7 Reasons Why Small Firm Architects Should NOT Abandon the AIA

22159321_sThe recent recession has been tough on the architecture profession. For the past five years many of us have been struggling to survive. We’ve taken the work we could get and reduced our expenses to the absolute minimum.

As we crawl out from the darkness, the warm sunshine of a recovering economy feels so good. Even though our boards are beginning to fill, the pain of survival is lingering. Many small businesses, including many small architecture firms, after years of finding ways to keep the doors open are succumbing to the years of economic instability and calling it quits.

For those of us who have made it through the storm have emerged with a new perspective. The days of pre-recession spending are unlikely to return any time soon. Money is short, debt is heavy and recovery is the primary focus. We’re spending only what needs to be spent to build a stronger firm… and much sacrifice remains.

Small Firm Architects Are Saying Good Bye to the AIA

Many of my friends are evaluating their professional priorities. If they feel an expense is unnecessary or not earning them a significant return on investment, it’s being cut from their budgets. One such investment seeing the axe is their long-time memberships to the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Two of my friends have recently expressed their concerns and published their reasons for leaving the AIA here and here.

The Value of My Own AIA Membership

I’ve been a proud member of the American Institute of Architects since 1996. I started with the organization as an associate member and became the Associate Director for my local New York Westchester Hudson Valley chapter that same year. I volunteered to design, develop and launch the chapter’s first website long before many members fully understood the importance of having an online presence.

Even as a young intern architect, before I even knew what Continuing Education Units were, I understood the value of the AIA. The opportunities presented to me as a young professional to meet influential members of the profession and to hone my networking skills with friendly faces was an invaluable experience that has stayed with me to this day.

Later, as I earned my credentials and became a licensed architect, many more advantages became evident. My local chapter is very active and is supported by an enthusiastic full time Executive Director. A dedicated board of directors organize monthly events providing the continuing education we all need. If we attend each monthly meeting, our CEU requirements are covered for the year.

The chapter also offers a student scholarship supported by an annual golf outing and special events such as tours of local homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and Marcel Breuer.

I know not all AIA members benefit from local chapters as exemplary as ours. If you are seeking a model on which to base your chapter’s success, I encourage you to come visit and see what they’re doing here in New York’s lower Hudson Valley.

I Have Always Found a Way

I disagree with my fellow architect friends abandoning the AIA. Even through the toughest of times, I have kept my membership paid and intact. It has not be easy. During the months when we saw zero revenue, that five hundred dollars would have been helpful to keep the lights on. Fortunately though, we always found a way to survive and continued receiving the benefits of membership.

I agree that five hundred dollars is a whole bunch of money, but truthfully my membership dues hardly show up on my annual expense report. Compared to payroll, rent, health insurance and auto expenses, my AIA membership is less than a single blip on the radar. In my mind, my membership dues are worth every penny.

The AIA Will Not Save Us

I don’t believe the AIA will save the profession. If you ask me, that’s our job.

An organization as large as the American Institute of Architects, takes massive effort and years of time to make meaningful change. The vision among consecutive leaders much remain consistent year after year. Although, I believe that all good intentions exist, it’s unlikely that the current plans for change will survive future leadership.

I do hope that as the organization evolves, executes the Repositioning initiative and that more focus is directed toward the small firm architect. I will not be waiting around for that change to happen though. I believe that it will be the collective efforts of the independent small firms that will make the difference. As we develop our firms to become stronger small businesses and we take matters in our own hands to succeed as architects, the entire profession will be strengthened.

7 Reasons Why Small Firm Architects Should NOT Abandon the AIA

Even with the work that needs to be done to become an organization that truly represents ALL of it’s members, the benefits of membership for small firm architects is still worth the annual dues. If you are considering allowing your membership to lapse, below are a few reasons I think you should reconsider.

1. AIA Convention

Last year I was invited to attend and speak at AIA Convention in Denver. It was my first AIA Convention as a member and it will certainly not be my last. I am scheduled to attend Convention again this year in Chicago and I am looking forward to connecting with many of you.

