05.25.11: Welcome to the annual AIA Convention Issue of e-Oculus. The 2011 National AIA Convention focused on the theme, “Revolution: Regional Design; Ecology Matters.” Keep reading to learn more about the discussions and events that occurred, or to re-live your time in New Orleans!

– Jessica Sheridan, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP

Note: Click here to read the digital edition of OCULUS magazine, “Design for a Change: Buildings, People Energy” (Spring 2011).

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2011 AIA Convention: Hot, Flat, and Out of Control

Courtesy AIA

In his travels, New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman has sometimes been stunned to see the speed at which new Manhattan-like skylines are sprouting up around the world, to accommodate escalating urban populations and the desires of a rising middle class. When he visited Doha, Qatar, once a sleepy fishing village, he saw that an “entire field of skyscrapers — glass and steel, all lit up at night, just like ours, all air-conditioned 24/7, just like ours — had blossomed from the desert floor like wildflowers after a flash flood,” he remarked in a 05.12.11 keynote at the AIA Convention.

That globalization and homogenization makes the world seem “flat,” he said. Add climate change and an escalating population, and you have a planet that is ever more “hot, flat, and crowded.” Resulting demands on the environment and natural resources are pushing the ecological balance to a tipping point.

America must take the lead in shifting from “situational values” (doing whatever’s most expedient in a given situation) to “sustainable values,” Friedman said. That’s especially true in architecture, here and abroad. Not everyone might believe in global warming, but a “flat and crowded world will be enough to make every architectural firm from Shanghai to London to Kansas City need to and want to be in the green building business,” he declared.

In a keynote the next day, Jeb Brugmann, founding partner of innovation-process consultancy The Next Practice, offered a different spin on the role of architecture in a time of environmental crisis. For him, the world isn’t flat but instead is “increasingly customized,” since cities are looking to their own unique, underutilized assets to find ways to boost their resources and their livability. (In NYC, the High Line comes to mind.)

These days, sustainable design is critical not just for individual buildings, but on a metropolitan scale, according to Brugmann. This is a practical imperative, since over the next four decades, the global urban population will shoot up by 80% (an additional 2.8 billion people), he explained.

One sign of the times is “the development of an entirely new genre of master-plan development, the eco-district, where we’re not only optimizing the building… we’re optimizing the city as a place that produces resources,” he said. Ideally, instead of being a drain on a region’s resources, cities “actually in the future will provide a net contribution of energy and perhaps even nutrients to the broader regional area.”

2011 AIA Convention: After Disaster, Building Back Better

Project Legacy, designed by Studio NOVA, scheduled for completion in 2014.

Courtesy Southern Louisiana Veterans Healthcare System

While disasters can expose the worst of architecture and engineering’s failures, building in the wake of disaster can sometimes bring out the best of the profession, as architects strive to learn from their predecessors’ mistakes and rebuild in a way that’s safer, resilient, and ecofriendly than before. The Make It Right project in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward comes to mind — a neighborhood of houses that AIA President Clark Manus, FAIA, praised for showing that “affordability, quality, and sustainability are not mutually exclusive.”

Another exemplary part of New Orleans’s rebuilding efforts is Project Legacy, a 1.7-million-square-foot VA medical center that will be constructed in the Mid-City area. Designed by Studio NOVA (a joint venture of NBBJ and local firms Eskew+Dumez+Ripple and Rozas Ward Architects), Project Legacy was conceived as a model of “survivability,” in case disaster ever strikes again, NBBJ Partner Doug Parris, AIA, explained in the session “Restoring Urban Infrastructure: Project Legacy in New Orleans.” The mission-critical facility is designed to be able to accommodate 1,000 people for seven days freestanding — remaining operational if cut off from all outside utilities — said Michael Benjamin, a managing principal at Bard, Rao + Athanas Consulting Engineers, adding that the energy- and water-efficient project is targeting LEED Silver certification.

To make sure the medical center could keep functioning in the event of a flood, “Basically, what we’ve designed is an upside-down hospital,” Parris explained. Instead of having functions such as patient transport, materials transport, and building systems running through the first floor or the basement, they run through the top floor. The architects also designed the facility for maximum adaptability by creating a mix of “permanent zones” and “temporal zones” that are flexible enough for a variety of uses.

