Beyond Buildings: 5 Ways to Be a Better Architect

To be a true “citizen architect,” you must do more than push a pen, or a mouse, around all day, argues Lora Teagarden.

Lora Teagarden Lora Teagarden

Lora Teagarden is a practicing architect at Ratio in Indianapolis and the founder of L2 design. Her website and blog offers a unique insight into professional practice together with inspiration and tips for young architects.

This article was originally posted on L2 Design under the title “Everyday Citizen Architect” as part of the series called #ArchiTalks in which Bob Borson of Life of an Architect gives a group of architects a theme for them to respond to … This round’s theme: citizen architect.

Da-dun, da dun! Here she is! Hero of the land … Citizzzzeeeennnn Architect!!!

For some reason, the entire month leading up to this post, I kept picturing a caped hero like below when I thought about the topic of “citizen architect” — someone strong who solves all of the world’s ills with a swipe of a pen or the swing of a hammer. A caped crusader who didn’t need sleep, drank coffee for fun (not energy) and made the world safer one building at a time. They brought peace to city meetings, could read the minds of code reviewers and construction managers alike and gave the bad guys cutting corners the business end of a T square.

And then I realized … that’s not what we need. We need more than one person; we need EVERY architect to step up. A citizen architect is just that … a citizen. They just happen to do more than push a pen, or a mouse, around all day. They eat, sleep and breathe their passion to create a better environment through their design or community efforts. Yes, there are people who will always be standouts in their humanitarian design or research efforts, but instead of putting them on pedestals out of reach with capes and shiny down lights, thinking “They’ve got it under control, I can get back to this Revit file … ,” WATCH them. Learn from them. Climb that mountain and become a citizen architect, too.

I guarantee you that most would be happy for the extra hand to help do good, and if they aren’t … they’re doing it for the wrong reasons (but that’s a topic for another time). Ask Atlas. Holding the weight of the world on your shoulders is hard stuff. What if we all did our part and wore our superhero costume under our — probably black — clothes to work every day? What if we ALL practiced being better citizens; putting the extra skills we’ve learned as architects to wider use for the good of our community?

Sounds daunting, right? Not really. Let’s break it down.

1. Rethink your job

No, I’m not telling you to up and quit where you’re at or change professions, but think about what you’re doing day in and day out. Are you just showing up, clocking in and clocking out, cashing a check and not doing anything above and beyond getting your project out the door to get your firm paid? Take a second. How are you serving your community? Your kids or family? The world? What kind of citizen are you? What value are you giving to the world? Everything we put out into the world affects it. From environment and economy to single users and communities … all of it. So if you’re putting junk out into the world … why? What good are you doing? Where’s your superman/-woman cape in that? Are you being a citizen architect?

It’s time for all of us to step up our game. Don’t drone through your project like a zombie; think about every step. Let’s band together and do good work — one project at a time.

2. Reach out

… To your fellow professionals. To other parallel industries. To the digital world. Figure out who’s doing awesome stuff and learn from them. Get involved in your local AIA and meet other people trying to push the profession forward. Create a group of people you can turn to with questions. And hopefully down the road, you’ll be able to answer some, too. Create a band of citizen architects (not the actual music kind, unless you’re into that). Forget top-down mentoring or reverse mentoring … Just surround yourself with people who do great things. Mentor each other, share knowledge, spread the awesome around. It’s contagious.

3. Volunteer

This is kind of like No. 2 but starts getting you out of your awesome architect shell and definitely makes you wear your citizen architect superpowers squarely on your chest. There are so many causes that need our help. Pick one. Seriously — it only has to be one — though I can promise you the endorphins from giving are addictive. Go mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters or ACE Mentoring. Look up what your local Arts Council is doing. Participate in a local historic or zoning committee.

Teach kids to draw or paint … or play a sport. It honestly doesn’t have to be architecture-related; this is about being a good citizen who also happens to be an architect. If you can flex some of your architect prowess in the process — then more citizen architect power to you. Just be sure to not act like a bull in a china shop. These programs need caring nurturers, not omnipotent dictators. Google ways to volunteer and pick one. You will be better for it and so will your community.

I heard a fantastic comment from a kick-a$$ lady architect two years ago that went something like this: “I want to be building something in my community, even if it’s planting a tree, hands dirty and sweaty, working with lots of other people … and let that be what they see when they realize I’m an architect. If I’m the first architect they meet and that’s how they meet me, I’ve succeeded. Because I’m a community-member first.” [drops mic]

4. Commune

No, no, no — I’m not telling you to go join a nature collective in the forest. Well … unless you want to. Don’t let me stop you.

I’m telling you to enact the root definition of the word. Live together, share your thoughts and feelings. Immerse yourself in your neighborhood. Get to know your city. Get to know your neighbors, for pete’s sake. What do they want and need? Can you help them? Even if it’s sharing laughs over a meal. Be a citizen. Be a person. Engage in an exchange of caring about the people around you. Is your old lady neighbor sick? Rake her leaves. Did you just get a massive snowstorm and know the elderly people, or tiny tots, in your neighborhood are going to have a hard time on the sidewalks? Suit up in your citizen architect outfit and shovel. Goodness knows you probably sit too much at work. A little exercise will help your superhero muscles stay in shape.

5. Have fun

You’re creating awesome architecture. Getting to know other professionals who are doing great work. Learning. Volunteering. Meeting your neighbors. That sounds pretty fantastic to me. More than that, it sounds FUN! I don’t care if you only do two of these (you should at least always be doing No. 1), just get out there and rock it like the superhero that you are. Maybe you’ve found another formula that works better for you — great! I’d love to hear about it. So long as you’re giving back, I don’t care what you do. Have fun with it. I guarantee you’ll have an easier time making a habit of your newfound citizen architect powers if you enjoy it.

The point is, it’s on YOU. You’re the superhero in this situation. You’re a hero every day if you want to be. Gear up and go inspire someone. We all put our citizen architect costume on the same. One pant leg and flash of architect magic at a time.

Until next time.


This article first appeared on L² Design. All images courtesy of L² except hero image, which is courtesy of Sergey Khakimullin