The convention is a great place to learn about new products and absorb much knowledge from the many speakers. For me, the best part of Convention is the personal connection I make with other architects. I have met many new friends since relaunching Entrepreneur Architect and Convention has given me the opportunity to meet many of them in person, reinforcing our relationships and helping me grow as a professional.

As small firm architecture evolves and we begin to support one another in the name of mutual success, it will be these connections that will be most valuable to us all.

2. AIA KnowledgeNet

AIA forum such as Small Project Practitioners (SPP) KnowledgeNet and the Custom Residential Architects Network (CRAN), are smaller member groups that are doing much of the same community building that we are doing here at Entrepreneur Architect. With AIA support, these groups have the opportunity to develop public relations campaigns such as CRAN’s recent video series designed to educated the general public on the benefits of working with licensed architects.

3. CEU Transcript Support

As a member, I am not required to organize and record my CEU transcript. That’s covered by membership as well. New York State requires rather significant continuing education for license renewal, so having AIA manage my transcript is one less task that requires my limited attention.

4. AIA Contract Documents

AIA Contract Documents have become the industry standard legal agreements for the construction industry. There is no doubt that these documents have become a major revenue generator for the organization, but that does not take away the value these documents present to us as small businesses.

As an added value to our clients at Fivecat Studio, we offer to furnish and prepare the Owner/Contractor Agreement for each of our projects. We offer this as an additional service, charge for the additional time and are reimbursed for the cost of the document.

5. AIA Small Firms Resource Center

Last year, as a direct result of small firms pushing back at the organization, the AIA responded by preparing a separate page on their website dedicated to small firms. It’s called the Small Firms Resource Center. The page contains all the products and services that the AIA provides to its small firm members. When I am looking for a specific resource from AIA, it’s the first page I visit.

6. The Public Recognizes AIA as “Architect”

One of the most valuable benefits of AIA membership is the ability to use the letters A-I-A following our names. Much is discussed among us small firm architects regarding how we need to educate our clients about architecture and the importance of working with a licensed architect.

In my humble opinion, there is no more efficient way to differentiate ourselves as licensed architects than the use of AIA following our names. The general public has come to understand that AIA architects are synonymous with “licensed architects” and recognize us as qualified professionals prepared to perform the tasks presented.

There are many more reasons to retain AIA membership, including health insurance discounts, publishing opportunities and awards.

I know the AIA has much work to do to fully represent you and me, the small firm architect. As we continue to organize as an influential force, inside and outside the organization, the AIA will hear us and they will be encouraged to pay better attention to our needs.

7. Change Will Occur Only With Our Involvement

If you’ve been reading this blog for the past year and a half, you know that I am, personally, not sitting around for those changes to be made. I am taking matters into my own hands and encouraging others to do the same. With that stated though, I do feel that there are benefits to AIA membership and I will continue to pay my annual dues.

Change will not occur by abandoning the organization. Change will only occur by being involved, modeling our successful small firms and becoming an influential force that cannot be ignored.

What are YOUR thoughts? Have you dropped your AIA membership? What are your reasons for doing so? Have you dedicated yourself to membership? What benefits have you seen from joining? I want to know.

Photo Credit: andreypopov / 123RF Stock Photo


  1. says

    Hello Mark, I look forward to participating on your Podcast tomorrow.
    My experience with the AIA has been longer than yours, dating back to 1982. And I too, have been in various committees and even chaired several over the decades. I believe the AIA is a worthwhile organization that mainly does good things for Architects. However, I felt that another organization would better represent the interests of licensed Architects who mainly practice residential architecture: ArCH: Architects Creating Homes, at: http://www.ArCHomes.org . As you are aware, it has been my experience that while the AIA has done an outstanding job of convincing the public that “AIA”= licensed Architect, they have also, unfortunately overlooked that when they allow unlicensed people to use “Assoc. AIA”, the general public doesn’t know the difference. They still believe that means: licensed Architect. I really don’t think that’s in the best interests of licensed Architects: blurring the status of AIA terms after our names. It should = licensed or it shouldn’t be used. And there are a few other things, but I really don’t want to go there. What I’m looking forward to doing is pointing out what ArCH is doing to better represent licensed residential Architects and the issues they face every day. I wish you the best and thank you for your unwavering work to help your fellow Architects. And you know what? The economy is getting better! Hallelujah!

