Associated Thoughts: Growing

I take care of our office plants. Since we have big windows and lots of lovely northern and eastern light, the aloes and jade and funky grafted cacti are likely to do well, regardless of my tender and loving care. But still–I water them each week, check the soil, trim off the dead stuff, and occasionally re-pot them when they outgrow their surroundings. I look forward to this every week, this careful observation of living things that, magically, slowly, and consistently grow and change each week.

But my favorite is when I get to plant propagations–the little baby buds that plants send up through the soil when a plant is healthy and happy. These propagations are joyful little reminders that amidst the stillness of the soil, something magical is happening underneath–growth–that is invisible until it breaks the surface.

Michael Spory, Assoc. AIA

September is a month of transition, a switch from summer heat to autumn chill, and all the change that it brings. Design students return to school, settling into their studios, mapping out their schedules, and diving into projects. Firms are coming out of the juggle of summer vacation schedules, keeping projects afloat as best they can. Young professional architects are in the thick of projects, mapping out all that needs to be accomplished by the end of the year. September tilts forward, where the slow and often-invisible growth of the year starts to show itself.

Progress and growth can be difficult to see. In design school, you churn towards reviews and exams, sometimes struggling to see if any of the knowledge is really sticking. Professionally, staying on top of a dynamic design environment takes time and effort, let alone making space for mastering new skills while trying to take on more responsibilities, pass your exams, finish your hours, keep track of your time, and still manage to live a little outside of work. Sometimes it can seem endless, that churning without seeing tangible progress. But perhaps–like the windowsill plant–each week is a little more water, a little more sunlight, a little more knowledge and growth to be cultivated and observed. For architecture professionals at all stages of our careers, growth often happens little by little, in practicing small skills over and over, trying something slightly different, learning from the past. We learn by watching closely from someone we respect, then trying it ourselves. We grow by taking well-intentioned risks and using the good (or bad) consequences as learning opportunities.

As I water the plants today, I don’t see any new propagations, but I know they are waiting–somewhere–under the surface. And so I sit at my desk once again, look at the too-long list of things I don’t know how to deal with, and remember that growth happens in small bits, in tackling something challenging, in asking for help, in learning something new every day.

In solidarity and action,
Michael Spory, Associate AIA
spory@vmdo.com

Things to click on:

$50 Amber book subscriptions>>
Virginia Licensing Advisor – contact Michael Hammon, AIA with your licensing questions.
Need continuing education hours? Check out the calendar of events here>>

Associated Thoughts: The Deep End

I first learned how to swim from my cousin Jill, who was a lifeguard. She was visiting from Idaho for a few weeks and decided to give me lessons at a neighbor’s pool. In the shallow end, she taught my gangly 8-year-old self how to breathe so I didn’t get water up my nose, how to float, how to kick and move my arms, how to trust the water when my tippee toes could no longer reach the bottom. I was never a great swimmer, but her lessons helped me let go of the wall, go under the floating rope, and explore the foreboding and exhilarating world of the Deep End.

Michael Spory, Assoc. AIA

In design education, our architectural training begins in the abstract, working on theoretical building programs, undeveloped sites, imagined clients. And our studio work, thankfully, lives mostly unbuilt lives as we begin stumbling through the complexity, wonder, and gravity of architectural design while (mostly) shielded from the harsher realities of crafting buildings that will outlive us. We graduate and begin our first jobs, learning how to be professionals for the first time, entering the shallow end of our working lives. We pick up redlines on a to-be-stamped project, listen in (blankly) as our manager chats with an engineer about an uncoordinated ceiling mishap, call product reps to discuss material dimensions, track our reimbursables. It can be a great place, the shallow end, as a practice area for testing our knowledge, for soaking up advice, for having someone check your work, for throwing out ideas to push the envelope. But it is also a stepping stone, a learning opportunity, a temporary place.

Because at some point, we start treading in deeper water. Sometimes it’s a gentle foray; other times, it’s a big toss into the Olympic pool. You present directly to a client. You do code review without backup. You somehow end up leading a coordination meeting. You talk to your attorney and review a contract. You have an answer when a younger coworker asks a technical question about ceiling grids. You look down in the metaphoric pool, and you are swimming, and the bottom of the pool is far beneath you. I wonder how this happens, this gradual transformation from young professional to (semi) confident architect, and I continue to be inspired by young professionals who have stepped up over the last 18 months, and how firms and managers can proactively nurture emerging folks to swim in deeper waters to keep us from floundering. From freshest new grad to veteran partner, I wonder if that process never ends, as we all find gaps in our knowledge, create space for mentorship, and walk the fine line between confidence and humility. Learning to swim in the deep end is a never-ending process.

