Few professional organizations can claim they represent 95 percent of those in their field. But 95 percent of the licensed architects in this region are members of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architects headquartered in Mercedes.
Why such high membership numbers?
“AIA is where the architecture and design communities come together to share knowledge, gain expertise, get connected and stay involved,” said Sergio Lainez, president of the nonprofit and an architect with Fulcrum Consulting Service. “An AIA membership connects you to a community of over 90,000 professionals who share your passion for architecture, design and the built environment. We have the tools and resources to support you at every stage.”
The Valley AIA chapter was established in 1950 by the architects who designed some of the region’s most notable buildings: William Baxter, Zeb William Rike, Hadley Smith, Alexander Hamilton Woolridge, John York, Walter Bowman and Charles Ellis. Firms with those names continue their legacy 68 years later. The Valley chapter, stretching to Laredo and covering one of the largest AIA geographical areas in the state, is one of 17 AIA branches in Texas.
Maria Sustaeta, LRGV-AIA executive director, said the professional organization relocated to Mercedes from McAllen four years ago for the convenience of members spread across the Valley. Boards and committees meet in Mercedes. Monthly meetings typically include an archi-tour, with the group on-site at a member-designed project. “We’ll walk it with them and have them explain the process, give some insights on the construction and all the lessons learned,” she said. Recent examples include the community center at Tres Lagos by Sam Garcia and the Performing Arts Complex at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley by Page of Austin and UTRGV Project Manager Laura Lara. Once a year, LRGV-AIA meets in Laredo for a weekend.
The January kickoff meeting features tamales and cerveza. “We outline goals for the year, introduce the board and rally people to join committees, such as golf, Building Communities Conference, advocacy, volunteering, scholarships and awards/recognition,” Sustaeta said.
The largest event is the Building Communities Conference on South Padre Island, which draws 250 attendees plus 90 vendors. Started 26 years ago by Carmen Perez Garcia, former LRGV-AIA executive director, and Rolando Garcia, the BCC grew from a need for continuing education credits for members and predates the state conference. “We’re the only chapter that has its own conference,” Sustaeta said. “We want to highlight our region. The beautiful thing about BCC is we provide over 20 education units.”
The three-day event draws architects from around Texas, who are attracted to the low-key, no-tie atmosphere of the Island. Some of those attending are associate members while others are emerging professionals who are architecture interns, having graduated from a five-year architecture program or earned a master’s degree and are working toward their professional licenses. Educational support is important for those preparing for their seven licensure exams as well as architects seeking continuing education units.
While the chapter added two newly-licensed members this year, the Valley needs more architects, Lainez said. “We do a good job at career days (interesting students in architecture), but students who graduate (from architecture programs) are not necessarily coming back to the Valley. We are recruiting members.”
The chapter’s golf tournament raises funds for scholarships. “One big change is our emphasis on increased scholarship funding for students involved in local college architecture programs,” Lainez said. Two of the four scholarships are designated for students in STC, TSC and TSTC architecture programs. “The goal is bringing them back and keeping them here.” Scholarship recipients have either lived or gone to school in the Valley and are in an accredited architecture program (two- to five-year courses).
Members volunteer individually at career and job fairs, as well as sometimes working with school programs and allowing job shadowing.
The organization generates a weekly electronic newsletter and provides seven core member services, including advocacy, public outreach and community involvement. LRGV-AIA also recognizes community members who help promote architecture and design through the annual Zebby Awards, named to honor South Texas architect and founding member of LRGV-AIA Zeb William Rike.