Change Agent: Alum Jade Heiler Championing Equitable, Inclusive Architecture in New Leadership Roles

Posted May 26, 2021 in Alumni, Master of Architecture

Jade Heiler (’19, Master of Architecture) may still be in the early stages of her career, but she’s never been one to shy away from a seat at the table. As a KCAD student, she took every opportunity to connect to her industry, from plugging into professional organizations and leadership development programs to undertaking internships in the local community.

Now, with her recent two-year appointment as the At-Large Director of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) National Associates Committee and her election as the Associates Director for AIA’s Grand Rapids chapter, Heiler finds herself on the front lines of the industry’s efforts to embrace a changing world and reimagine how architecture can help shape society for the better.

So, how does the KCAD alum and current graduate architect at Fishbeck plan to make the most of the opportunities before her? We sat down with her to find out.

Photographed portrait of a woman
image courtesy of Jade Heiler

Can you explain for us briefly what the AIA National Associates Committee is?

Associate AIA members are those who don't have a license in architecture yet. The committee advocates for associate members and assesses the needs for policies, programs, and resources for associates. As At-Large Director, I’m responsible for leading a work group composed of regional directors that supports various initiatives, attending meetings and conferences, and providing reports to the Advisory Committee. There are three At-Large Directors who lead three different work groups: Advocacy, Innovation, and Knowledge. I will be responsible for the Knowledge group.

What are your plans for your new position?

I want to focus on preparation for professional exams and exposing emerging professionals to learning opportunities that typically take years to come by. The AIA has a Continuing Education Unit program in place for licensed architects who attend accredited sessions to learn about highly technical, detailed aspects of architecture. I want to look into creating a similar program for unregistered architects that would allow them to also attend accredited sessions focusing on topics relevant to the exams.

For example, a one-hour session where an architect walks us through their process for responding to a Request For Proposal [RFP]. Or a construction manager who walks us through a substantially complete project and shares how their observations lead to items on a punch list, which tells the contractor every item that must be completed before the owner can release the final payment and close out the project.

Group of people gathered in a shop
During Heiler's involvement in the AIA Detroit Christopher Kelley Leadership Development Program from 2019-2020, she and her colleagues undertook a number of sessions focused on community development, such as this on facilitated by the owner of the African Bead Museum in Detroit, Olayami Dabls (image courtesy of Jade Heiler)

How do you see the role of architecture changing in the contemporary landscape, and how can organizations like AIA and its National Associates Committee help architects adapt and evolve?

Architecture is going to be more involved in community engagement, ethical redevelopment, and pushing for social equity. As the profession becomes more diverse (and yes, it IS becoming more diverse) architects will learn to consider the needs of all people in their designs, and not just the needs of the dominant group. Since we are the ones to design the space that all people interact within, we have a responsibility to create a universally welcoming environment.

Recent conversations with the National Associates Committee have proven that justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion are the most important causes for associate members. As a committee, we must recognize and advocate for issues of importance for our fellow members, which involves reaching out across the country to hear the voices of people working in the small towns, who feel like they may be forgotten.

Beyond creating opportunity for your fellow Associates, how do you hope to make a mark on the industry as a whole?

The architecture industry, like most industries, is experiencing a big culture shift right now. The 2020 pandemic has forced many architecture firms to embrace new forms of technology to encourage work from home, and in addition to that, racial unrest in our country has forced firms to confront the lack of diversity in the profession.

The AIA will be working on resolutions to these issues in the coming years, and I’m honored to be a part of that conversation. As Associate members, we are the future of the organization, and our committee will ensure that our needs are considered during this brainstorming process.


Digital rendering of the inside of a library
Community engagement was key to the success of the design and development of the new Herrick Library North Branch, a project Heiler worked on in her role at Fishbeck.The library is currently under construction in Holland, Mich. (image couresty of Fishbeck, Jade Heiler)

wooden sign in a park
Heiler and her fellow students in the KCAD Urban Studio Collaborative course designed and built this sign in Pekich Park in Grand Rapids to gather feedback from the Heartside neighborhood on what types of things they wanted to see in a future community center (images courtesy of Jade Heiler)

You’ve also been elected Associates Director for AIA’s Grand Rapids chapter. What do these leadership opportunities mean to you, especially to have them at such an early point in your career?

I’m an ambitious person, so the lengthy path to becoming a licensed architect is a bit daunting. It takes many hours to prepare for the six licensing exams, and it takes years to gather the required hours in all the right categories.

I’m glad that this opportunity gives me a chance to establish myself as a future leader in the profession while I continue to work towards my license. In the meantime, I get to meet other future leaders that share in my experiences. And we get to share those experiences with the organization as a whole and make positive changes for the next generation.

A woman presenting during a virtual conference
At the West Michigan Center for Art and Technology's recent WMCAT 20/20: Exploring Conflicting Visions for the Futur virtual conference, Heiler helped power a conversation around how the built environment can unite people and communities rather than separating them, and what a more inclusive Grand Rapids could look like in the future alongside KCAD Program Chair Dr. Michael McCulloch, Professor Emeritus Brian Craig, and current student Fatema Sulemanji (image courtesy of Jade Heiler)

How did the KCAD prepare you for this work?

While at KCAD, I was on the board of the student version of the AIA, the AIAS, for all three years of my program. KCAD supported my attendance at national conferences and events which gave me the opportunity to interact with other student leaders around the country. The spirit of collaboration at those student events is the same spirit I feel within the committee conversations now.

I was able to find my voice while at KCAD, which gave me the confidence to feel like I could even apply for a role like this one. I’m also able to pull from my knowledge gained from the many philosophical and historical readings that Professor [Dr. Michael] McCulloch made sure were a part of our curriculum.

We can build on lessons learned from the past to improve our future.

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