Dan Hart, FAIA, is a candidate for the at-large seat on the AIA Board of Directors. He was the President of TxA in 2011. I recently spoke to him about his experiences serving in leadership positions at both the local and national levels. What follows is a condensed version of that conversation.
Alyssa Morris: Tell us a bit about your background. Where did you go to school? How long have you been practicing architecture and where do you work now?
Dan Hart: I’ve been with Parkhill, Smith & Cooper my whole career. I’m a principal and serve on the board. I began as a structural engineer and have been doing architecture for the past 21 years.
AM: You’re an engineer as well as an architect. How does that influence the way you practice architecture?
DH: I think the biggest benefit is whole-mindedness. Engineers tend to be left brained, detail oriented, and I think an engineer’s training leads them to be sort of worst-case-scenario thinkers. Architects tend to be right brained thinkers, more lyrical, and they tend to be best-case-scenario thinkers. I think the combination of those two makes for a whole brain. Of course, architecture is both science and poetry, empathy and logic, and so I think my background helps me approach design and practice in a holistic way.
AM: Your firm has done international work. How does working across borders differ from more local projects?
DH: We did a design for a high school in Vicenza, Italy, which is the home of Palladio. It’s a little daunting to be designing a school in a town where a statue of the patron architect is in the town square. It was really interesting seeing how the Italians approach design and construction. The methods there are different based on the materials and trades available to them. It’s a fascinating experience to see how they’re trying to accomplish the same things we are, just with different circumstances. This is basically true of travel in general. You go someplace exotic and it helps you understand where you’re from better. It helps us see what we take for granted.
AM: You’ve been involved with the AIA through its transition from a representative board to the current model (smaller board + Strategic Council) and served last year as the second moderator for the SC. How will that experience inform your service on the AIA Board, if you’re elected?
DH: The Strategic Council is the think tank of AIA. I led the council in its second year in existence. It’s still a body that’s finding its sea legs. But I think we made great strides last year, and that experience is going to be helpful if I’m elected. The council is about ideation, generating ideas and thinking about our profession in different ways. Out of the Council study groups, more than 70 different recommendations emerged. Our report for the year, including the appendices, was over 350 pages long. Presiding over that sheer volume of ideation prepares me well for the work of the board.
Another benefit of my stint as Moderator is in terms of governance. The council is now the place at the national level of leadership where regional representation of our members exists. It’s crucially important to me as we’ve shifted our governance model that our members’ perspectives remain central in that conversation. Recognizing that dynamic enables me to be an effective voice on the Board on behalf of our members.
Finally, we need to do a better job with communications from the Board to our components and members. I have a number of ideas that can help us strengthen this necessary dialogue.
AM: Tell us a bit about what the at-large director does and why you think you’re a good candidate for this position on the AIA Strategic Council.
DH: The Council is the think tank and the Board is the authority. That’s where the vision is cast and policy is set. And the board also has the job of adjudicating and deciding what’s best. My experience has given me a really solid understanding of the mechanics of our organization. But I think what the board needs to do is to push us all to think bigger. I think we need to be really bold. I happen to believe this is the era of the architect if we seize the moment. The issues our country is faces right now are sophisticated and complex, but we (as architects) know how to engage with complexity, and we know how to do that with empathy. On the board, I will continue to champion bigger, bolder thinking.
AM: Increasing diversity is an important issue and AIA has recently focused on diversity, equity, and equality within the profession. How do you think this can best be accomplished? What do you bring to this conversation?
DH: In 2014 AIA engaged in a study called Diversity in the Profession of Architecture. That study shined the light on how difficult and complex this challenge is. The good news is that awareness of our lack of diversity is high (at least among the leadership) and, as a result, good work is going on. There are some greens sprouts, things that are developing, but there’s no question we’ve got a long way to go. We can’t be the organization or profession we need to be until we are a reflection of the society we serve. We risk being on the margins if we don’t address diversity in our profession.
In 2016, when I was leading the Council, Dr. Shirley Davis led us through a session on implicit bias and its impact on leadership and decision making. One of her key messages was that, as enlightened as we feel we are, all of us have deeply ingrained biases. The first step is just knowing that about ourselves. So in terms of addressing the issue, there is a short term and a long term possibility .In the short term, we need to be intentional and persistent to elevate diverse membership on committees and throughout our leadership in AIA. Right now, this is happening informally, so it’s inconsistent. In 2015, when I chaired the Best Practices Committee of the Council, I led a workshop devoted to stimulating increased diversity and equity among the Council and Board. We discovered that our board and council tend to be higher in diversity than our membership. I think our council at that time was 24 percent female, our membership at the time was 18 percent female. It was interesting and encouraging but we all knew we still had a long ways to go to reflect society. Really, without much effort, our leadership tends to be more diverse—so think about what could happen if we got intentional and more consistent. On the long term front, we need to raise awareness about architecture and the profession in K12 through higher education. Generally, the earlier the better. Children, especially those from underrepresented groups, need to know architecture is a viable profession for them. The failures we have are systemic. Kids just don’t know that architecture is a track they can pursue as a profession. The idea of architecture being a gentleman’s profession, is an idea with an unfortunate inertia. We’re going to have to work to change it.
I was pleased to serve on the jury for the AIA Component Chapter Excellence Awards. I was inspired to see a number of our components doing excellent work integrating architecture curricula into K12 schools. We need more of that! These are the roots of engendering a more diverse profession. I suggested that we publish those programs as case studies so that others can learn from them. That kind of spurring on chapters to what’s possible can have a huge effect, especially if we can make that an aligned effort across the country.
We’ve got to get to kids early—they just don’t think of architecture—they might think of law, or medicine or computer coding. The hard thing is that it’s not something that yields results overnight. My firm does a lot of work with K12 schools so it was natural for us to adopt a group of students in our school district. Our employees spend several hours a week tutoring students. It’s no surprise, the relationships that have developed have been really rewarding on both sides. It’s not an architecture program, but even indirectly getting involved in the lives of students has a positive effect on how students—and by extension—society sees our profession.
In her workshop with us, Shirley Davis made a compelling point. She showed an image of an iceberg. She pointed out we tend to think of diversity as that 10% of the iceberg that is visible—ethnicity, age, gender, religion to some extent. But 90% of diversity includes things that aren’t as visible—deeply held convictions, life experience, ideology, geographical implications. Having advocated for architecture over the last 15 years in the context of a very red state (an invisible kind of diversity), might for example, be a valuable perspective to bring to the board in the times that we’re in right now.
AM: With your long service to AIA that began as a board member for your local chapter, included service as President at the state level, and now several years working with AIA at the national level — what do you see as the major issues that should rise to prominence for the AIA Board?
DH: I’m convinced this is the era of the architect. But not if we don’t claim it. The way we embrace our role is by thinking boldly, thinking deeply, and thinking openly. We can stimulate livable, vibrant, resilient communities—that’s where we can make a contribution to society where everyone can thrive and prosper. We need to make sure that we are engaging the council and we need to make sure that we invite diversity so we’re relevant and credible to society. Until our profession looks more like society, we’re not going to be as effective as we can be. Organizationally, we’ve got to increase the transparency of the board. There has to be two-way communication. There are still growing pains there but it’s time to go about this differently. We’ve got to establish trust and alignment. Our members are demanding it and we owe it to them.