  2. says

    Great points and links in this post, Mark. It only crossed my mind to dump AIA membership when I was not involved or taking full advantage of membership. I got off my backside, joined committees, attended as many meetings as I could and never looked back. Now I am president elect of the Asheville Chapter here in NC and am enjoying participating in the changes that will make the Institute better for small firm practitioners. Like you pointed out, it remains difficult for members in smaller, less active chapters to maintain a valued perspective on AIA membership. That challenge also exists for members that live far away from chapter activities. In AIA Asheville, we are taking steps to make meeting content available through Youtube for outlying members as well as having more and more events and meeting in neighboring counties… Where there’s a WILL there’s a WAY!

    • Sean Catherall says

      I don’t think you meant to imply that those who disagree with you need to “get off their backsides” and spend more of the time they don’t have on things that don’t add value to their career or practice or that the lack of perceived value is due to a lack of “will” on the part of those who disagree with you.

      • says

        Nope, didn’t mean to imply that at all, Sean. Getting off my backsides worked for me, when I realized that the problem with my lack of perceived value at the time is that I was sort of expecting the “value” to come-a-knockin’. When I got involved and got to know the local chapter, I saw what value there was and tried to add some by volunteering. My comment acknowledges there is a problem for those outside geographical feasibility and how AIA Asheville is tackling that issue. No matter what, though, there will be those that still see little value in the AIA. Can’t please everyone all the time…

  3. says


    The AIA National Small Firm Round Table was established in 2010 and is doing great things. This year there is a special track at the National Convention for small firms. There will be free head shots on the convention floor and free marketing plan reviews.

  4. Wojo says

    Off topic, but the item about preparing owner/contractor agreements caught my eye. I was always taught not to touch o/c agreements with a 10-foot pole, as it would constitute the “practice of law” vs. the practice of architecture, and any issues with the contract would be back on my head. I’m curious how others have dealt with this and whether you also help prepare construction contracts for your clients.

    • says

      Hello Wojo,
      I agree with you. I have an attorney whose practice is at a 50-person legal firm that actually represents the area chapter of the AIA. He has a staff of support lawyers and all they do in his division of their firm is represent Architects, Engineers, Surveyors and Contractors. He has counseled me to be very careful how to do such things. My Owner-Architect form of agreement I have carefully crafted with his and other attorney’s wise counsel over the last 20 years and is just about bulletproof. I feel very confident about that.

      However, extending your services into custom-tailoring your architectural practice to create the contract between your Client and the GC (General Contractor) I believe, may be exposing yourself to unnecessary repercussions. I know that Mark is a careful pro and I am sure that what he does is to use a form created by others (I do believe he said he used the AIA standard form), and I am equally confident that Mark also likely tells his Clients that he has customized some items for the convenience of the Client, however, that the Client must have the agreement reviewed by their own legal counsel to finalize it. I personally believe that handling things in this manner may be workable, but to date, I have not ventured there. My experience is that in the realm of residential architecture, that very few GCs will accept any contract created by the Owner or the Owner’s attorney, because the GCs have been financially damaged in the past by such arrangements. Therefore, I have seen that it is typically the GC who furnishes their own form of agreement.

      However, I do appreciate what Mark is doing, as an extended service for his Clients. As long as the Owner agrees to have his own attorney review what the Architect created (and any Architect that renders such services might want to put a provision in there Additional Services clause in the Owner-Architect agreement about that, indicating that the Owner does agree to have their own counsel review such contracts proposed).