Sometimes I look around (either the office or the virtual attendee list) in awe at the skills and knowledge of my coworkers–the masters of code recall, the detailing experts, the meticulous managers, the boundless designers, the savvy leaders. Amidst these folks, I wonder how it looks when I ask for help or acknowledge something I don’t know. But I also am inspired when students and emerging professionals speak up and shoulder the responsibility that architecture demands. Hopefully, we can keep welcoming our forays into the deep end.

In solidarity and action,
Michael Spory, Associate AIA
spory@vmdo.com

Associated Thoughts: Taking Rest

Slowly, cautiously–our daily architectural lives seem to be headed towards normal. Or at least, something
familiar and regular, if not exactly normal yet. As our collective patterns change once again, I remember
the small rhythms of the Before Times: saying good morning as you walk in post-commute, quickly
dropping off your lunch leftovers in the office fridge, stopping to chat by the coffee machine, grabbing
extra pens as you head to the big table for a markup session. Even writing these things almost sounds
foreign, like a fable about how we “used to do things” after getting used to kitchen table laptops and
waist-up formality for the last 15 months. I had one of my first in-person work meetings recently, and like a
long-forgotten pair of jeans, I felt the strangeness and comfort of these cautious steps forward.

Michael Spory, Assoc. AIA

But what rhythms have we forgotten? What habits have we lost? I suspect that if you are like me, one tenuous habit lost has been balance, and how we navigate and structure the intersection between our personal and professional lives. Studies by Forbes, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, and others all point in the same direction — working from home has mostly resulted in working more. Most of these studies show that, on average, Americans worked 1-3 hours more per day during the pandemic. Despite this, similar studies also indicated that many pivoting workers also somehow managed to maintain or even increase their productivity when working remotely. With job cuts, layoffs, and reductions happening in unexpected ways across lots of industries, design professionals had to adapt, juggle, and squirm as the world swirled beyond the walls of our homes-turned-to-offices.

And so we figured it out. But we also stretched ourselves, perhaps to the breaking point.
I will not opine on why we have worked more (we can leave that to the counselors, clergy, and loved
ones), but I wonder how–after 15+ months of extra hours, of thinner boundaries between work and
non-work, of uncertainty breathing down our necks–how we reactivate our habit to rest. To clock out. To
not just take a break or go for a walk, but to disengage from the always-present professional snarls of
doing the hard work of architecture. As we return to offices and perhaps forgotten patterns, we also return
to the realities that work and rest are scales to be balanced, each critical in its own time.

Drawing a tough hand, many young professionals rose to the challenge to keep learning and working in
new ways and unexpected formats, and now find ourselves with a new challenge of how to rebalance our
schedules, our personal commitments, our loved ones, and our mindsets. Personally, I took my very first
vacation this past year (really) and was shocked at how stepping away from the never-ending demands of
an architectural job reset my system. I came back more engaged and rejuvenated, more capable of
contributing rather than just coping and reacting. In essence, more capable of being my whole self. And in
the spirit of June being Pride Month, the goal of bringing our full selves to the creative table is an ongoing
opportunity for synergy.

And so I hope you can take the beginning of summer to carve out time to reset, to relax your jaw, to
power down the computer, and find time away. After 15 months, we will continue to navigate all the new
normals to come, and so rest up in the meantime. Use that vacation time. The good work we do will
continue to be there, and it takes our fullest selves to do it well.

In solidarity and action,
Michael Spory, Associate AIA
spory@vmdo.com

Associated Thoughts: Finding Your Zone

My mom has been a kindergarten educator for over 30 years, and she is amazing at it. She really is. In the big big world of education, she has found her zone by focusing on the nuances of early childhood development, while loving learning and teaching kids to keep loving how to learn. She’s a specialist through a career of lifelong curiosity shaped by her passion.

