AIA Convention: Pass it on!

November 18th, 2005 by Peter Schmelzer

AIA Conference Logo

Architects from all over the state and across state lines converged on the Minneapolis Center this week for the annual Minnesota American Institute of Architects Convention. This year’s theme, Pass It On!, is a reminder to the profession that our role involves sharing our knowledge, creativity, ethics, and leadership abilities with not just our clients, but with our communities at large. So, on that note, I’ll post about the convention, what I saw, and what I learned.

The Minnesota convention is the largest AIA convention in the US, except the national AIA convention. When we get together, the parking ramps are usually full for blocks around the convention center. Why? We bring together hundreds of architects, product suppliers, engineers, students, teachers and professionals in related fields for four days of discussion, seminars, keynote presentations and our annual member congress. I come away from the convention slightly weary from all the sensory input but mentally recharged about the value architects add to our projects and society.

In addition to spending several hours in the exhibit hall, talking with building industry representatives, I chose the following seminars:
– The Smart Building Episode
– Decentralized Wastewater Management
– The Architect as Master Builder in the Urban Environment
– Affordable Housing and the Green Guide
– Downtowns: The Importance of Place and Experience
– An Historic Perspective of Building Construction
– Steps to LEED Accreditation
– Four Views of SALA Architects Inc.
– Honor Awards Jurors Show and Tell

The Smart Building Episode

Computers can be used with sophisticated controls to allow highly responsive and manageable buildings and campuses. From a single computer, on operator can monitor and control multiple systems of multiple buildings including security, heating/cooling/ventilation, communications, life-safety systems, fire suppression systems, access, and video systems. Example: On Saturday morning, A CEO swipes his access card to get into the building. The Smart Building System reads the card, turns on the lights in the hallways and office, adjusts the temperature in his office. Only the energy required is provided where needed. Another example: On another Saturday, a new worker enters a multi-building industrial facility. She needs access to certain areas, so her access card was programmed accordingly. The system monitors her movement into the boiler room, recording video as she enters. A valve explodes in the boiler room and she activates a duress alarm. The system operator, at home for the weekend, receives a call on his cell phone and logs on to the control system online. There he sees an automatic alarm from the boiler, then the duress alarm. The boiler is shut down and emergency help is called instantaneously and directed to the spot. Problem solved, from home.
These specialty systems are becoming more affordable and make use of the ubiquitous Local Area Network, providing functionality on infrastructure that most businesses use anyway. Failure of the central control does not affect individual systems function, so it is not catastrophic. Needless to say, Smart Building systems are a speciality of a limited number of consulatants. VIVUS now can offer these systems in buildings we design to bring together the best of technology and design for your space.

Decentralized Wastewater Management
As rural Minnesota feels the pressure of expanding population, it also faces the need for management of the sewage associated with development. “Big pipe” systems are often very expensive to expand, especially in areas of limited population density. The solution is decentralized wastewater management. Using biological and wetland pretreatment of the sewage, single and clustered residences can own and operate their own treatment systems. Unlike standard septic systems, these systems never clog the drainfield and can serve from one to fifty houses. Various patented technologies exist to aerate and breakdown sewage, eliminating and filtering out the particulates that limit drainfield life. Perhaps the biggest benefit of these systems is that they allow open space to remain open: unlike big pipe systems, which require high density to pay for the big pipe, decentralized systems serve a limited area, calling for clusters of development rather than continuous development along the big pipe.

Architect as MasterBuilder
A new member has joined the array of project delivery methods. The traditional method is known as design-bid-build, where owner, architect, and contractor have distinct roles. Common today is the design-build method, that combines architect and contractor for a single-source turnkey project for a client. We have also worked with negociated contracts and multiple-prime contracts. This seminar suggests that architects should consider returning to the pre-traditional role as master builder and become developers of space. Why? Architects have the vision to shape space, technical abilities to design, financial abilities to control budgets, supervisory skills to monitor construction, and often, the skills to build themselves. The result is a simple model of architect coordinating her vision from start to finish, then offering the product for sale or rent. In this model, more of the architect’s time is spent on site and with the contractors. The architect becomes the client, general contractor, and designer. This is an intriguing possibility. What community could not use more inspired design, constructed at lower cost?

