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There has been much discussion raised about "Why are women leaving Architecture? and more broadly, Why is the profession losing key talent?"  Both women and men practitioners are disillusioned by the myth of work/life balance: Women are grappling with "have it all" expectations of juggling family time with the demands of full-time work.  Men are struggling to support their families solely on an architect's salary and fall back on asking spouses to maintain their jobs. The lack of affordable childcare and high cost of living only magnifies the challenges.  How did we end up in this modern family dilemma? What can we do to improve the situation?

INSPIRE% [09]: Kerry Drake on Taking the Leap

Kerry Drake, our INSPIRE% interviewee spoke with Mia Scharphie of Build Yourself, and a content partner and collaborator of Equity by Design.

Equity by Design Kerry Drake.png

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.


Courtesy of Kerry Drake, Payette

Courtesy of Kerry Drake, Payette

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.
— Kerry Drake

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.

Courtesy of Kerry Drake, Payette

Courtesy of Kerry Drake, Payette


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.


In March 2018, Mia Scharpie will be running a free online session on how ask for what you want at work, and negotiate with more confidence. Find out more and RSVP here for the free session.




INSPIRE% [08]: Elizabeth Shreeve - Let the Design Emerge

INSPIRE% [08}: Elizabeth Shreeve spoke with Mia Scharphie of Build Yourself, and a content partner and collaborator of Equity by Design.

Elizabeth Shreeve, design principal at the SWA Group is a woman with many creative interests. Her passion in both arts and science led her to study architecture, and today she’s a design principal, a published children’s book author inspired by her observations as a parent.

Like I learned in design, you need to give yourself a chance and let the design emerge from the sort of messy, creative process of trying things, brainstorming, failing, reaching dead ends, and then getting a better idea.
— Elizabeth Shreeve

1. Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?  

I am an urban planner and designer, and a leader in SWA Group’s San Francisco and Sausalito studios. I focus on urban infill and revitalization, campus planning, public outreach and communications, and have a special interest in health.

2. Why did you choose to study Landscape Architecture? 

My interest in natural systems led me to major in geology in college, where I soaked up art history and studio art classes as well. The two came together in landscape architecture.

3. What Inspires you on a daily basis? 

Outdoor places, from my overgrown hillside garden to the wide open San Francisco Bay. And my wonderful colleagues at SWA, a bunch of wonderful design nerds.

4. What are 3 of your most influential projects and Why? 

Guthrie Green, an urban park in Tulsa, Oklahoma, transformed a brownfield truck yard into a widely popular gathering place for outdoor concerts, fountains, art, farmers markets and food trucks. A geo-thermal exchange system under the park supplies heating and cooling for the adjacent nonprofit arts organizations.

UC Davis West Village is the first zero net energy planned community in the United States. In the implementation planning phase, the public-private partnership team of developer and University realized that we could go beyond sustainable design to achieve net zero. That was an exciting moment.

Currently I’m leading SWA’s work on the San Francisco State University campus plan update. Time will tell how influential the project is, but I’m also super excited by what I’m doing right now. SF State is a wonderfully diverse community and the campus landscape of historic valleys and forested slopes is challenging and intriguing for our design group.

5. What is the greatest challenge/difficulty that you have had to overcome in your professional career?

When younger, I was afraid to make mistakes. This led me to fall back on what was comfortable and came easily, rather than taking risks.

6. What do you believe has been one of your greatest accomplishments to date? Why?  

With the help of my wonderful husband, I managed to function as a principal at SWA while raising three amazing sons. And somewhere in there I got hooked on writing stories for children, some of which have made their way into publication. Check it out:

While it may seem like my role as a principal, and my work as an author are entirely separate, the creative process is the same whether you're coming up with a design or you're conjuring up a story. Like I learned in design, you need to give yourself a chance and let the design emerge from the sort of messy, creative process of trying things, brainstorming, failing, reaching dead ends, and then getting a better idea.

Then at a certain point the project gets taken over by others. With an architectural design, it gets taken over by people who have stronger technical skills than I do and they turn it into something more specific and more precise, with tools like 3d modelling, and they make it even better. The same thing happens with a story. You develop it and then the publisher takes it and gets an illustrator on board and all of a sudden the illustrator is bringing ideas to the table that you wouldn't have thought of. That's why a publisher keeps you apart from an illustrator in children’s books. They want the artist to bring their own magic to the process.


7. If you could go back in time, what would you tell your 24 year-old self?

I think as you master a craft, you can go one of two ways. You can go in the direction of becoming more regimented, or you can go in the direction of allowing yourself more freedom. I think that creative writing gave me the permission to loosen up a little bit and have more confidence and mastery.

The other thing that writing taught me is you really need to work from your heart. You need to work on things that you care about. In the beginning of my career I felt so grateful to have a job, and later, while raising three sons, I found a niche that was useful to my company and focused on accomplishing whatever needed to be done. As the kids got more independent I could get more creative and expand my range.

So my advice is to be brave! Grab the marker and draw! Listen to the quiet, intuitive voice inside, trust your ideas, and let the creative process unfold.

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8. What is the best advice that you ever received and how does that apply today?

Stand up straight. Even if you are tired or clueless or confused. Let your body convince your mind to pay attention.


9. How do you see Architecture changing in the next 10-20 years? What would your role be in the future? 

Building architecture may become more prototyped; for example, look at trends in small, fantastic modular homes. Landscape will always be organic, though. As a planner I will be looking for ways to keep people connected to nature and place. Technology-free zoning?


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?

Maybe a children’s book series? Hmmm…

On Wednesday, January 3, 2018, Mia Scharphie will be running a free online session on how to set Ambitious & Creative Goals, and will be giving a preview of her course, Double Vision, which features Elizabeth Shreeve as a guest speaker. Find out more and RSVP here for the free session.