Michael Spory, Assoc. AIA

I have always been a little jealous of experts like her, the specialists I sit next to in the office who seem to find joy in burrowing deeply into something and becoming an absolute whiz. The woman who seems to know everything about customized Revit workflows, or the person who can recall code nuances and egress exceptions with shocking ease. BIM specialists, construction gurus, material specifiers, coding hackers–I wish I could be more like you. I admire folks with that deeply mined and cultivated knowledge–but also can get a little frustrated with myself in comparison.

As a curious and well-meaning generalist in the world of design, I aspire to bring that level of dedicated focus and passion that makes me a uniquely specialized designer. But I must confess that I get overwhelmed when I see just how much more I have to learn as an architect. One of the reasons I was originally drawn to architecture was because it really seems like you have to know something about just about everything–a career that can keep expanding without ever getting boring. Architects draw on history, art, sociology, math, economics, marketing, physics, politics…the list grows even longer as I think about it. We are generalists, but that broad knowledge base has to get down to nuts and bolts much more quickly that I anticipated. As a young designer, I have often felt overwhelmed by the seemingly infinite fine-grained details I still need to learn to get better at my job, even just to take my first licensing exam or figure out how to confidently document a drawing and spec for window flashing. In that vast ocean of skills, concepts, practices, and information that architects need to know–how do I find my zone, my own unique focus?

Unlike me, maybe you have known where you wanted to focus the minute you applied to design school, and have the drive to laser in on a specific portion of the field–energy modelling, material science, interior design. Maybe you stumbled on a passion and followed it down the rabbit hole–construction detailing, marketing pitches and presentations, modelmaking. Or maybe you are a collage of experiences and curiosities–some Photoshop and aesthetic skills, perhaps a knack for communication or writing, a love of solving problems, a bit of this and that in terms of project experience. Not an empty slate, nor a Swiss army knife, nor a surgical scalpel. In our big wide world of architecture, how do we find our zone?

My mom-the-kindergarten-teacher has been honing her teaching craft for a long time. My first boss could sketch squiggly diagrams that seemed easy until I realized they were drawn at precise scales and informed by years of practical knowledge. My current coworkers are whizzes at things I still struggle with–and I am grateful and humbled by each of them. As we grow as design professionals, these experiences and passions hopefully start to crystallize, leading us to lifelong curiosity and learning about the expanding boundaries of design. I am still stumbling on, discovering that the loose threads of my experiences stitch together into something resembling the expertise of a specialist.

Finding your zone is a continuing process, sometimes halting, occasionally clear, and hopefully full of the good kind of surprises that keep us emerging professionals curious about where we can direct our unique voices and talents in our careers. Our offices and communities across Virginia–along with ourselves–will bloom when that can happen.

In solidarity and action,
Michael Spory, Associate AIA
spory@vmdo.com

Associated Thoughts: On Making Mistakes

Mistakes happen. They happen all the time. But they especially happen when you are doing things for the first time. Like when you forget to put north arrows or door swings during that early pinup in design
school. Or you put chairs too close together, forgetting that people have to walk between the rows. An
unpinned family in Revit. An unexamined set of meeting minutes. A wall section with the air barrier on the
wrong side of the insulation. Not backing up. Keynoting the wrong spec section. Not asking for help soon
enough.

Learning how to be an architect can be a tightrope. Not enough knowledge and experience to move
quickly, but always pressed for time. Move too fast and you miss critical details, or you have to redo
something so it takes even longer. You want to be independent and showcase your growth and initiative,
but also need to ask for help to set things up correctly the first time before you barge ahead. Things that
take your boss 10 minutes might take you an hour. Things that seem simple–a lighting grid, a corner
detail, a presentation slide–get more involved when consultants and specifications and schedules and
contracts come up. And you miss things, sometimes without even realizing it.

Michael Spory, Assoc. AIA

To be a designer is to take risks, and to take risks means to invite mistakes and expose your professional (and sometimes personal) vulnerabilities. I certainly know what it’s like to realize you are in over your head, to be given a task and a deadline with no clue how to even begin, how it is to feel alone with no one around to help you because it’s a pandemic and the only living thing nearby is a houseplant. At that moment, it can be easy to hide and sit back, but I have learned that growing as a designer means exploring your mistakes, owning them, and asking for help early and often. Getting a building planned, drawn, and built requires more knowledge, time, and attention than any one person can have, let alone young designers tackling it for the first time. So even with the most dogged quality control processes in a firm, we still learn from the redlines, the busted dimensions, the misspellings, even as we hope to never see them again.

