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07/2006 The Institute’s Influence on Legislative Policy
Congressional advocacy puts architects’ issues on national stage

by Tracy Ostroff

With great prescience, AIA Secretary Glenn Brown, FAIA, a founding member of the Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, urged the society to relocate to the nation’s capital from its New York City headquarters. In D.C., Brown and his contemporaries reasoned, the Institute could influence federal building efforts and funding. Members considered other locations, but ultimately chose Washington, D.C., in 1898 for its political access and ties to money and power.

Brown was tapped to become executive secretary of the AIA when it moved to Washington and into the Octagon House. During Brown’s tenure, the Institute was instrumental in consolidating the McMillan Commission (also know as the Senate Park Commission) plan for Washington and ensuring that it became a reality, a history of the AIA notes. This plan reasserted the open spaces and planning concepts of the 18th-century L’Enfant plan. In addition, the commission envisioned complexes for government buildings in the Federal Triangle and around the Mall and Lafayette Square.

The Institute was also instrumental in the formation of and appointments to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, established in 1910. Today, this body continues to advise the federal government on matters of art and architecture that affect the appearance and workings of the nation’s capital. The McMillan Plan and the Fine Arts Commission were significant factors in the development of Washington during the 20th century. In asserting its role on the national stage, the AIA played a key part in construction of the Lincoln Highway, advocacy for the Appalachian Trail, and support for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial designed by Maya Lin. Most recently, the AIA has lobbied for school construction funding, brownfields legislation, and state licensure issues and has taken a leading role in combining security concerns with architectural aesthetics.

A brief snapshot of 10 areas of congressional activity over the past few decades offers a glimpse at the sustained vibrancy of the relationship between the Institute and the legislative branch and helps frame how the AIA’s values and public policies influence the lives of all Americans.

Americans with Disabilities Act. The AIA “played a significant role in developing the ADA legislation, initiating and shaping a number of provisions that should make the law more workable for architects, employers, and building owners. Those provisions include the treatment of historic properties, alterations to existing buildings, and the alignment of existing state and local buildings codes with the act,” writes the editor of Architecture magazine in 1990. The AIA Memo reported, “The ADA will have a profound impact on the design and construction of new public and commercial buildings, as well as the alteration of existing structures. The act is designed to end discrimination of people with disabilities in employment and at workplaces.

Over the past two decades, the AIA has taken steps to help architects play key roles in implementing the law by providing significant technical information and assistance in print and digital media. At the 10-year anniversary of the law, the AIA presented substantial comments on proposed changes to the ADA. The Institute continues to work collaboratively with the U.S. Department of Justice as it continues its commitment to ensuring that the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) are adopted and enforced in a way that is “consistent, clear, and certain.”

Copyright protection. Before Congress passed The Architectural Works Protection Act, U.S. copyright law prohibited the unauthorized copying of drawings and plans but did not necessarily prevent the unauthorized construction of a building from copyrighted plans and drawings. As reported in the December 1990 AIA Memo, the AIA helped secure protections under federal copyright law for architectural plans and drawings that enables architects to take action against such infringement of their designs. The legislation was prompted by a Library of Congress report that recommended that Congress consider enacting additional safeguards for works of architecture. The AIA requested the Library of Congress report. “The protection extends to a building as a whole, not to its individual elements, thus putting architectural works on a par with other intellectual property now protected by U.S. copyright law. Existing copyright law allows architects to now seek a court injunction against an infringing building—an important AIA goal,” wrote an AIA Government Affairs staffer in the January 1991 Memo.