  5. says

    Hi Mark,
    Perhaps if there were a different fee structure for sole proprietors and part-timers, fewer would be abandoning the ranks. For those of us in these positions, I suspect it has much to do with parenthood and that we are more likely to be engaged in our kid’s schools and lives with any and all available time outside work. The AIA just doesn’t have as high a priority. And when you are earning a part-time income it is definitely a much greater reach. I will probably return to the AIA when the kids are older and I have time and energy to re-focus on my career. As per recent discussions in the ranks, I probably speak more for women architects than men.

  6. says

    HI Mark,
    Great summary of benefits of being “AIA”! The profession really needs ALL of us Architects to be part of the organization. Especially with boundaries blurring between “designer” and “architect”, and many clients not understanding the “need” for an ARCHITECT, now more than ever we need to stand strong in our identity as LICENSED PROFESSIONALS!

    It is true that there is strength in numbers!

    AIA needs all of us, and every member and their involvement truly cam and does make a difference.

    The best way any of us can promote change is to be an involved person and help initiate and/or help promote the desired changes!

    Thank you for helping to spread the message!

  7. Lauren Sherman says

    Thanks for the post, Mark. As an “Emerging Professional,” I have aquired three internships, attended multiple conferences, and have been given the drive to continue my path to licensure with the AIA. This organization has installed my passion for service, leadership, and connecting with others and I haven’t looked back since I began in the AIAS. I’m looking forward to many great years ahead with the AIA.

  8. Sean Catherall says

    1. AIA Convention
    I have attended several AIA Conventions and did not find that the networking opportunities were helpful. In my experience, more opportunities for networking have arisen from events sponsored by organizations more closely related to my clientele. At that type of event, I have met more architects in my region and more potential clients than any AIA Convention could possibly facilitate. I have also found that forums outside of AIA sponsorship have more activity and opportunity to connect. Opportunities to learn about new products are easier to come by at events sponsored by construction industry organizations (which are frequently free) and by online webinars sponsored by trade groups and suppliers than the Conventions offer. In addition, the combined cost of AIA membership and the Convention (including transportation, lodging, meals and Convention fees) is too high for the benefits received. Free Convention attendance for members or free AIA membership with paid Convention fees might come closer to being cost-effective. Between dues and Convention fees, we’re paying for the apple twice and only getting one bite.

    2. AIA KnowledgeNet
    There are other groups that provide the same benefit at no cost.

    3. CEU Transcript Support
    For me, without AIA’s requirement to obtain a large number of continuing education hours, management of CEU transcripts would be extremely simple. The number of units required by the states in which I’m licensed is miniscule and managing them is less burdensome than double-checking my AIA transcript and correcting it when the units I obtained are not recorded properly. A significant portion of the topic-specific CEU’s required to maintain my licenses are not necessarily AIA-approved and therefore don’t appear on my AIA transcript (such as courses to satisfy California’s accessibility CEU requirements).

    4. AIA Contract Documents
    Without getting into a discussion about the value of the AIA Contract Documents themselves (a significant number of my clients and partners prefer not to use them), the cost of using the Documents for a small firm or lone practitioner is prohibitive. Once again, free Document use for members or free AIA membership with paid Document fees might come closer to being cost-effective. Between dues and Document fees, we’re paying for the apple twice and only getting one bite.

    5. AIA Small Firms Resource Center
    Once again, this kind of support exists outside of the AIA at no cost.

    6. The Public Recognizes AIA as “Architect”
    Frankly, although this an unfortunate public misunderstanding, this is the only reason of the seven with which I agree and the only reason I have continued to pay dues once they had to come from my own bank account. The discounts and awards offered by AIA are insignificant compared to other discounts and awards and have had no positive impact at all upon my career or practice.

    7. Change Will Occur Only With Our Involvement
    While dropping my membership may or may not lead to positive changes in the organization, the same can be said of remaining in the organization and actively advocating for change (refer to your own remarks about the slow pace of change and the likelihood of no change at all).