Your growth as a young designer is the inextricable balancing act of learning quickly and working humbly,
continually asking for help when you need it, and offering it when asked. In bravely surrendering the
veneer of the having-all-the-answers kind of architect, we open ourselves up to new ideas, better
processes, established rules, and gleaned expertise from the generations of architects before us, and the
wisdom of the communities that surround us. Some designers will tread longstanding paths, while others
will break new ground, each on their own pathway towards professional excellence and vulnerability. On
our own paths, we continue to learn from our own shortcomings and share that growth with others.
Mistakes happen, and they happen to the best and worst among us. We’ve all been there, and it’s never
fun, but it is inevitable in the iterative and collaborative world of real-life design.

In solidarity and action,
Michael Spory, Associate AIA
spory@vmdo.com

Associated Thoughts: Springing Ahead

In the last few days, we have experienced the joyous shift of daylight savings, balancing the unfortunate loss of an hour of sleep with the revelation of sunsets that sneak off later and later. The first day after the spring ahead is something I look forward to every year, where we can actually see clearly the transition from one thing to the next. Our winter is ending, and the light lingers later in the sweetening air, and I feel that spring is close at hand.

Michael Spory, Assoc. AIA

Despite the seeming sameness of a work-from-home, socially distanced life, we have all had lots of transitions this past year. New technology, new patterns of communication, new expectations for our time, new challenges to keep our minds engaged, and our firm billings high enough, among many. We have lived through unbelievable upheaval, and are about to face it again. With the trickling vaccinations comes the onset of another transition for architects, as we adjust once again to hybridized workplaces, reformulated daily practices, and a profession that will be finding a new “normal.” Like the gradual lightning that flips suddenly at daylight savings day, we will emerge into a new world–a world that we must shape for the better.

For many young professionals, our transitions might be taking on new responsibilities after our expertise gained in blending digital and physical management techniques, and developing and documenting projects with stakeholders whom you might never meet in person. It might be figuring out what a hybrid workplace looks like. It might be in transitioning in a new title as “Licensed Architect” (shoutout to all those taking their AREs now) or realizing important it is to give back from good mentorship and support aht we’ve received. For students, the transition might be gained skills in virtual networking, digital presenting, grassroots organizing tactics outside of offering free pizza–skills that firms need. For new moms and dads, it might be transitioning back to a new balance of childcare and professional life once again–one hopefully rooted in better firm policies that advocate for equal opportunities for those who take of loved ones and those who do not.

Transitions are hard. These new steps often challenge us to face that fact that we are inadequate–that we don’t know a great deal–and that we are entering new, unknown territory, where success is not guaranteed. But transitions also offer a break from old habit, from leftover patterns that need rejiggering, and an opportunity to overhaul complacent systems. Approaching this new threshold is like coming up to a mountain ridgeline in the fog. As the horizon view clears before and behind us, we feel the anticipation of returning to the good things and grief and confusion as we sort through the things we lost. Students will miss milestones as they celebrate the arrival of first jobs (which will happen), and younger staff will miss promotions and raises, even as we forged new knowledge in the crucible of socially distanced professional necessity. Some may thrive in the coming phases of lingering uncertainty, and for others, it may tempt us to retreat into the security of what we already know.

As I approach this upcoming Spring Ahead Sunday with certain excitement (my household is preparing lots of pie, as daylight savings joyfully dovetails with Pi Day this year–the smallest of delights) at the return of sunny evenings, I look ahead to the horizon, and see the many many opportunities for young designers glistening in the lifting fog. I hope you see them too. I hope you reach for them with all your might–and know that we are here to support your reach.

In solidarity and action,
Michael Spory, Associate AIA
spory@vmdo.com

Associated Thoughts: Wintering

Amid the few blustery storms that blow across Virginia every few winters, most of us have probably spent even more time than normal in our own home office setups, reviewing yet another PDF before yet another virtual meeting while the sun still seems to set before 5 p.m. Even though I have done my best to live out the cold-weather-culture of “wintering” to better embrace this time by bundling up for longer walks, bringing hot drinks wherever I go, and trying to stay active amid these dark pandemic doldrums, I find that something has tilted off-kilter. My daily rhythm of work and rest is misaligned. 

