Viewpoint (March 01, 2009)

Having had the opportunity to attend the American Institute for Architects (AIA) Grassroots Leadership & Legislative Conference held in Washington last month, I was completely amazed at both the level of organization and gloom in the architecture profession in the US. During one of the sessions, Kermit Baker, the Chief Economist for the AIA, noted that over 17,000 positions in architecture were lost over the past six months. There are two astounding components to this statement. Firstly, that the AIA actually has a Chief Economist amongst its 800 staffers and secondly, that seven percent of all architectural positions have been eliminated in such a short period of time due to a recordlow level in billings. During difficult economic times, it is important that architects lobby government on issues that can help stimulate the construction industry.

In between the many keynote addresses delivered at the conference, architects practicing in certain states (e. g., Alaska, Florida and Texas) were urged to meet with designated AIA staff, who were waiting to advise them on how to pressure their respective senators into supporting architecturefriendly measures that were included in President Barack Obama’s massive $767 billion economic stimulus package. At issue was the elimination of $4 billion slated for the greening of federal government buildings, as well as provisions to renovate aging public school facilities. “Call your Senator! Don’t let victory slip away!” exclaimed George H. Miller, a partner of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners and First Vice President of the AIA.

To support a conduit between architects and government leaders, in 1980 the AIA developed an advocacy arm known as ArchiPAC, a political action committee. The funding of ArchiPAC is not tied to professional dues, but relies solely on personal contributions from interested members of the AIA. In between the main course and dessert at one of the conference luncheons, it was thus a most unusual experience to watch architects writing $1,000 cheques enabling ArchiPAC to lobby on their behalf.

Although the Canadian political system is quite different, architects on both sides of the border cannot afford to wait and see if government chooses to support issues such as new incentives for affordable housing, green buildings, historic preservation, consistent building codes, better schools and welldesigned civic spaces–initiatives useful in stimulating a recessionary economy, never mind the profession.

In Canada, the Conservative government recently announced its own economic stimulus package, claiming that it needs a free hand in spending $3 billion of discretionary funds, even threatening an election should opposition parties block it. Although the government intends to report back after it spends the cash, which will be part of an interim $30billionplus package to help stimulate the economy, the only concrete spending announced thus far will include a job training facility for exsoldiers and the renovation of a few hockey arenas. Architects need not get too excited just yet.

In addition to helping architects through political advocacy, the AIA recently created an informative document entitled “Architecture Practice in an Economic Downturn: Challenges and Opportunities,” which attempts to explain to architects the current macroeconomic conditions and their implications to individual firms. Faced with a different political reality and a somewhat healthier economic environment, Canadian architects should still monitor the situation in the US carefully and reevaluate the status quo of their own activities to ensure that an architectural agenda becomes a political reality that will improve our economy and the financial health of our firms.

Ian ChodIkoff