The Top 3 Things I Learned At This Year’s AIA National Conference on Architecture

By Richard Scott on May 19, 2017


What Did You Miss? What Did Building Owners, Developers, and Contractors Miss?

Richard Scott, AIA – Vice-president, Senior Forensic Architect

Over 15,000 architects attended the recent AIA 2017 National Conference on Architecture (A’17) in Orlando, Florida. What did they learn that you missed?  As a speaker and attendee, the following are the top three things I learned at this invigorating Conference:

1. Building forensic sessions were well attended, and still scare architects. And building forensics should still be scaring owners, developers, and contractors. There were over a dozen sessions on building envelope technology, disaster avoidance, and commissioning, some presented by forensic experts. Even the 7 AM forensic sessions, such as my Liberty Building Forensics Group (LBFG) presentation on air barriers, had over 100 attendees even though it was concurrent with 19 other sessions. No one likes a building failure unless of course, it is someone else’s failure.  So advice on prevention, based on failure case studies, drew many interested parties, questions, and concerns. Those who did not attend may want to at least obtain the handouts from forensic sessions.

 LBFG’s session not only presented the complexity and difficulty of specifying and constructing air barriers but also the checkered and uncoordinated landscape of code and industry standard requirements (the session handout is available on the AIA A’17 app as well as LBFG’s website, LBFG’s business is investigating and litigating building envelope and HVAC failures. The combination of failed envelope air barriers and failed HVAC leads to exponential damages to building facades, structures, finishes, and contents.


2. Sustainable design requirements are still evolving and will continue to present risks for architects. And risks for owners, developers, and contractors as well. A session I attended was one of two on risks associated with material transparency (see recent AIA white paper). As the session blurb attested

 “Materials transparency is the new normal. But what can and should you do with materials disclosure documents, and how can you leverage this information to mitigate your professional liability risks?

 The panel at the material transparency session discussed potential health risks associated with new products, including green products. As LBFG warned in our 2007 NCARB mini-monograph, “The Hidden Risks of Green Buildings the unknown consequences of new green products have a potential to cause major failures, failures LBFG has seen (see LBFG’s article “Three Rights Make a Wrong… Twice!”).

 One of the panelists, a well-published professional liability insurance expert, told me there has been a drop in green building lawsuits related to missed LEED goals. However, he was concerned about the risks on the green product side, including inaccuracies in cradle to cradle certifications and low-VOC content or emission certifications.

 Other sessions discussed the future of green codes, healthy buildings, and if green housing is healthy housing. These and other sessions on sustainability pointed out the risks architects must know in order to avoid building disasters and potential lawsuits. Correct information on products is critical. Immediately after A’17 ENR published an article about AIA members advice to building-product manufacturers and suppliers to improve product information, especially on websites.


3. Social and environmental issues continue to be key topics of interest; they are in an architect’s DNA. Many people outside the profession just think of architects as those who simply draw pretty buildings or plans. However, they do not realize that architecture is more than just esoteric services, aesthetics, and “blueprints.” Architects are trained and practice not only to understand how people experience space but also how their buildings can improve human lives, society, and human well-being.

 The keynote speakers over several days included well attended non-architectural talks on the human experience. Amy Cuddy, a Harvard social psychologist, spoke about power posing and boosting confidence to anticipate and influence change. ” And the AIA president interviewed our former first lady, Michelle Obama, on the many social initiatives she has championed.

 Constructing sustainable buildings that address environmental problems is still a major focus for architects, and there were many sessions addressing sustainability as well as a product expo filled with green products. I found interesting one train station project in Australia that on the face of it could be dismissed as pure aesthetic ego. However, the compound curve “mogul” roof of the station served the environmentally friendly function of naturally exhausting diesel train engine fumes without the use of powered fans. Aesthetics and sustainable function working together.