Michael Spory, Assoc. AIA

After almost a year of working from home–who even knows what is “normal” anymore? What does balance look like, when the days are dark? For some, the daily churn of a workday has crept uneasily beyond its typical boundaries, where the pinging emails and responsibilities are only steps away at all times of day–sneaking across personal boundaries that keep us healthy, sane, and energized. For others, the challenge of empty days means the uncertainty of trying to find work, of polishing another resume, of feeling left behind as we try to stretch our resources another week. For students, it’s trying to make do with the suckiness of college life done from small apartments and dorm rooms–and the missing out on a broken promise of what design education was supposed to be. In the cold of winter, nearing the anniversary of a pandemic that has sent us home, I find my personal rhythms disrupted too, with a blurry line between work and overwork, creativity and confusion. 

For designers of all levels, the past year has upended long-established ways that design usually happens, and how design offices usually function. In that churn of change, I wonder how we as young professionals might raise our voices with what we have personally learned and experienced–what has worked and what has not–and push for positive upheaval. I wonder how we might raise our voices to reestablish a better equilibrium between our professional and personal lives. I wonder how new expectations around flexible work might springboard more women into leadership positions and opportunities. I wonder how firms might realize new ways to transfer knowledge that was lost when younger staff were not physically present for that elbow-to-elbow mentorship that happens between neighboring desks. I wonder how, eight months after protests enflamed our nation around the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we might continue to push ourselves and our firms toward greater institutional impact towards racial equity–and wonder how our architectural policies and practices have changed beyond any book club or public statement. I wonder how this upending might rebalance us, rather than overturn us. 

You will probably read this from your home office, as I am writing in my empty work space as well, and missing the warmth of professional colleagues and the springtime sun. It’s dark out, and there are too many things to do, and too much information coming in the swirling vortexes of our headspaces at this strange moment in time. Deep breaths. A walk. An unpowered phone. Might do us all some good this week. 

In solidarity and action,
Michael Spory, Associate AIA
spory@vmdo.com

Associated Thoughts: New Habits in a New Year


On the last day in December, I was listening to a ​podcast piece about habits​–about how to start new ones, how to disrupt unhelpful or unhealthy ones, how to break them down into tiny bits and ultimately try to become a better person with the new habits that I will implement smoothly, effectively, and with no trouble or sacrifice at all–as I confidently assure myself every January. It will be like magic, right? Yet more often than not, my track record suggests otherwise. Other than a recent resolution to floss more consistently (stemming from the post-grad school financial shock of my first significant dental procedure), I have an admittedly poor record with immediate follow through on my resolutions. I am an aspirational person, but usually by the grey days at the end of January, my big goals have shrunk to small goals, if they still exist at all. I suspect I am not alone.

Michael Spory, Assoc. AIA

And yet, I look back and realize that even if those resolutions did not immediately pan out, that resolving myself to stretch and grow in new ways each year has positively bent the arc of my life in the long run. In the act of reflecting every new year, I can clean off the dust of the everyday chaos of deadlines and redlines and take stock of who I have been–and more importantly–who I want to be. Not just trying to go to the gym more often, but someone who takes action on my holistic health more intentionally. Not just checking off the next professional credential, but understanding what is piquing my curiosity and holding my creative attention. Not just trying to quantify ways to appease my internal sense of my own racism, but undertaking the steady, consistent work to undo the white supremacy where it shows up in my life.

For me, this realization helps shape the often slow, sometimes frustrating back-of-house efforts that begin the new year. As the AIA Virginia representative for unlicensed professionals across the commonwealth of Virginia, I am looking ahead to how to bend the arc of our emerging professional architectural community more towards excellence, more towards equity, more towards connection in a challenging year for designers everywhere. In serving your needs, I am committed to the following:

  • To connect our five distinct chapters in more concrete ways, building bridges across professional networks and universities to celebrate and share what each of our components does really well.
  • To increase opportunities for allyship and equity-building for women, LGBT, BIPOC, folks with disabilities, and non-traditional professionals.
  • To find ways to better serve our design outposts in under-resourced cities and the rural areas outside of Virginia’s traditional design geographies.
  • To supporting entrepreneurship and design organizations (and the people running them) that don’t always look like traditional architectural practice.

