Kerry Drake, our INSPIRE% interviewee spoke with Mia Scharphie of Build Yourself, and a content partner and collaborator of Equity by Design.
Kerry Drake is an Architect at Payette in Boston. A few years ago, Kerry set some big bold goals for herself—and shares the results here, showing that love for adventure and traditional career growth are not mutually exclusive.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
I am an architect, lab planner, artist, and traveler. Currently I practice at Payette, planning research labs for higher education clients.
2. Why did you choose to study Architecture?
It started with a passion for art and illustration. I earned a BFA at a theory-driven contemporary art program. What I discovered is that the art world is in a constant state of self-evaluation and search for purpose. I was drawn to architecture because it has a real-world purpose; at the end of the day your creation shelters people. Furthermore, a good project is socially transformative and environmentally sound, which are core values for me.
3. What inspires you on a daily basis?
I love to explore, create, and pursue a multi-faceted life. Beyond architecture, I have visited 20 countries, speak fairly decent Spanish, occasionally run half-marathons, and take on various fine art and graphic design projects. I seek inspiration in all of these pursuits.
4. What are 3 of your most influential projects and Why?
During my career I have had the opportunity to work on a wide spectrum of education facilities, from simple rural schools in Central America, to state-of-the-art research facilities in Europe and the US. One of my early projects was a special education high school in California; a mini-campus within the setting of a traditional high school. Students could take classes at either campus per their needs and abilities. More recently I have worked on a ground-up research university in Moscow, designing labs for cutting-edge research in optics, materials, computing, and bio sciences.
In the fall of 2016, my partner and I were offered the opportunity to serve as fellows with Engineers without Borders in rural Guatemala. We talked about it for some time, concerned about the career and life logistics (breaking the lease, taking a leave of absence from employment, potential health issues and other physical dangers, etc.). However we realized this was a rare opportunity to do something big and bold.
So we took the leap and broke our lease, put everything in storage, and spent six months in the highlands of Guatemala. I managed the construction of a high school, the first public high school in their town. My partner was working on hydroelectric dam renovation nearby, so we lived together in a small house, and we really got to know a lot of the local workers there. Work was conducted in completely Spanish, so the Spanish I had studied in school came in handy (f a little rusty). It is truly a humbling experience when people would approach you in tears because they were so happy that you are there building a school for them.
5. What is the greatest challenge/difficulty that you have had to overcome in your professional career?
Everyone has fears related to their careers: concerns about making mistakes, worrying about finding the right path, sacrificing personal health or family time, trying to balance work and life, and so on. About two years ago, as part of the Build Yourself Workshop, I identified a list of 16 goals and dreams that I would like to achieve if I wasn’t afraid. The list included career goal and personal goals, and while important to me, I didn’t specifically keep track of them.
I returned to this list after returning from Guatemala, and to my surprise, I had accomplished four of the goals (negotiating salary, working for an NGO, making use of Spanish, and purchasing a house)! The single action of volunteering in Guatemala allowed me to accomplish multiple life goals.
6. What do you believe has been one of your greatest accomplishments to date? Why?
The Guatemala experience is the culmination of many paths in my life. Learning the architectural trade, studying Spanish, traveling to many countries, and following my desire to be part of socially transformative projects.
7. If you could go back in time, what would you tell your 24 year-old self?
Don’t wait for someone to hand you an opportunity. Go out there and get it. As I mentioned earlier, last year I attended the Build Yourself workshop. There we discussed the “Tiara Syndrome” where people, particularly women, tend to wait for rewards or recognition to be bestowed upon them, rather than taking the initiative to go and get what they want.
As my career has grown over the years, I have tended to wait for promotions and raises, rather than ask for them. I am sure many women can identify. When I finally made an attempt at increasing salary, it was not successful. This is the kind of confidence setback that made the Guatemala decision more concerning; would volunteering put my career on hold, or worse would it put it a step backward? But I found the opposite to be true. In Guatemala, I took on a great deal of responsibility, and this gave a new sense of confidence. When I came back, I saw myself in a new way, and my coworkers did too. That new sense of potential, combined with getting my license, helped me successfully negotiate for salary when I asked again.
It can seem paradoxical that growing in your career might mean taking six months ‘off’ in another part of the world, but going out there and getting it doesn’t just mean going from step to step in a linear way, it means doing it in the ways that are right for you.
8. What is the best advice that you ever received and how does that apply today?
In a figure drawing class many years ago, we practiced speed drawing at a variety of intervals, from 30 seconds to 15 minutes or more. Sometimes students would get hesitate on how to begin when the figure poses changed. The instructor simply said, “Trust Yourself,” meaning don’t get hung up worrying or overthinking, just dive right in and go. If you make a mistake or don’t like the results, toss it aside and keep moving forward. This is akin to the fear exercise I mentioned before. If you let fear or doubt take over, you will never move forward.
9. How do you see Architecture changing in the next 10-20 years? What would your role be in the future?
The world is increasingly complex and diverse; we as architects must continue to broaden our umbrella of skills in order to stay current and competitive. Specialty groups that focus on research, sustainability, fabrication, and data are growing within firms. As a planner, I see the trends in big data and visualization particularly relevant. I am excited to pursue projects that expand my knowledge and leadership in this area, collaborating with and learning from others in the office and in the field.
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?
While in Guatemala, I met an American engineer who was building a pedestrian bridge. When he discovered that I was an architect working on an EWB project, he seemed a bit puzzled, then said, “Well maybe you can help us take a look at the aesthetics of the bridge.” I smiled and told him about the work I was doing on the school in town, which included buying materials, designing details, coordinating workers, meeting with town officials, and painting lots of window trim. Not to mention in Spanish. He was delighted to learn how many skills architects can offer.
Yes, architecture is about design and aesthetics. But is also connects to many other fields and draws from many other skills. Architecture crosses many boundaries, and we should not be afraid to make this known.
Read more about the Details for Kerry Drake's experiences building in Guatemala in the Payette Blog.