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.  

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
spory@vmdo.com

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.