Inaugural AEC Conference Reflections

Reflections by Kelly Callahan, AIA

Having a rather quiet start to 2022, and being an eager newcomer on the AIA Virginia board, I packed my bag and headed east for the two-day inaugural AEC Conference in Virginia Beach. Jointly sponsored by the Virginia chapters of the AIA, the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC), and the Association of General Contractors (AGC), the conference aims to promote building-industry connections and to foster vital cross-disciplinary conversations relevant to our industry.

AIA Virginia kindly distributed the attendee list ahead of the conference, so I scouted out the demographics. And yes, I color-coded the list to identify the A’s, the E’s, and the C’s that I might connect with. (Hey, architects are visual learners, right?!) Architects and engineers made up almost 75%, with owners and contractors making up the final 25%. I also noted that men would outnumber women by 3 to 1.

As we gathered for breakfast on Thursday in a waterfront room overlooking a foggy coast, the level of experience and influence in the room was palpable. Nearly everyone in attendance held the title of Principal, Director, or Vice President. And although an early morning storm triggered a power outage, water leaks, and last-minute room shifts, our AIA, ACEC & AGC hosts were remarkably focused, jovial, and calm.

I put on my networking cross-training shoes and engaged in the breakout sessions on risk management, leadership, business development & economic development through an architect’s lens. But my peripheral vision was keenly aware of the diverse perspectives in the room. And rather than lecture, facilitators with a wealth of knowledge on their subject matter crowd-sourced topics and moderated roundtable discussions on emerging issues in the building industry. It was so refreshing to hear the candid (and well-seasoned) experiences and objectives of owners, contractors, and other designers on issues like delivery methods, succession planning, and motivating young professionals – all in the same room! Leaders from VCU, UVA, ODU, Norfolk, Suffolk, Henrico & Fairfax shared future CIP opportunities, how they’re dealing with current cost escalations, and their preferences on building materials, procurement methods, and project teams. (Who’d have thought a higher-ed client would want to eliminate the use of acoustic ceiling panels?!) Hearing this information firsthand in a small group setting, I gained unique insights into some rather large bureaucracies.

Whole group mealtimes and Thursday evening’s reception gave us opportunities to continue conversations begun in breakout sessions, share future opportunities, and make plans to follow up and connect. On Friday, I had the privilege of sharing a morning run along the boardwalk with Corey Clayborne. I gained a new understanding of pandemic life with two working parents, a preschooler, and an infant, but more so, I recognized the humility and fortitude of this admirable leader, motivator, and mentor.

Looking around the room as we came together on Friday for lunch and ‘Graphs and Laughs’ (a session on the state of the economy by manic presenter Elliot Eisenberg, Ph.D.), I realized that connections were established over those two days that, quite frankly, have been missing from our virtual gatherings for nearly two years. I’m already pursuing new opportunities based on relationships made at the conference. And, as we all smiled for the inaugural conference photo, I was certain we were a catalyst for a more connected and compassionate industry. Thanks to all who had the vision and took the risk to bring us together, and let’s rally to broaden the table for the sequel!

About Kelly Callahan, AIA

Kelly Callahan is a design principal in VMDO’S innovative K-12 studio, where she leverages over 30 years of educational planning and design experience to create happy, healthy, high-performing places for learning. Her projects have been recognized at regional, state, and national levels for educational innovation, user satisfaction, sustainability, and design excellence. Kelly’s foundational years at Virginia Tech instilled a respect for the honest use of materials and a focus on the human experience. She offers synergistic, research-based solutions to create meaningful places that support and uplift people.

AEC Conference – Save the Date

The 2022 AEC Virginia Conference will be hosted by the Virginia chapters of the American Council of Engineering Companies, the American Institute of Architects, and the Associated General Contractors on March 17-18 at the Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront. Its vision is to bridge together architecture, engineering, and construction professionals to collaborate, create, and build for the future.  Preliminary information is available at Summary – 2022 AEC Virginia Spring Conference (