  9. Manley says

    Mark, I like your plea for the AIA, but I’m not sure it is convincing enough. I for one have been licensed for just over a year now and am a minority partner in our small firm. While I continue to try and argue why we should stay involved with the AIA, we have struggled to justify maintaining membership in the AIA for a lot of the same reasons that have been mentioned. IT also, can at times, feel like a “country club” for the big boys. The networking opportunities are only as good for architect to architect relationships (which are no doubt beneficial) but not convincing enough to justify the fees, which are higher than Doctor’s and Attorney professional organizations. Also, just being able to put AIA after your name seems a little disingenuous. So we have to “pay” to play? We already paid for 5 years of schooling, 3 years or more of low wages as an intern, roughly $1470 for 7 test, $1500 for NCARB certification, $140 for state license. All this is well worth it and should be the only thing that justifies you as a Registered Architect. In fact, R.A. are the official letters that recognize a Registered Architect. AIA is a nice clarifier, but should not be the public standard for recognition as a Professional Registered Architect. Why would the AIA promote this? Again, it seems like pay to play, which is not professional. But I still think the AIA is a good organization, and every profession needs an organization to represent them and keep them “professional”. I just wish the AIA would do more to promote what architects do or should do for the public. It should be a promotional tool to educate the public and educate us Architects. I don’t think we do this very well at all. We may educate ourselves well, but the public really still as no idea. How can we expect to gett better fees, when the public does not see us as necessary for the health, safety, and welfare? They see us as a luxury, or a nuisance.

    I do think involvement is key to helping this change, but I just don’t see the ones in charge really bringing about the change. I guess it is kind of like politics, once your in, it is just a ballgame of staying in……. no change really. Sorry just my opinion, but I still have hopes for the AIA.

  10. says

    If someone recognizes AIA membership has value but it is difficult for them to justify that large number, don’t forget to consider AIA discounts on items such as Servers and Workstations. In the past, I dismissed these as a joke since just about anyone could claim an AIA discount on Dell’s website – now you need a coupon number from the member portion of the AIA site. These coupons “stack” on top of other promotions and sales prices. Last week, I configured a new workstation and used every special I could find. Then I added the 20% AIA coupon and saved another $300. Now my AIA dues don’t seem as expensive.

  11. Jack Bialosky Sr. says

    I have been a member of the AIA since 1950 and have never considered dropping my membership. As a founder of my own firm in 1952, which is now run by one of my two architect sons, which has grown to 40 (and run much better than I ever did) over the years I have written dozens of letters trying to get the powers that be to make certain changes which certainly would benefit the entire organization I have had practically no success other than finally getting them to drop the charges for non members in the firm. Of all the members of our firm only the five partners are AIA members. The others don’t consider it worthwhile and probably for some of the following reasons.

    Being a fellow is pretty meaningless because you have to nominate yourself and prepare a costly submission. The local chapter should do that for those they deem worth nominating. That might eliminate a lot of architects that don’t deserve it. Unfortunately there are many. The same goes for nominating those projects that deserve an award. How can anybody have the gaul to nominate themselves or their own projects.

    The most irritating thing of all is that you don’t have to be an AIA member to use their very well prepared forms. We won’t even talk about the elimination of the old mandatory code of ethics or the fact that you can’t even talk about fees at any of the meetings. That was a absolutely terrible and inexcusable mistake on the part of the AIA. While I am ranting on I will mention the fact that I believe that the name of every architectural firm should contain the name of at least one principal. Otherwise how will anybody know who to sue.

    My sons tell me I am tilting with windmills, and I am. At any rate, I applaud you and trust you will keep up your good work.

  12. Doug says

    I attend a handful of AIA committee meetings each year, and I go to the convention when I can (about half of the time or less).

    I have been in any number of mind-numbing meetings and otherwise uninspired events.

    It seems to happen that at about half of these bad meetings, I end up hearing or seeing one great idea that makes the whole thing worthwhile.

    And I have met a lot of people that I now contact all the time.

    I guess I could have found these people on my own. I guess.

    But it sure is great to have a semi-forced excuse to meet them. Maybe our local chapter is more active than others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *