Keys to Community Engagement
Advice from some 2021 AIA National Young Architects
For these young architects, design no longer occurs in a vacuum or through a stroke of genius at midnight. These professional actively engage their clients, communities, and colleagues in a dialogue about design. The following interviews represent the experience and thoughts of several 2021 AIA National Young Architects Award recipients. Their professional practice paints a beautiful narrative for building stronger communities through architecture and volunteerism.
EXCERPT: Amanda Loper, AIA
Principal Amanda Loper, AIA, LEED AP, founded DBA_BHM in Birmingham, Ala., and helps guide the firm’s progressive work across regions and typologies. In 2021, she received a national AIA Young Architects Award for her work in design, policy, and bringing social awareness to issues of housing and density in the urban setting.
KK: What was your first step toward community engagement?
AL: For me, it started at Auburn’s Rural Studio in my second year, which is a program that takes you off campus. You live in west Alabama in a very small, tight-knit community and one of the poorest areas of Alabama. We were out of the classroom and built for and with our client. We were surrounded by this legacy of projects that were built for the community by former students. It was my first experience doing architecture for people who had names and we knew and we could talk to.
KK: What do you believe is the key to successful community engagement?
AL: I think you have to want to listen because often people really just want to be heard, and that’s what is the most important thing. Sometimes you can deliver on small things that make a huge difference. We were doing community engagement in Asheville, North Carolina, and there was a great group of engaged residents. We call them ambassadors or focus groups, who are the eyes and ears and a conduit to their neighbors.
One woman from this group was like, “Our parking lots are so dirty. In this new plan, could we please have trash cans and hoses so that we can wash and clean our cars?” We just said, “Yes, we can do that for you!” I have a favorite quote that I bring to community meetings: “The success of meeting is similar to a potluck. It’s better when more people bring their dishes and their flavors and their voices. I always encourage everyone to lend their voice because nobody wants to just eat one dish at the potluck.”
KK: Do you have a favorite activity for engaging a community?
AL: The activity where we give everybody the site plan and we cut out shapes and it's just really fun. Often there will be some synergy like everybody thinks that the big, green park should be in this area. Or that the daycare center needs to be off the street for more convenience. We often figure out a lot of stuff through that exercise. It also builds empathy on the community side for the designers because they realize, “Oh yeah, that doesn’t all fit here. If we do the big park, then we can’t fit this thing.” It’s a great kind of place to meet and get on the same page about what can and can’t happen on the site.
Celebrating the 2021 Young Architect Award and Associate Award Winners
Each year the AIA elevates emerging professionals for their individual achievements within the profession, the institute, and their communities. The two awards include the AIA Young Architects Award and the AIA Associates Award.
AIA Young Architects Award: Emerging Talent deserves recognition. The AIA Young Architect Award honors individuals who have demonstrated exceptional leadership and made significant contributions to the architecture profession early in their careers. AIA members who are in good standing and have been licensed to practice architecture for fewer than 10 years.
The AIA Associate Award is given to individual Associate AIA members to recognize outstanding leaders and creative thinkers for significant contributions to their communities and the architecture profession.
We asked the 2021 award winners a few questions about their contributions, mission, and the award impact. Check out what these leaders had to share!
EXCERPT: Amanda Loper, AIA
YAF: What do you feel is your most impactful contribution within the architectural profession thus far and why?
AL: When our firm’s book, 9 Ways To Make Housing for People, comes out this fall, this will be my answer! It is an accessible design manual and how-to for students, planners, city officials, developers, and architects on how to create high quality human-centric housing.
Until then, I would say it’s been each affordable housing project that I’ve gotten to work on. I’ve been to projects’ grand openings, and someone will stand up to speak and say, “Before I lived in this building, I lived in my car.” That always reinforces that the hard work of bringing these buildings to fruition is more than worth it.
YAF: What is a mission of yours that can make an impact within the industry, and how do you see your mission growing and/or evolving over time?
AL: My current focus is to work in the cities of the southeast to expand the idea of how wonderful, walkable, and equitable affordable housing and mixed-use developments can be. I want to leverage my experience honed on the front lines of the housing crisis in San Francisco and my passion as an urbanist and citizen architect to bring this lens to design (or projects) in Birmingham, Nashville, Atlanta, and beyond.
YAF: How do you think this award has/will positively impact your career goals? What would you say to others to encourage them to apply?
AL: I am so grateful for the platform it has given me. It has increased the number of opportunities to share the firm’s work around affordable housing and good design for all. One of my goals when I moved to Alabama was to bring more progressive thinking around design and good press to my home state. I’m so proud to have won this award as an Alabama-based architect.
This article originally appeared in the 2021 issue of Connection, the Young Architects Forum’s publication. Read the full article here.