Melody Harclerode, current AIA Atlanta president and principal of her own eponymous firm, knew she wanted to be an architect when she was just 13 years old—roughly the time she learned the official word for the occupation. “Ever since I was a youngster, I loved going to watch my father, who was a bricklayer, work on his projects,” she recalls over the phone from her home in the peach state. “After a point, it became a thrill to see the phases of these residential projects and enjoy his craftsmanship. And then I realized I didn’t want to build or be a craftsman but that I wanted to be the person that designed the spaces he would construct.”
She later made that dream come true by receiving a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Notre Dame (as well as her MBA from Georgia State). And after working at several firms, 2010’s lackluster economy led to a lay-off that would change the course of Harclerode’s career, catapulting her into becoming her own boss and opening her own firm. “I really wanted to explore and advance projects the way that I wanted to do them,” she says. “I’ve collaborated with some great firms, I’ve done smaller projects for myself, and I’ve engaged with the Atlanta and Fulton County communities in ways I never would have had I been with a firm.”
As we decided this issue would best serve our readers as a centerpiece for the AIA National Convention (and this conversation a companion piece to our feature on our first annual Green Awards, p. 76), this year held in Atlanta, Harclerode’s role as 2015 president for the city’s chapter catapulted her to the top of our list for guest editors. Here, she and I discuss her firm, AIA, and all things ATL.
PART 1 SEEKING + GAINING INDEPENDENCE
gb&d: After reading the description of your firm and looking through your projects, it seems like sustainability is key to your ideals and really lies at the heart of the firm. Has it always been something that’s important to you?
Harclerode: When I earned my LEED, it was during a time when very few people were gaining LEED. And one of the reasons I felt so strongly about it was because I’m from Jackson, Mississippi, and I’ve always felt that we’ve got to be really mindful of our natural and manmade resources and neighborhoods. My heart in sustainability is really from a community aspect. We have to be thoughtful about how we are using our existing buildings and that we don’t always need to build new. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but there are existing buildings that have great potential and rather than tearing them down, there’s an opportunity to adapt them for a new use—to adapt even underutilized parks and underutilized public spaces. So for me, sustainability is not just about saving buildings but also about the fabric of our communities, preserving our communities, and improving our spaces and our public buildings as well.
gb&d: What in your opinion has been the greatest achievement for your firm thus far?
Harclerode: The greatest achievement for my firm as a small practitioner is that I partnered with a firm called Pond & Company for a cultural center project. And what makes the project so appealing to me is that it responded to a neighborhood that is old and needed revitalization, and even though it’s a new project, it is something that can sustain that neighborhood in terms of how it serves the community and in terms of how it advances the community with educational programs.
gb&d: That’s excellent. How else has it served that area?
Harclerode: It taps into history by serving the Tuskegee Airmen who live in the area, and it brings a new generation and an old generation together. It’s also there to sustain the community so people can say, “I can stay here, I can live here, we have attractive buildings, we have an attractive facility so we don’t have to move out of our neighborhood, but rather we can stay here and we can draw upon the strength and the history of our neighborhood.” It’s a wonderful gift to northwest Atlanta.
PART 2 STEPPING UP AT AIA
gb&d: I wanted to know how long you have you personally been involved with AIA Atlanta and if you always thought you’d assume the role of president.
Harclerode: I’ve been a volunteer with AIA Atlanta since 2009. In terms of eyeing the presidency, frankly, when I joined in 2009 I didn’t have any thought about being president. I came on the board in 2010 as the public awareness co-director and, again, had no inkling about wanting to be president. It only hit me in late 2013 when I felt passionately that I could make a difference. And I think most presidents do, but I felt I could bring something a little different to the table because I am a very civically active person in Atlanta, and a lot of my predecessors, as good as they have been, I don’t think that civic government engagement has received much focus.
gb&d: I read an article in the Business Journal where former AIA president John Busby said that AIA Atlanta hasn’t always followed through on its most important ambitions. But, he touted you for coming in and changing that. How did you intend to change that or how have you seen your ability to change that thus far?
Harclerode: I would say that it’s a work in progress, and I don’t claim to be a white knight. I’m only here for one year. What I will say is that I invited the mayor on behalf of AIA Atlanta to our biggest design celebration. John mentioned the fact that it was the first time in 25 years that the mayor has been invited to an AIA event like this. That’s the civic involvement and engagement that shows we care about design. It’s to broaden our perspective and to say we can celebrate design, and we can be a great civic partner. I think that’s what I’ve tried to do. We had a referendum recently that was for infrastructure for the majority of it, but I asked the board, as the president, to review it and to vote in favor of it. And I wrote a letter that the board approved and I went down to city hall in front of all the council people and I read that letter of support from AIA Atlanta saying, “Yes, we agree with you that transportation and infrastructure need to help the livability of our city and be more efficient in terms of our transportation and be a more attractive city that we can build upon.”
PART 3 ALL THINGS ATL
gb&d: You said that since you’ve assumed the position of president, you’re often asked why Atlanta doesn’t have more great architecture but that you’d like the question rather to ask how the city can foster great architecture in metro Atlanta. What do you think the answer to this is, and how do you think that Atlanta can foster better architecture?
Harclerode: My councilperson asked me that, and it was so profound yet so simple. It’s not a one-sentence answer. I think there are multiple approaches to fostering great architecture. I think that architects need to be more vocal and visible in terms of how great design can add value. We can’t be quiet about what we do. We have to show that great design adds value; it can add to your bottom line; it can add in terms of beauty; it can add in terms of resale. We have to celebrate when we do great work. I also think we have to grab the attention of our political leaders because they talk to business leaders and say, “When you’re doing that big project, design excellence and sustainability counts.” So it also has to be spoken from those in power so they can affect it. It’s a multifaceted approach to foster great design. Our clients, leadership—civic, business, and political—that we come together in unison and say design matters and push for better.
gb&d: Are there specific cities that you think are taking this multifaceted approach to architecture that Atlanta could look to?
Harclerode: I will use the pavilion design program in Dallas as a great example of bringing great design to communities. When I wrote that article about striving for great design and great buildings, they don’t have to be $200 million projects. They can be small projects. Dallas has had a program for decades that was a city initiative of designing and building beautiful pavilions around the cities in diverse areas that are unique neighborhoods. They have added vitality and beauty and stronger youth to a variety of numerous neighborhoods in Dallas. So when I think in terms of that example, I can say it inspired me—in Atlanta—to launch a design competition. We’ll be unveiling it at the convention, and the inspiration was Dallas because I see the idea of small but great architecture. That’s not to say that big doesn’t count, but I think that in terms of getting it done more cheaply, being more geographically diverse, getting it done faster, and with less intensity in terms of labor required for small projects, they can be as great as a huge substantial, monumental landmark. So Dallas has definitely been an inspiration.
gb&d: How do you feel Atlanta is doing as a city in regard to sustainability, architecturally and otherwise?
Harclerode: I feel we have done well! Our city has really seized the importance of sustainability. I’m really proud of what Atlanta has done and what I think is so great about it is that they think of sustainability not just as a good thing to do in terms of our health, which of course is important, but they see that we should ask, why spend more money for energy? Why use resources wastefully?