If you find that you are inspired by something in these goals–please please please get in touch with me. Our AIA Virginia team is always looking for new team members–emerging leaders who can take on the big and small things that serve each other and our communities in better ways. Will you come join me?

In that podcast that I mentioned, the host suggested breaking down new goals into the tiniest bits possible, to build on small successes consistently. As 2021 gets underway, I wonder what these first small successes will look like over the next weeks and months, as we work together to build and celebrate the good daily work of design in ourselves, our neighborhoods, and across Virginia.

In solidarity and action,
Michael Spory, Associate AIA
spory@vmdo.com

Just a few fun things to click on:

Some dope projects. ​The Architect’s Newspaper announced its ​2020 Design Awards​ list, which features Virginia’s own ​Memorial to Enslaved Laborers​ at the University of Virginia as Project of the Year.

Something to listen to. ​Speaking of habits, this ​podcast from Hidden Brain​ explores how to build better habits–and maybe even break some of the worse ones. Plus, it features an “irresistible staircase” in the Miller Hull’s ​Bullitt Center​ in Seattle.

Something to jumpstart your ARE studying. ​AIA Northern Virginia is gearing up another round of ARE prep courses, which will all be virtual for the time being. If you are anything like me, having others to share the ARE studying gauntlet with is an invaluable resource and motivator. More info ​here​.

Something to join. ​VANOMA (recently founded in the fall of 2020) is up and running. Get info and connected to its efforts, and join the meetings to learn more. They can be found on social media ​here​.

Associated Thoughts: Lonely Inspiration

Michael Spory, Assoc. AIA

For the last 200+ days, I have done my job as a designer alone in an empty room. Just me, a second monitor, too many open drafting views in Revit, and several friendly succulents gamely trying to figure out floor plan diagrams, code subpoints, and all the various things that we do in order to get a building designed and built.

Like it has been for many of us, the design process has been almost exclusively virtual, and—if you are anything like me—it has also been quite lonely. No looking over shoulders at whimsical sketches or precedent projects, no chatter about weekend camping excursions and football games, no slouchy staff meetings around conference tables, scratching out to-do lists on complementary graph paper from a window vendor. None of the joy of working alongside more talented coworkers, or seeing someone’s beautiful graphic presentation, or getting help figuring out a key flashing detail or massing option. In this way, the pandemic has snuffed out one of the most important things I love about design—working alongside other designers trying to make our built world more beautiful.

I find inspiration in bouncing ideas off other people, testing my own against thoughts of colleagues much smarter than I. The profession of architecture is inherently collaborative, and for me, the isolation of work-from-home can be a drag on the creative spark that keeps me coming back from the clutches of my warm, comfy bed.

In the creative doldrums of 2020, I am particularly looking forward to our AIA Virginia gatherings over the next few weeks—YAFcon, ArchEX, and Design Forum—even if these sessions will be virtual as well. I’ll be attending talks on storytelling and intentional leadership, and leading a panel on unconventional clients and how to practice with more empathy (come listen in!). Design Forum’s dynamo lineup includes ​Steven Holl​ speaking about his design for Richmond’s ICA, alongside discussions about light and shadow from principal leaders at ​Olson Kundig​, ​LTL Architects​, and local design leaders in Richmond. And finally, the intriguing workshops on design analytics, research, the 2030 commitment, and resiliency at ArchEX wrap up this year’s magnificent trio of AIA Virginia’s annual programmed gatherings. It’s not too late to sign up! Come join us. It’ll be great.

I have noticed that my sketchbook has been more empty than normal this year. Here’s to hoping you can join me in finding a little less-lonely inspiration from our corners of Virginia at the virtual Foresight 2020 this year, and share a couple of new sketches of what inspires us to keep working away (at our home desks) towards a more beautiful, just, and equitable future.

In solidarity and action,
Michael Spory, Associate AIA
spory@vmdo.com

Just a Few Fun Things to Click On

Some pretty buildings: ​AIA Virginia held its awards gala (complete with virtual cheering) and celebrated some truly awesome projects and people with awards. Check them out ​here​.

A truly remarkable man​: ​John H. Spencer​, FAIA, was honored with the William C. Noland Medal for his decades of leadership, advocacy, and mentorship in the architectural profession, particularly for Black students and architects. Spencer is a pioneering leader for Black architects in America, a distinguished teacher who influenced thousands of students, and a committed educational administrator who created countless programs, initiatives, and pathways for growth and mentorship.

A virtual conference worth paying for (it’s not too late!)​: AIA Virginia’s signature annual events–ArchEx, Design Forum, and YAFCon–are combined under the banner of ​Foresight 2020​ this year, and they’ve gone virtual, with a killer lineup, with lots of discounted options for educational, professional, and networking programs during the next several weeks. Take special note of the speaker lineup for ​Design Forum​ on Thursday, November 5–with presentations from partner Kristen Murray from Olson Kundig​ and David Lewis from ​LTL Architects​, and a keynote from ​Steven Holl​ himself.

Something for Virginia emerging professionals: ​Join us for ​YAFcon 2020: The Empathic Architect​, which is a week-long virtual ​series of engaging conversations about designing and practicing with intentionality. Join your fellow EPs the week of Oct. 26–Oct. 30 for a daily series of peer-led discussions over lunch, and presentations by purposeful — sometimes unconventional — leaders each evening. Registration is intentionally kept low-cost to make it easy to attend–​it’s only ten bucks for students!

*YAFcon is an annual gathering of the Young Architect’s Forum (YAF), which promotes the professional growth and leadership development of emerging professionals, including early and mid-career architects and unlicensed professionals on both traditional and non-traditional career paths.

Some info about the ARE testing updates​: Testing in person is coming! NCARB is releasing information that by November 16, 2020, candidates can schedule remote-proctored appointments, while still being able to test in-person at Prometric test centers. The actual ARE content and division structure will not change–but there are tweaks to exam procedure, breaks, scratch paper usage, and question strategy that we should be familiar with. NCARB has released updated ARE Guidelines, ARE Handbook, and a new demo exam in October. These changes will keep the exam’s rigor, while providing candidates with greater flexibility and accessibility. In summer 2021, NCARB is slated to switch to a new test administration vendor, for both in-person and remote testing. Visit​ ​NCARB’s website​ for details, and watch this ​Q&A session​ to find answers to some of the more thorny questions related to the changes.

Associated Thoughts: School Is Back in Session

Somewhere in a dusty shoebox, a photograph exists of my first day of kindergarten. Probably fresh white socks and an oversized backpack with soccer balls emblazoned on it, with a little round face smiling that he will get to go learn phonics. I was a cute kid (if I can say so myself), and first days were always exciting–awaiting the adventures of new friends, a new teacher, a new year of learning.

I have a photo of each of my twenty first days of school, from kindergarten to college and into graduate school–not even the supposed dignity of higher education could stop that tradition–and in each one, there is that familiar glimmer of upcoming learning, of new-notebook-smell, a flickering gleam of awaiting adventure behind the classroom door.

But I imagine those photographs might look different this year. Maybe some new clothes, but more likely sweatpants and masks. Maybe at the kitchen counter, but with our laptops and webcams in the background. Maybe no studio desk or snoozing lecture hall. This is a tough year to be a design student, whether fresh to the bleary-eyed architecture buildings or returning to close out your thesis project.

For better or worse, universities are largely back in session–and we will not debate the underpinnings of those decisions here. Rather, I wonder how we address and support the realities of students, who may be learning architectural history from a dining room table, or cautiously coming into a distanced studio desk once a week for murmury feedback through a mask, or struggling to understand structural principles on your own alongside paying your tuition bill and buying only the books you really need. It’s tough to imagine.

I wish I could change this reality for you. Design education is vibrantly beautiful, a petri dish of creative energy and cheap coffee, dented egos and smudgy fingers and model magic. It is inspiring; it is gritty; it is occasionally all-consuming and brilliant. Having had the privilege of being both student and teacher, I am immensely amazed at the tenacity of students and faculty right now, fighting to keep the spirit of design education lively from kitchen tables and spare rooms, sharing the nuances and hard lessons of studio via videochats and “Can you see my screen? How ‘bout now?” What you are learning now will not be in vain, and it certainly will flavor the designs you will bring to the profession. As a discipline built on new ideas, we welcome this infusion from you, forged in the crucible of a university experience for which you never asked.

AIA Virginia, each of our regional component chapters, and every design professional I know of is here to support this fragile time for designers. From mentoring programs, internships, and financial support, to virtual networking events to whatever else we can think of, the profession of architecture–and of each of our firms and institutions–depends on the success and energy of young designers. Getting connected to AIAS at Hampton, UVA, Virginia Tech, and the WAAC opens up networks and leadership opportunities that last beyond your degree. Joining VANOMA (or NOMAS) as both BIPOC individuals and allies contributes towards confronting and eradicating white supremacy and supporting opportunities for equity in architecture. Entering (and winning) competitions serves to sharpen your design chops and is eye-catching in a portfolio. Begin drafting your resumes and start scanning your sketches for your portfolios. Read as much as you can. Write about something you are intrigued by, and submit it to a newspaper, a design publication, or a student paper. Ask for help. Consistently show up prepared and on time. These practices are always in conversation with your academic work, contributing to a rising tide of design excellence that encompasses broad skills and big ideas.

Despite it all, design students will keep designing and staying up far too late, and teachers will continue attempting to impart knowledge and resent having to give grades. In the meantime, know that the design professionals cheer you on, are here for whatever you need, and are ready to hire you. While we were students once ourselves, you will have much to teach us about adaptability, tenacity, and the benefits of human-centered design of all our built spaces.

In solidarity and action,
Michael Spory, Associate AIA
spory@vmdo.com

Just a Few Fun Things to Click On

Something to register for: Registration for AIA Virginia’s annual conference is up and running! Under the banner of Foresight 2020, this year’s trio of programs(ArchEX, Design Forum, and Visions for Architecture) has gone virtual, with a killer lineup, with lots of discounted options for educational, professional, and networking programs during the entire month of November. Take special note of the speaker lineup for Design Forum on Thursday, November 5–with presentations from partner Kristen Murray from Olson Kundig and David Lewis from LTL Architects, and a keynote from Steven Holl himself.

Something for Virginia emerging professionals: Join us for YAFcon 2020: The Empathic Architect, which is a week-long virtual series of engaging conversations about designing and practicing with intentionality. Join your fellow EPs the week of Oct. 26–Oct. 30 for a daily series of peer-led discussions over lunch, and presentations by purposeful — sometimes unconventional — leaders each evening. Registration is intentionally kept low-cost to make it easy to attend–it’s only ten bucks for students!

*YAFcon is an annual gathering of the Young Architect’s Forum (YAF), which promotes the professional growth and leadership development of emerging professionals, including early and mid-career architects and unlicensed professionals on both traditional and non-traditional career paths.

Someone to know at Hampton: Robert Easter is the faculty advisor for AIAS and NOMAS at Hampton, and Shahada Allah (President; Shahadah.allah@my.hamptonu.edu) and Shanice Robinson (Secretary and Immediate Past-President, shanice.robinson@my.hamptonu.edu) are the leaders of the Hampton chapters. Wherever you might be, they would love to hear from you about getting connected to other Pirates!

Someone to know at Virginia Tech: Kevin Jones (kejones4@vt.edu) is the faculty advisor of AIAS at Virginia Tech, which also hosts a chapter at the Washington Alexandria Architecture Center (WAAC), and the AIAS leader is Ben Sturkie. Also, CL Bohannon (cbohanno@vt.edu) is the faculty advisor for NOMAS, which is leader by Aria Hill (ariahill@vt.edu). Hokies are everywhere!

Someone to know at UVA: Phoebe Crisman (crisman@virginia.edu) is the faculty advisor for AIAS at UVA. She can get you in touch with the right people. 

Some ways to take action at your school: Along with the national NOMA organization and the about-to-launch VANOMA, each of the Virginia design schools has active chapters of NOMAS. Contact leaders at UVA, HamptonVirginia Tech to learn more about diving in as a leader or ally. Some ARE testing updates from NCARB: Testing in person is (almost certainly) coming! We expect that on Monday, November 16, 2020, candidates can schedule remote-proctored appointments, while still being able to test in-person at Prometric test centers. The actual ARE content and division structure will not change–more information about exam delivery changes will be released in mid-September. NCARB expects to release updated ARE Guidelines, ARE Handbook, and a new demo exam in October. These changes will keep the exam’s rigor, while providing candidates with greater flexibility and accessibility. In summer 2021, NCARB is slated to switch to a new test administration vendor, for both in-person and remote testing. Visit NCARB’s website for details.