Though such projects might give hope for the future, New Orleans still has a long way to go in its recovery. The population is down (100,000 people didn’t return after Katrina), 23% of people live below the poverty line, and there are 48,000 blighted homes that are vacant, said R. Allen Eskew, FAIA, of Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, in the session “From New Orleans to Detroit: Reinventing in the Wake of Disaster.” He took care to correct the popular conception that the flood in New Orleans was a natural disaster — in fact the blame should be placed on “a systemic failure of the federal levee system,” he said. “I prefer to refer to what happened to us as a natural hurricane and a federal flood.”

Similarly, faulty construction is the root cause of the massive devastation in Haiti after last year’s earthquake. In “Beyond Disaster Mitigation: An AIA Architect in Haiti,” Stacey L. McMahan, AIA, LEED AP, discussed the challenges and rewards of her time spent working with Architecture for Humanity on rebuilding efforts in that country. One obstacle has been the “make-do” culture of construction there: weak, substandard materials are pressed into service when nothing better comes to hand, such as using limestone sand to make concrete blocks, she explained. Architecture for Humanity’s program Bati Byen (meaning “Build Back Better”) is helping to change that culture through education. The organization is creating easily understandable 3-D construction drawings and conducting on-the-job training for local workers to create buildings that will be sustainable and structurally sound.

Despite the challenges, her work in Haiti has been “incredibly gratifying,” McMahan said. For architects, reconstruction after a disaster offers an uncommonly vivid opportunity to see “transformational results from our labors.”

2011 AIA Convention: Sustainability, Livability, and Political Will

Two programs offered two sides of the same coin with a message about what design professionals, government and civic leaders, and citizens need to focus on to create livable, sustainable communities. From the design/planning side Hillary A. Brown, FAIA, LEED AP, principal of NYC-based New Civic Works, and James S. Russell, FAIA, architecture critic for Bloomberg News, presented “Next Generation Green: Sustainable Communities and Infrastructure.” On the political side, former Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris, Salt Lake City Council Member Søren D. Simonsen, AIA, AICP, LEED AP, and Colorado State Representative Cheri Gerou, FAIA, discussed “Transitioning Iconic Urban Centers through Political, Community, and Design Leadership.”

Brown’s report focused on research directions and emerging trends for post-industrial infrastructure, and offered principles and guidelines for the next generation. She blamed the current (sad) state of infrastructure on “siloed thinking” that makes it “vulnerable” to politics and “locks us into long-term, carbon-intensive conventional public and private investments.” It was a whirlwind presentation, replete with numerous case studies, of what will be detailed in her forthcoming book from Island Press (2012), Infrastructural Ecologies: Principles for Post-Industrial Public Works (a preview of the book, much of it included in her presentation, can be read here). Russell (whose latest book, The Agile City: Building Well-being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change, made its debut at the convention), highlighted transportation, describing it as being “a bit primitive in the U.S.” His presentation was rich with examples of projects — mostly overseas — that are “diverse, layered, multi-modal, and multi-functional.” He pondered: “Why can’t America build this way?” It’s our “one-size-fits-all mentality” with agencies that don’t work together and their failure to recognize the benefits that come with “shared landscapes” involving transportation and water, power, and land use management as urban amenities. “The whole can be more than the sum of its parts,” he said. If architects are to expand their role in infrastructure projects, “we need to change the status quo — advocate, envision, participate in the political process.”

A very similar message was delivered by Jeremy Harris, the former mayor of the City and County of Honolulu, who said that “our land use policies are flawed.” The main culprit: “Our cities have been built around cars instead of people because we base decisions on engineering instead of design.” He called for new design leadership to not force but encourage the political will to mandate sustainable strategies with a systems approach. He filled his own cabinet with architects instead of engineers, and described how architects in the private sector led to the revitalization of Waikiki’s urban core by promoting citizen empowerment and developing urban design and green guidelines and energy codes. He urged architects to “get on the radar screens of politicians.” A few concrete tactics: set up a Mayor’s Awards Program or a Mayor’s Design Charrette or Community Visioning Sessions. This makes the architect a mayor’s advocate rather than adversary. “Let the mayor take the credit. Then he or she will start to understand that you are valuable.” Unfortunately, the program got off to a late start, and the two architect/politicians on the panel got short shrift: yours truly had to bow out just as Salt Lake City Council Member Søren D. Simonsen, AIA, AICP, LEED AP, started explaining the mission and accomplishments of the Envision Utah initiative, “an unprecedented public effort” launched in 1997. Sadly, we cannot report on what pearls of wisdom Colorado State Representative Cheri Gerou, FAIA, may have proffered.

