WASHINGTON – The American Institute of Architects (AIA) is honoring Jennifer Sage, FAIA, founding partner of Sage and Coombe Architects and activist for public works, and Katie Swenson, an advocate and champion for equitable design and development, with the 2021 AIA Award for Excellence in Public Architecture.
The award recognizes architects, public officials, or other individuals who design distinguished public facilities and advocate for design excellence.
Sage’s work has dutifully transformed the public realm in New York, chiefly through the New York City Department of Design and Construction’s Design Excellence Initiative.
In 2004, her firm, Sage and Coombe Architects, was selected as one of 24 private firms charged with elevating the quality of the city’s public works. One year later, it was just one of six firms to participate in the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation’s program. Since its selection, the firm has helped rebuild the Rockaways in the wake of Superstorm Sandy and tackled countless libraries, firehouses, art centers, and parks. The firm’s projects are noted for their colorful, human-centered designs and budget-friendly approaches.
In 2014, through the initiative, Sage helmed a team charged with creating a new park restroom facility to serve a school playground in the Rockaways. The modest structure’s blue-glazed brick facade echoes the shoreline’s sky, while the upper register windows are clad in stainless steel screen with a cloud motif drawn from a 19th century painting of New York Harbor. The use of aerated autoclaved concrete block helped speed construction as well as increase the exterior wall’s thermal mass. Inside, radiant floor heating and operable windows eliminate the need for mechanical ventilation. The design has been adopted as the model for all future facilities in New York parks, and Sage has overseen nearly 20 more.
Swenson’s impact began to take shape while working with Charlottesville’s Piedmont Housing Alliance, a regional nonprofit that serves low and moderate-income families and individuals. Swenson played a central role in the design and construction of the 10th and Page Street Neighborhood Revitalization Project, which added 30 new and restored affordable homes to a rapidly changing neighborhood surrounded by the University of Virginia and downtown Charlottesville.
In 2006, Swenson took a position directing the Enterprise Community Partners Rose Fellowship program, a position she would hold for nearly 14 years. In that role, Swenson traveled the country in search of new fellows and new communities to support. Now in its third decade, the fellowship has produced 86 Rose Fellows who have designed and developed nearly 40,000 homes in 40 states and Puerto Rico. In addition, Swenson founded Enterprise’s Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute program with Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, and Maurice Cox, FAIA.
Following her 2019 Loeb Fellowship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Swenson moved into a full-time role at MASS Design Group. In her role at the nonprofit, Swenson guides its focus on projects that address social equity, environmental sustainability, and healthy communities. She was instrumental in MASS’ response to COVID-19 and led its effort to share design strategies for infection control.
The AIA Award for Excellence in Public Architecture is also known as the AIA Thomas Jefferson Award. As a result of AIA’s commitment to equity and justice in the built environment, AIA is currently assessing its awards programs. The assessment, which was approved by the Board of Directors in 2020 and is inclusive of Fellowship, will review all honors and awards processes, including the naming of awards like the Thomas Jefferson Award, to identify potential implicit and explicit barriers and biases. The review will inform the development of measures meant to increase the diversity of honors and awards nominees and recipients, as well as future members of the College of Fellows. The audit is expected to be completed in the summer of 2021 and will follow with specific recommendations to the AIA Board of Directors.