By Johanna Spencer -

Last month, I had the privilege to be one of the lucky few to represent Nelsen Partners at the AIA Conference on Architecture in Orlando, Florida. I was joined by Mike Martin, also from the Austin office, as well as Gwen Jarick, Diana Sisk, and Dan Morrison, from the Phoenix office. The theme of this year’s conference was Anticipate Change. Many of the keynotes and sessions were focused on the future and the unique role that architects have in affecting the world around us for the better.  How do we encourage sustainable growth and design? How can we plan more resilient communities and buildings in the face of global warming? How do we harness diverse opinions and worldviews to design more with less?

Among the excellent speakers present this year was former First Lady, Michelle Obama. The moderator touched on a number of interesting points during their discussion, but I was most impressed with Mrs. Obama’s response when asked for advice about how to encourage diversity among architects and designers. She encouraged architects to reach out to young people and educate students about the opportunities and benefits of becoming an architect. In her words, “you can’t be an architect if you don’t know what an architect is.”  The simple act of engaging with young people and teaching them about design early-on can have a huge impact on the future of architecture. A diversity of opinion and perspective will help create a richer built environment and better architecture.

Another highlight of the conference was meeting Pritzker Prize winner and Keynote speaker, Alejandro Aravena. He spoke on a panel of talented architects (Francis Kere, Michael Murphy and Elizabeth Diller) on the topic of Anticipating Need. In an increasingly populated world, with ever more scarce resources, how can architects contribute and alleviate the strain on our planet?  Though each speaker had their own unique perspective to contribute, my favorite was Aravena’s. His firm, Elemental, has developed a design concept, in response to a scarcity of affordable housing, that they call incremental housing. In partnership with developers all over Chile and the world, they provide housing units that have minimal square footage and services upon move in, but provide space and infrastructure within the lot for residents to expand and customize the homes to their needs. But he doesn’t consider his work with social housing as some sort of moral contribution; he described designing with scarcity as a filter against the superfluous. The lack of resources forces one to be a more agile, intelligent designer. I think that this attitude is valuable for all architects to consider, not just those working with affordable housing. Keeping in mind the rapid growth of the human population, it’s our duty as creators of the built environment to look ahead and anticipate the possibility of a future with more scarcity.

Even though the content of the conference provided plenty of information for reflection and contemplation, my trip to Orlando wasn’t entirely academic. The AIA Conference on Architecture offered a variety of sessions that showcased the sights and attractions of Orlando and Florida at large. I was lucky enough to get a backstage tour of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, led by the head designer and the project manager of the construction team. Although it was pleasure enough to tour the park before the throngs arrived, we were also given an inside look at the unique conditions and complications of designing and building an entire village without a single right angle. I was also able to take a tour of some of Florida’s most unique ecological systems; the backwater estuary of the Banana River, home to a thriving community of manatees, and the Central Florida Everglades, which we toured aboard an airboat. I learned a lot about the delicate and unique ecology at work in Florida and gained an appreciation for the impact that humans can have, good and bad.

Overall, I had an amazing experience at the AIA Conference on Architecture and am excited to bring this new information back to Austin and share what I have learned. Architects have a unique and important role in planning for the future and our creativity has the power to improve and enrich our built environment for future generations.