Architects' Leader Kate Schwennsen: Building Responsibly

The American Institute of Architects’ 2006 president is challenging her colleagues to design buildings that help bring people together.

March 1, 2006

What constitutes good architecture in the 21st century?

SCHWENNSEN: It’s no different from what constituted good architecture 2,000 years ago. It needs to support its occupants; build community aesthetically, socially, and physically; and be environmentally responsible by using efficient, high-performance systems and materials.

Should architecture reflect consumer taste or lead it?

SCHWENNSEN: It depends on the context. There are examples of where architecture leads consumer taste, like Frank Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. But you don’t want every building competing for attention because that’s too chaotic. Most buildings should be in the background and only some, such as churches and certain office or government buildings, deserve to stand out. That makes the landscape more legible. The community—the public spaces between and around buildings—is more important.

How can those who work in housing and commercial real estate positively impact the sense of community in their area?

SCHWENNSEN: They can encourage mixed-use developments and be advocates for the preservation of urban centers and for various transportation choices, including walking and mass transit. We’re learning that, with a few exceptions, single-use zoning or single-age developments aren’t as sustainable as those offering a mix of amenities and home sizes and catering to a variety of age groups. If you build only large homes with multiple bedrooms and people stop having large families, the communities will lose their appeal. We’re seeing more traditional neighborhoods, with different sizes of homes and amenities being built as part of the New Urbanism movement.

In your AIA inaugural speech, you challenged architects to “leave a place better than you found it.” Was that the Girl Scout in you talking?

SCHWENNSEN: It was the pragmatist. We need to accept responsibility for our actions. For architects, that means accepting environmental responsibility and building sustainable communities. We shouldn’t build throwaway, single-use buildings. But if we do, we should make them truly throwaway and use easily recyclable materials.

What should real estate practitioners know about the changing world of architecture?

SCHWENNSEN: There’s more of an emphasis being placed on quality (of materials, appliances, furniture, everything) over quantity (of rooms, square footage). Another trend is toward high-performance buildings, in which technology and materials together allow buildings to perform efficiently. Evidence-based design, where you gather information on the relationship between a building and its occupants and use that knowledge to design better buildings, is also getting more attention. You see this trend in the use of additional windows and skylights in schools, since it’s been shown that daylight supports better learning.

How can real estate practitioners help consumers develop an appreciation for good architecture?

SCHWENNSEN: They can help to make good architecture available. Demand it. Market it. Many consumers immediately appreciate good architecture when they see it, particularly in this era of increased public appreciation for design.

For more on Schwennsen and the future of architecture, visit

Chuck Paustian is a former REALTOR® Magazine senior editor.