Qualifications-Based Selection. In 1972, Congress passed AIA-backed legislation, the Brooks Architect/Engineer Act, known as the Brooks Act, which instructs the federal government to award A/E contracts using qualifications-based selection (QBS) for federal contracts. The AIA also helped establish Brooks Act provisions in the states, with 47 states hiring architects and engineers by QBS. Since implementation of the act, the AIA has strongly opposed any legislative or administrative effort to weaken or limit its application and continues to advocate upholding the provision of the U.S. Code that requires federal procurement of architecture and engineering services to be negotiated with the “highest qualified firm” rather than be awarded to the lowest bidder. In a March 2005 AIA Angle article, Tom Wolfe, senior director of Federal Affairs, said “The AIA is a long-time champion of the Brooks Act and helped to get it passed in the 1970s. We will continue to fight to ensure that all federal agencies follow the law and will work with our partners in the engineering profession to stop any effort to undermine it.”

Landmark transportation legislation. Members of the AIA have long advocated the link between intelligently designed transportation projects and a community’s livability. In the early 1990s, the AIA spearheaded a coalition to link land-use planning with transportation policy. The Institute hosted a symposium that resulted in draft legislation that advanced professional interests in community planning, historic preservation, and landscape enhancement. Congress passed the transportation plan, which included several of the AIA’s “Livable Communities” proposals, including strengthened state and local planning provisions, a separate funding category for transportation enhancements, increased funding for mass transit, a national scenic and historic highway system, and some billboard control reforms. “The new law holds important meaning for architects in terms of potential new markets and design and planning more sensitive to communities and the environment,” noted the Government Affairs team in 1992.

The AIA continues its advocacy for smart transportation design. In 2005, Congress passed a nearly $300 billion authorization bill for highway, public transportation, and road safety projects to fund these projects through 2009. The bill includes the AIA-sponsored amendment that calls upon Congress to initiate a national study of the impact of federal transportation spending on community design, health, and safety. The U.S. Federal Highway Administration has awarded the AIA a $2-million contract to study the benefits that well-designed community transportation projects bring to American communities. The study, which will be completed by July 2007, will measure how well-designed transportation projects of various types promote economic development, protect public health and safety and the environment, and enhance the architectural design and planning of communities.

Housing and homelessness. After significant cuts to housing funding during the 1980s, the AIA succeeded in helping to advance affordable and fair-housing issues in Congress, including legislation that significantly expanded the ability of individuals with disabilities and others to gain access to multifamily housing; overhauling of regulations for housing for the elderly and people with disabilities; and federal government assistance for state, local, and private-sector initiatives in construction and rehabilitation of housing for people with modest incomes. The AIA also urged Congress to support legislation that would revitalize historic rehabilitation and low-income housing efforts nationwide, as reported in various AIA news sources in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Preservation of the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. The AIA led a coalition of organizations to preserve the historic West Façade of the U.S. Capitol building. After a decades-long debate among lawmakers and concerned organizations over whether to restore or extend the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, the “architectural integrity” of the West Front was preserved with a vote in Congress that provided nearly $50 million for the restoration. The AIA was part of an impassioned lobbying effort to save the last remaining visible façade of the original Capitol designed by William Thornton, Benjamin Latrobe, and Charles Bulfinch, and completed in 1822. The Institute submitted an appraisal of the conditions of the West Front’s structure and presented alternatives before congressional committees. The AIA also advised members of Congress; particularly the late Sen. Moynihan of New York. Architects wrote letters and protested in at the Capitol. Newspaper editorials applauded the AIA’s efforts to preserve a facet of our nation’s history and agreed that efforts to extend the West Front were foolhardy. In 1983, with the façade further deteriorating, Congress approved the funds for the restoration and declined to provide money for an extension—a victory for the AIA and its allies. President Reagan signed the legislation July 30, 1983.

Taxes. More recently, in October 2004, Congress passed the “JOBS” tax bill, which included a $358-million tax cut for architecture and engineering firms. Making sure A/E firms were included in the legislation was a priority item on the AIA’s federal issues agenda. The law gave firms an across-the-board 9-percent tax deduction that will be phased-in over six years. AIA members saw their first benefit from the tax cut legislation when they file their 2005 returns this winter and spring. To help architects understand how the new tax law would affect their businesses, the AIA provided a guidance document to help prepare their returns for the 2005 tax year.