INSPIRE% [7]: Let Go of Fear

By Michael D. Thomas

1. Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?  

My name is Michael Thomas.  I am a labor and employment attorney with the law firm Ogletree Deakins in San Francisco.  My practice focuses on class actions and employment litigation.  I am also part of our Pay Equity group and I conduct workplace trainings on implicit bias and diversity. 

2. Why did you choose to study law?  

I grew up a poor, African-American male raised by a single mother.  At a young age, I knew that I was different because of my race and class.  I also know now that people often viewed me and I often viewed myself based on stereotypes and biases inherited through socialization and from prior generations.  

Law is a powerful tool to guide society in changing perceptions and beliefs that are formed by stereotypes and biases.  Examples of this in practice include the legal battles to racially integrate the military and schools and legalize interracial marriage and same sex-marriage.  A more recent example is a set of laws designed to correct pay disparities based on race, gender and ethnicity.  

3. What inspires you on a daily basis?  

I am inspired each day by my ability to be curious about my potential.  I strongly believe that to take a step forward, we often have to step back and unlearn what prevented us from moving forward.

Michael, bottom, with his brother.

Michael, bottom, with his brother.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  My grandfather was one of the first African-Americans to integrate the steel mills.  He had to fight racism to do that.  He was also one of the first African-Americans to purchase a home in a certain part of Pittsburgh.  He had to fight racism to do that too.  He spent so much of his life fighting against racism that he became a hard and unemotional man.  My grandfather expected my father to be the same way in order to function in a predominantly white world.  Influenced by my father’s family, I grew up in the same environment where the expectation was that the world was hostile because of my race and I could not show vulnerability.

I was also socialized to assume that “whiteness” was the norm and the standard to follow and strive towards.  I learned at an early age that if I wanted to function and to succeed in society, I had to learn how not to be seen as “black,” how not to reveal or recognize my authentic self, and how to not show vulnerability.  

This strategy was effective at different points in my life.  However, as an adult, to get feedback on how to grow and mature in career, life, and love, I have to understand my authentic self and my needs.  I have had to step back and let go of false beliefs about myself to step up and step forward.  It all begins with being curious about my potential. Remaining curious inspires me.  

4. What are three of your most influential projects and why?

My three most influential projects: 1) developing a Mindful Mentoring Program that connects adults with youth at risk via a mindfulness practice; 2) working with Inclusion Ventures to develop a comprehensive pay equity audit and implicit bias training; and 3) speaking at Inclusion 2.0 on “Diversity, Inclusion and Intergenerational Trauma.”   Why?  All three are creations of my authentic self.

5. What is the greatest challenge/difficulty that you have had to overcome in your professional career?

Learning to let go of fear and beliefs that are limiting. 

6. What do you believe has been one of your greatest accomplishments to date? Why?  

Michael's depiction of himself, practicing yoga.

Michael's depiction of himself, practicing yoga.

I completed a yoga certification training with the Niroga Institute in Oakland, California. Niroga teaches Raja yoga, the yoga of mindfulness. In Raja practice, yoga poses and breathing techniques come together to prepare your body and mind for focus and moment to moment awareness.

Why do I consider this one of my greatest accomplishments?  During my practice of yoga, I stopped to observe my black skin and the physical and mental harm it receives from stereotypes and bias.  It was the first time I can remember that as I made those observations and my mind went into fight or flight mode and I wanted to escape the discomfort, I could not.  Instead, I had to stay in my posture and focus on my breath without reacting. In that experience I learned acceptance and forgiveness, and how to not respond to false thoughts or beliefs.  At that point I was able to direct my attention inward, without judgment or blame.  

Focusing the mind on breathing and bodily sensations through gentle movement activates the prefrontal cortex, or the noticing part of the brain. The noticing part of the brain, when activated by my yoga practice, allows me to observe that I am not my fears or the biases projected by others and myself. It allows for more self-regulation and conscious decision-making in the moment.

Now, after my training in Raja yoga, I can show vulnerability and empathy towards others without fear.  Empathy and vulnerability allow for greater decision-making out of curiosity instead of fear.  Curiosity leads to discomfort.  Discomfort leads to growth and change.

At some point we have to stop blindly moving forward and stop and make courageous decisions to treat ourselves and each other differently even if it means embracing fear and the unknown.  

7. If you could go back in time, what would you tell your 24 year-old self?

Don’t be afraid.  You belong.

8. What is the best advice that you ever received and how does that apply today?

BK Bose is the Executive Director of the Niroga Institute.  He frequently asks the question, “What separates you from freedom?”  I think of that question if I feel I am making decisions out of fear and not love or kindness. It allows for better decision-making.

Speaking at Tech Inclusion 2.0 on "Diversity, Inclusion and Intergenerational Trauma."

Speaking at Tech Inclusion 2.0 on "Diversity, Inclusion and Intergenerational Trauma."

9. How do you see the law profession changing in the next 10 years? What would your role be in the future?  

The most important characteristic for lawyers to cultivate will be empathy.  The practice of law focuses on logic and reason.  Both are important.  Both are also devoid of feelings and emotion.  As a result, lawyers often cause harm and lack creativity because we are not using the creative side of our brain.  Empathy is the pathway to creativity.  Creativity is the pathway to innovation.  Innovation will assist lawyers in being of greater service to our clients and to society.  It all begins with empathy.  

10. We have heard that while the general public respects lawyers, they have little knowledge about what they do. Do you have any thoughts about how we can bridge the gap?  

Law school should be more affordable and accessible.  When there are significant barriers to entry, the legal profession becomes exclusive and accessible only to a small portion of the population.  The law should be more accessible for people to either become a lawyer or for people to know a lawyer.  

