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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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; and Shanice Robinson (Secretary and Immediate Past-President, 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 ( 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 ( is the faculty advisor for NOMAS, which is leader by Aria Hill ( Hokies are everywhere!

Someone to know at UVA: Phoebe Crisman ( 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.  

Associated Thoughts: AIA Virginia Resources for Unlicensed Professionals

This is not the summer I was expecting—and I suspect I am not alone. I bike each day to empty rented office space, slide the door shut, and try to design via annotated snips, neverending chat boxes, texted photographs of sketches, and professional-from-the-waist-up video calls. Each week, I pray that my job as a designer is still viable when I show up to work—even as I feel that ever-present, low-grade anxiety that our firms can keep the lights on, get new contracts remotely, meet payroll, and manage to come out of this pandemic and protest-filled season. It is an anxious time to be a designer.

With so much out of our control, what do we do with our time when we as emerging designers are trying to find our way when faced with colossal uncertainty for the second time in the last 15 years? Whether we are students facing the most challenging job market in a century (something 2009 me could hardly have thought) or young designers trying to learn the professional ropes while working from your dining room table or even slightly seasoned professionals trying to take that next step—the opportunities for adding to our architectural foundations certainly look different than they did four months ago. 

No matter where you are at in your architectural career, developing new skills has never been more important. Below are a few tools from my (admittedly meagre) toolbox that perhaps you might find useful: 

  • Find a champion. A former boss asked me every week when my next ARE exam was, and the minute I told him I’d passed one, he would ask when the next one would be. Passing the ARE exams are difficult—more power to you if you think otherwise—and getting all your AXP hours requires not just effort and luck, but the scheduling, mentoring, and advocacy of the higher ups. Find a mentor who will not only support you when you need help, but will hold you accountable and push you towards your goals. 
  • Reach back to bring others with you. I am extremely privileged, and I have benefitted not just from the graciousness of mentors and colleagues, but from active systems of whiteness and patriarchy that get me further than any effort of my own could have. We begin disassembling these systems by kicking down doors for other people. Be one of those people who advocates for others to join you at the table. Or better yet, make your own table.   
  • Take aim at an actual credential.  Schedule the next exam. Take the night class. Block out two nights a week to study. Get new letters after your name.
  • Bring a non-traditional passion to work. You are a musician? Certainly useful in detailing an auditorium. Had a knack for economics? You might just be plucked for budgeting discussions. Bringing your whole self to work, with all the passions and hobbies you learned outside of studio, adds flavor that benefits your design work, and contributes to a broader expertise that might just get you promoted. 
  • Cultivate writing and speaking. Good design is communication, whether visual, verbal, written, or otherwise, and being an effective communicator means managers can trust you. Read good writing. Surround yourself with well-crafted words. Submit drafts to architectural publications. Ask smarter people for edits. Go to Toastmasters. Effective communicators get in the door, stay in the room, and bring in the work. 
  • Identify a gap and step into it. Look around and notice what tasks and roles are getting outsourced or underserved. Facilitation, spec writing, stair detailing, historic preservation analysis, or whatever it may be; being able to keep key services in-house ultimately benefits any bottom line, and those added value skills get you noticed for specialized expertise that exponentially increases your value as an employee. 
  • Ask to learn about non-design tasks. While less glamorous than elegant sketches or detailed renderings, learning the nuances of business development, staffing projections, financial statements, or marketing lingo builds a foundation towards leadership. Ask to look over drafts. Be curious about the behind-the-scenes maneuverings and decisions.
  • Build something. What wondrous insights—and humility—come from actually having to buy materials, measure, and assemble something into existence. Plus, you can always gift it to a non-designer if it ends up wonky.

An old mentor gave this advice—make yourself invaluable. Architecture is a big field with lots of ways to get crowded out when the projects run thin. Broadening your skills not only keeps you a step ahead, but keeps our creative minds from calcifying and retreating into what we already know. 

But perhaps more importantly, now is a time to also cultivate kindness and justice—attributes and skills that never fail to disappoint and elevate.

In solidarity and action,

Michael Spory, Associate AIA

Just a Few Fun Things to Click On

Something to Talk about with Your Boss and Coworkers: AIA has developed Guides for Equitable Practice, for resourcing architects to make the business and professional case for ensuring more equitable practices in our firms, particularly towards black and minority individuals and clients. This is an important baseline, especially the personal stories in this section. Ask your supervisors if your firm has discussed and implemented these guides. 

A deeply discounted Amber Book Subscription: AIA Virginia is offering a $50, 2-month subscription to the Amber Book. Sign up here.

Something to Sign Up For: AIA Virginia has formed a formal relationship with the newly launched Virginia NOMA Chapter. This is an important step, and is an effort that needs people of all skin colors to actively support minority architects. Fill out this form to show your support and interest.

Some Free Stuff for the ARE Exams: I just signed up for my last ARE exam–come join me! AIA National is offering their ARE prep course ArchiPrep FOR FREE for associate members until August 31. If you need a study buddy, please reach out! There are study groups in every corner of the state to get connected to. 

Some accounts to follow: Pascale Sablan is more than a rising star–she’s here to stay, and her design work and advocacy for Black architects are worth your Instagram follow. Also find Architecture Is Too White and BIPOC in Architecture and read the stories emerging from melanized voices in design. 

Something from AIA Richmond: AIA Richmond is partnering with Venture Richmond to launch “Picnic in a Parklet,” a program designed to assist Richmond restaurants and other businesses with Phase 2 of Forward Virginia. Through this new partnership with the City of Richmond, business owners can receive design and permitting assistance for their requests for more outdoor space, particularly parklets. If you know of similar initiatives elsewhere, please reach out.

Something to keep in your Google tab: This spreadsheet was started by designer Dong-Ping Wong, and it is a growing list of BIPOC firms across the nation. If you have a firm in Virginia that is not on this list–add it! He also specifically created it as a job-application resource for young designers of different races and ethnicities looking for BIPOC-led firms, so it also serves as a hiring resource.