Confessions of a New AIA Fellow, or “Getting the “F”

I never wanted to be a part of the American Institute of Architects. But next week I formally become a Fellow in that institution—one of 3,000 out of 90,000 total members (some members are not architects).


The AIA is the professional organization of registered, licensed architects; those with professional degrees; as well as people who support architecture firms. Like other organizations, the membership numbers are intentionally blurry: every number cited here is cobbled together because the exact percentages are under the corporate veil.


The AIA can be said to be the one “voice” for an entire group of people in the U.S. who have a devotion to design in building. The 21st Century explosion of technology has made “leadership” even more fractured and tenuous. Schools are catching up. Old school media has been reduced to two mags, but new media has dozens of raw, diverse expressions.


What is understood is that architecture is changing; there are fewer people required to get buildings constructed and more people graduating with an education that was once intended to prepare them to build. The AIA is supported by perhaps 10% of firms—those that are larger than 20 people and have the overhead for fees.


So I’m in the minority, a small firm, and part of another minority: the residential/pro bono sector. It’s a boot-strapped, hardscrabble firm, usually with 50 projects in any year, with budgets from under $200 to over $1,000 a square foot.


duo aia fellow app 1
Part of the author’s 40 page application


Most “civilians” confuse the conflation of membership of lawyers to the ABA and doctors to the AMA. Being a member of the AIA is not required for licensure. There about 110,000 licensed architects, and fewer than 80,000 of them in the AIA. So more than a third of all registered architects, and probably more, opt not to join, or let their memberships lapse.


Given all the ambiguities, there was never a compelling reason for me to join. I didn’t after graduation almost 40 years ago, and then rejected membership for the next 25 years while being registered and NCARB-certified in multiple states.


I have never been happy with how architects presented themselves: the too-cool-for-the room elitist vibe is just not me. Boosterism, by its nature, is always stilted. The AIA was, and still is, more responsive than progressive. In these uncertain times, the haughty rejection of circumspection is laughable given the confused state of our profession. It is far worse for the residential architect: there our perceived irrelevance leaves us with less than a 5% market share, and our ranks have fallen from 18% of the profession to 12%, and most of us are still underemployed.


That has not changed.


So my evolution to AIA membership is exquisitely human. At the Millennium, the world’s economy changed for about decade: freestanding houses became the main engine for our economy; 3,000,000 houses were being built per year. Suddenly I was relevant in the general profession.


The AIA, sniffing opportunity, jumped into this new market. They created a publishing indicia, “AIA BOOKS” to make architectural design, still largely unrequited, promoted in the exploding market before the 2008 crash. The AIA offered my publisher an opportunity to make my book The House You Build their second title in this indicia, if I joined. If I hadn’t, the book would not have had the AIA name and sales, so it made sense given the time.


But more importantly, the AIA was going my way: they were talking about creating a new residential group. Jumping onto the boom in home building, the AIA followed through on many of the changes I had hoped for. They created The Custom Residential Architects Network and their publisher Hanley Wood started Residential Architect Magazine, which I helped define and later wrote for.


So I joined the AIA 12 years ago.


A year and a half ago, just after I had the mandatory decade as an AIA member, I was approached in offhand conversations about applying to be a Fellow with old friends in the Connecticut AIA.  One friend I wrote about and taught with for over 30 years; another was a fellow intern with me 35 years ago. Others had been AIA Presidents, big firm founders and architects I had known. I was not the oldest in the room.


Meetings ensued of the “FAIA Committee.” It was not easy. It was a competition. I had to pay a fee. It was an “entry” that had five specific areas of exclusive recognition to choose between. The group debated and although they said I had the aesthetic chops to go after Object One (“To promote the aesthetic, scientific, and practical efficiency of the profession.”), they determined that I was undeniable for Object Five (“To make the profession of ever-increasing service to society.”) Everyone wants Object One, but the fewest are conferred in Object 5. I was told to show both in my application.


Being competitive, I put interns on it, all summer. Under scrutiny, my office produced the mandatory 40 page application. It included 15 design exhibits, all built projects, each page signed by their clients, validating that I was the designer. The application also included 25 pages documenting media, writing, pro bono and professional efforts. (Here’s the application.)



My application was tough to create because of my hybrid designer/builder/talker/writer career. I got the 7 “famous” endorsers and hit SEND in October. It took until February, but I was admitted along with 185 others. I’m told it is unusual to “get the “F” in the first try because of the application’s intricacies. Diligence meant as much as dues (in the dual sense) and talent, kind of like school or practice.


So now, between events next week, I spend nine hours on the ground at the 2017 AIA National Convention in Orlando to wear a blue robe and collect a medal. (And pay higher membership dues.)


Is it disingenuous for me to be in the “3%” of AIA architects declared to be a “Fellow”? Maybe, but many of the designs presented had won AIA recognition, and many of the writings fully cited my problems with the profession of architecture and, to their great credit, even the AIA itself.  There is honor and generosity in this recognition, especially for earnest disagreement.


I played by the rules, and followed through on a tough regimen. You need justification enough to get licensed (down from 200,000 who have degrees), then decide to pay $700 a year to be an AIA member for a decade. Then you need to have done enough and have enough time and resources to create a 40 page thing of clarity and beauty. I was grateful I could do these, and happy that the AIA has me.

Although a relatively new member, I was “born” as an architect in the mid 20th Century. So a rejectionist became momentarily popular, then “important,” now perhaps a dinosaur.


Featured image via the Texas Society of Architects. 


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