Helene Dreiling: Taking Care Of and Advocating For Architects
Helene Dreiling, FAIA left traditional practice to pursue two dual roles that takes care of professionals and advocate to the public on behalf of the profession. A Past President of the AIA (2014), she is an exemplary model of someone who loves the profession while seeing the necessity for transformation.
Helene currently serves as the Executive Vice President of the Virginia Society AIA, the statewide chapter of the American Institute of Architects. As CEO of the professional society for architects in Virginia, she leads and manages delivery of service and support to over 2,300 AIA members and Associate members, as well as others in the architecture profession and the design and construction industry. Helene is also the Executive Director of the Virginia Center for Architecture, a museum and historic property dedicated to developing the understanding of architecture and its influence on our lives, our communities, and our world through exhibitions, public programs, education, special events, and publications.
Immediately prior, she managed The Plum Studio, Ltd., a specialty firm with expertise in architecture and design, association/non-profit strategic planning and facilitation, organizational consulting, and business writing. Previously, she served for nearly ten years on the national AIA staff, having transitioned in 2000 from private architectural practice and national AIA volunteer leadership. In addition to having her own firm from 1989 – 2000, her professional experience includes work with several private architecture firms in Virginia, and she was employed early in her career by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
An active volunteer in the AIA for more than 20 years, Helene was formerly a national Vice President and regional director from The Virginias on the AIA national Board of Directors. She has also served on the boards of the Virginia Society AIA and AIA Blue Ridge, and was President of both components, among other positions. Helene has been a regent of the American Architectural Foundation, was AIA liaison to the American Institute of Architecture Students’ Board of Directors, and served as a Trustee of the Virginia Center for Architecture Foundation. She was elevated to the AIA College of Fellows in 2000 for her volunteer service to the profession, with an emphasis on nurturing future professionals.
Helene received her BArch degree from Virginia Tech, where she was named “Woman of the Year” in 1981 for her academic excellence and exemplary student leadership. She and her architect-husband Mark McConnel, along with their combined team of seven children, make their home in Roanoke.
The Quick Details:
Name: Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA
Location: I live in Roanoke, Virginia and work in Richmond, Virginia.
Occupation: Taking care of my fellow architects!
Title: 1) Executive Vice President, AIA Virginia, and 2) Executive Director, The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design
Degree(s)/Education: Bachelor of Architecture, Virginia Tech, 1981 (named Woman of the Year)
Your personal hero(s): My father was my greatest hero – and mentor – because he was such a hard worker and was a gentle but influential spirit. Also, who I am today was greatly shaped by my high school art teacher. Throughout junior high and high school, I thought I would study art in college, so I took every art course available. I became very close to my art teacher, who remains one of my dearest friends at age 92. She lives in Richmond, and I see her every several months; she remains an inspiration to me. Finally, a number of my early bosses were important mentors, especially architect Will Gwilliam, who was my supervisor shortly out of college when I worked for The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. He gave me a great deal of autonomy and authority for someone of my age; but in turn, he took the hit if a project didn’t turn out quite right – noting that he had given me the challenge. Fortunately there was only one time when this happened and he had to cover for me, but it made a lasting impression on me.
What first made you interested in architecture?
My dear father instilled in me the belief that all things are possible with enough dedication, devotion, and determination. It was he who recommended, late in my senior year of high school, that I should consider architecture. I had always focused on a career in art, but he suggested that in architecture, I could utilize my creativity and professionalism for a greater purpose. I worked for a contractor every summer during college, and one year we were in the early stages of building a house. The most incredible moment occurred when we built the wall and tilted it up to become the REAL wall of the outside of the house. It was at that time that I knew I had entered the right profession, and that I had a gift to design homes and other structures that would enhance the places and spaces where people live, work, and gather.
What do you do now?
Presently, I am no longer in private architectural practice. Instead, I have the exciting challenge of serving (essentially) in two full time professional capacities: one as Executive Vice President and CEO of AIA Virginia, the statewide chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and second as Executive Director of The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design (formerly the Virginia Center for Architecture). So … on one side of my professional life, I “take care” of architects, and on the other, I advocate FOR the profession of architecture as well as other design disciplines, advancing the understanding of architecture and design.
Do you apply your architecture background to your current job?
I laugh about this and say that instead of designing buildings, I design programs and projects, and instead of building buildings, I build relationships. I still utilize the design process in many problem-solving situations and call upon my creativity every day, just in a different form.
What’s in store for the future of the architecture education, the profession, and/or the building industry?
Interestingly, I believe our greatest challenges as a profession are also our most exciting opportunities. A lot of my tenure as AIA President focused on the need for a cultural transformation in our profession. For too long, we have defined ourselves very narrowly as a discipline, and this has impacted our stature within the design and construction industry, and more importantly, in the eyes of the public. Were we risk-averse? Did we lack confidence? Whatever the reason, we did not step up but instead allowed other professionals to chip away at the continuum of architectural services both upstream and downstream – on either side of mainstream. Now, these other entities and individuals have a stronghold on what should logically have been our purview, and there is very little chance of re-capturing this market share. How differently our profession may have fared in the recent recession if we had positioned ourselves as these experts and been at the ready to take on these responsibilities. The jobs and opportunities could have been far greater than the constrained amount of work available within the traditional design realm.
Similarly, our limited view of ourselves has led the public to think of us within very narrow aesthetic and/or technical terms. In many cases, our work is now viewed as a commodity rather than in the more noble way we envision ourselves. Thus, the public’s perception of the stature of architects and architecture seems to have diminished rather than being elevated. In Europe, architects are revered members of society, and excellence in design is expected. In the US, there are certain pockets where that culture exists, but generally most individuals are not aware of the influence the built environment has on their daily lives.
My hope is that we can do better at helping architects “strut their stuff.” The AIA, for example, could concentrate more resources on equipping, empowering, and enabling its members to (a) work in these alternative capacities and (b) engage in their communities through service on boards and commissions. Programs already in place such as R/UDATs, SDATs, and disaster assistance are perfect examples of helping members to shine, and more such programs would be embraced. This one-two punch of having the AIA advocate for architects while preparing more individuals to serve their communities will bring a needed transformation in this beloved profession of architecture.
Any additional thoughts/information?
Without doubt, being the President of the American Institute of Architects in 2014 was my most notable achievement and professional experience. As President of the AIA, I learned more and grew more than I could have ever thought possible. Few people have the opportunity to serve at the highest level of their profession, so it was a great honor as well as an overwhelming responsibility. I cherish the memory!
When I became the representative face and voice of over 85,000 architects (who also happen to be my colleagues), it became very personal for me. This was especially challenging since I was also so devoted to a cultural transformation within the profession, and leading through significant change brings an added level of complexity, stamina, and determination. Every action and decision had to be made with intention. I kept checking in with myself to ensure that I was thinking and behaving in a way that gave honor to the profession and to assure that my decisions were made with the best interest of each individual member at heart.