2011 AIA Convention: AIANY Chapter Members Receive Honors, Awards

Annually, AIA Honors and Awards recognize firms and individuals that make “lasting impacts on the places in which we live, work, and play… enriching the profession and human experience,” according to AIA President Clark Manus, FAIA. Categories include the Institute Honor Awards for Interior Architecture, the Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture, Institute Honors for Collaborative Achievement, Young Architects Award, Institute Honor Awards for Regional and Urban Design, Honorary Members, Associate Awards, Institute Honor Awards for Architecture, and the Twenty-Five Year Award. For a full list of award recipients, click here.

Jury members lauded the 2011 award recipients in each category for their dedication, ingenuity, leadership, and service. Among the NYC projects awarded for design excellence were The Barnard College Diana Center by Weiss/Manfredi, Gowanus Canal Sponge Park by dlandstudio llc, and One Jackson Square by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates in collaboration with Schuman Lichtenstein Claman Efron. AIANY proudly applauded its own Kristen Richards, Hon. AIA, Hon. ASLA, for her elevation as an AIA honorary member, and Ernest W. Hutton, Jr., Assoc. AIA, FAICP, for his Associate Award in recognition of his service to the Chapter.

NYC’s Active Design Guidelines, a manual to encourage architects, urban designers, and city agencies to introduce physical activity within the environments they create, was one of five recipients of the Institute Honors for Collaborative Achievement. David Burney, FAIA, Commissioner of NYC’s Department of Design + Construction (DDC), who also received a Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture, accepted the award. A collaboration of the NYC DDC, Health and Mental Hygiene, Transportation, and City Planning, as well as the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget and AIANY, the publication strives to increase physical activity to improve physical and mental health.

Joining the ranks of the Ford Foundation, the St. Louis Arch, and the Kimbell Art Museum, Boston’s John Hancock Tower, designed by Henry Cobb, FAIA, of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects, was awarded the AIA Twenty-Five Year Award for enduring the test of time as an embodiment of design excellence since its completion in 1976. Curtis Fentress, FAIA, a jury member who toured the project prior to its selection, stated that this “holy grail of Modernism” looked just as new as day one and successfully fit into the neighborhood context. Awarded a LEED Gold Existing Building certification in 2010, the 60-story reflective tower continues to occupy a position of prominence in the city and, according to Cobb, it is a persistent and demanding presence in his professional life. When accepting the award, Cobb called the John Hancock Tower resolute, speechless, and its self-denial both a triumph and a tragedy.

Ranging in age, locale, sector and mission, more than 50 projects, individuals, and firms were praised for their embodiment of the core competencies of the practice. Congratulations to all.

2011 AIA Convention: Fit Nation Activates New Orleans

Karen B. DeSalvo, MD, MPH, MSC, Commissioner of Health and Senior Health Policy Advisor, City of New Orleans.

Randi Rosenblum

Building on the success of Fit Nation DC in February, AIANY and the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) hosted Fit Nation New Orleans on 05.14.11, in partnership with the Tulane Prevention Research Center, AIA New Orleans, and AIA National. The event brought together architects, planners, public health professionals, and policymakers to discuss issues confronting our country due to increasing obesity rates, and the role that design can play in helping encourage both greater physical activity and access to healthier food options.

The event, timed with the convention, also attracted members from 14 communities that are working together with NYC on active design issues under a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant: Birmingham, AL; Boston, MA; Cherokee Nation, OK; Chicago and Cook County, IL; Louisville, KY; Miami, FL; Nashville, TN; Omaha, NE; Philadelphia, PA; Portland, OR; San Diego, CA; Seattle, WA; and Tucson, AZ.

Dr. Richard Jackson, MD, MPH, delivered a health keynote address at the event, noting that more than 15% of the entire U.S. GDP is spent on healthcare costs, in part due to dramatically escalating obesity levels and the diseases such trends cause. Our lack of physical activity, Jackson reinforced, is due in large part to design decisions that have programmed walking, stair climbing, and other activity out of our daily lives.

The conference also benefitted from international speakers, including Denmark-based Kai-Uwe Bergmann, AIA, RIBA, MAA, LEED AP, of the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). Some of BIG’s projects include the incorporation of public bicycle and walking paths that lead to the highest levels of high-rise apartment buildings, and apartment buildings designed on a diagonal that allow for small yards on every floor.

