Architects as advocates

May 18, 2020

It’s our responsibility as AEC professionals, as well as citizens, to champion solutions to problems that affect our global and local communities.

As architects, we are increasingly called upon to do more than make buildings. While we once pursued our practice as members of the world of design, now we are concerned with the design of the world. I believe it’s our responsibility as architects, as well as citizens, to champion solutions to problems that affect the global and local community.

Using our participation in a recent campaign for designing bird-friendly buildings as an illustration of a successful effort, I’ll outline four steps to getting an effective advocacy campaign off the ground:

  1. Get consensus on your cause. In this complicated, interconnected world, there’s no shortage of compelling issues to investigate. Our Managing Partner Guy Geier recommends a two-pronged approach to activism in architecture, distinguishing issues from within the profession, such as increasing diversity, equity, and licensure, from broader societal issues, including climate change and resiliency, preservation, and affordable housing. As director of sustainability, I’m acutely aware of the AEC industry’s responsibility to address aspects of climate change that are damaging our ecology, and of the need to build consensus to sway opinion. Buildings are one of the primary causes of a nearly 30 percent drop in North American bird populations over the last 50 years. Before considering legislation for bird-safe buildings, decades of scientific research was conducted to build consensus on causes of the collision issue, and solutions to it. And, bird-safe building examples had to be built and studied.
  2. Define your message. While pinpointing an issue is helpful to honing your focus, that approach can be limiting as well. Making the conversation more inclusive broadens the appeal of your campaign while still remaining true to your core cause. We linked the bird/building collision problem to broader topics of climate change and impact on the environment, making it a shared ethical and social responsibility. For example, pointing out that while architects often use glass to connect people with nature, if done wrong, that glass can literally kill the nature we all seek to connect with.
  3. Build a team. Internally, a committee structure is a good way to organize your advocacy work. By delegating roles – who will be the face of your cause, who will coordinate communication, who will act as project manager, and so on – it will be easier to keep things on track and moving forward. Externally, investigate organizations that have a similar focus and decide if and how a strategic alliance could be mutually beneficial. To collaborate on bird-friendly building issues, we helped form the Bird-Safe Buildings Alliance to team up with other architects and avian experts at the American Bird Conservancy and NYC Audubon, among others. These organizations provided scientific insight into bird behavior, habitat, and ecology, which, coupled with our technical expertise and previous experience, allowed us to address questions and concerns of a wide variety of stakeholders. The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects partnered with the BSBA in support of the legislation.
  4. Spread the word. Depending on your objective, there are many avenues of communication you can utilize to get the message out and call your community to action. Your firm’s website is a natural starting point; use blog posts to keep your colleagues and coworkers up to date on activities. Engage with key individuals and organizations on social media. Write an op-ed or a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, or to relevant publications whose readers are a logical target for your cause. Local professional organizations often have a program of speakers; look into getting on their calendar to make a public presentation.

In the end, our participation in advocacy paid off: NYC’s bird-safe construction bill was passed and it will lead to demonstrable change. As an architect, I am proud to have served as part of a team of professionals that helped and continues to help shape the built environment for the better.

Dan Piselli is director of sustainability at FXCollaborative. Dan has extensive experience on LEED projects in the U.S. and internationally, and has pioneered exploration of Passive House at FXCollaborative. He is also an industry leader on bird-friendly building design and is a board member of the Bird-Safe Glass Foundation. Dan recently presented FXCollaborative’s bird-safe building strategies at the AIA in Washington, D.C., for the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment. Contact him a

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