front and center

As so many architects discover, being a joiner doesn't just give them a leg up within the profession. It raises their profile in the community and, in some cases, provides a platform for touting new ideas. In Tulsa, Okla., Geoff Kesler, principal of g.kesler | Residential Design, and two other architects are using their newly formed CORA cell to market modern, sustainable design in a traditionally minded town. “We're trying to bring Tulsa out of its French Country mentality and to an appreciation of design for the times,” Kesler says. “People here think that building a modern, green home is expensive.”

In Cincinnati, Mark Streicher, AIA, president of the Abacus Design Group, presides over an active four-year-old CORA chapter of 30-some architects who meet the first Tuesday of every month to swap ideas. A $10 admission fee buys attendees lunch, plus 30 minutes of networking, an hour-long business meeting, and a one-hour continuing education seminar. To Streicher, this group is a treasure trove of information on everything from marketing techniques to how to handle certain clients and what to include in contracts.

“What's unique to us is that we're affiliated with our local AIA chapter,” he says. “It's a backbone for us, and we've been a money-making machine for the AIA.” CORA's robust design awards competition, which drew 50 submittals the first year, gives members a public relations boost too. This year's winners got their 15 minutes of fame when the boards were displayed at the Cincinnati Home and Garden Show and other venues, including one at a new art gallery. The events were staged as an art opening, with free hors d'oeuvres, a cash bar, and a short lecture. For the winners, it was a powerful way to show off their A-list status to potential clients.

A similar scenario plays out in Minneapolis, where the public is regularly reminded of the area's wealth of design talent. AIA Minneapolis' Residential Architecture Committee hosts an annual tour of homes designed by architects and sponsors several design competitions, partnering with such publications as Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Midwest Home magazine, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The group is active politically too. When the city recently changed its residential zoning code, the architects stepped up as advisers. Through planning those events and the monthly meetings, committee chair Bruce Knutson, AIA, of Golden Valley, Minn.-based Bruce Knutson Architects, says he meets people with whom he wouldn't normally cross paths. “Do I get more projects or am I more profitable because of the group? I can't say. But there's no question it's given me more confidence in how I run my business.”

Intellectual stimulation, connectivity with peers, public recognition: All architects crave these things, and a well-built network is a way to clinch all three. The concept is deceptively simple, and can have a nice ripple effect. “Anytime you're with a group that's diverse, opportunities come up,” insists Ed Binkley, AIA, ed binkley design, Oviedo, Fla., a former partner and national design director at BSB Design and a charter CORA member. Plus, he adds, “you get the inside perspective from others in similar fields.”

Binkley is at his best when he's straddling the different groups in his orbit, whether it's participating in the Florida Housing Coalition or chairing the Florida Green Building Coalition (FGBC)'s green home standard committee. As a green home certifier through FGBC, he's often invited to speak about affordable, environmentally friendly housing and says the exposure has led to design commissions.

It was also through FGBC that he hooked up with Brian C. Bishop, who developed a panelized system for building houses. The pair is working on a prototype of Binkley's latest brainchild, the $24,000, 600-square-foot IKEA.SmartCarHouse. He clearly enjoys architecture's social aspect. “You just never know where that next door is, and what might be on the other side.”

foreign relations

Think starting a firm is scary? Try doing it in another country. For American architects working abroad and foreign architects working here, the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) is a guiding light on everything from navigating the immigration bureaucracy to interpreting unfamiliar building codes. Its International Committee supports U.S. architects who design projects overseas—large and small, most with housing attached—with advice on how to enter international competitions and how to network with American support agencies such as the U.S. Department of Commerce, the State Department, and HUD.

Each year, group members are invited to participate in a videoconferenced charrette on a project site in another country. They learn about local building politics and how to adjust for technical and cultural differences. “Our people can get involved if they're interested in developing projects in that part of the world,” says committee chair Estelle Jackson, Assoc. AIA, principal of Estelle Jackson Associates in Boston. “It's like a graduate studio in architecture school; we're just pulling it together in a different way.”

Its counterpart is the Alien Architects Roundtable, which smooths the way for foreign architects living and working in the United States. When Italian designer Gaia Grazia Giudicelli, Assoc. AIA, came to the U.S. in 2001, she faced a new measuring system and unfamiliar building codes and licensing requirements. “BSA was a wonderful place to learn all those things,” says Giudicelli, who works at Boston-based MDS/Miller Dyer Spears and co-chairs the round table.

Venezuelan Leonardi Aray, Assoc. AIA, who shares the round table leadership with Giudicelli, says the 40-some architects who routinely attend the monthly meetings are coached on overcoming multiple obstacles. “The job interview is a critical first step,” says Aray, who works at Stull and Lee in Boston. “We show them how to apply and what should be included in a résumé and cover letter. Some employers have concerns about foreign applicants' training if they didn't go to school in the United States, so they need to be explicit about their qualifications.”

Immigration lawyers are frequent guests at the meetings, as are corporate lawyers ready with advice on starting an architecture firm. American employers find counsel here too. “A lot of firms aren't willing to hire foreign architects, because they're not familiar with the process,” Aray says. “They believe, and rightly so, that it's complicated and exposes the firm. But we also show them that there is a lot of misinformation.” For Boston's architectural community, it's all about creating a robust network—one that only broadens its business opportunities.