believer in advocating for our profession and staying involved and connected. Having a supportive firm behind me gives me a positive outlook on the future for the profession.

This post originally appeared in the Face of the AIA column of  AIArchitect: Staying Involved, AIArchitect, June 26, 2009

Copyright 2009 The American Institute of Architects. All rights reserved.