Q&A: Mickey Jacob, 2012 AIA President-Elect, Tampa

Architect Mickey Jacob of Tampa is scheduled to become president of the American Institute of Architects in 2013 following a national election in May.

In that role, he will have an opportunity to reshape priorities for the AIA as an organization, increase its influence in Congress and elsewhere, and help set the stage for how architects can best help build livable and sustainable communities throughout the nation.

Jacob, managing principal with Urban Studio Architects, discusses the importance of architecture in community building and his new role at AIA with 83 Degrees Publisher & Managing Editor Diane Egner.

Here is an edited transcript: 

83D: How would you describe the health of the architecture industry today?

MJ: From an intellectual stand, it's as healthy as ever. From a business point of view, we're hurting. There are parts of the country where unemployment among architects is 40 to 50 percent. Florida was hit hard. Our firm (Urban Studio Architects) was hit hard. We are positioned now where we can gain the tools and skill sets necessary to prepare for what comes next. Right now we're preparing for a lost generation of architects, lost because of the loss of jobs and the fact that new architects aren't entering the field. Ten to 15 years from now, there may not be enough architects to fill the need.

83D: What is the plan to overcome that challenge?

MJ: We have to provide opportunities for emerging professionals to attain leadership positions and support their ability to do that. We need to create an environment within the industry in which activity and participation in the AIA becomes a lifelong habit. Emerging professionals are going to be part of driving what the profession of architects will become. The advent of certain technologies is changing the practice of architecture. Take 3D imaging. Five years ago, we would have had to send a project out to an illustrator. Now we can knock it out in no time flat. Now, especially with the young talent we have, computer programs make us faster, quicker, more efficient.

83D: In running for national office, you've visited lots of American cities. Where are the bright spots?

MJ: Everywhere. We tend to look at big, glamorous projects that get the most notoriety, but good architecture is happening everywhere. Architects bring good architecture, good design to everything. The result is it changes your life. One of our goals is to get people to understand sustainability beyond the environmental definition. For instance, Dr. Richard Jackson at UCLA. He was second in command of the Center for Disease Control. His research revolves around how design affects your health. He's doing a documentary with PBS about this now. He explains how a well-designed community can actually lower the incidence of childhood obesity. We know too that well-designed schools can increase test scores 10 to 15 percent. If you look at layout, colors, design and all that makes students feel more comfortable to study -- now we're talking quality of life issues. Everyone would be interested in sustainability if we can show how it affects their health.

83D: Is that a hard sell?

MJ: It's a hard sell only because the marketplace isn't demanding it. That's where our advocacy efforts come in. We need to get involved in our communities to talk about the importance of architecture and building communities.

83D: Is it more expensive to build sustainable communities?

MJ: No. 

83D: A young professional who works in construction was telling me about a project his firm is doing to build a new school. I asked him if it was being built to the latest sustainability standards and he said, no, because the school district uses plans for school construction that were conceived before sustainability became a priority. Why is that?

MJ: He's talking about stock school plans. They've been used very successfully for a long time. But stock plans don't always take into account our current needs in terms of education, technology, energy use. We as communities have to decide what is worth doing, what is worth changing as an investment in the future of our country. How do we drive a political environment that will enhance our ability to change? That's where advocacy efforts come in. Architects have to get politically involved.

83D: Are there any architects in Congress?

MJ: Only one since 1900, Dick Swett from New Hampshire. We had some success in the last election. A couple of architects got elected to state houses. Florida has had only one architect in the Legislature: Charlie Clary of Destin.

83D: Why is it important that architects serve in public office?

MJ: The biggest federal advocacy issue right now is that the Small Business Administration wants to raise the maximum requirement used to define a small business. The SBA wants to raise the definition of a small business from annual revenues of $4.5 million to $19 million. At $4.5 million, almost 90 percent of architects qualify as small businesses. But if you raise that to $19 million, the big firms would be eligible for small business set-asides. It would make it much more difficult for a truly small business to compete.

83D: How do you explain to non-architects the importance of architecture in creating livable cities?

