INSPIRE% is our new initiative where we will present personal stories of amazing people who embody our vision of equitable practice, fostering and keeping talent within the profession and elevating the value of Architecture to society.
This week, INSPIRE% features Jaya Kader Zebede, AIA LEED AP, who shares her amazing journey of resilience: juggling the roles of sole practitioner and mother/wife very early on in her career.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
I am a woman, an architect, a single practitioner and a mother of four.
My story about becoming an architect may not be solely about design, but it certainly is about resilience. 27 years ago, during my third year at the (Harvard) GSD, my first daughter was born. There was great disbelief among my peers and professors: I got married after the first year of my master’s program, and was certainly the first student to become a mom in the midst of studying at the (Harvard) GSD. I graduated in 1988 with a 10 month old baby. I don’t have a lot of memories of that time. I recently met one of my classmates and expressed my regret at not having seen much of her since first year. She pointed out matter-of-fact that we had sat next to each other during thesis semester. I had absolutely no recollection. It is likely that I was operating on survival mode, solely focusing on completing my master and caring for my baby. I do remember however, my frustration at not being able to stay up all night, as I had planned for the last days leading up to the final review for my thesis. I only learned the day before graduation that I was pregnant with my son and thus the combination of nursing a baby while being pregnant with another, may have had something to do with my sudden failure at pulling all-nighters.
It is true that it all happened very suddenly and unexpectedly. Certainly, finding myself at 26 years old with two babies to care for and a husband in the midst of his medical residency was not part of a carefully thought out plan. I did have this very palpable dream of becoming an architect one day, but it certainly had to be placed on hold. At the time, I thought it was all a matter of personal choice. I chose to embrace my role as woman and mother as strongly defined by my traditional, Jewish and Latin upbringing, and kept my dream in the back burner of my life as I raised a family of four. I kept at it for 25 years through temporary jobs, part time jobs and finally a home studio for 10 years after registration. It was not until February of 2013 that I moved my studio out of my home, hired the long overdue and desperately needed help and gave myself the license to celebrate my work without reservation.
(Tell us one word you would choose to describe yourself) Passionate
2. Why did you choose to study Architecture?
I fell in love with architecture when I took an architectural history class my freshman year of college. I felt that it was a field that combined the arts and the sciences in a very holistic way. I also felt that architecture and design have the power to enhance the human experience. We do so by helping take care of our world in the contributions that we make within the context of our projects and also by improving the quality of life of those that dwell in our buildings.
3. What Inspires you on a daily basis?
I seek inspiration in every experience, in people, through travels and mostly through seeing life as a journey with opportunities to learn something new every day.
4. What are 3 of your most influential projects and Why?
1) The first modern home I designed was built in 2009. It was an instant success. It was awarded an Unbuilt design award as well as Award of Excellence from Miami and Florida Chapters of the AIA. In addition, it was the first single family home in South Florida to earn Silver LEED certification after the launching of the LEED for Homes scale in 2008.
2). In 2010 I designed an artist studio as an addition to a 4,500 square foot home. Part of the project was also the re-design of the backyard to include outdoor living spaces. This project was important because it taught me the power of design, regardless of the size of the intervention. This was a 600 sq ft indoor space addition, but the re-imagining of the rear of the house to include 2,000 sq ft of terraces, completely shook the site and transformed it into all that it was meant to be.
3) My latest completed project is a 12,000 sq foot residence of a golf course site in South Florida. The project was a challenge to design as the community dictated 6/12 roof lines and my clients requested a modern home. I was able to convince the Design Board to allow for some portions of the house to have a 3/12 sloping roofs instead. The sloped pavilions on the second floor extend into the golf course while the outdoors is brought closer to the home.
5. What is the greatest challenge/difficulty that you have had to overcome in your professional career?
The greatest challenge was to find the opportunities for work in order to develop a portfolio of projects. This was essential to build credibility moving forward with my practice. Many potential clients did not take me seriously, and despite the fact that I was able to offer very competitive fees, they would still hire the well established male competition. I always thought that my limitations were self imposed. Yet, more recently, I have learned to appreciate the external obstacles I had to confront all along, as I grasped in the last year how our profession is still heavily influenced by the image of the male/star/hero architect.
