Resiliency Energizes the AIA's Philanthropic Efforts

Andrew Goodwin, Sherry-Lea Bloodworth Botop, AIA, AIA Foundation, Foundation, disaster relief, resiliency, resilient

The newly rebranded and refocused AIA Foundation looks to demonstrate the value of architecture.

Written: Andrew C Goodwin

Photos: AIA Foundation

Since 2005, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has maintained a philanthropic arm that many institute members have rarely understood or engaged with. Seemingly little more than a scholarship and grant provider, AIA Legacy had its ups and downs in the decade after it was launched but maintained that it was “dedicated to the belief that good design is good for all and plays an essential role in transforming lives and building a better world,” as the AIA website describes it. But now, in the midst of a nonprofit and pro bono design boom, the institute has reinvigorated and rebranded this arm as the AIA Foundation (AIAF).

Just as the AIA is an advocate for architecture in the U.S., the AIAF is positioning itself to be the preeminent advocate for those demonstrating the value and impact of good design throughout the country and overseas. Beyond the nonprofit’s existing mission to be a steward of historic preservation (especially the AIA’s Octagon House in Washington, D.C., where the foundation was formally located –it is now in AIA HQ behind the Octagon) and an administrator of the institute’s scholarship and educational programs, the AIAF is launching three new programs, each with initial five- to seven-year plans: design and health, research, and the national resilience program. The AIA has long focused on health through design and, through its biennial Latrobe Prize, research in architectural design and practice. Thus the national resilience program, with its goal of creating regional “resilience design studios,” is a new focus for both the AIA and the foundation, and the AIAF’s new leader and champion is well equipped to take on the challenge.

Taking the Reins

Earlier this year, former AIA National Board President and current AIA Foundation Board President George H. Miller, FAIA named Sherry-Lea Bloodworth Botop as the AIAIF’s executive director. With impressive credentials in the nonprofit design and architecture arena, including director of strategic development at Architecture for Humanity, the New Orleans native had been active in the nonprofit fundraising arena for almost a decade before jumping into the role of architectural activist after Hurricane Katrina. When Bloodworth Botop says she has a passion for resiliency and disaster relief, it comes from the most intimate place of her heart. She and her family were in a shelter when Hurricane Katrina hit. After the storm passed, she was one of the first to survey the damage and begin coordinating efforts to help thousands of people in Louisiana and Mississippi receive medical aid. In her coordinating efforts she met Kate Stohr of Architecture for Humanity, and within no time she was working with the organization, coordinating programs for the Gulf Coast, later rising to development director before departing to lead the AIAF. She also helped to lay the foundation for the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio with architect David Perkes.

“My philosophy is ‘doing.’ Period,” said Bloodworth Botop when asked about taking the reins at AIAF. She believes that the foundation “is more about demonstrating the value of architecture through actionable programs. It is about doing things out in the public with partners that show communities the value of architecture.” At the AIAF, she has the chance to create something that can give back to the global community, as well as the architectural community. Resiliency is the key to unlock this opportunity. For Bloodworth Botop, it’s about “integrating policy and change into disaster recovery and building in the value of the role of architects in that process.” Thus (and as an extension of her work with Architecture for Humanity) the National Resilience Initiative and the effort to launch regional resilience design studios with Architecture for Humanity and Public Architecture were born.

The Regional Resilience Design Studio

For the last decade, Bloodworth Botop has been trying to recreate the structure of the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio elsewhere around the U.S. Now, with the AIAF, she has that opportunity, and she seeks to address complex code issues, threat issues, and sustainability through a program dedicated to good, affordable design. Bloodworth Botop is fueled in this endeavor by a plethora of good experiences, including her work on the Biloxi Model Home Project during her tenure at Architecture for Humanity. The goal of the Biloxi Model Home Project was to provide design services and financial assistance for the families of Biloxi, Miss., whose homes were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. Through this program the reconstruction of hundreds of partially destroyed homes was initiated, and the team from the Gulf Coast was able to create a series of guidelines and standards to design and construct homes in the region.

The AIAF, with Architecture for Humanity and Public Architecture, have created the National Resilience Initiative, which aims to launch five Regional Resilience Design Studios. The first regional resilient design studio was launched earlier this year with the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s (NJIT) Center for Resilient Design as one of several partners. Based in Newark, N.J., the studio will be focused on design and research starting with disaster recovery from areas hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. The AIAF is strategically positioning these resilient design studios in parts of the country with specific natural disaster needs. “It became very clear to me in working with FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency], HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development], and local community agencies that what we needed was a system in place that was clearly defined in a network of best practices of resilience,” Bloodworth Botop explained. “We plan to address issues in the region, learn from those issues, and share the lessons learned — as well as provide an opportunity for people to access our collective expertise.”

Universities will partner with the AIAF on these regional resilience design studios, and the foundation aims to help develop curricula on resilient design that can become integrated into higher education. In working with these design studios, students will have the opportunity to gain experience, receive an education, and potentially receive debt relief for their student loans (once the National Design Services Act becomes law). But college students won’t be the only people learning something at these studios. Bloodworth Botop believes that these studios will be a collective fountain of knowledge flowing from multiple professional organizations. “I see these as laboratories for producing work where we can integrate our combined knowledge through Public Architecture, Architecture for Humanity, and the AIA,” said Bloodworth Botop. These three organizations, which serve as strategic partners and sponsors for the resilience design studios, also have a membership that covers 90% of the architects in the U.S. Harnessing this combined knowledge will provide the nation with a very powerful engine in the fight to build a more resilient future.

Map of resilience design studio regions

Looking Ahead

“The challenge to transform our cities to be more resilient for extreme events should be seen as an opportunity to make our cities better places to live from day to day. Integrated design is key to creating multiple benefits such as smarter land and energy use, improving infrastructure, creating local jobs, restoring natural habitat, making well-used and well-loved public spaces, and addressing environmental justice issues. The increasing public awareness of risk is an opportunity for all of us to make stronger and more livable cities.” So noted David Perkes of the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio. Statistics paint the picture of the risk of these extreme events, which many now confront as apportunity as Perkes points out. When we take hurricanes into consideration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated that 39% of the nation’s total population live in Coastal Counties in 2010. That number is close to 120 million people, and the population in these counties is rising. Therefore, we will always need to provide shelter and infrastructure in areas prone to hurricanes. There have been similar increases in the frequency of large earthquakes and tornadoes. Researchers like geophysicist Tom Parsons have found that unlike hurricanes, disasters like earthquakes can still be explained by random chance. “Basically, we can’t prove that what we saw during the first part of 2014, as well as since 2010, isn’t simply a similar thing to getting six tails in a row,” Parsons said, relating earthquake consistency to a coin flip. Therefore, it isn’t a matter of just moving new or replacement communities away from disaster-prone areas. It is, more importantly, about how we construct future buildings and communities to be resilient to potential disasters.

The AIAF’s resiliency program is a response to a national need, because hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, droughts, floods, and winter storms will continue to batter the U.S. “After Katrina, I knew we needed water, and we needed architects,” Bloodworth Botop said, articulating the important role that architects play in creating a more resilient world. The AIAF's resiliency program is far beyond the programs that AIA Legacy ran a few years ago. Although the results won’t be immediate, the intention and energy are clear and action-oriented.

“My dream would be to spin off many of these studios in each region and help them stay there permanently,” said Bloodworth Botop. “On a federal level, we want FEMA and HUD to know architects are part of the solution. We want to become a point of contact post-disaster so we can give advice in the next steps.”

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