Facing Realities: Large and Small

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When the economy is good, architectural firms are busy, unemployment is down, and employees are, for the most part, contented. In such times, there is a tendency for all of us to forget the hard times. And, before we realize what’s happening, the economic pendulum of despair returns. Unfortunately, many poor business practices, born in a desperate economy, live on to become the new normal upon recovery.

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Paul W. Welch, Jr., Hon. AIA

Yes, the economy is improving, but it is awakening to a new and substantially different marketplace—a marketplace that has commensurate influence on project delivery, and a marketplace seemingly obsessed with throttling fees until very little life remains. Each morning brings new challenges: Fee based public RFP’s, replete with innovative ways to obtain free services and avoid Qualifications-Based Selection; uncompensated design competitions and demands for faster, quicker, cheaper; as well as a swarm of other practices that poorly disguise the commoditization of design. These are new times and a new economy. Our firms need our help and they need it now.

Where do we begin? AIA’s new Practice and Prosperity initiative is a step in the right direction. However, achieving an enhanced culture of firm service might be our greatest challenge. Even though AIA is deeply engaged in the business and commerce of architecture, we are reluctant to admit it, let alone discuss it. At the risk of being viewed as an “industry or trade association” more interested in prosperity than public good, AIA continues to service firms through such activities as contract documents, practice management publications, advocating business issues in Congress and the regulatory agencies. Moreover, throughout the Nation’s state houses, AIA Components advance business and contractual-related agendas..

Why is there reluctance for us to acknowledge AIA’s support of the firms, or the business of architecture? Is it because we are a tax-exempt corporation of individual members and not of firms? Or, perhaps, our sometimes-schizophrenic behavior results from fear that commerce is an unclean pursuit, a pursuit inconsistent with our desire to be of ever increasing service to society. Yet, that perspective makes little sense. Architectural services can only be administered through commerce: commerce that includes contracts, contractual conditions and expectations designed to protect and benefit all parties to the contract; and commerce that weaves the tapestry of America’s communities. It matters little if the firm is large or small. The challenges are similar, and differ mainly in scale, but the need for AIA to foster an environment that produces tools and resources that enhances the prosperity of our firms is clear and compelling.

Creating a culture of benefits and that contribute to the practice and prosperity of the profession does not simply reside in defining new products or deliverables. It also suggests that the AIA needs to be actively engaged in the myriad conversations regarding design and project delivery. Much too often, AIA’s voice, as the collective voice of the profession, is absent from the debate. If AIA wants to be relevant to the firms and to the profession, it needs to be an active participant in cultivating and advancing innovation in design and project delivery. But AIA must vigorously defend what it believes to be in the best interests of the communities we serve. We must engage the future, if we wish to shape the future we become.

In the words of author William Pollard, “Without change there is no innovation, creativity, or incentive for improvement. Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable.”

Upcoming issues of Notes from the Second-Floor, we will delve into details of what the culture of practice and prosperity might look like.

Your comments are appreciated.

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Paul W. Welch Jr., Hon. AIA

Paul W. Welch Jr., Hon. AIA and Executive Vice President of the AIA California Council (AIACC), is the former interim Executive Vice President and CEO of the American Institute of Architects in Washington, D.C.

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  1. avatar
    Timothy L. Craig, AIA

    I did a search on the National AIA website and can find no information about the new Practice and Prosperity Committee . Where can we learn more?

  2. avatar
    John F. Worthy, AIA

    Bravo, Paul!

    Thanks for the candid conversation. I agree with your insights 100%. I believe passion, practice and profit must support one another in order the thrive in the architecture biz…errr profession. I’m encouraged to hear about the AIA’s new Practice and Prosperity Initiative and look forward to it’s benefits.

  3. avatar
    Michael F. Malinowski AIA

    Paul; well said and spot on! I believe the AIA at all levels must find a direct and unabashed way to embrace the business of architecture – which is the turf of firms (whether they be of one member, or a thousand). Until we are able to do that, we won’t be able to help navigate toward prosperity for our members. Firms must be prosperous for members to be prosperous.

    I’m pleased to be at the table at the AIA National’s new Practice and Prosperity Committee – and I can say that there are some new paradigms brewing along the lines you’ve hinted at.

  4. avatar
    Lanny McIntosh AIA

    Paul:
    Wow! How refreshing to hear this. I thought this was the sort of discourse that only happened in dark rooms in whispers, so as not to disturb the sensibilities of the cognoscenti. In my year-and-a-half on the board as a regional director from the central states, I have yet to hear the utterance of a single word about the business of our profession…. until Helene put this new committee, or task-force in place. I have great hopes for this conversation and hope that you not put your sword down. Keep going; others will take up arms as well.

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