About our INSPIRE% Contributor:

Michael D. Thomas was a panelist for our EQxDisruptBias Workshop in February 2017. His work as a Lawyer in equitable practice areas such as pay equity, mitigating bias in hiring and promotion processes and his thoughts on mindfulness and healing led us to ask him to contribute to this series. Even though he is practicing in another field, we value advocates for equitable practice and the lessons that we can learn from their journey as well.

Michael is an Associate with the global law firm Ogletree Deakins in their San Francisco office.  He represents employers in all aspects of employment law.  He also works with employers on diversity and pay equity issues.  Michael has studied mindfulness, meditation and yoga with a focus on healing and self-regulation.  Recent publications include “Preventing Workplace Violence by Examining Trauma and the NFL” which incorporates mindfulness, meditation and body awareness in preventing workplace violence, and “How Employers Can Root Out the Influence of Unconscious Bias in Compensation Decisions.”  Recent speaking engagements include: Inclusion 2.0, “Intergenerational Trauma, Diversity and Inclusion;” Tech Inclusion Conference, “Awakening to Inclusion;” Association of Corporate Counsel event at Google, “Best Practices for Promoting Fair Pay;” Kaiser, Continuing Legal Education, “Implicit Bias” panel and lecturer, Berkley School of Law, “Mindfulness to Disrupt Suffering and Bias.”  He has a B.A. from Bucknell University and a J.D. from Boston College.



INSPIRE% TALKS - Relaunch: Be Tough, Brave and Go for It!

by Lucy Irwin, AIA

Equity by Design asked me to share my story of relaunching my architectural career at the 2016 EQxDM3 Symposium Friday Night INSPIRE% TALKS - given in a Pecha Kucha style format: 20 slides, 20 seconds each. The Symposium was designed to be an opportunity for architects of all ages and levels of experience to come together to learn from one another by sharing research, experiences, wisdom, dreams, insights and strategies. This is the story I shared.  Some of the resources I used in my journey are at the end of the post.



We are about to take a risky journey together. So climb into the boat with me. You can be in the bikini or the one piece, but hold on tight, because there are rapids ahead, big rocks to crash into, and it’s all going to pass by in a flash.

At 26, I was probably like many young architects, ambitious, hard working, directed.  I’d graduated from Dartmouth College and Yale School of Architecture, worked for several architects on the East Coast, Chicago and San Francisco.  I was on the fast track, and I was going to do it all.

I imagined myself as the next Frank Lloyd Wright, or Zaha Hadid, while also being a wife and a mother. If I worked hard, I could have a successful career and achieve my personal goals.  But life is risky, and in fact takes twists and turns we can’t imagine at 26. See those rocks and rapids ahead?  I took a big risk, got married, and moved to North Carolina.

I got a great job working for Phil Freelon, the architect of the San Francisco Museum of the African Diaspora. I got my internship years done, designing airports, banks, research facilities. At this point, I was right on track with my male peers, gaining experience, skills and confidence. I took the licensing exams, which at that time lasted several days, while I was 7 months pregnant.  I passed them all, moved to San Francisco with my husband and weeks later our first child was born.

After getting our new little family settled, and surviving the Loma Prieta Earthquake, I found a job working part time doing high-end residential work.  It didn’t feel quite like I was on the Frank Lloyd Wright fast track anymore, but I kept at it. I took the additional oral exam required to get my California license, this time pregnant with my second child. After maternity leave I returned to my part time job, until our third child was born. Juggling two careers and child care for three children was tough. It became clear the best solution for the time being was for me to take care of the home front.

I never stopped thinking like an architect, or seeing the world through the lens of a designer. I paid my licensing dues year after year, but I could not read the magazines or watch who was getting prizes.  It was too painful to be on the outside of something I loved passionately. Between recessions, and being fully occupied with children and community service, years went by.  While I did not practice architecture, I did continue to work on solving complex problems creatively and developed many skills that make me a more valuable architect now.

I did lots of risky things during that time, following my passion for building stronger communities for families and fighting for a more equitable society.

  • I coordinated the first reunion of the Black Student Union at St. Ignatius High School.  We produced a video telling the 40 year history of the club, which was an amazing education in the history of San Francisco.

  • I sat for 6 weeks on a jury for murder case.

  • Worked on political campaigns.

  • Taught sewing to middle school students.

  • Built volunteer organizations at public, private and parochial schools.

  • Sat on boards, learned how to balance  budgets and developed strategic plans.

  • Did workdays with Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Together.

But the risk I really want to tell you about is when I decided to return to the practice of architecture.  I decided to take a Revit class, to update my skills.  That first class was terrifying, and I came out of it bug-eyed. I stuck with it and soon realized my knowledge of how buildings go together gave me a leg up.  It was really scary telling people I wanted to return to architecture. Would it be possible?  How it would work out?  

I started doing informational interviews, and through that process I found Equity by Design.  I joined the AIA, a mentorship group, and the Organization of Women Architects.

At my first meeting of Equity by Design, I met Pamela Tang, another mother who had taken 20 years off to raise her four children.  That gave me so much courage and hope.  Rosa Sheng and Lilian Asperin supported, encouraged and challenged me to develop new skills.  I attended the AIA Convention in Atlanta in 2015, and participated in my first EQxD Hackathon Workshop.

I did over 20 informational interviews, asking architects what changes they had seen in the profession, what continuing education they had found most helpful, what resources they would recommend, what skills they look for when making new hires.  I was humbled by what these individuals had accomplished, and their generosity.

