AIA RURAL + SUBURBAN WORKSHOP with South Dakota and North Dakota

By John Horky, FAIA

On August 10th, six AIA South Dakota members and three AIA North Dakota members, along with both components’ Executive Directors, convened to discuss their specific experiences, including both the challenges and the advantages, of working in rural and suburban areas. This event was one of nine listening sessions taking place across the country, with AIA members from over a dozen states, organized by the “Rural + Suburban Work Group” (R+S Team) of the AIA Strategic Council.  The goal of the R+S Team is to gather insights into how the AIA might better support AIA members, the practice of architecture, and society overall within the non-urban areas of the country.

For context, by 2050 it is expected that minimally 32% of the population of the country will live in rural and suburban areas, occupying approximately 97% of the total remaining non-urban geographic land area of the US.

The R+S Team believes there are unique factors that the AIA must identify and better understand to align design sensibilities, principles, best practices, and resources to effectively engage with rural and suburban America, just as the AIA has previously engaged with urban areas. We already know that many issues are shared between these realms, including environmental stewardship, equity, housing issues, appropriate planning, etc. The R+S Team is seeking to drill in deeper and articulate the need for the AIA to better comprehend the differences as they might inform, for example, what responsible development looks like, or access to funding, and the optimal ways of supporting members as they strive to create architecture that positively contributes to their respective communities across the spectrum of the built environment.

The experiences shared by AIA ND and SD members were generally consistent with the themes the R+S Team has identified in the other listening sessions; however, there were a few uniquely expressed points of view in this session. A few of the generally consistent themes shared included: (-)a dearth of mentorship at all career stages; (+)accelerated opportunities for early-career architects to be responsible for whole projects; (-)the lionizing of design in urban realms – seemingly, at the expense of validating rural design – both in academia and in awards programs; (+)being fully engaged in their communities and widely seen as experts; (-)a shallow “hiring pool” of architects who are interested to live and practice in a non-urban area; and (+)resourcefulness of designers to do more with less – be it, budget, materials, availability of craftsmen, etc.

A couple of the ideas which were uniquely expressed included: (-)inconsistent expectations of clients and builders about adherence to newer building codes; and (+)a very clear sense of “rugged individualism.”

The R+S Team has continued to meet with architects, representing over a dozen states, to assure geographic diversity among the voices shaping our research. As we are wrapping up these listening sessions, we are starting to dig in and evaluate the trove of experiences and ideas shared with us. Our charge is to summarize and analyze what we have heard in order to inform the AIA National Board on this topic, as it may influence future board attention and prioritization, to benefit all members practicing in rural and suburban environments, and by extension, their communities and their clients.

John Horky, FAIA has worked at Kahler Slater since 1991, and has been a Principal and the Director of HR for 20 years.  John has served in numerous AIA leadership roles for 30+ years, and is currently in his 2nd year on the national Strategic Council, as a representative for the North Central States Region, including North and South Dakota.

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