Last week, the Victorian chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects hosted its second annual members forum. Chapter Councillors Amy Muir and Stuart Harrison chaired a panel that fielded questions “on the role and direction of the profession, with a focus on media and engagement”.
The event was free and intended for members’ ears only, a deliberate opportunity to discuss issues that we, as a profession and as members of the AIA, may not necessarily want aired publicly. This article will not breach that trust, but focus instead on one of my own questions submitted for discussion:
Why should I be a member of the Australian Institute of Architects?
Harrison eloquently reframed this question when he introduced it, suggesting it seeks to understand how a member might describe to a non-member the value proposition offered by the AIA. This is an important interpretation, is indeed something I and colleagues have grappled with on many occasions. But I would go a step further and argue that its answer is essential to justifying the very existence of the AIA, is closely linked to the underlying and even more fundamental question:
What is the Australian Institute of Architects?
These are simple questions, they share barely a handful of words between them, but they don’t offer simple answers. This is a problem. Being able to clearly and simply articulate what the AIA is, and why architects, graduates and students should be members, is the first step towards achieving a strong and meaningful organisation. A number of the panellists attempted to distill why they see value in AIA membership:
We need to band together as a profession.
The AIA is changing, it’s no longer a stuffy old-boys club.
The AIA is good at articulating ambition for the profession.
The AIA allows me to participate in my profession.
Speaking after the forum with colleagues, current Victorian Chapter President, Peter Malatt, offered his own contribution:
The AIA gives the profession a strong, unified voice.
These are inspiring answers. In particular, McGuaran, Bertram and Malatt’s comments describe an altruistic institution, one that both leads and supports the architecture profession, encourages us to be the best we can be. And they infer a strong professional unity, a preparedness to be generous with our time and learning. But they are unfortunately answers that preach to the choir. I am drawn to the vision outlined by the panellists in part because their comments articulate thoughts already loosely formed in my own mind. I am already a member of the AIA, already want it to be strong.
Does the rest of the profession agree with me?
Like a political party, a professional body is only as strong as the saturation of its membership. Anecdotally, the AIA has in the past attracted membership from 75% of registered architects. Finding out whether this is still the case is, disturbingly, easier said than done. No one really collects the numbers. The architects’ registration boards in each state and territory keep a record of how many registered architects there are, but there is some overlap that introduces an unknown margin of error. The AIA compounds this murkiness by not offering a membership category that strictly aligns with this segment of the population.
Nevertheless, by speaking with all eight boards across the country, as well as the Victorian Chapter of the AIA, here’s what I was able to discover:
The bottom line is that only 45% of registered architects are members of the AIA. It is abundantly clear that a very large chunk of the architecture profession isn’t convinced by the AIA’s value proposition. For around 7,000 registered architects across Australia, my question, Why should I be a member of the AIA? has no satisfying answer.
This is a deeply shocking situation. Financially, I am sure such poor saturation is hurting the AIA’s annual revenue. It also means that when the AIA speaks with its “strong, unified voice”, it cannot even say it does so on behalf of the majority of Australian architects.
So why aren’t more architects members?
I am sure the AIA has undertaken significant investigations to answer this question, indeed it has come up in discussion at numerous recent AIA events I have attended. But so far, nothing I’ve heard has been convincing, or has been convincing but for some unknown reason isn’t working.
I think the problem has arisen in part because the AIA is not successful at communicating with the profession. I consider myself a conscientious reader of the various media content the AIA distributes, yet I miss important things all the time. But to blame the disenfranchisement of the profession on poor communication is to scramble for an expedient scapegoat. The problem is systemic and, to return to my original questions at the members forum, has a lot to do with what the AIA is. I’m hardly in a position to say what the AIA should and shouldn’t be, but as I went to bed last night, chewing the content of this article over in my mind, I realised something important that might shed some light.
The analogy of the toy library
Our local toy library is a not-for-profit, community-owned resource for toys. For an annual membership fee of $80, toys from the library’s collection are available to borrow for two weeks at a time at no extra cost. The value proposition here is clear: we have access to a large selection of toys; are able to keep our children entertained by regularly exchanging the toys we take home; and never clutter up the corners of our house. All for considerably less than it would cost us to actually purchase the toys.
