'We'll be left behind': How equity can keep architecture relevant

The lack of diversity in the architecture industry is no secret. In recent years, however, that movement has expanded to include equity not only within the profession, but also in the designs that architects create.

During the American Institute of Architects Conference on Architecture 2017, held last week in in Orlando, FL, speakers in different sessions explored ways to reach underrepresented groups and expose them to the profession, to create an equitable work environment and to design with the intention of enhancing communities, rather than ignoring their unique identities.

They also cautioned attendees that if nothing changes, the industry could lose its prominence in an ever-evolving world.

"This country is changing. The color and gender and sexual orientation of our clients is going to change," said Cheryl McAfee, CEO of Atlanta-based McAfee3 Architects. "We have to be a reflection of that, or we’ll be left behind as a profession."

Equity in recruitment

Architecture’s diversity problem starts in schools, as younger people in underrepresented groups aren’t exposed to the profession.

Michael Ford, an instructor at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, WI, and the director of BrandNu Design — who has also been dubbed "The Hip Hop Architect" — explained that there is an entire community of younger people who don’t see architecture as a possibility for them. During a panel, he described his "hip hop architecture" movement as "a new mindset of getting communities involved," as "hip hop is the voice to the voiceless."

He cited "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, released in 1982, as one example of lyrics critiquing the ramifications of urban renewal. "It was a post-occupancy evaluation of modernism through hip hop," Ford said.

Identifying the connection between hip hop and architecture can help the profession reach a neglected group of people who have a new voice and vision to add to the design community.

Other speakers at the conference, including former First Lady Michelle Obama, Skanska USA Chief Sustainability Officer Beth Heider and Perkins+Will Associate Principal and Sustainable Design Initiative Co-director Paula McEvoy, urged AEC professionals to visit middle schools and high schools — especially in low-income areas — and tell students about the industry.

"You don’t have to be first lady or president to have influence," Obama said during a keynote address. "Never underestimate your power to change a kid’s life just by being present."

Equity in the workplace

When the AIA San Francisco's Equity by Design committee debuted a few years ago, it aimed to offer something that was severely lacking in the discussion: data. The group surveyed more than 8,000 architecture graduates last year to determine what factors were driving the industry's lack of diversity.

A few key takeaways from the survey include the fact that the majority of less-experienced respondents were female, while the majority of those with more years of experience were male — as women are either not choosing architecture or are leaving the profession before they reach senior levels.

Saskia Dennis-van Dijl, principal consultant at Cameron MacAllister Group, said that fact was "indicative of our pipeline problem." 

In addition, men reported higher pay than women at every point in their careers, and they reported fewer obstacles to achieving licensure. Women were more likely to report such obstacles as long hours studying, high costs of exams and a lack of reward once complete.

During a panel at the AIA event, Equity by Design representatives offered several strategies for firms to promote equity in the workplace, including implicit bias training, pay audits, self-assessments, access to leaders as mentors and clear promotion criteria.

Rosa Sheng, a senior associate at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and the founder of Equity by Design, has coined the phrase "JEDI architecture" to illustrate the factors necessary for the industry to thrive: justice, equity, design and inclusion.

Design equity for communities

The concept of equity goes beyond the profession, as architects must ensure they design not only for themselves, but also for the community that will experience the building as users or passersby.

"We do work all over the world and across the country," McEvoy said. "We can’t know the best way to design for every community."

Nóra Demeter, co-founder of Zoboki Demeter and Associates and founder of its affiliate, Demeter Design Studio, both in Budapest, said that in the international design community, she has found there to be "a kind of sterile international language of architecture that has led to buildings coming out of the ground that are not contextual or local."

That trend has resulted in new buildings serving their designers first and their communities second, Demeter said. Architects must ensure they design for all people who will interact with the building and consider the effects of the structures they drop into a space.

"What’s really important is that we listen and understand what the local people need," Demeter said. "Architecture cannot just give generic solutions."

McAfee added, "It’s very important that we meet people in communities where they are. Our country and our world are only as good as we treat the least of these."

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Top image credit: Emily Peiffer