School construction and renovation. In 2000, members of the AIA Executive Committee joined President Bill Clinton, key members of his cabinet, and congressional leaders on the South Lawn of the White House to support proposed funding for school construction. The bill, known as the America’s Better Classroom Act, made federal funds available in the form of tax credits. The AIA created the “One Room Schoolhouse” brochure to aid AIA members in their lobbying efforts.

Building Performance. If the adage, “everything old is new again,” this legislative agenda item may sound familiar. With skyrocketing energy cost gripping a nation, and President Jimmy Carter asking all Americans to protect precious resources, the AIA launched a crusade for energy conservation in buildings. It urged support of legislation that would authorize development of energy standards for new construction and federal loans and subsidies to building owners to help pay for energy-saving equipment and design, reports a 1976 AIA Memo. In 1977, the AIA publication reported that two days after Carter asked the nation to lower their thermostats and start conserving energy, the AIA was on Capitol Hill with a proposal for Congress that funds from pending economic stimulus package be earmarked for energy conservation in buildings. In the months to follow, AIA leaders would meet with White House and congressional staff to advocate a comprehensive and equitable national energy policy.

In 1979, the AIA Board endorsed the U.S. Department of Energy’s proposed building energy performance standards (BEPS) as a “major step toward achieving the nation’s goal of energy self-sufficiency,” a position that won accolades from DOE administrators. In 1980, the Institute reiterated its support for “conservation strategies in the design of new buildings.” Retrofitting techniques for existing buildings and the application of renewable resources technologies offered the single greatest opportunity to increase energy supplies in the 1980s. That would also include solar projects and building energy research. The AIA’s advocacy would inform executive decision making and congressional legislation during the 1980s and 90s.

Energy standards. Recent energy legislation is an extension of a continuing Institute commitment to preserving our valuable natural resources. President George W. Bush signed legislation in 2005 that contained several “wins” in the energy arena for architects and their clients. An intensive national AIA grassroots advocacy effort was instrumental in obtaining $20 million for construction of a “Sun Wall” at the U.S. Department of Energy headquarters in Washington, D.C. The AIA championed this major federal renewable energy/sustainable design project for more than five years.

The bill also included a photovoltaic energy commercialization program for the U.S. General Services Administration. The measure, which will help procure and install solar electric systems in new and existing federal buildings, was a major part of the AIA’s federal issues agenda. Since early in the current Congress, the AIA has worked closely with U.S. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) to champion the measure, which aims to jump-start the market for photovoltaic systems and drive down production costs of photovoltaic equipment by ensuring a public-sector market. It would also stimulate the use of life-cycle analysis in federal procurement.

Copyright 2005 The American Institute of Architects. All rights reserved. Home Page Home Page

AIA150 Rolling History
 A Beginning, 1857-1866
 The Second Decade, 1867-1876
 1877-1886: Westward and Upward
 1887-1896: A Decade of Outreach, Inclusiveness, and Internationalism
 Women and Women Architects in the 1890s
 1897-1906: The AIA Moves to and Changes Washington
 The Institute's Influence on Legislative Policy
 At 50, the AIA Conceives the Gold Medal, Receives Roosevelt's Gratitude
 Spinning a Golden Webb
 1909-1917: The Institute Comes of Age in the Nation's Capital
 1917-1926: A New Power Structure: World War I, Pageantry, and the Power of the Press
 1927-1936: A Decade of Depression and Perseverance
 The AIA in Its Ninth Decade: 1937-1946
 1947-1956: Wright Recognition, White House Renovation, AIA Closes on 100
 The Tenth Decade: 1957-1966
 1967-1976: New HQ and a New Age Take Center Stage
 A New Home for the AIA in 1973; A Greener Home in 2007
 Diversity and the Profession: Take II
 'The Vietnam Situation Is Hell': The AIA's Internal Struggle over the War in Southeast Asia
 1977-1986: Activism and Capital-A Architecture Are Alive at the AIA
 1987-1996 Technology, Diversity, and Expansion

AIArchitect thanks researcher Andrew Smith for his assistance with this article.

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