From left: Jennifer Workman, AIA; Adam W. Palmer, AIA; Deepika Padam, AIA; Bradley Benjamin, AIA
Credit: Eli Meir Kaplan From left: Jennifer Workman, AIA; Adam W. Palmer, AIA; Deepika Padam, AIA; Bradley Benjamin, AIA

Does a studio-based education make architects specially enthusiastic workshoppers? The scene at the District Architecture Center on day one of YAF Summit20—a national summit of the AIA Young Architects Forum, held in Washington, D.C., in March—would suggest so. Sixty-odd participants had broken into six groups, each one charged with discussing and refining a key goal for young architects that had been identified by voting earlier that day. Almost everyone had opinions about his or her designated topic and wasn’t shy to voice them.

At the Starting Your Own Firm table, one architect said that he’d calculated that he’d need to gross about $2,000 per day as a sole practitioner just to support his family. Another observed that more-senior architects probably don’t want the AIA to teach leadership skills, because “in a boss’s eyes, it’s teaching employees to leave.” Conversation at the Value of Licensure table grew lively when someone brought up the issue of public awareness. No one understands what architects do, several people complained; even on job sites or working with engineers, it can be a problem.

In their daily lives, individuals will often need to hire a lawyer or an accountant, but rarely an architect, noted one participant.

The Young Architects Forum (YAF) was created in 1991 to help emerging designers network with each other and grow professionally, and also to serve as a collective voice for architects who’ve been licensed for 10 or fewer years. (Don’t be fooled by the group’s name—age is not a factor for inclusion, only tenure in the profession.)

Thanks to this broad definition of “young,” the YAF represents 28 percent of total AIA membership and 40 percent of all architect members. That may seem like a critical mass. So why does such a large group need special representation, its own voice within the Institute?

According to its handbook, the YAF exists to address issues that are “uniquely relevant to young architects and specifically relate to the development stage of their professional careers.” Within the AIA and the profession as a whole, discussion of these early-career issues may get squeezed by would-be architects’ hurdles en route to licensure on the one hand, and established professionals’ direct design and practice-management concerns on the other.

Modeled on the structure of the College of Fellows, the YAF is led by an “AdCom” (advisory committee) of seven young architects, plus 18 regional liaisons: a liaison each to the AIA Board of Directors and the College of Fellows Executive Committee; the AIA’s Emerging Professionals director; and the forum’s past chair. Active local and regional YAF groups around the country organize social events, seminars, and the like. At the national level, the YAF publishes a bimonthly Web magazine, Connection; holds an annual Ideas Competition in collaboration with the AIA’s Committee on Design; and provides resources on mentoring, leadership, and other topics.

Five years ago, the YAF held its 15th-anniversary summit in Washington. Beforehand, it surveyed members about its priorities, which were narrowed down to 10. The six most urgent were mentorship; human capital; leadership and interaction skills; practice management; credibility of the architect; and responsibility of the architect.

This year, by contrast, the top six to emerge are advancement of the profession; career advancement; value of design; starting your own firm; value of licensure; and economy and change.

Deepika Padam, AIA, a senior designer and project manager at San Francisco’s Heller Manus Architects who serves as the YAF’s communications adviser and editor in chief, says she was surprised that 2007’s three leading issues—mentorship, human capital, and leadership and interaction skills—are absent from 2012’s top six. And globalization, “a big deal in today’s market,” is missing.

“We were completely surprised,” says Jennifer Workman, AIA, the YAF’s current chair and a project leader at Good, Fulton & Farrell in Dallas. However, she added, the AIA’s Board of Directors sees parallels between the shift of focus within the YAF and changing priorities within the AIA as a whole.

One way to interpret the shift? In 2007’s hot economy, young architects were climbing the ladder at their firm, or hoping to; or they were keeping an eye out for better jobs. There was more work than they could handle (in the 2007 YAF survey, 22 percent of respondents cited “work overload” as their main professional challenge). Everyone was so busy with continuous project work at firms that mentorship, professional development (i.e., “human capital”), and management skills got pushed to the side.

Now, in the harsher light of 2012, many architects are struggling to simply find the ladder. Expectations have changed: Mentorship, never a given, is now a perk of the fortunate. And with opportunities scarce, you might as well create your own (hence the interest in going solo).

When asked, “Do you see yourself practicing architecture in the same manner throughout your professional career?,” only 34 percent of respondents in the YAF’s 2012 survey answered “yes.” Clearly, most young architects today are not counting on a linear, traditional career trajectory. That might explain why they’d prefer to take their careers into their own hands. The more highly the public values design, and the designer’s skill set, the larger the potential client pool—especially if it can include nontraditional clients.

Bradley Benjamin, AIA, the YAF’s vice chair and principal of Radium Architecture in South Carolina, says that his initial surprise at the five-year shift abated somewhat when he thought more about the categories and how much they overlap. “Mentoring is something that you can integrate into a lot of … [the 2012 priorities],” he says, especially career advancement and starting your own firm—which depend on the guidance of mentors.

Attendees at the summit were diverse, with an almost 50-50 split between men and women and many people of color. They included educators and unlicensed designers as well as people with no AIA affiliation whatsoever (the latter made up only about 20 percent of the total). But the diversity didn’t stretch to employment status: Only one participant was out of work. By and large, these aren’t the people who are struggling to break into architecture,” Padam says. “We should be thinking about … [people leaving architecture], but it did not end up on the board,” she says. “I guess that’s because this group are more the leaders, and very involved. They are not even thinking about leaving the profession.”

Padam was heartened by the strong interest in advancing and valuing architectural design. “We have been discussing how architects need to be the go-to resource in our communities, as the people … [others] approach when they want to build something, change something, modify something,” she says. “People have stopped going to architects. They need to come back to us.”

Over the two-day summit, attendees heard presentations on the future of the profession by Lawrence W. Speck, FAIA; HOK’s organizational development guru Marsha Littell; and architect’s own editor-in-chief, Ned Cramer, Assoc. AIA. They also attended events at Grassroots, the AIA’s annual advocacy conference, which was held at the same time. They will continue to talk in their six working groups via conference calls, and the next step is to create action plans addressing the top priorities.

The plans will need time to develop, but Workman and her fellow YAF leaders already have a few ideas. Tabs on Talent is one: a database with young architects’ résumés that employers and clients can search when an opportunity arises. Open Door Policy would be a series of networking events hosted by firms, whether they have current openings or not. Benjamin’s working group hopes to create a clearinghouse of Web resources for starting your own firm.

The young architects in Washington that week did take one immediate action: opening their wallets. They were shocked when they learned that only 1.5 percent of AIA members donated money to the organization’s ArchiPAC political action committee last year. “Before the summit ended,” Workman noted proudly, “100 percent made a donation to the PAC.”