We have all been there: You are having a conversation at a gathering, and someone asks what you do for a living. You say, “I am an architect,” and receive a response that seems both impressed and confused. Perhaps the impressed part of the response is due to the way architects are portrayed in movies…ultra-cool, well dressed, always heading to a meeting about their latest skyscraper design. But the confused part comes next when they ask, “What do architects actually do?”
What we actually do is a bit more complicated to explain. We are a profession with a myriad of roles and responsibilities that may vary within our area of focus. Specific daily actions by someone who designs high-end residential projects will be different from those of an architect who coordinates large teams designing hospitals. Of course, we share common roles: problem-solver, designer, team leader. These terms are clear to us but are a bit vague in the minds of the public. It is difficult to develop a simple and understandable message that covers all the bases.
We know how and why our expertise improves the projects on which we work, but that is not always clear to the general public. Simply put, people hire an architect for one of the following reasons: It is required by law for buildings of that size or occupancy type; the project is more complicated than the owners can handle themselves; or the client appreciates the value of design and wants the expertise whether an architect is required by law or not. Though we may take on any of these client types, the latter is clearly preferred, as teaming with a client who has an appreciation for the value of design helps bolster the project from the start. How do we get more of these kinds of clients, not just for our own benefit but for the benefit of our communities?
We love to talk about what we do and how important it is to the built environment of our towns and cities, but, in general, we have these conversations among ourselves. As engaging as these internal conversations may be, it is the public to whom we should be speaking. The public understanding of what architects do and how important it is to the quality, health, safety, and well-being of our communities is critical to the future of our profession.
The Texas Society of Architects has five strategic plan goals for 2022, and one of these relates to public understanding. This goal states: “The public will understand and appreciate the value of architecture and architects.” The objective of this goal is to increase public awareness and understanding of the value of architects as creative problem-solvers and the important impact of design on our communities. Though this goal is a focus for the year, it is not a new idea for us. Work done by TxA in previous years has included the creation of a communications committee, hiring of consultants, surveys, and development of key messages. Work has also been done at the national level through various initiatives, such as the development of the AIA Message Book and the Blueprint for Better campaign. This year, the TxA Public Outreach Task Force is building on the work already done to develop a strategy and next steps for this important goal of expanding public understanding of the profession. Other deliverables from this task force include determining and prioritizing our target audiences, determining potential steps needed to communicate how architects are uniquely qualified to help with social issues and estimate potential resource needs, and determining how TxA can have an impact on the public’s perception of the services architects can provide.
Though our profession encompasses a diversity of roles and project types, we all appreciate it when our contributions are valued. We would appreciate it even more if people clearly understood what those contributions are. We have a long way to go, but, with the work of this task force, we can set a direction for making improvements in both the short and long terms.
Eva Read-Warden, AIA, is the 2022 president of the Texas Society of Architects and a principal at The Arkitex Studio in Bryan.