Featured Member - Rose Grant, AIA
As a licensed architect who found a home at State Farm, Rose Grant's career has been all about improving performance, responding after disasters, and encouraging safety, efficiency, and resiliency in design.
As the 2017 chair of AIA's Disaster Assistance Committee, Rose Grant, AIA, is on the front lines of responding to disasters nationwide. It's a situation she knows quite well, thanks to 22 years as a program director at State Farm. And though the insurance giant is not necessarily where you'd expect a licensed architect to find a home, Grant's career path has eschewed the "traditional" to focus on where she provides the most value. It's allowed her architectural skills more room to flourish and grow while researching the building performance of homes to ensure they are more resilient to storms.
Graduating from college in the early 1980s, there were limited opportunities for a person just out of architecture school with no experience, so I began my career as building inspector. As a certified plans examiner, I met with many architects. It was really a unique opportunity and helped me recognize the varying levels of familiarity architects had with building codes and the importance of code education.
One of our Building Code Board of Appeals members was an architect with the University of Illinois's Building Research Council (BRC). As I talked with him I grew fascinated with the research aspect of architecture and eventually left to work for the university. I headed up the project that developed the Home Energy Rating System for Illinois, learned research protocols, and developed consumer-level publications on home design topics. I also trained energy raters across the state and also used my background to teach building code classes at the university.
"Whether it is tornadoes or hurricanes or even chasing hail, this is not a glamorous job or even a white lab coat job."
They say, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." As I continued my interest in building codes, I met a representative from the insurance industry at a national code hearing. Insurers were suffering millions of dollars in losses due to freezing and bursting water pipes; they felt that the codes had failed them. I explained to him that the university had a building with temperature sensors in the attic, walls, and crawlspace. I thought we could conduct the research necessary to find the answers to solve this problem. Little did I know that he represented an industry association of which State Farm was a member—and that State Farm was located a mere 60 miles away from Urbana-Champaign.
The BRC ended up doing the frozen water pipe study and discovered important new information about how pipes burst. About a year later, State Farm assembled a group of researchers focused on building performance, specifically on single family homes. It all came together: State Farm wanted someone with building code experience and a research background, who was also a registered architect. There weren't that many people on the planet with all of those under their belt; I was one of them.
When you think about formal architectural research, single-family housing hasn’t received much attention. Only about 2 percent of homes are designed by architects. There is abundant research on large commercial buildings, but little on the construction you see every day, in every suburb. Also, research is done piecemeal; manufacturers conduct proprietary research on their products, and they don’t release details to the public. Yes, energy design is supported by the federal government, but what of the structural system, or disaster resilience, or a holistic approach that looks at how all of the systems work together? The research team at State Farm felt there was a role for the insurance industry to step in and serve as a feedback mechanism on how well buildings were, and were not, performing.
Bricks and sticks do not make a home, and there will always be things that a check cannot fix. Architects can help with that part.
As a State Farm researcher, I am constantly searching for ways to improve performance; part of that journey includes reviewing claims files and reading about what actually goes wrong on a day-to-day basis. It means that I go into the field after disasters to observe failures and look for successes. Whether it is tornadoes or hurricanes or even chasing hail, this is not a glamorous job or even a white lab coat job. I go out and I get dirty; I observe, I learn, and I share. From helping draft the first ICC International Residential Code to working on numerous national committees, my unconventional roles in codes, research, and insurance have enabled me to positively impact many more structures than had I remained in private practice.
This led to my desire to become involved with the AIA's Disaster Assistance Committee. After going through AIA/California's Safety Assessment Program training I was qualified to assist when, in 2013, tornadoes hit Washington, Illinois. I deployed with the AIA Illinois teams and performed building safety assessments on a large apartment complex that had been destroyed. That got me closer to understanding what, as a profession, architects can bring to our communities, especially to the under- or even non-designed at risk structures. I am extremely proud to have been part of the AIA DAC team that developed the newest, and recently released, edition of the AIA Disaster Assistance Handbook, which has allowed me to share my research, insurance knowledge, and field experiences with my fellow architects.
There will always be a role for the insurance industry: we provide critical funding, expertise and advice so that people can rebuild. But bricks and sticks do not make a home, and there will always be things that a check cannot fix. Architects can help with that part; build better to begin, build back better after. We can create resilient structures to protect peace of mind and those pieces dear to our hearts that money can’t replace.
There is a critical need for architects to help our cities and communities understand what went wrong and which buildings are safe, chiefly by volunteering with your state Disaster Assistance Committee. Architects can also provide insight into what isn't resilient and how to make it more so. These issues are all very near and dear to my heart; no matter where I've worked, the common thread is my desire to encourage construction that is safer, more efficient, and more resilient. That's my charge in life. —As told to Steve Cimino