MJ: We're now looking at design being responsive to specific needs, more so than being stylistic. Good design can be the simplest of things. Good design is making walkable communities. If you walk into a building and feel good, feel comfortable, that's good design. If you sit in a space and feel energized and happy, that's good design. If as you're walking down the street and you have to hug the building to feel safe because of speeding traffic, that's not good design.

83D: Beach Drive in downtown St. Petersburg is such an awesome place. What went right there?

MJ: St. Pete has long respected its waterfront, especially in downtown. Straub Park is a great example. There's lots of linear green space providing a buffer to the waterfront. Public spaces come to the water. Beach Drive is a lovely drive that has a great mix of retail, museums, restaurants, outdoor seating. I give a lot of credit to former Mayor Rick Baker who was a big advocate for public-private partnerships.

83D: What about downtown Tampa? What's going right there?

MJ: Saving the Kress building should be a priority. We have to be able to keep and revitalize the city's infrastructure that has historical significance. Lykes Park is very important. We need to find ways to create more pocket parks like that as places where people can go and sit in a very pleasant area. Every city needs open spaces. The Riverwalk is a good example of what's going right. You can go by the Riverfront Park and see people at any time of day or night. There is nothing better than seeing kids running through that fountain in the park. Hearing the sounds of their voices playing and laughing, it doesn't get any better than that in building livable cities.

83D: How can Tampa build on recent successes? Why does it matter?

MJ: We're starting to make downtown Tampa a more walkable, more livable environment. It's all about walking, park space, crosswalks. It's about the city being more amenable to retail outlets, having restaurants with tables and chairs outside on the sidewalks, building museums, creating public spaces -- things that make a city live and breathe. Completing the Riverwalk vision is very important. An amenity like Bayshore Boulevard and the amount of people out there, especially in the evenings, creates a vibrancy. It's where people want to live. People want to get outdoors and enjoy the city. That's what people everywhere want. A good example is happening with the Lightning in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Hundreds of people are coming downtown to watch the hockey game broadcast on the side of the city parking garage. It's that kind of energy that makes cities livable. We have all that here. As the residential base in downtown becomes more dense, the city will grow.

83D: What do you see on the horizon for the Tampa Bay region? What's next?

MJ: I see nothing but tremendous opportunity, especially coming out of this difficult economy. Change will come as our community thinks more about how they want to live, work and play. Opportunities exist in thinking about the quality of life. Architects and architecture are going to be the leaders of that process. One of my goals to make us the leaders to make our communities better.

83D: What are your top priorities as new president-elect of the AIA?

MJ: To build a stronger communications network within AIA's component structure: AIA local, state, national. To build leadership. We want to position our members to attain leadership roles in the industry and in their communities. And to support the advocacy efforts of our local and state components. Advocacy is critically important.

83D: How so? And why does it matter?

MJ: Over 80 percent of architectural firms qualify as small businesses. So concerns around small businesses are very important to us. The recent fight in Congress over 1099s (contract employees) was a huge one for small business. We're now working on a tax credit for greening issues. There is now a $1.80 a square foot credit for creating sustainable projects that fit certain criteria. Tax credits become an incentive for people to make projects green. We want such sustainable design to be an everyday demand of the marketplace.

83D: What are the biggest challenges architects face?

MJ: How to make money. One of the biggest challenges we have is creating value for our services in the marketplace. How to make this profession desirable for young people to enter. Not just intellectually and creatively, but also financially. Our biggest competitor for young talent is the video game industry. We have to look at how to make architecture more desirable, more vibrant. No industry can survive without developing a base that makes it stronger in the future.

83D: Anything else that you want to highlight?

MJ: Just that changing communities isn't about buildings, it's about community design. How do we make communities better? The national AIA just got an international award for sustainable design. That's big. Also, the national AIA is going into Tuscaloosa and other cities in Mississippi to create master plans for cities destroyed by tornadoes. We're going to show how to rebuild them. Watch what we do.

Diane Egner of Tampa is a former content director in public broadcasting and a former newspaper editorial writer. She was also recently elected as the first non-architect to serve on the board of directors of the AIA-Tampa Bay chapter. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Diane Egner.

Diane Egner is the publisher and managing editor at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. 
Signup for Email Alerts