Through this process, I learned so much about the current practice of architecture, where I might fit in, and what skills I needed to strengthen.  The more practice I had talking to architects about the volunteer work I had done, and how it fit into my current ambition of returning to practice, the more comfortable and confident I felt.

In September of 2015, I attended the AIA Women’s Leadership Forum in Seattle.  To be in a room full of 300 women architects, and hear their stories of how they built their careers, and families, was deeply reassuring and inspiring.  I feared how other women would feel about me re-entering the profession, but the support and encouragement has been amazing.  My biggest challenge is getting out of my own way, knowing I have the skills, wisdom and ability to get back in the game.

Every one of these steps was terrifying, but each time I put myself out there, I built more confidence in my ability to relaunch my career.  So by the time I had a job interview, I was able to tell my story with confidence, ask pertinent questions about the position, and help the interviewer imagine how they might fit an unconventional applicant like me into their organization.

Because of taking the negotiating workshop with EQxD, I was able to negotiate a fair wage.  My first job was in a large very competitive firm, and I learned so much in four months, it was like boot camp. But it may have not been the best fit.  Equity by Design gives me the courage to dust myself off, get back on the horse, and fight for my spot in this tough profession.

I’d love to tell you I’m well on my way to being the next Zaha Hadid now, but that would not be true.  I am just another step along my path, still figuring things out, taking on new risks and challenges. I am so thankful to have Equity by Design on my side, fighting for the profession I love, running programs that help me develop skills to be a better architect.

I encourage each of you to join Equity by Design, and the movement to make architecture a more relevant, equitable profession.

If you are returning to architecture after a break to care for family, I’d love to hear about your relaunch in the comments below or on twitter.  I’m @Lucile_Irwin. Take some risks.  Be tough, brave, and go for it!


INSPIRE% [06]: Wandile Mthiyane - Founder of Ubuntu Design Group

This week's INSPIRE% post features equity champion Wandile Mthiyane, Co-Founder and President of Ubuntu Design Group, Fellow of The Resolution Project, and AIAS Chapter President at Andrews University.

1. Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?  

Photo courtesy of Ubuntu Design Group

Photo courtesy of Ubuntu Design Group

My name is Wandile Mthiyane. I am a Master of Architecture student and the founder of Ubuntu Design Group. I grew up in a shantytown in Durban, South Africa, and I believe in using architecture as a vehicle to restore communities’ dignity. I am currently working on partnering with shantytown communities to build sustainable, efficient and affordable housing and infrastructure. I am passionate about a design approach that empowers people by capitalizing upon the creative energy and spirit that they possess, as well as through collaboration with the architects and engineers for their community.

I’m studying architecture so that I can go back and harness the local creativity of my community origins. My vision is to build sustainable homes, which preserve the cultural values of the communities that I serve.

2. Why did you choose to study Architecture? 

Photo courtesy of Ubuntu Design Group

Photo courtesy of Ubuntu Design Group

Growing up in a dilapidated shantytown in Durban, South Africa, everyone built their own houses, hence everyone I knew was an “architect”. My community worked together to build each other’s homes out of any materials they had, from a microwave to plywood. This effort instilled in me a culture of making things. We never had the opportunity to play house in a real house, so we built our tiny shacks to play house in. Despite the fun of learning how to build, I always aspired to someday have a high level of technical skill and resources. I’m studying architecture so that I can go back and harness the local creativity of my community origins. My vision is to build sustainable homes, which preserve the cultural values of the communities that I serve.


3. What inspires you on a daily basis?

I am inspired by the exuberant creativity expressed by the people living in shantytowns. The town’s people efficiently use their scarce resources to create dwellings for them and their loved ones. I am inspired by the optimism, love, joy and hope shown by people who live in inhumane conditions of informal settlements. This is shown in the small things like keeping their mud shack spotlessly clean and painting a flower on their doors. I am inspired by the potential impact architecture has on solving social problems while creating culturally sensitive and sustainable neighborhoods. For example, in the township of Umbumbulu there are many small, narrow passageways, and no street lighting. By working with the local residents to best redesign the streets to open up space, along with redesigning homes to include windows so more eyes are on the neighborhood, and installing street lighting we can instantly reduce crime and rape. Kids in Umbumbulu often miss school due to a light rainstorm. This can be solved by simply improving the design of their schools to protect against rain getting into the rooms and damaging the student’s books and learning materials.  Making these simple changes, which can drastically alter the lives and experience of people living in the township of Umbumbulu, is very inspirational to me.

he town’s people efficiently use their scarce resources to create dwellings for them and their loved ones

he town’s people efficiently use their scarce resources to create dwellings for them and their loved ones


4. What are 3 of your most influential projects and why?

Ubuntu Design Group Half House Project (In progress).

This is the first project where I was the principal agent and it helped me realize that architecture is not just a commodity for the wealthy; it can be a vehicle to harness local creativity to preserve culture while creating a sustainable community. This also gave me the opportunity to provide solutions, which includes the integration of the local people in the design process of their houses and community. I strongly believe that there are no better people to design a place than the people who will be occupying it. This approach is not only beneficial to a community, but unique to it as well.

Fezi Jezi Orphanage in Haiti (In progress)

In this project I had the privilege to help design an orphanage for teenagers. This helped me realize how much impact a building can have in the development of a person's character. This project is reaffirming for me the truth of Churchill’s famous quote: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

Orphanage storehouse in Bolivia

I also had the privilege to help design and build an orphanage storehouse in Bolivia. I was moved by the impact this little project had on the children living at the orphanage. This made me realize that even little design solutions could potentially change several people’s lives for the better. For example, the certainty of a sustainable and safe home can bring a much-needed sense of security to the children. Furthermore the gesture portrayed by this project shows that they - are not without anyone who cares for them, but that their wellbeing and growth under normal living conditions like other kids is equally as important. I think this brings a big lift to their lives.


