Questioning the AIA: AGM 2015

41X nestled in the Exhibition Street context

AIA HQ – 41X nestled in the Exhibition Street context

The Australian Institute of Architects exists to make the world a better place through architecture. This is a noble goal that resonates with architects across Australia who are designing a better future for our society. The institute does some wonderful things from running events, such as the annual conference and Friday Night X through to advocating for better designed buildings and cities. It provides services and support to architects and architectural practices and also runs a fantastic awards program to celebrate architecture. This brief summary is just part of why the institute is an important peak body for architects and our wider community.

Like any big organisation, the Australian Institute of Architects is not without its problems. Right now however it seems to have far more than normal. Topping the list of urgent problems is the dire financial performance over the past 12 months.

In 2014 the AIA lost $3,626,315 before tax and interest. To put that number in perspective the AIA now has a total asset base including all property, cash and other assets (but excluding subsidiary companies Planned Cover and Archi Centre) of around $32 Million. This is very bad news for the body who wants to make the world a better place through architecture.

Speaking at the Annual General Meeting last Thursday, Chief Executive Officer David Parken suggested it would now take 2 years to get the Institute back into a positive overall position. As a passionate Institute member this is obviously quite alarming.



The first question from the crowd of around 50 or so members was about the ArchiCentre business. The passionate architect asking the question was damning of the CEO for the difficult position that ArchiCentre is now in having lost market share and the number of Architects providing ArchiCentre services.

In response to the question, outgoing president David Karotkin described ArchiCentre as a failing business. In response to this, an external review of the ArchiCentre business was underway to determine what options were available. On the table of possibilities is everything from a sale of the business through to a restructure and rebuild.

This issue is of significant importance to many ArchiCentre Architects who rely upon ArchiCentre referrals for a percentage of their overall business.


Executive Level Gender Equity

Leading research by McKinsey and Company in the United Kingdom has found that companies with a gender diverse executive leadership group produce better financial results than those with only male executives. Their research found that on the measure of Earnings Before Interest and Tax, a diverse executive team were about twice as good as the all-male boardroom. This research might suggest that the gender imbalance at the paid executive level cost the AIA in the order of $1.8 Million over a single year.  What are the AIA doing to fix this imbalance at the highest level?

The institute has made ground in some areas of gender equity, most notably the National Gender Equity Policy and the National Gender Equity Committee. Pushed on the specifics of the executive team, CEO David Parken noted that he could not discriminate on gender when making appointments in order to re-balance the team. This does not seem to have troubled other forward thinking organisations from mandating a degree of balance on their boards. An open suggestion and a starting point for a response to this position is that the AIA should commit to equal numbers of men and women shortlisted and interviewed for positions in the first place.


Why are AIA staff dissatisfied?

Another alarming statistic from the annual report was that two thirds of the AIA staff responded to an internal survey to say that the AIA is not an exemplary employer. In response to a question about this David Karotkin very openly declared that the AIA are aware they have a problem in this area. The response will again be an external review to determine the issues. CEO David Parken also suggested that recent redundancies immediately prior to the survey may have had an impact, although some are sceptical of this view.


The Institute support of Nightingale

At the excellent recent AIA National Conference Risk, Jeremy McLeod revealed that the Institute had decided not to distribute the Nightingale ethical apartment development Intellectual property that Breathe Architecture had developed. This position was a big surprise to many in the crowd, which was about one third of the total conference delegates. Why didn’t the AIA want to help Breathe Architecture distribute this information?

This question took both David Karotkin and David Parken by surprise. They had not been made aware of the situation and had not been involved in the decision. In response they indicated that they would be happy to look at any assistance that the AIA could provide. Unfortunately this may be a case of too little too late as the Boyd Foundation has since been approached to assist with that role. This situation is another which indicates that there are problems to be resolved for the institute.


AIA Executive on Notice

The CEO and the paid executive group should now consider themselves on notice. Architects need a sustainable peak body that will not lose millions of dollars in a single year. If substantial improvements are not seen within the next year it will become clear that we simply cannot afford to keep an underperforming executive team. The AIA is too important to succumb to mismanagement.

For architects, graduates and students the Institute does provide excellent services. It should also be noted that this year in particular, the Victorian Chapter is doing excellent work in engaging with issues and advocating for better built outcomes and better cities. Now is the time to be an AIA member, to join in those discussions, and be part of a more positive future for the Australian Institute of Architects.

Architecture is for everyone




Michael Smith is a member of the Institute of Architects and a member of the AIA National Gender Equity Committee. As always, views expressed here are that of the author and do not represent the views of other people or organisations.


About Michael Smith

Architect and Director of Atelier Red + Black based in Melbourne, Australia
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1 Response to Questioning the AIA: AGM 2015

  1. Well done Michael!
    Keep up the good work – we all benefit from your astute queries and comments.
    Chris McSteen

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