For example, last year I learned about Denise Scott Brown and the Petition submitted by GSD Students. As I learned about the work of Women in Design I also learned that at the time I graduated from the GSD in 1988, only 4% of registered women were architects. And through The Missing 32% Project, I have become fully aware of the gender challenges in our profession.
I can certainly understand the obstacles we encounter, as we juggle the preconceived notions of our role as mothers, the high demands of our profession, the low pay, compared to business, law or medicine and most importantly, our love for our children and the divine calling to nurture and care for them. My own experience is revealing, as it was not until 15 years after earning my masters that I pursued registration. I studied while nursing my 4th child and completed my exams in 2003. But I kept hiding my passion for my work behind my role of mother and homemaker, working at all hours of the night when I would finally find the peace and quiet to dedicate to my work. Last year, recent books by Sheryl Sandberg, Arianna Huffington and others provided the needed impetus to finally jump and lean in. More inspiration came from my 27 year old daughter, my GSD baby, who has taught me the blessings of being a 21st century woman.
Through this process, I have finally realized both the internal and external obstacles for women in architecture and I hope to share the insights learned along the way in order to encourage women’s involvement in our profession. The recent events at the AIA National Convention, culminating with the impassioned speech by Beverly Willis, are testament that as much as we women architects need our work to nourish our souls, our profession, as well as our communities and cities are in desperate need of our contributions. As clearly modeled by our pioneer woman architect Julia Morgan, our perspective is more about service than it is about Starchitecture.
6. What do you believe has been one of your greatest accomplishments to date? Why?
I was very excited to finally make a commitment to my practice by leaving my home studio, where I practiced for 10 years, and opening an office in 2013. This move allowed me to separate my personal life from my professional life and to hire the personnel required to take my practice to the next level.
7. If you could go back in time, what would you tell your 24 year-old self?
8. What is the best advice that you ever received and how does that apply today?
I learned this advise from several mentors: Good design is about context and purpose. Architecture is developed through process and exploration.
9. How do you see Architecture changing in the next 10-20 years? What would your role be in the future?
I see a shift in architecture from a focus in starchitecture and hero designers to an emphasis on service and community. This was evident at the National AIA Convention, themed "Design with Purpose". The firm of the year and the Gold medal awards were clear examples of architects that put forth their skill for the service of their communities. Coming of age over 100 years ago, Julia Morgan’s accomplishments as an architect, illustrate that despite insurmountable obstacles and regardless of the status quo, we can achieve greatness when we put forth our talents for the service of others. As the themes of purpose, service, community and sustainability were emphasized throughout the convention, I could not help but think of how much better our profession and our cities would have been served, had this message of service and community been more prevalent throughout the 20th century.
10. We have heard that while the general public respects Architects, they have little knowledge about what we do. Do you have any thoughts about how we can bridge the gap?
We can educate the public one client at a time. Making them part of the process and helping them understand what goes into designing a building could really help broaden their understanding. I start by always explaining our mission to each potential client.
I share two quotes that inform our philosophy of design. The first is by Frank Lloyd Wright, which addresses our contextual approach:
The second quote, by Oscar Wilde emphasizes our focus on purpose; Through an in depth study of place, we respond to the specific conditions of each site, with the hope that our projects can become one with their surroundings. Through dialogue with our clients, we strive to achieve clarity of purpose. We approach our work with the calling of service and a humanistic perspective that good design has the potential to enhance the quality of life in any setting. While our professional knowledge is complemented by constant research and openness to new ideas, our work is consistently rooted in basic practices. These include a commitment to sustainability, a focus on craft, materials and constructability, and an emphasis on process and collaboration.
Television would (also) be a great venue. There is now a program on NPR called Cool Spaces by Stephen Chung. I think that could have a great effect on the public's understanding the value of good design.
Interviewed by Rosa T. Sheng, AIA