Fit Nation New Orleans complemented two other sessions that occurred within the convention, which featured Rick Bell, FAIA, AIANY Executive Director; Dr. Karen Lee, MD, MHSc, FRCPC, NYC DOHMH; Skye Duncan, NYC City Planning Department; and Robyne Kassen, AIA, and Sarah Gluck, co-founders of Urban Movement. These sessions also highlighted the availability of a new LEED Design for Health through Increased Physical Activity Innovation Credit, which has been approved by the U.S. Green Building Council on several projects, including the Riverside Health Center in northern Manhattan by 1100:Architect and Via Verde/The Green Way affordable housing development in the South Bronx by Dattner Architects and Grimshaw Architects.

2011 AIA Convention: AIA Expands Its Umbrella to Emerging, Allied Professionals

The importance of AIA membership and licensure was a common thread throughout this year’s convention. Whether it was at the “IDP Outstanding Firm Awards,” the “AIA Associates Awards 2011,” or “Focus Your Network of Mentors” (hosted by the AIANY Women in Architecture Committee for the second year in a row), similar questions came up about what the future holds for emerging professionals and how they, as well as those in allied professions, can find a niche in their local chapters.

During the “IDP Outstanding Firm Awards,” panelists discussed how a firm’s culture can instill the importance of licensure. Andrew Caruso, AIA, head of intern development and academic outreach at Gensler’s office in Washington, DC, described the firm’s structured Licensure Experience Reporting System (LERS). This database analyzes employees’ timesheets, and enables the firm to track the progress of its interns, making sure they fulfill the necessary requirements for IDP. Most importantly, according to Caruso, this system provides an incentive for interns to continue their professional development through licensure. Many of the principals who attended “Focus Your Network of Mentors” talked about how their firms cover exam fees and give raises to recently licensed architects. So what is the hold-up for young designers to get licensed? Practitioners seem to agree that, although firm culture is important, the individual must also realize that licensure is an important personal goal to pursue.

On the other hand, Ernest Hutton, FAICP, Assoc. AIA, received a 2011 AIA Associate Award as a long-time active AIANY Chapter member in an affiliated profession. Although he has an architecture degree, he is a city planner, a real estate developer, principal of Planning Interaction, and a key player in New York New Visions, PlaNYC, and the Active Design Guidelines. His vast experience encapsulates how the impact of related fields can pertain to architecture. During his presentation, he spoke about how collaboration has always been the key to success, and suggested that it may be time for the AIA to “rebrand” the Associate label to celebrate diversified career paths.

With changes in the economy, and with a new generation of up-and-coming architects and allied professionals, the AIA is expanding its umbrella. By looking to its committees and its link to local towns and cities, and by developing a strategic plan to expand membership both within and outside of the architecture profession, the AIA is becoming a more facetted, comprehensive community of professionals.

2011 AIA Convention: Federal Government Carries the Sustainability Torch

Department of State Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations.

Kieran Timberlake/Studio amd

On 10.05.09, President Obama signed Executive Order 13514, which set ambitious energy, economic, and environmental performance standards for all Federal agencies. As the occupant of nearly 500,000 buildings, the Federal government is in a position to showcase sustainable design strategies to the world at large. Given their robust presence at the 2011 AIA Convention, the various bureaus have taken President Obama’s mandate to heart.

Blazing the trail are the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) and the Department of State Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO). As illustrated in the “Sustainability and the State Department’s Overseas Buildings Operations: Greening Our Embassies” and “GSA’s Vision” sessions led by Melanie Berkemeyer, RA, LEED AP (OBO), and Lance Davis, AIA, LEED AP (GSA), respectively, both agencies have adopted Design Excellence programs, with the intention of improving the aesthetic quality of government edifices. Environmental goals have now been added to design concerns, and new buildings for each bureau must meet at least LEED Gold certification standards.

Perhaps President Obama’s boldest directive is that all Federal projects designed and constructed after 2020 must be zero-net-energy. No fossil fuel use, no additional energy consumed from the grid, and no greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, the GSA and OBO are now actively exploring novel energy-saving technologies, such as kinetic-energy harvesting systems and MagLev chillers.

The GSA represents national aspirations on the home front, but, as Barbara Nadel, FAIA, stated in the “21st Century Embassies: Secure, Sustainable Civic Architecture” session, the OBO has the distinction of presenting a secure, sustainable, and iconic image of the U.S. to the rest of the world. Since an embassy will likely be the only American building that most people ever see in many countries, each structure must represent the best of American design and culture. The OBO has an opportunity to put this principle into action in the new London Embassy, designed by Philadelphia-based KieranTimberlake.