Affordable Housing and the Green Guide

This was an overview of the Affordable Housing Design Guide and its role in producing healthy, durable, affordable housing. In conjunction with the MasterBuilder idea, this one has my wheels turning.

Downtowns: The Importance of Place and Experience

Northfield has a great downtown (come visit!), but it could be better. David Feehan of the International Downtown Association calls for intensifying our efforts to support our downtowns. Healthy downtowns mean heathy cities. Healthy cities mean healthy regions, which in turn mean a healthy country. After an historic review of the trends of population movement, David offered insights into healthy downtowns. Clean and safe are primary. After that, downtown design should focus on the experience of visitors to the downtown, since that is what people crave:

Education Opportunites – we love to learn
Entertainment- we love to be delighted
Escape- we need to “get away” once in a while
Aesthetics- we love great spaces that stimulate all our senses
Uplift- positive experiences will bring us back for more

Downtown Success relies on six M’s:

Management: Show visitors that someone is looking out for them, keeping the place nice
Maintenance: It’s got to be clean and attractive, not run-down and grimy
Marketing: Let people know the downtown is a great place to be
Magic: Engage people (this is elusive and hard to define)
Memories: Make the experience so positive that people with never forget.
Moments: Create opportunities for multiple small encounters to build the whole experience.

An Historic Perspective of Building Construction
This was a great course. In rapid-fire succession, we were introduced to the reality of the historical development of building systems and codes for wrought iron, ductile steel, modern steel, concrete,wood, masonry (brick, clay tile and concrete units), elevators and fire suppression. Why was this great? We love to remodel existing building and give them new life. The problem is that most existing commercial buildings were built when their structural systems were still not completely understood. Wide varieties of methods were used, often differing from the original drawings. The question in these cases is what is holding up the roof? What is in those walls? Is that concrete structural or only for fireproofing? Can I remove that arch or is it integral? Exposure to the variety that exists will help us help you make the most of your existing building.

Steps to LEED Accreditation
LEED stands for Leadership in Education and Environmental Design. It is a USGBC (Green Building Council) rating system that encourages and acknowledges efforts toward sustainable design. Accreditation certifies professionals for their understanding and application of the LEED systems. I am considering becoming LEED certified, because this system is not affiliated with any specific interest group and is becoming the recognized standard in green building. Green building makes sense economically, environmentally, and aesthetically. In fact, my Master’s Thesis involved understanding green building relative to modern architecture. So, accreditation would be a return to the roots of my architectural training and my passion for ecologically sensitive design. The process of becoming accredited is a study-then-test procedure, much like the architect licensing exam.

Four Views of SALA
SALA received the Firm of the Year Award, which is a tremendous honor. Sarah Susanka (The Not so Big House) and Dale Mulfinger started this firm in the early 1980’s to serve residential clients. Since then, the firm has produced some wonderful design, written several books, and grown to a three-office company of 50 people. Congratulations to SALA for this award and for years of service to clients and the profession

Jurors Show and Tell
When awards are given, jurors are chosen to determine who gets the award. This seminar was a chance to see the work of the jurors for the AIA-MN Honor Awards.
Kirk Blunck FAIA presented the work of Herbert Lewis Kruse Blunck, an award winning architecture firm in Des Moines, Iowa.
Lawrence Scarpa AIA gave us a tour of his own zero-energy home.
Karen Van Lengen AIA, the Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia, showed her work focusing on sound in architecture.

One of the highlights of the convention was listening to the keynote presentation by Kate Schwennsen FAIA. Kate is the president-elect of the American Institute of Architecture and was instrumental in my training as an architect. She nailed it! She called on architects to embrace sustainability, serve the poor, embrace racial and gender equity, share our knowledge, and to become leaders with our communities.

Another highlight was spending some time with Erik Hansen of Legends Architecture in Hayward, Wisconsin. His is a good friend of my brother, Bill, is involved in Boy Scouts, and we have much in common. Look for collaboration in the future!

For more on the convention, visit

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