Practice With Purpose: How to Radically Redesign the Practice of Architecture
Architecture isn’t about one or two things—it’s about everything.
It weaves together form and function, space and light, art and science, material and craft.
It entwines us with our world, with each other, with history and culture, with the natural systems that sustain us all.
But architecture has even greater purpose:
to shape a resilient, zero-carbon future, enabling all species on our planet to thrive;
to advance social justice, celebrating the rich diversity of the human condition, serving, and inspiring;
to build equitable communities that provide safe, healthy and dignified housing for all;
to create inspiring places to teach and learn, preparing young people to prosper on a rapidly changing planet; and
to preserve the embodied carbon and the embodied culture of old buildings, crafting meaningful dialogues with time.
Architecture is practice with purpose.
It is undeniable that we live in a time of unprecedented change and challenge: a rapidly advancing global climate emergency, festering racial and ethnic injustice, chronic homelessness, lingering inequities for people with disabilities and the elderly, and the urgent need for innovative education to prepare young people for an even more challenging future. These are not discrete phenomena. They are all inextricably linked in an ecological and societal emergency that cries out for creative, integrated solutions. Time is short, and we know that we must take radical action now to ensure that future generations will continue to dwell and prosper on this planet.
As the global ecological and societal emergency escalates around us, anxiety, confusion, and anger lie just beneath the surface of daily life, erupting ever more frequently into view. Many wistfully yearn for “the way things used to be” yet are unable to see that old patterns of habitation are precisely what have brought us to this point, where severe climate disruption, mass species extinction, social injustice, and cultural division are colliding everywhere, all at once. Events of the day are so complex and unrelenting that common responses to them range from angry denial to a profound sense of helplessness. What can one person possibly do?
As creative problem solvers trained to see possibilities and bring them to life in a messy, complicated world, architects are uniquely prepared to contribute vision and leadership in this dire moment, putting the transformative power of design to work as a catalyst for change. But first, we must radically redesign the practice of architecture, evolving away from the traditional role of architects as simply professional service providers and toward new roles as creative stewards of our communities and change agents for the common good. It’s no longer enough to meet our clients’ programs and budgets on schedule, as difficult as that may be. It’s no longer enough to view architecture as an isolated work of experiential sculpture, as fascinating as that may be. With every potential project, we must ask additional questions. How can it be designed beyond its property lines to meet both the needs of the client and those of the broader community? How can it help in some small way to advance an equitable, carbon-positive future for all species on our planet? How can it address some of the biggest challenges of our time? By consistently and thoughtfully engaging these questions every day, architects can create a mission-driven practice.
There is no secret recipe for designing a mission-driven practice. Each approach is entirely circumstantial, based upon the personal values, priorities, and economic realities of individual practitioners, as well as the principles and aspirations of the communities they serve. Deciding to initiate a mission-driven practice is the first step, with the understanding that every small act ripples out to influence collective progress. No project is too small. We must all do our part.
Here are 10 places to start:
- Communicate Your Values: Establish a practice based upon clearly stated values, vision, and goals. Share your mission.
- Attract Mission-Driven Projects: Develop long-term relationships with clients, collaborators, and communities with whom you share common values. Create compelling project narratives and circulate them widely. In this way, you can move from chasing mission-driven projects to having them come to you.
- Be Selective When You Can: Position your practice so that every project advances your mission. This means developing the economic stability to pass up projects that don’t fit whenever possible.
- Surf the Bottom Half of the Wave: Amid the ebb and flow of economic tides, design your practice to surf the bottom half of the wave, staying nimble and keeping your head (and overhead) down. Strive to be fiscally conservative and radical by design.
- Practice Diversity: Diversity makes us resilient. Seek out designers from underrepresented communities to provide new perspectives. Cultivate a strategic diversity of project types to cushion economic fluctuations.
- Right-Size Your Practice: With powerful digital tools at hand, practice size no longer limits project scale as it once did. Gather smart, action-oriented colleagues who share your values and goals. Design a practice size and culture that support a diversity of project types while retaining a sense of common purpose.
- Cultivate Your Workspace: Despite the recent growth of remote work, there is no substitute for a collegial, face-to-face design environment that promotes an educational transparency of purpose, process, and action. Creativity loves company.
- Advance Best Practices: Sign on to the AIA 2030 Commitment and report your data every year. Integrate the AIA Framework for Design Excellence at every project phase. Stay abreast of rapidly evolving knowledge bases in zero-carbon design, embodied carbon reduction, and equity-based design. Actively seek adaptive-reuse projects in your community.
- Serve Your Community: Share your expertise with your neighbors, communicating the urgency to take climate action, build community resilience, and advance smart, integrated urban planning.
- Advocate For Change: Become an activist architect, advocating for rapid adoption of zero-carbon building codes; greater equity, diversity, and inclusion; more affordable housing; better schools; and an easier path for economic adaptive reuse.
If you’ve read thus far, you may be a designer interested in how architecture can help transform our world. If you’re a designer, why wouldn’t you design one of the most important things you own: your life in design? If you’ve devoted yourself to a life in design, why wouldn’t you focus your career on helping to mend the unraveling fabric of our society? Architects have abundant imagination, powerful tools, and important work to do. But time is running out, and radical action is urgently required. As a profession, architects have sometimes struggled for relevance—if not survival—in a turbulent world. Today, our communities face an extraordinary emergency that we are uniquely qualified to help address. Now is our moment. In the history of architecture, there has never been a more important time to be an architect.
This essay was adapted from Practice With Purpose: A Guide to Mission-Driven Design by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects (Oro Editions, 2023).