Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The AIA: what's the point? Part 2 of 2

We've talked about how the AIA is structured and what each of its components do, but there's more to what the AIA does. Firstly, it provides professional support to its members. There are many more small firms than large firms in the U.S., and the AIA provides a networking and peer-to-peer support group for the members of these smaller operations. In a larger firm, you have plenty of people (generally speaking) to turn to and ask "how are we going to keep the firm afloat during the economic crisis?" or "what's the best way to work in a design-build relationship?" But smaller firms can feel more isolated, so being a member of a larger community helps provide a sounding board as well as a source of research, support, and resources for smaller practitioners. Being able to meet with your peers from different areas of your state or region, from different areas of the profession (architectural law, public work, contractors, developers, other special fields of architecture, and even future clients), and even from different firms can be invaluable, regardless of whether you're licensed.

Membership in the AIA also helps professionals get and stay educated and on top of issues of importance to them. AIA's wide range of committees and groups get together to discuss, debate, and learn about issues ranging from the environment to building codes to professional development and the ARE/IDP process. Joining these committees provides a forum for acting on issues that are important to you as well. If you want to know how to make a difference, joining one of these groups can help you learn more about the topic as well as direct some kind of action (hopefully).

Furthermore, the AIA provides ethics and standards for professional practice. The AIA helps ensure that not just any yokel with a copy of AutoCAD LT can hang out a shingle and slap together some plans and elevations for a building, and it ensures that there are ethical standards for making sure that architects aren't being dishonest or playing both sides of a situation in order to get paid either way. The AIA promotes qualification-based selections of a firm, not cost-based selection. (It was because of this that they were sued a while back for price fixing, but their heart was in the right place.) And it's important to remember that the AIA is a professional organization, not a union. A union is for a job; an organization is for professionals. A pipe fitter or auto worker will do that one job, or one of a narrow range of jobs; an architect can do a much wider range of jobs within their profession and their field (and related fields).

Having said all that, I have to admit that I'm a somewhat reluctant member of the AIA. I get a ton of emails and flyers from them for things I really am unable to participate in because I'm either a) working or b) doing another hobby or vocation that I find really rewarding. Moreover, I find that, for being advocates of my profession, they're not terribly good at serving the newest of our profession. For whatever reason, we're still calling interns "interns" instead of "architect interns" or "AITs" or something else that makes them sound a little more advanced and educated than a high-school kid volunteering to schlep around an office over the summer. If we're going to continue to treat them as nearly disposable, then architects can have their professional organization as long as interns can have a union that keeps them from working for $35,000/year based on a 55-hour week. That's professional slavery in my book (a little over $12/hr for a master's degree). As Matt Arnold has noted, there's a huge foggy chasm between graduating from school and getting licensed, and there's not a lot of good advice and direction in that void. Being an AIA member can give you a place to develop leadership skills, but where's the leadership for a population that is so desperately in need of leadership...and whom the AIA desperately needs? My fear is that the AIA will, at the end of the day, become an organization made up entirely of committees full of fifty-somethings who occasionally throw a few crumbs towards the young'uns. If, as Mr. Arnold has discovered, they don't have good records of the dropout rate for interns, how do they know who is inheriting our profession and guiding our future?

1 comment:

  1. down in Northern Virginia, the local AIA chapter has two programs that provide direct, tangible benefits to the members who participate in them, year after year -- the design awards and the Young Architects Forum. The YAF organizes test prep study groups and seminars among other things.

    the AIA is easy to criticize, but, as my buddy Guido likes to say about an organization he participates in, "what are you going to do? they're the only game in town, you know what I'm saying?"