5. What is the greatest challenge/difficulty that you had to overcome in your professional career?

My greatest challenge has been working against my original mindset that architecture is a space for luxury designs and buildings. I personally see it now as a major opportunity for social design to enrich those who are not fortunate enough to afford extravagant, or even middle class structures made by other architects. One of my biggest problems has been facing the western mindset of knowing what’s best for the communities in the developing world. I always have a hard time explaining to potential investors and donors that we don’t have a design but the design come out from our interaction with the community. The scale of the number of houses we build is important, yes, but not at the expense of people’s culture, shared values, and community. It is so common in today's world to provide figures and statistics that are gathered through research, and hold them up as if they were absolute truth. The reality is that initial statistics, budgets, and designs may make sense to business owners and investors, but are often void of any real local and cultural knowledge of how it would impact, or be received by the community. Often, this does not translate to being an effective solution on the ground, giving a false sense of security or a “sure thing” to investors and causing multiple problems down the line. As I find myself saying repeatedly, “just because there are figures, doesn’t mean there are facts.”

We are currently working with World Merit at Merit 360 in New York, which brings together the brightest young minds and leaders from around the world to discuss and brainstorm ways to effect global change in alignment with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Ubuntu Design Group recently presented the work that we are doing to the United Nations as a model to effectively develop communities around the world.

Ubuntu presenting the SDG 11 Project at the United Nations - Photo courtesy of Alexander Lori

Ubuntu presenting the SDG 11 Project at the United Nations - Photo courtesy of Alexander Lori


6. What do you believe has been one of your greatest accomplishments to date? Why?  

I know you asked for one, but I’ll actually mention two. The first is the Ubuntu Half-House social venture pitch, which won first place in the Resolution Projects at One Young World. Secondly, and connected to the first accomplishment, is the fact that the Ubuntu Half-House project has been shortlisted as one of the top 6 finalists for the SXSW Place By Design International Competition.


7. If you could go back in time, what would you tell your 24 year-old self?

I’m actually 22 years old, but if I had to go back 4 years and tell my undergraduate freshman-self a word of advice, I would say “architecture is not just about designing tall shiny buildings for multi-millionaires or huge corporations. Architecture is actually a vehicle I can use to make this world safer, and improve the living conditions for all people, no matter the budget. Great architecture becomes great when it is built for all people, by all people.”



8. What is the best advice that you ever received and how does that apply today?

The best advice I’ve received, which is a principle that I live by, is to love God and live a life to serve. This is embedded in the very core mission of Ubuntu Design Group, as “Ubuntu” means “I am because you are.”


9. How do you see the practice of Architecture changing in the next 10-20 years? What would your role be in the future? 

As a report from the U.S. Census Bureau projects, by 2050 the minority population will become the majority ( There have also been indications of change in the trend of male domination in architecture. From 2003-2015 there was only one female president for AIAS (American Institute of Architecture Students). For the first time in the history of this organization, there have been two female presidents back to back, and the majority of the quadrant leaders are now also female. This goes to show the increase in the gender diversity within the field of architecture leadership, which is a good indicator for the industry. There still hasn’t been a lot of Ethnic diversity in the presidential positions in AIAS, but there have been a growing number of black vice presidents, along with the increase in different ethnicities taking on undergraduate degrees in architecture, there is hope for growth in the future. Therefore, I think architecture has a strong potential to represent the populations that we are meant to serve in the coming years, especially with the predicted demographic transition from historically minority towards the majority. With the rise in the black middle class and in women who are studying architecture, this will provide opportunities for architecture to reach unexplored possibilities and address changing cultural demands.

In order for the profession to truly reflect equity, we need to address implicit bias that’s almost always reflected in pay grade, promotion, health support, type of work allocated and the general welfare of all employees.

Some may see these stats and progress and argue that since the profession is moving in the right direction there’s no need for advocates; change is unpredictable and is already happening on its own. While they might have a point that there’s definitely positive progress in relation to diversity and inclusion in the field of architecture, they are missing the fundamental point that, the only reason the industry is changing is because of advocates who are questioning the status quo. In order for the profession to truly reflect equity, we need to address implicit bias that’s almost always reflected in pay grade, promotion, health support, type of work allocated and the general welfare of all employees.

My role in this world is to be an advocate for this transformation and to lead by example. I’d like for architecture to be a medium bringing back dignity to the community by allowing people the opportunity to have an input in the design of their houses and communities, no matter which part of the world they live in, or what social class they come from.


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?

Courtesy of Wandile Mthiyane

Courtesy of Wandile Mthiyane

I think this gap is a result of poor public participation in the design process, which is a fault on the architecture side; therefore, one way for bridging this gap is to involve the general public in the design process. After all, there is no better person to decide how to live in a place than the actual person who will be living there.

I have incorporated this principle throughout the mission of Ubuntu Design Group. Our main motto is “listening to build.” This is a very important principle in our needs research and assessments, which involves going on location and talking to the individuals we are designing and building a home for. We discuss their needs, such as our first family who is living with a disability and requires that the house be wheelchair friendly, and build these points into our design process. We also study the local landscape, culture, and existing architecture while constantly asking questions and observing community interactions. This ensures the community feels seen, heard, and included in the end product. I believe this process will help strengthen people’s understanding of what we as architects do, and our relationship with the individuals of the communities we’re working in.

INSPIRE% interviews are part of a series conceived and curated by This interview post has been co-edited by Rosa Sheng, Yousif Yousif, and Stephen Allcock.