The toy library provides other, more altruistic values too: by borrowing instead of purchasing, we reduce the environmental impact of our growing children; and by participating in the toy library, we contribute to the critical mass of families required to make it feasible and in turn available for families less fortunate than us.
So the value proposition of our local toy library succeeds for both selfish and altruistic interests. Would we still pay our $80 membership if it were only accessible to disadvantaged families? Possibly, but then it would be a charity, not an important part of our daily lives. The toy library would no longer help us, we would be helping others. This is not to give the impression that self-interest is somehow the villain in this equation, quite the opposite. Self-interest has the power to take a truly worthwhile cause and make it accessible and relevant. The best, most meaningful organisations capture both values, allow each to reinforce the other.
Does the AIA capture both self-interest and altruism?
The AIA would say yes, it does. It would point to its plethora of pragmatic services that include Acumen, the senior counsellor service, access to Australian Standards, the Environment Design Guide, its legal advisory service and marketing opportunities through awards programmes. And it would remind us that its self-proclaimed and truly worthwhile mission is to “make the world a better place through architecture.”
But by my reckoning, it doesn’t. Many of the above mentioned services are non-essential, that is, not really needed for the daily business of being an architect. Many aren’t even included in the standard membership available to registered architects. And based on discussions with colleagues who work in large practices that do enjoy access, they either don’t know about or don’t use them. Really, we need look no further than the brutal but honest numbers: if architects thought the AIA could help them in their daily lives, more would be members.
I am a member because McGuaran, Bertram and Malatt put into words what I was already thinking. I am passionate about architecture and the built environment. I believe in the value of participating in our profession, of giving it a strong voice. I attend countless AIA-sponsored conferences, lectures, seminars and forums, and then I write about them. I follow the AIA on Twitter and eagerly read through my email alerts each week. The AIA is the architecture profession’s peak body and, I believe, should have the support of all architects.
But I am not all architects. In particular, I am not my 7,000 colleagues who aren’t members. I speculate heavily here, but perhaps many of them think of architecture like any other job. They work from 9 until 5 and then go home to invest their energy into their families and hobbies. Perhaps some can’t afford it, or think they can’t. Perhaps others don’t like the AIA, so choose not to join in protest.
If the AIA is to achieve its own self-declared mission, to be relevant, meaningful, important, essential and influential, then it has to engage with the disenfranchised, disinterested and apathetic. It needs to address self-interest first and foremost, needs to ensure its value proposition is so alluring that every architect sees no choice but to join.
In the short term, the AIA will benefit from bolstered membership revenue. In the medium term, the profession will benefit from a stronger peak body that offers better and more tailored services. And in the long term, with more practitioners exposed to the daily value offered by the AIA, the built environment will benefit from the realisation of the AIA’s core, truly altruistic goals.
- Australian Institute of Architects; 2015 Victorian Chapter Members’ Forum event description; accessed 9th May 2015.
- For example, in Queensland there are 2,720 registered architects. A further 374 registered architects reside outside Queensland (hence possess dual registration). An unknown proportion of these are registered in multiple or even all states and territories.
- To quote Michael Bloomberg, “In God we trust, everyone else bring data.” Knowing how many student, graduate and registered architects there are across Australia, and how many are members of the AIA, is an essential and historically absent piece of data. My research for this article has been very shallow, relying on Victorian AIA statistics to extrapolate the other states and territories. If you would like to fund a more in-depth study, please get in touch.
- Based on current membership fees of $916 per person, the 55% of registered architects who aren’t members cost the AIA around $6,500,000 a year in lost fees. This number does not take into account other membership categories e.g. students, graduates and academics.
- For instance, one of the most poorly represented groups within the AIA are architecture students. This is despite student membership costing a measly $85 per year, just $3 more than the subscription to Architecture Australia that comes with membership. And despite the AIA recently making membership free to all first year architecture students across Australia.
- Australian Institute of Architects; Mission statement in Mission, Vision, Values; accessed 11th May 2015
- Some are included within the recently established A+ member category, which is slightly more expensive for sole-practitioners but cheaper for larger practices. Others, like awards and CPD events, are available on a user-pays basis.