December 20, 2023
Photo of Dorrie Brooks, a woman with short hair, head turned to the side, wearing a white shirt over a yellow shirt.

Over the past couple of years, graduates from the UMass Master of Architecture program have assumed leadership roles as presidents in three of the seven New England chapters of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Dorrie Brooks ‘11 MArch leads AIA Massachusetts; Garth Schwellenbach ‘13 MArch is guiding AIA Western Massachusetts; and Kathryn Wetherbee Wise ‘13 MArch headed AIA Maine. This remarkable accomplishment is particularly noteworthy considering the relative newness of the Master of Architecture program and the substantial number of architecture schools in the Northeast. In a special edition of the UMass Department of Architecture newsletter, Professor and Chair of the Department of Architecture, Stephen Schreiber, FAIA engaged in interviews with all three accomplished alumni. Here is Schreiber’s interview with Dorrie Brooks. 


Schreiber: Before you pursued your MArch at UMass, you, Garth Schwellenbach, and Kathryn (Katie) Wetherbee all had non-architecture undergrads. Tell us a little bit about your background, and why you pivoted to architecture. 

Brooks: Of the three of us, I am the oldest by a pretty wide margin. I had been producing documentaries and television for 20 years. I initially entered UMass to take a break from my 20-year long career as a video producer. I had become a documentary producer out of college and had grown up overseas and thought educating Americans about the rest of the world might be a useful and interesting career. Producing documentaries was also an outlet for my insatiable curiosity. I wanted to tell the stories that were not being told. But eventually the internet came along, and I felt that it was getting harder to make an impression in this new, oversaturated media landscape. Video began to feel too ephemeral. 


Schreiber: And why UMass Amherst? 

Brooks: In 2008 I was working for a local company that created immersive experiences for museums around the country. I had two young children and my wife was running a café in Florence. I was traveling a lot and losing enthusiasm for my work. I had never considered architecture as a career because I assumed it required small motor skills that I definitely lack, but I was placed in an eight-person architectural studio, and I loved it immediately. I loved the whole-brain workout of every studio project. It was exactly the kind of analytical, creative, collaborative and impactful work I was looking for.   


Schreiber: What were some of your leadership positions at UMass, if any? Did you, Garth, and Katie overlap at UMass? 

Brooks: We did overlap. Garth and Katie were behind me. I would describe all three of us as calm, enthusiastic studio workers. I think we all defied the stereotype of the overwhelmed architecture students, at least superficially. We came to the program with some life experience to draw from.  As young parents I think Garth and I were also probably deeply sleep deprived… which sometimes passes for calm.   

I didn’t know anything about architecture at the time, but I had years of writing, shooting, editing, and project management experience to draw on while I learned the new skills I needed. I found my background gave me a different way of looking at problems, and I have tried really hard to maintain that evidence-based, investigative approach to work ever since. 

UMass was very good to me and gave me great work opportunities that kept my wife from divorcing me during grad school. It really made the difference. I worked as a program assistant to develop the UMass Historic Preservation Program at Hancock Shaker Village, and I had the opportunity to teach three semesters of writing and theory to architecture undergrads. Teaching the theory class gave me the opportunity to fill in the intellectual and historical gaps in my own education.  


Schreiber: What are you doing now? What was your path since graduation? 

Brooks: True confession, I stayed at UMass because I loved it, but I never planned to become an architect. I knew it required many hours of internship and seven exams, and thought I was too old for that nonsense. But after graduation I just couldn’t get excited about going back to producing films. I decided to apply to a few firms to see if architecture was a better fit. I was fortunate to be hired by Margo Jones Architects in Greenfield. Margo was incredibly supportive. I owe so much to Margo as a mentor and to the generosity of the faculty at UMass who seemed to always see where I could go even when I didn’t. I became a principal about seven years after I was hired and am now managing the firm with Kristian Whitsett. 


Schreiber: How did you get involved in your local/state chapter of AIA? What have been some of your accomplishments during your tenure as president? 

Brooks: Honestly, I had read a lot about the history of AIA back when I was at UMass and it was not inspiring reading. The AIA has a history of exclusionary practices that I felt had limited the profession’s potential. But then the City of Northampton Planning Department sought to collaborate with WMAIA on an exhibit promoting small, in-fill residential development. I volunteered to lead the exhibit because it was a way of deepening my knowledge of zoning issues, and it was something I knew I could do at a time when I was still feeling unsure of my architectural skills. I also worked with Jason Newman (MArch ‘12) and Lindsay Schnarr (MArch ‘11) to reinvigorate the WMAIA Emerging Professionals Group to help my peers achieve licensure. Later, the chapter supported us in creating a series of educational workshops for architects to visit and learn from local trade shops. So, despite my original skepticism, WMAIA has actually proven to be very supportive and productive. I take back all those original reservations I had. The AIA is what you make of it. 

Many years later I was volunteered to be our chapter’s representative to the AIA Massachusetts board of directors; the political advocacy arm of the licensed architects in the Commonwealth. In that capacity will serve three years on the president's council.  I am the current president of AIA MA and am trying to make the most of our one-year window. 

I have learned that the only job more masochistic than being an architect is being a legislator. Being an effective legislator requires making Herculean efforts to achieve even microscopic policy shifts. But when those shifts happen, it can alter the contours of the funding and regulatory ecosystem that surrounds our work. Serving on the board, I have learned how to speak in ways policymakers can understand, how to lay groundwork for good bills, and how to advocate for good bills to become laws.   

It often seems like we are getting nowhere, but when you achieve a rare win, you realize it will have repercussions for buildings and the people who use them for years to come… and that’s the very opposite of ephemeral. I am proud to have passed a law that will require the state to one day assess the energy and health conditions of every public school in the state. I am proud to have reversed the plumbing code regulations that prohibit gender inclusive multi-user toilet rooms. And I am proud to be advising the legislature on historic district legislation reform, school building authority reform needs, energy codes, and embodied carbon regulation.  

I am also looking forward to passing the baton to the next representative to AIA MA.  I have learned that our expertise is needed, and I am eager to hear what issues the next generation of architects want to address.