According to James Timberlake, FAIA, LEED AP, the firm took the OBO’s brief and personalized it. KieranTimberlake wanted to display the profundity of American ambition and thus designed the building to meet LEED Platinum and BREEAM “Outstanding” standards, rather than the specified Gold and “Excellent.” Thin-film photovoltaic strategies will be used on shading fins covering the east, west, and south façades. Additionally, large swaths of green space and water features surround the structure, offering a quiet, park-like setting to Londoners and visitors. One hopes that many structures of similar design quality and environmental impact will push President Obama’s vision forward into the 21st century.

2011 AIA Convention: Sustainable Community Planning Serves the Triple Bottom Line

If sustainability was the central philosophical theme unifying the 2011 AIA Convention, then a secondary premise was the methods architects use to actually achieve their green design goals. On projects of all scales, from individual buildings to entire neighborhoods, practitioners emphasized the importance of strong community involvement in the planning and design process.

Green design is usually viewed as a means to reduce resource consumption, thereby saving the client money in the long run. However, if true sustainability is considered, as Frank J. Greene, FAIA, of NYC-based RicciGreene Associates asserted, then the discussion must begin at the community level. The only way for architects to promote social equality — and thus social sustainability — in their buildings is through a prolonged interaction with the local citizenry.

Greene, and his colleagues Beverly Prior, FAIA, NCARB, LEED AP, Susan K. Oldroyd, FAIA, and Kenneth Ricci, FAIA, advocated for reform of the criminal justice system at the “Sustainable Justice: An Evolving System” session. They contended that the current paradigm is punitive, with success measured as reaction to incidents. Instead, they argued, architects should embrace a more proactive model in which community strength serves as the standard of achievement.

At “UC-Merced’s Long Range Development Plan: A Regional Model for Going Green from the Ground UP,” Thomas E. Lollini, FAIA, LEED AP, talked about how he had to engage an entirely different population during the course of planning a ground-up campus at University of California, Merced: students. They indicated that they wanted denser, more energy-efficient neighborhoods, in contrast to their typical suburban experiences. Thus, planners weaved mid-rise, mixed-use “main streets” through the campus.

In some cases, communities themselves drive the sustainable goals of a project, as discussed in “School and Place: Sustainability and Regional Diversity.” Gerald (Butch) Reifert, FAIA, LEED AP, experienced this phenomenon while designing a school in Kirkland, WA. The local population wanted to push the green envelope, so Reifert broke down the building mass into learning clusters, each of which had access to a separate rain garden representing a typical Washington ecosystem.

Most crucially, according to Ted Shelton, AIA, and Alexis Karolides, AIA, LEED AP, during the “Beyond the Building: Successes, Failures, and Possibilities of Low-Carbon Communities” session, communities must maintain their involvement in the sustainable design process even after construction is complete. The science of building is driven by information, and communities must keep accurate records reflecting both social and environmental results. By appropriating this data, architects can continue to serve the triple bottom line of environment, economy, and equity.

Convention Provides Interconnected Experience

As the architecture profession continues to make technological advances, so too does the AIA. At this year’s convention, in addition to the Virtual Convention, which was introduced two years ago, there were a number of useful tools that helped keep attendees informed of going- on in New Orleans. Twitter was aflutter, as it was last year, and with the #aia2011 hashtag, anyone could key into discussions, quips, and overall commentary throughout the three days.

At this convention, the AIA 2011 app, created by AppBurst, was introduced. With it, I could look up the schedule of sessions and events; search for speakers and exhibitors; view the Expo floor plan; and follow tweets. For information about architecture around town, I relied on the AIA NOLA app. With the AIA New Orleans Architecture Guide, developed by Sutro Media, I could peruse through a list of buildings; search by date or type; find nearby places of interest according to my location; and look through images. For each listing, there are photos, maps, a description with a brief history, and information on the architect. I could comment, share, or list buildings as a favorite, as well as view websites or other apps related to that building.

Overall, I was constantly connected to happenings, both in person and virtually. In the end, I left New Orleans feeling like I got more out of both the city and the convention than I had in previous years. I’m looking forward to next year in DC, where I hope the interconnectedness will continue to expand and improve.