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Economic Crisis Key Topic at AIA Convention

April 20, 2009

By Ted Smalley Bowen

Next week, scores of U.S. architects will head West for the AIA’s 2009 convention, which takes place from April 30 to May 2 in San Francisco, at the Moscone Center. While diversity is the theme of this year’s event, the economy also will be a key topic.

To best serve its members, the AIA has added seminars and services devoted to business and career survival.

There are now 15 workshops specifically related to the economy. (See list here.) “Remaining topically nimble is hard,” explains conference chair Patricia Benton Oliver, FAIA, but the educational sessions are the primary reason architects attend the convention. “It’s paramount to provide relevance,” she says. Attendees can opt for advice on handling stress, dealing with layoffs, looking for work, managing risk, and, if need be, closing a firm. Other sessions cover business expansion, mergers and acquisitions, and planning for the recovery. Organizers have also coordinated with speakers and moderators to ensure that seminars in all knowledge areas “reflect the current economic situation,” Oliver adds.

The convention also will address issues pertaining to the federal economic stimulus plan—from infrastructure and energy efficiency to transit-oriented development and schools. In addition to several educational sessions about government work (see list here), the AIA has tapped representatives of federal agencies to brief attendees on the intricacies of federal contracting and how to get in on stimulus-related projects. These presentations, by the U.S. General Services Administration, State Department, Department of Veterans Affairs and others, will be staged on the trade show floor.

The AIA also has added a career center to its expo booth, offering one-on-one advice on resumes, portfolios, and job searches.

Mindful that the profession risks losing early-career practitioners to the recession, as happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the AIA is catering to junior architects, with sessions on mentoring, career planning, and other topics, according to Oliver. (See a list of sessions for emerging professionals.) Continuing a program begun last year, the AIA also is waiving registration fees for around 100 younger associates—those with 10 years experience or less—who were chosen on a first-come, first-served basis.

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Even the gathering's theme of diversity, broadly defined, is cast as a strategy for riding out the recession. “Diversity—ethnic, gender and the myriad ways that folks practice architecture—is critical to survival in an economic downturn,” says Oliver. She notes that many firms now offer interior design, product design, and graphic design, and some are “focusing on disaster responsiveness, healthier environments, socially responsible projects, and innovations in materials.” The general sessions devoted to the show’s theme will touch on the various modes and scales of practice, international work and urban planning trends, multidisciplinary teams, and other manifestations of diversity. (See info here).

The economy has taken a bite out of the conference itself, with registration off about 15 percent as of late March, according to Christopher Gribbs, the AIA's managing director for the convention. He expects attendance to hit 22,000 this year; the 2008 event, in Boston, drew 23,900.  (Read RECORD’s coverage of 2008 event.)

Since only around 12 percent of the AIA’s roughly 80,000-plus members make it to the convention in a given year, the association is making some of the events available online. According to Gribbs, keynotes and roughly a dozen seminars on topics such as ADA compliance, sustainability, and the economic climate will be streamed live.

Organizers have added a one-day pass—$285 for AIA members and $475 for nonmembers. Admission to the full conference is $525 for AIA members and $875 for non-members. For more information, visit the convention Web site.

Check out our special section, RECORD REVEALS: San Francisco, which features profiles on important Bay Area projects and recommendations from local architects on what to see while you’re in town. RECORD also will blog live from the event.

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