Michael Gibbs

Sometimes community engagement by architects is the result of a natural disaster; at other times, it is part of a long-term business plan to improve a neighborhood. Architecture has a lot of leaders who can push design forward, but increasingly it’s producing leaders to look beyond bricks and mortar and into questions of social agency.

“Architecture for Humanity and Public Architecture: Leaders in the Social Impact Design Movement,” a session at the 2013 AIA National Convention, is really two sessions in one. Architecture for Humanity is an organization that fosters individual-based volunteerism. Public Architecture focuses on the United States and is probably best known for the 1% Pro Bono program, through which it seeks commitment from firms to provide 20 hours per person per year to pro bono work.

“One thing to take away from the session is learning how to get involved,” says session organizer Audrey Galo, Assoc. AIA, a design fellow with Architecture for Humanity. “It will open people’s eyes to the ways they can design and build solutions for communities everywhere.”

When a tornado obliterated six square miles of Joplin, Mo., in 2011, 161 people died. Afterwards, over 155,000 people volunteered to help rebuild that community, brick by brick. Among those were the nearby Springfield, Mo., AIA chapter and the school of architecture at Drury University—whose story will be part of “Architects as Leaders: Best Practice for Engaging Community,” another AIA Convention session.

Springfield AIA organized a 60-person, two-day charrette to put a vision to Joplin residents’ hopes for rebuilding. The Drury University team designed and built a 10,000-square-foot volunteer-tribute garden at the heart of the destroyed area as a way to help people begin to cope with their loss and grief. “Architects are needed the most when the community thinks they are not needed at all,” says Keith Hedges, AIA, an assistant professor at Drury’s Hammons School of Architecture and the session organizer. “Entering an uncertain process is analogous to jumping on a runaway train. Only preparedness slows the train.”

Community developers and architects too often work in silos, says current Enterprise Rose Fellow Ceara O’Leary. But, for the past decade, the Enterprise Rose Fellowship—which funds an early-career architect to work on the staff of a community development organization for three years—has helped designers break down those silos, and “Next Generation Leadership in Community Design,” another convention session, will look at career development opportunities through the experiences of current and former Rose fellows.

“For a young architect, that experience opens a lot of doors and the fellowship also opens a lot of eyes about how the process works from both sides,” O’Leary says. “And having an architect in a development office changes the way the developer thinks as well. As a result, some developers have started their own design departments. At the very least, it increases the value of design in their eyes.”

In a moderated-panel format at convention, “Expanding the Architect’s Influence as Civic Leader” will examine the value of AIA chapters in bringing architects together to address community issues. In this case, AIA Colorado South worked for more than six years with the city of Colorado Springs, Colo., the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, local universities, and the national AIA Sustainability Design Assistance Team program to establish an extensive civic engagement project.

These concepts are definitely transferable, says session organizer Adam Thesing, AIA, president of LKA Partners in Colorado Springs. “It seems that the public has a positive feeling toward architects,” he says, “so what we say carries weight.” —Douglas Gordon, Hon. AIA