Connect with us:

Ubuntu are excited to invite you to make a difference. We need your help to build homes that preserve the culture, identity, and individuality of the communities with whom we will partner. In the spirit of ubuntu, “I am because you are,” we are calling all who are inspired by this new collaborative method to help us raise the funds for our pilot sustainable house for the Mtshalis family, along with other residents of informal settlements in Durban, South Africa in the near future.

For more information about the work of Ubuntu, the concept behind Ubuntu House Projects, and the ways in which you can be involved, please visit

INSPIRE% [05]: Katy H. Faix, architect & consultant

Katy H. Faix, AIA
Associate Principal, Holmes Culley | Holmes Fire

Katy H. Faix, AIA   photo by Blake Marvin

Katy H. Faix, AIA
photo by Blake Marvin

1. Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
I engage clients who are interested in tailoring their engineering design specifically to meet their project requirements and enhance their construction. As part of Holmes Culley and Holmes Fire, we provide structural engineering and fire engineering services through performance based design with the goal of adding value to the client. My role is to identify new projects for our team and help connect architects and owners to each other and with our engineers.I also participate in the management of the firm as whole, taking on responsibility for the direction, growth and operations of our San Francisco and Los Angeles offices.


2. Why did you choose to study Architecture?
My study of architecture took a long meandering path; I initially decided to pursue an undergraduate liberal arts education for its well-rounded merits. Dartmouth had a few architectural history and introductory design programs that fueled further interest. I kept my studies focused on art, engineering and mathematics anticipating that if I were to go into graduate school these courses would serve me well.  It was while teaching that I decided to enroll in the summer Discovery program at GSD to verify my interest in pursuing a career in the built environment. I was soon enrolled in the M. Arch program at Columbia GSAPP.

3. What inspires you on a daily basis?
In the workforce, understanding people and problem solving. Much of the marketing and business development in AEC industry revolves around relationships and project knowledge. Because of my experience as an architect, I often contribute early on in the process. For instance, a client may have an existing building that they are interested in rehabilitating for new use. I am a good conduit between our engineers and the architect, asking early questions and posing possibilities for consideration.

4. What are two of your most influential projects and Why?
Early as an intern, I had the chance to work with LTL Architects on a design-construct a hotdog restaurant in New York’s Lower East Side. Our team of us not only designed and drew the plans for the restaurant, but we also served as the construction crew. We demolished the existing space and discovered a cast iron column at the storefront and were able to create accurate existing drawings. We ordered all of the materials (bamboo plywood, cold rolled steel, concrete boards) and constructed all of the components of the restaurant in the studio’s basement shop.
Currently, I am involved in a Holmes Group international firm-wide initiative. We are a number of years into the project, but it has been rewarding to work while keeping in mind the interests of our colleagues in New Zealand, Australia, and those of us here in the US. As a Group, we have many systems in place for collaboration and sharing of knowledge and resources, yet there are other areas which we can expand upon.

5. What is the greatest challenge/difficulty that you have had to overcome in your professional career?
Facing the mountain of student debt in the depths of the recession was difficult.  Only in time, was I able to acknowledge my investment without being overwhelmed.

6. What do you believe has been one of your greatest accomplishments to date? Why?
Building relationships with architects and contractors through existing projects and potential future projects. I am proud to work with exceptional Holmes colleagues who partner with great firms to deliver world class engineering services to clients.  It has been rewarding to pivot from being an architect to learning the business and management side of the business.  

7. If you could go back in time, what would you tell your 24 year-old self?
You may not know where your career will take you, but seek out people that you can learn from and engage with. The path will unfold along the way.

8. What is the best advice that you ever received and how does that apply today?

I was once told by a mentor not to fret over the past decisions and experiences one has made. In the end, they all will contribute to the person you become.

9. How do you see Architecture changing in the next 10 years? What would your role be in the future?
It seems to me that the AEC profession is finding ways to engage people more in their work while not consuming their lives. The delicate balance has historically often been lost, sometimes to the expense of losing our colleagues to other fields.

My role in Architecture is to continue to be engaged in the built environment. One aspect of what I hope to bring is more visibility to the longevity of buildings. Unfortunately, so many buildings are being constructed in an inexpensive and disposable fashion; for current use and with little regard to permanency. Resiliency of buildings, whether to withstand seismic events or be easily adaptable for changing needs over time, is important to consider as we design and construct our cities and towns.

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?
For the past 2 years, I have sat on our town’s planning commission. Although, our decisions involve land use, building massing and site context, as a commissioner, we see a large spectrum of project designs from both architects and builders.
The benefit and care that specific contextual and thoughtful design is the resolution of a myriad of issues that an architect will work with the client to address. Architects have an on-going challenge of sharing their insights and understanding with the public to educate them on the benefits. Often this is an informal process of sharing expertise in conversation.
Working on the consulting side is no different. Much of our work is on-going education and sharing of engineering stories so that building owners, architects and developers understand the benefits of engineering and how it can improve the outcome of the project.


"What Zaha Hadid meant to me.... and what she didn't"

by Sharon Portnoy, AIA  (originally written on April 5, 2016)

After Dame Zaha Hadid’s sudden death was announced last week, the design blogosphere began asking what she and her work meant to female architects. For many, apparently, the answer is that Zaha was a role model who cracked the glass ceiling and showed us just what is possible for female architects to achieve in this new millennium. For me, however, as much as I admired her prodigious talent and formal ingenuity, she was more a curiosity than a role model. Referred to as “Zaha,” she had more in common with other one-named celebrities, like Cher or Madonna, than she did with the other 99% of female architects. Her ascendency was fun to watch in a reality TV sort of way. In her signature black cape, she burst onto the scene to wage heroic battles on an international stage. She was an outsized talent with a persona to match. She was a glamorous avatar, leading the charge against complacency in the profession and battling for the supremacy of innovation in form. Her work was visionary. It seemed unbuildable, and yet, she built it. She had moxie; she had chutzpah; and her work was thrilling.

