Collective Design Intelligence: Engage!

By: Angela Cahill, AIA, NOMA, NCARB, LEED AP

Growing up, I was a huge fan of Star Trek. I was fascinated by the possibility of exploring strange new worlds and civilizations. I also admired the crew and each members’ focus: navigation, communications, information, propulsion, defense, and health. They all worked seamlessly together as a team. Here I am in 2020, and while I thought I'd be exploring a solar system far away by now, I do feel like I’m on a strange planet indeed. Our fragile Earth is in various forms of peril, putting our civilization at risk.

Meanwhile, as a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), and the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), I feel my role in the future of our planet is greater than ever before. Last year, the AIA passed a Resolution for “Urgent and Sustained Climate Action," which requires all architects belonging to the AIA to deliver sustainable building designs. And in June of this year, the AIA, NCARB and NOMA released statements condemning racism, and called on members to proactively increase diversity in the workplace and deliver building projects that promote justice and equity.

No pressure, right? Yes, architects must play a vital role in keeping our planet and our civilization sustainable; both in how we work and how we design. And to succeed we must work harder at designing and use the most up-to-date 3D modeling technology and building science information. But more than that, we must communicate our goals with our clients, our community at large, and our peers.

What is needed for this higher level of service? Ready to launch: Collective Design Intelligence.

Architects have their regular engineering consultants. They have their repeat clients. And they have communities in which they design buildings over and over again. How do we transform our design solutions to meet the demands of a new frontier? A Collective Design Intelligence process is key. Here are some steps to navigate your ship to warp speed:

1. Commit to following the 2019 AIA Resolution on Climate Action. Even better, pledge to join the 2030 Challenge. How? The AIA’s “Framework for Design Excellence” and “Guide for Sustainable Projects” are key resources for firms and projects of any size to deliver design solutions.

2. Integrate JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion) into your company culture, daily life, and designs. Architectural practice in America is still approximately 73% non-female, non-minority, which is not nearly reflective of the clients and communities we serve. How? Engage in Pro-Active actions to eliminate barriers for the under-represented and propel diversity forward. Follow the AIA “Guides for Equitable Practice” and pledge to enter the AIACT JEDI Challenge.

3. Deepen your design response by strengthening your initial design concept to reflect your client’s mission and vision. Stronger designs evolve from a greater collaborative effort with your consulting engineers and your client. How? Understand your client’s mission and vision fully. Share with all team members working on the project, including all consultants and staff members - from principals to draftsmen. Hold design charrettes open to all. Include a broad base of client and local official representatives in early conversations regarding the concept, sustainability features, and JEDI goals.

4. Share your ideas with your peers and community. Engage in conversations with the purpose of raising the bar of design for everyone. How? (a) Join a committee at AIA, NCARB, NOMA, or another industry-related organization and work towards propelling design solutions into the future. (b) Engage in conversation with your municipal and state leaders by being a “citizen architect” and let them know the guidelines to which you are being held accountable and why. (c) Educate yourself on how professors and students at our regional architecture degree programs are responding to the climate and JEDI initiatives.

5. Work your technology to the max. Architects rely on 3D modelling for the design process and for producing contract documents. And from 2020 and into the future, architects will rely on virtual communication software, skills, and management to collaborate and deliver critical information. How? Training yourself and staff to use 3D modeling and virtual meeting software is essential, but even more important is how you communicate through the design and contract document process. Develop a communications plan to manage your project and the various forms of collaboration. Maintain regular BIM meetings with consultants on each project in order to maximize efficiency and design excellence. These are categories of how you can use Collective Design Intelligence ranging from broad dialogue, to local community, to focused project response. The events of 2020 have proven that as individuals, we are more connected globally than ever before. The word “enterprise” is defined as engaging in a difficult or daring activity. As architects, our prime directive can be to solve the physical and cultural challenges through leadership in our workplaces and with our design solutions. Engage!


Angela Cahill, AIA, NOMA, NCARB, LEED AP, is an Associate at QA+M Architecture. She is the incoming president for AIA Connecticut and serves on the JEDI and Women in Architecture committees. She also serves on the Connecticut Architecture Foundation Board and the AIA New England Board. Angela is a gubernatorial appointee to the State of Connecticut Architectural Licensing Board. She previously served as a design studio professor at the University of Hartford’s architecture program and mentored youth in the ACE Mentor Program. Angela still contributes time as a visiting critic and mentors women and youth looking to succeed as architects, exemplifying her passion for the profession.

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