Isolation, Community, and the AIA

When I first joined the AIA Virginia Board of Directors, all of the Directors had to go around the big conference table in The Branch House, introduce themselves to the group, and state why they joined the AIA. I probably had a different reason than the other Directors—I joined primarily because of isolation.

So, let me back up just a bit. When I started working in architecture firms after college graduation, none of the architects I worked for were AIA members, and their opinions about the organization were pretty negative. When my husband Chuck and I started our firm three years later, one of the first things we did was join the AIA. One of the primary reasons was because, living in a small town, we felt totally isolated from other architects.

Soon after joining, Chuck and I began attending AIA Northern Virginia design award celebrations, and soon met many friendly architects. Since neither of us had ever had a mentor, it was so helpful to be able to ask fellow architects how they dealt with common problems in practice, like clients not paying their invoices, or dealing with confusing building code language. We started attending AIA Virginia events in Richmond, too, including the annual “Building Virginia” conference (now it’s known as Architecture Exchange East) and the biennial Design Forum, held in different locations across the Commonwealth. We met many wonderful architects from all across Virginia at these statewide events. I definitely think that one of the best things about being an AIA member has been the friendships that I’ve formed with architects from all across Virginia.

During the pandemic, people all over the world are dealing with feelings of isolation. Don’t let yourself feel this way about your fellow architects, though. Become more active in the AIA, and use the network of its roughly 2400 members within the Commonwealth of Virginia, to feel a sense of comradery within the profession. Reach out.

During 2020, AIA Virginia reached out to its members to give them avenues of inclusion and community in many ways. We began a mentorship program for new graduates, in conjunction with AIAS (American Institute of Architecture Students). We began a new NOMA chapter in Virginia (National Organization of Minority Architects). We held Town Halls with the five component chapters to get feedback on members’ needs. We did an outreach program to firm leaders to determine how their businesses were faring during the pandemic. We still (virtually) held signature events like Arch Ex, Visions, Design Forum, and yafCON (Young Architect Forum Conference). We had a resource page on our website for helpful links for dealing with COVID-19 and the Paycheck Protection Program. We held quarterly small, medium, and large Firm Roundtables.  

As I mentioned earlier, my AIA membership has allowed me to form great friendships with fellow architects. This year, I always looked forward to my weekly meetings with our Executive Vice President, Corey Clayborne, and our 2021 President, Sean Reilly, both of whom have become good friends. It’s hard to believe this is my last President’s letter. From now on you’ll be hearing from Sean. He has been working hard for the last several years, particularly in the area of government advocacy. He is a very caring and thoughtful architect who will do a stellar job leading us in 2021.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve as your AIA Virginia (COVID-19) President this year. It has been an honor and a privilege.

My best regards,


Be Nicer Than You Really Are

Many years ago, our firm rented an office in a historic brick and timber frame building in downtown Winchester. In several locations there was historic graffiti, inked in cursive, inscribed on the wooden columns and beams. The most prominent piece of graffiti was one which said 1917 – Country is hell all over. All of us in the office thought that the inscription was referring to when the U.S. entered into World War I. Little did anyone know back then that, in the spring of 1918, the ‘Spanish’ flu pandemic would soon come along, eventually killing roughly 675,000 people in the U.S. and a staggering 50 million worldwide. Now, a little over a century later, we are living through another frightening and vast, worldwide pandemic, with all of its social and economic repercussions. 

Beth Reader, FAIA

Thinking back to that building and its graffiti, I remember that it was there that my co-workers and I would sometimes encourage each other to “be nicer than you really are!” When one of us would get irritated and annoyed with a client or a builder or an engineer or whomever, we’d say that catchphrase to one another, in order to prevent us from saying or emailing something curt or unkind, something not easily retracted.

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, there are signs everywhere about hand washing, masks, and social distancing. I would like to propose that we add another sign, one instructing people to be nicer than they really are. All of us are struggling these days, to different degrees. Job loss, social isolation, looming evictions, underlying health issues, uncertainty about the economy, racial injustice, political discord… really, it’s overwhelming. It’s no wonder that anxiety and depression are rising among Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone is just trying to cope the best they know how. 

We all recognize that architects can and should use their skills to make their communities better, by doing socially relevant work, creating architecture that inspires and uplifts, and volunteering their time and talents in a myriad of ways. In addition to their important, more long-term career citizen architect work, architects can, on a daily basis, use their design thinking to help solve big things but also small things. They can try to fix or avoid conflicts rather than always having to win an argument or a difference of opinion. Architects also need to be empathetic and kind, and give people the benefit of the doubt. We are leaders, and we should all ask how we can make things better– the projects we take, the ones we don’t, the design priorities within our work. Check in on your colleagues in the office and on young emerging professionals, who are facing a severely constricted job market. Find out if your clients or builders are stressed, and give them some help and encouragement. Instead of being nicer than you really are, try to be as kind and empathetic to people as you possibly can.

Now that we own our office building, it’s tempting to scribble some graffiti ourselves: 2020 – Country is hell all over. But then, on the other hand, maybe we should just inscribe the Elvis Costello line: 2020 –What’s so funny ’bout peace, love, and understanding?”   

With best regards,

What’s Your Mission Moment?

At the beginning of every AIA Virginia Board of Directors meeting, two Directors share their “Mission Moment” with their fellow Board members. It’s always interesting to hear how your colleagues are acting as citizen architects, or as mentors, or as advocates for our profession. Their stories are always different, and they inspire me.

(This is our AIA Virginia Mission: “AIA Virginia is the voice of the architecture profession in the Commonwealth, dedicated to serving its members, advancing their value, and improving the quality of the built environment.”)

Beth Reader, FAIA
2020 AIA Virginia President

I was thinking a couple of weeks ago about what my current Mission Moment would be. After working in the profession for over thirty years now, I’m having a “coming full circle” experience. In the late 80’s / early 90’s, my husband and business partner, Chuck Swartz, and I started volunteering for a local non- profit group called City Light Development Corporation. We had both done our architectural internships in an architecture firm that served extremely wealthy clients. For example, I worked on an exercise pavilion / guest house, with a hangar below it for our client’s private helicopter. We worked on walk-in closets that were almost the size of our entire apartment. I remember one project meeting, when the client’s construction estimate was more than he wanted to spend, he indignantly yelled at our boss, “What am I supposed to do, send my kids to PUBLIC schools?” After a couple of years of this, Chuck and I decided that we wanted to spend time serving economically disadvantaged, hardworking people who needed affordable houses that had dignity.

One of the first projects we did for City Light was a project called North Kent Court. It was in a neighborhood that many people in Winchester were afraid to walk or drive in. We designed nine small, single family houses for North Kent Court. They were one-and-a-half story, 24′ by 24′ square, single family houses (the size of a two-car garage). They were 935 square feet, and cost $40,000 each when built in 1992. We could have designed one house and had it repeat nine times. Instead, we designed a 24′ square module, and rotated the gable 90 degrees on each house. We gave each house a front porch, so there were “eyes on the street” and so neighbors were encouraged to interact with one another. We wanted each house to have its own identity. Each house had different elevations, depending on the orientation of the gable, the design of the porch, and the configuration of the siding. The exterior paint was donated, so the houses’ colors turned out to be slightly funky and unusual, which we loved. Many other building materials were donated, like ugly rectangular fluorescent ceiling lights (not so great), and white carpeting (not at all practical). That was okay, though. The project was published in Inform and Progressive Architecture magazines. It won design awards, including one from Fannie Mae. Ever since that project, our office has made a point of doing pro- bono work for the local non-profit groups that serve our community.

Fast forward… A local Habitat for Humanity chapter was formed, and it bought “our” old City Light houses. Habitat loves the houses, and shows them off to people. About three weeks ago, we met with leaders from the local Habitat chapter, and they told us they bought the land that completes the rest of the original North Kent Court block. This purchase provides them with five small new building lots. They told us they want the new houses to be in the spirit of the old ones, and to honor them. This is such an exciting pro- bono project for us. We can’t wait to design something that riffs off of, respects, and improves the original. And so, we’ve come full circle, after thirty years.

So, what’s your Mission Moment? Do you serve on a Planning Commission, City Council, or Board of Architectural Review? Do you mentor a young professional? Do you volunteer for Habitat or another civic organization? Do you teach or mentor architecture students? Do you work with K-12 students, introducing them to possible careers in architecture or construction? I encourage you to be engaged in your community. Be engaged in your profession. Be an advocate. Live your Mission Moment. And thank you for all that you do.

With best regards,


From the President’s (at home) Desk

We are living during in a very bizarre time. Coping with a world- wide pandemic is not something any of us has experience with. It is very unsettling, from both a physical health perspective, and also from a financial health perspective. Additionally, human beings are social creatures by nature, and it feels uncomfortable to lose the common, everyday interactions that we took for granted, like just walking downtown for lunch, greeting friends and acquaintances along the way. Gathering around a table and sketching with “bumwad” and Sharpies. Having a beer with your co-workers at the end of a tough work week or a big deadline.

2020 AIA Virginia President, Beth Reader, FAIA

Now that most of us are working remotely, we’re bound to feel a little isolated. There is a way, however, to connect with other architects across the Commonwealth, and it’s through the AIA Virginia Roundtables. There are four of them in existence—the Small Firm, the Mid- Size Firm, the Large Firm, and the Emerging Professionals Roundtables. The Roundtables have existed for several years now, and have met during Architecture Exchange East and the Art of Practice conferences. Now they are becoming more active. Each of the four Roundtables last met via Zoom during the week of April 21 -24. There was a great turnout (although we were a little short on Mid-Size firm participants). There are now plans for the Roundtables to meet more frequently– some once a month, others quarterly.

During their virtual meetings, Roundtable participants discussed lots of relevant topics, like trying to collaborate creatively while working in isolation, virtually interviewing for projects, maintaining firm culture and morale, obtaining community input on public projects, making site visits while socially distancing, and even employees’ increased interest in working remotely after the pandemic subsides. On a positive note, there were also discussions among Roundtable participants that residential work inquiries may increase during this time, because potential clients, quarantined at home, are taking stock of their houses’ inadequacies. Another positive that could come out of the pandemic is that firms may allow staff members more leeway to selectively telework, thereby helping those who need more flexible schedules to accommodate their caretaking roles.

I encourage you to participate in these Roundtable discussions, which are accessible to you no matter where you’re located in Virginia. Ask your colleagues how they are dealing with issues that you or your firm is confronting. If you would like to participate please contact these Roundtable Chairs:

Dan Zimmerman, AIA, Small Firm Roundtable      

Andrew McKinley, AIA, Mid- Size Firm Roundtable

Paul Battaglia, AIA, Large Firm Roundtable

Krystal Anderson, AIA, Emerging Professional Roundtable

Please realize that you’re not in this alone. Your fellow AIA Virginia colleagues and staff are here as a resource for you.

With best regards,


From the President

Do you know what the late Sam Mockbee, James Cutler, Tod Williams, David Salmela, Glenn Murcutt, and Brian MacKay- Lyons all have in common, other than being incredibly talented and influential architects? They have all been speakers at our biennial Virginia Design Forum, held every other spring. The Design Forum is my favorite AIA Virginia event.

Beth Reader, FAIA

The first Design Forum was held in the spring of 1994. Jim Ritter, AIA was one of the founders. Jim thought our AIA Virginia members should have an event that clearly and specifically focused on design. Jim knew that employee issues, business, and office technology were all important, but he felt like design was the core of being a great architect. He wanted AIA Virginia to have an event that acknowledged that premise.

In addition to Jim, some of the other original Design Forum committee members included Greg Hunt (the Chair), Mark Orling, Bob Steele, Joanne Goldfarb, Carlton Abbott, David King, Judith Kinnard, Ed Pease, and Vernon Mays (the former editor of Inform).  

The theme for the initial 1994 symposium, “Architecture + Innovation” was selected to “provide a loose structure around which speakers and practitioners can explore ways in which the architecture profession has advanced in days past and hopes to advance in the future.” The first venue was The Homestead, in Hot Springs, Virginia. The first Design Forum committee thought that “in a retreat setting, architects can escape the distractions of daily practice and immerse themselves in discussions that will push the boundaries of professional discourse.” In the program, attendees were “strongly encouraged to react to what they heard, and to offer personal views and pose difficult questions.”

When we come together on March 27th and 28th in Richmond for the 14th biennial Virginia Design Forum: In Praise of Shadows, I urge you to retreat into the world of design, as the first Design Forum committee intended. Temporarily forget your day-to-day office operations and imagine yourself back in your college design studio. Let the impressive roster of speakers inspire and challenge you.

Special thanks to our current Design Forum committee members: Jack Davis (Chair), Ed Ford, Allison Ewing, Anca Lipan, Mark Orling, Matthew Pearson, Ed Pease, Andrea Quilici, Rob Reis, Michael Spory, and Roberto Ventura.

To all of the Design Forum committee members past and present, and to all of the architects who have attended the Design Forums over the past two and a half decades—thanks for creating and sustaining this signature event. And for any of you who have not yet signed up—please register online today!

Beth Reader, FAIA
2020 President

This is 2020

Happy 2020! I hope that your year is off to a great start!

I’m very excited about serving as your AIA Virginia president this year. I look forward to working closely with our EVP, Corey Clayborne, his stellar staff of Rhea, Cathy, Keesha, and Judy, and my fellow Board members to accomplish many things in 2020.

Beth Reader, FAIA

I’ve been active in the AIA since I joined in 1991 and am co-founder and principal at Reader & Swartz Architects in Winchester.

Some of the items I’m looking forward to us accomplishing, as a team, in the key areas of governance, education, outreach, advocacy, and member services are:

  • Adopting our Strategic Plan in early 2020. Our new Strategic Plan will act as our roadmap and will guide our Board of Director’s and staff’s work over the next three years.
  • Hosting our always thought-provoking, biennial Design Forum, which is one of my favorite AIA Virginia events. This year’s forum will be held in March in Richmond and will feature Steven Holl as our keynote speaker. Registration is now open!
  • Exploring ways to invigorate and improve our members’ annual Architecture Exchange East experiences. We are always working to enhance the value of this signature event, so if you have any suggestions please send them my way.
  • Launching a digital Inform magazine. It’s been several years since we published a hard copy of Inform, and I’ve missed keeping up with all of the beautiful projects being built around the Commonwealth.
  • Investing in the future of our young professionals by helping our Associate members gain access to ARE prep materials.
  • Advocating for the establishment of a statute of limitations for state projects.
  • Strengthening our connections to AIAS in our universities.
  • Exploring the creation of a new Virginia chapter of NOMA.

Again, I am looking forward to working with the team and our members on these and many more items. If you’d like to share your input, feel free to reach out to me at

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy, and professionally fulfilling 2020!