But Zaha’s reality was a far cry from the realities of the rest of us, and I worry that by holding her up as an emblem of what female architects have achieved, we run the risk of overlooking the far less dramatic, but no less daunting, challenges that women in architecture continue to face. Zaha’s Pritzker Prize no more represents gender equity in the architectural profession at large than Barack Obama’s presidency indicates that we live in a post-racial America. Zaha was an outlier. Most female architects in the United States are not only not “Starchitects,” they are woefully underrepresented in the profession, particularly at senior levels. 

According to a 2014 report by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, nearly half of all architecture school graduates are women, yet only 17% of architecture firm partners and principals are women. Women are paid less than their male counterparts upon graduation, are more likely to leave the profession before achieving milestones like licensure, and drop out of the field at much higher rates than men, often for good. 

In 2014, AIA SF’s "Equity in Architecture Survey" and Equity by Design symposium explored some of the forces contributing to these discouraging numbers, among them implicit bias, wage inequality, and a culture that romanticizes the figure of the architect as the lone genius a la Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark. Zaha herself perpetuated that myth. “If you want an easy life, don’t be an architect,” she was quoted as saying. “Ask anybody in my office. You have to work all the time. If you want a nine-to-five job and to go home and relax, just don’t do it.” She was right, of course; architecture is a demanding profession. But for many architects, especially women, it’s not a question of going home at five to relax. It’s about rushing home in time to start the “second-shift,” and tending to all the other things that make us valuable to our families, our communities, and our clients. Going home at the end of the workday, while frowned upon by many in our profession, is not only desirable, but necessary for us to do our best work. We need to renew our creative stores, and to nurture the aspects of being human that allow us to engage the world around us and create thoughtful, healthy, and inspirational environments. Architects are often viewed as being elitist and out of touch with the way “normal people” live, imposing our impossible aesthetic standards and trying to educate them on what they should like or how they should live. Getting out of the office is just one way for us to better understand the society we serve.

Zaha was many things, but a representative of everywoman in architecture was not one of them. Fortunately for us, there are many female groundbreakers in the field. They may not be household names, but they have beaten the odds and are now working at the highest levels of the profession. They are winning clients, directing practices, and leading some of the best architecture schools in the nation. These are the women who show up every day at construction sites, client meetings, community review boards, and design juries. They work on tight deadlines and even tighter budgets. They advance the cause of sustainable building practices, navigate arcane building codes, and mentor younger architects. They may or may not wear black capes, but to me, they are the real superheroes and there are not nearly enough of them.

(Editor's note: Sharon Portnoy's insights were recently included in the NYTimes Article: Female Architects Speak Out on Sexism, Pay Inequity and More)



Dear Zaha - Leaving without notice.

by Raya Ani, AIA   

Leaving without notice!

As I am working on what might become the most important project of my life.. with a very tight deadline and the ambition to do just the right thing.. everything has started to daunt me….doubts…. sleepless nights.. my energy is draining out....

I am exactly at a moment where the confusion is high...and when you want to say so much yet you know you are not able to say much..

The pressure is on.. I feel like I am failing my team who are looking up to me to guide and inspire them..

I feel vacuumed out.

Last night, after having a spirited conversation with Susan in New York, I hung up.. on FB... I saw the news.. Layla, your post came first.. I was in shock and disbelief..

Tears rushing down.. I was in another world.. trying to pretend I am together to finish what I had to....tears would just not stop…Here I am trying to resolve something on the project that is taking days to resolve…yet it is not happening.. and I just won’t give up...however my heart is mourning the loss of you..

Remember when you were at Harvard presenting and you were wondering whether the slide was put the wrong way.. you asked: 'Is it upside down?' You definitely turned the world of architecture upside down.. we all sure of it.. we definitely know you are one of a kind.. and for me you are beyond architecture..

However my connection with you is multilayered…. You being an Iraqi, you being an architect, you being a woman, you being a different type of a woman.. and everything that comes along with it… From being constantly criticized for being different, inconvenient, uncompromising, tough and the incredible pressure to conform… I know many would appreciate your mark in the world of Architecture, however only few truly understand the painful sacrifices you have made and how you had to be to withstand..

I know that part of yourself that at times becomes inaccessible to others, including yourself…This gave space for some to criticize you..

I know you had a colossal task to undertake on our behalf, some knew it and some didn’t!

I probably know a little of what it means to stand solid in the face of any doubt, when the world outside doesn’t validate your ideas and they didn’t for a very long time.. and what you needed to become to storm through safety nets to hang out there..

A mission you continued to do courageously... a vision that required you to numb other parts of the self.

As I strive to gather myself to continue.. I can’t help but think that you must have left at the right time.. otherwise why would you leave without notice!

This timing might mean something different for each one of us..

For me.. you are probably asking me to pull it off when I feel the weakest and not to give up… I think you might be asking me to continue the journey, to carry the spirit of what you stood for…I know our styles are different, but our purpose I know is the same….

I wish I had hugged you before you left.. a hug that is larger than life…the hug where you stretch your arms all the way back.. the hug I gave my family as a kid in Iraq whenever they ask me to show them how much I love them… to show the biggest embrace..

I guess when the time comes, we pass our spirit down.. and at times, it comes without notice..

This submission was a repost from Raya Ani's Facebook Page

Leaving without notice! As I am working on what might become the most important project of my life.. with a very tight...

