It’s September and, in addition to the arrival of fall, most of us architects in the Pacific Northwest associate this time of year with the American Institute of Architects Honor Awards. The awards were established to recognize truly great projects in the built environment, and while winning an award at the ceremony is prestigious, it isn’t so much the objective, at least not for us. Juries change each year, the focus continues to evolve, and jury member agendas are always a moving target. For us, it’s more about the participation with, and contribution to, the greater whole that motivates our submissions. There’s also a big party with the architectural community and you get to catch up with that guy who went to work at Olson Kundig and hasn’t seen the light of day since.

So we selected 2 projects that we’re proud of and that both seemed like good candidates for the awards ceremony. We gathered all the applicable resources and sat down to begin the paperwork. And it was right then that we were hit with price tag of submitting work for the 2010 honor awards (apparently bourbon had helped us forget the previous submissions and associated costs). Our submission of one built project and one visionary project would cost a non-member firm like ours 545 hard earned dollars (becoming a member of the AIA costs a small firm about $700 per year; we did the math on this a couple of years ago and it didn’t make sense to join. You can read more about that here).

Five hundred and forty five bucks! Chrimminy, that’s half the monthly mortgage for our office. That’s a round trip ticket to New York with cab fare to boot. $545 is a lot of money for a small firm when business is good, and after 18 months of the deepest recession we’ve seen in our lifetimes, $545 is painful. AIA, look out your door, the architecture industry has been decimated in this town. From the looks of it, most architects took their last $545 and bought a one way ticket to Costa Rica.

So our $545 is going to food and heat, and neither of our projects will be gracing the screen at the awards ceremony this year.

But this isn’t about BUILD LLC and it’s not about the money that we may or may not have in the office piggy bank. It’s about the AIA and its relationship with small, forward-thinking firms in this city (or any city for that matter). Don’t get us wrong AIA, we admire your mission and we have a great deal of respect for our friends that work hard and diligently for your cause. We also greatly appreciate that you were kind enough to include us in your first New Edge, New Blood show 2 years ago and then include us in your conversations about the current selections for New Edge, New Blood.  That is just an awesome way to connect to young firms (like us) and we wholeheartedly salute your effort with New Edge, New Blood.

But the problem is this – despite this effort, the gap between the AIA and small firms continues to widen. Everything about the AIA seems to be going the direction of large firms; from the structure of your contracts to the dues which simply funnel the majority of the local $$ into the national AIA and its headquarters (which we small firms get, literally, zero benefit from). In a nutshell, it doesn’t make sense for a small firm to be involved with the AIA given the return on investment.

Just throwing tomatoes doesn’t do much for us though. We’re dedicated to good design, strong community and advancing the architecture industry here in the Pacific Northwest. So we pose this question; what can we do to help and support the AIA in fostering a better connection with small firms? Is it a matter of local chapters renegotiating with, or separating from, the national AIA to bring the dues within a reasonable value for us smaller firms? Can the issue be addressed by smaller firms earning their membership through sweat-equity like sitting on panels and boards? Is it recalibrating the AIA membership dues to scale with the financial size of a firm?

We’re not quite sure what the answer is but we’re open to suggestions, interested in starting the discussion and committed to solutions.

Cheers from BUILD