In 1857, 13 Architects got together and founded what is now known as the American Institute of Architects, or the AIA. The group had two main goals which were to educate their members in the science and art of Architecture and to elevate the status of the profession. Fast forward 152 years, the AIA has become an organization that has over 200 employees and 83,000 members. And while it is no longer a grass roots movement, many would argue that the organization is irrelevant and out of touch. Having worked among AIA members for the last fifteen years, I would constantly inquire about the advantages of membership. The conversations would go something like this:
Me: Do you get special privileges that Registered Architects can't get?
Me: Is it affordable
Me: Do you get better deals on books and stuff?
Me: Do the other members help you out if you're in a bind?
Me: Do they get you work?
AIA-Member: They have a section on their web site where my name is listed, but other than that, not really.
Me: Do you go to any local meetings?
AIA-Member: No. They're too boring and nothing ever happens.
Me: Can you charge more for your time because you are in the AIA?
AIA-Member: No. In fact, I just lost a job to another AIA Architect who undercut my fee by 25%.
Me: Wow. So what are the advantages of being in the AIA?
AIA-Member: I get to put the letters "AIA" after my name. Basically that's it.
Now I should say that the people that I know in the AIA are small practitioners. This is their experience. It may be different if you go higher up the AIA food chain. Maybe those Architects actually help each other get work or maybe they have the power to get things done. If they do, I haven't heard about it. What I have heard is how disgruntled Architects are about the AIA and how most people I know wouldn't even be members if their company didn't pay the registration fees for them. Those fees by the way, include membership at the National, State, and Local levels. Every branch gets a piece and it gets expensive. They do give you a $37 annual subscription to Architectural Record, so I guess that's something.
In 2006, I attended a conference sponsored by Residential Architect Magazine in San Diego. The conference attracted alot of attendees and was generally very successful. At a portion of the conference, we broke up into groups and got to have lunch with different groups of people for lunch. In our group were some national AIA officers who confessed that they had come to the conference to try and attract smaller firms to the AIA. In their research, they had found that small firms (under 10 people) and sole practitioners represented a very small percentage of their membership. They asked us if anyone at the table was a member. Not one person was. They asked us how they could make it more attractive for people like us to join? Needless to say, the lunch wasn't long enough to give everyone a chance to speak. Almost three years later, I see that they have taken none of the suggestions to heart. That being that case, I wanted to put the ideas out there again in the hopes that maybe someone will find these suggestions and bring them up at a meeting. So here they are, in no particular order:
1. Your web site, your marketing, and all of your promotional campaigns are terrible. You people are supposed to be representing Great Design. Your web site looks like a Pharmaceutical company's web site. You can't even find how much it costs to join. On the application, it says "please call for local and state rates". When you try to search for an Architect on your web site, it does it by zip code alphabetically. I'd hate to have a name that started with a W or a Z. How about filters for type of work and size of firm? Lastly, your print ads depict Architects as family psychologists instead of Great Designers. Whoever came up with that campaign should be fired. I did hear an ad recently on AM radio though. Way to elevate the profession.
2. Stop trying to keep people OUT of the profession. In recent years, the AIA has spent alot of time and money lobbying for tighter regulations on who can officially call themselves an "Architect". Apparently, they now own the word and can sue anyone who tries to call themselves an Architect without the proper credentials. I think you have all forgotten who does the 'heavy lifting'. You know those recent graduates who work 90 hours a week when all of the "Architects" have gone home? Instead of trying to prevent them from putting "Project Architect" on their resume, why don't you try to give people more incentive to become an Architect? Better pay for Registered Architects would be a good start.
3. Lobby for Laws that make sense and help Architects. Almost everyone I know has renovated their house in some way. HGTV and big box stores have empowered homeowners to bust apart their houses and get dirty. If you are building a home from the ground up, most states don't even require an Architect's involvement which is evident by cookie cutter developments cropping up all over our country. Perhaps if there was legislation to require that Architects be involved at a Residential scale, there would be more work available for Architects and the overall quality of Residential Design in this country would improve.
4. Don't let EVERYONE join. I'm sure there was a time when being a member carried some exclusivity along with it. Not any more. Every time a new EIFS clad drug store or bank gets built in my neighborhood, it usually bears the seal of an AIA member. Shouldn't the AIA be endorsing great design? For all of your 83,000 members, how many actually build buildings that adhere to the principles of true Architecture? If you want good architects to join (the ones who will really be a credit to the AIA and attract new members) you have to understand that they don't want to be lumped in with bad architects. Recently, an Architect that I admire (who is actually FAIA- very high up on the AIA food chain) told me that if he had to do it over again, he wouldn't even join. How's that for an endorsement.
5. If you can't do any of the above, can you at least get a deal on some books? Architects love books (as do non Architects, and pretty much every Designer I know). With 83,000 members and millions more interested in Architecture books, you would think maybe the largest professional Architecture organization in the US could at least help bring down the cost of publications to its members, right? Wrong. I went to the AIA website to check out some deals on 'Publications'. Even those which are published by the AIA are still 10-20% cheaper on Amazon. How is that possible? If I were spending $1,000 on membership, couldn't you at least give me some deals on a book that you publish? It's just absurd to think that in a world where you can compare prices of everything from your phone, the AIA can't find a way to deliver educational materials to their members at a reasonable cost. And don't even get me started on the AIA Documents.
In conclusion, I hope that there is someone out there who can talk some sense into the AIA. I would recommend starting with a frank conversation with the current members to determine what value (if any) membership still has. From what I have seen in the last year, the profession has taken a serious hit from the economy and shows no signs of a quick recovery. I think people and companies will be taking a long hard look at what those three letters are worth on a business card.