Posted by Raya Ani on Thursday, March 31, 2016

Dear Zaha, Your Architecture - Exhilarating. Your Departure - Heartbreaking

by Rosa T. Sheng, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

Dear Zaha,

I was in disbelief when I heard about your death on Thursday, during the morning commute. I didn't want to believe it. I thought surely this must have been a hoax. But the link was from the BBC which included an official statement from your firm.  In the days since,  many articles have been written, paying tribute to your legacy. You were not just one of the greatest architects of our time. The fact IS that you were the first woman architect to make a very large crack in the proverbial glass ceiling of our historically male dominated profession; Of many accolades, you were the first woman to be internationally recognized for your design work. You were the first woman architect to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004 and most recently, the first woman to win the Royal Institute of British Architect's Gold Medal in 2016.

I appreciated that you spoke out about the challenges in our profession, when many were afraid to speak. Your work was before its time, you had an uphill climb, but you persevered regardless of the critics at every step of your journey; questioning whether you deserved the honors and recognition that you rightfully earned. In so many ways, you were (and are still) one of our greatest champions, a role model to many, and most influential to those that are women in the profession; who feel the greatest loss of all. Rest assured that we will uphold your fearlessness and leadership by example. We will not waiver from our path, in Architecture's Lean in Moment, to be recognized for our individual and collective work as architects (who just so happen to be women).  You have proved to the world that it can be done.

Beatrice Colomina once said, "Women are the ghosts of modern architecture, everywhere present, crucial, but strangely invisible. In your lifetime, you have made yourself visible and in essence broken the spell for the rest of us. Things are slowly beginning to change. Our discussions about inequity are no longer back room, but an international movement to get more recognized for their talent and accomplishments within the profession. We will continue to build metrics, meaning and matrices that promote equity in Architecture.

I believe in progress, I think if we do enough research, we can push the envelope and get better results… That’s what I like about architecture. It’s exhilarating, but also heart-breaking.
— Dame Zaha Hadid

There is no doubt that we will feel the loss of your talent, your beautifully futuristic buildings, and your audacious authenticity. But we will not give up hope. Your architecture is exhilarating and your departure is also heart-breaking. But, we will forge on with our research and continue to push the boundaries to lead our profession to a better place in your honor.

Farewell, Rest in Peace,


The following is a compilation of articles worth reading that reflect upon Dame Zaha Hadid's passing. If you would like to contribute to the EQxD series: "Dear Zaha", Please contact us. We will be posting throughout the month of April as we receive them.

The devastating loss of Zaha Hadid for women in Architecture via Quartz by Anne Quito

 Why we talk about Zaha Hadid's gender and ethnicity even though her architecture transcended both LA Times by Carolina Miranda

How Zaha Hadid became Zaha Hadid Written by Sara Ben Lashihar

Female Architects on the Significance of Zaha Hadid NYTimes by Randy Kennedy and Robin Pogrebin

 Female Architects speak out on Sexism, unequal pay and more. NYTimes by Robin Pogrebin

An Architect who first imagined, then proved, that space could work in radical new ways.

 I Will Not Live By Your Fascist Rules!” Remembering the untameable brilliance of Zaha Hadid Cincinnati Magazine by Charles Desmarais

A Tribute to Zaha Hadid by Taz Loomans via BloomingRock

Via Youtube, Zaha discusses the challenges of gender and race in Architecture.

I make (a change)

by Jame Anderson, AIA

When invited to write a post about my “return to architecture”, my first thought was “What was this ‘Architecture’ that I had left?”  I pondered all of the ways I could describe this decision, anything I could share with others, and I started performing an epic Tina Fey eye roll.  Who would want to hear this?  It sounds like a cheesy self-help book or one of those posters in the breakroom of The Office.

Jame Anderson worked as an Architect at the National Gallery of Art for over a decade before returning to a private architecture practice. 

Jame Anderson worked as an Architect at the National Gallery of Art for over a decade before returning to a private architecture practice. 

So, let's embrace the cheese…

Everyone wants to believe in themselves, that they have an internal source of power.  It’s the stuff of super-hero movies, and Star Wars (admit it, you tried to move stuff by concentrating on it too).  I’ll be the first to admit, I’m drawn to down-and-out characters saving themselves and others, fighting free.  As an audience, we are totally sucked in by this stuff.  It is a lot more dramatic than seemingly happy people making a change.  Where’s the drama in that?  

In December, I left my position as an Architect at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) to return to private architecture practice at SmithGroupJJR, a company for which I’d worked prior to my 13 years at the NGA.  I was in an absolutely beautiful place, I loved my work and my colleagues at the Gallery.  I was surrounded by the most amazing objects in the world, and felt a sense of fulfillment and a touch of pride in making the Nation’s Collection shine.  I had great federal benefits, a wonderful schedule, and solid, stable pay.  My work was fulfilling, detailed, and my colleagues were driven.  

Sure, there was this lazy person over here, or that crappy office relationship over there, but I typically try not to let those things make my big life decisions for me.  Complaining about the day-to-day, or “sweating the small stuff” was not a part of the decision.  Besides, every workplace has that.  My decision was not about any of those factors.  My decision was about deciding to alter my path. 

This is not a tell-all, nor is it a list of observations of my new job.  This is about the moment of decision.

Changing jobs is not that big of a deal for some people.  For me, this was a pretty big thing.  

You may remember my last post, from January 2015.  I spoke about labels, titles, and life-work. 

Perhaps this was the first step in my “transformation”.  I felt that I was ready to put to greater use the skills I had honed in the field since I walked into my first museum internship at the age of 19. I was beginning to get a bit antsy.  Maybe that Scarlet Letter that some of us try to avoid – Ambition – had something to do with it.  Or, perhaps this disquiet came from not having that next step solidified in front of me: there were clouds at what looked like the top of the ladder.  In order to get to the bottom of this feeling of uncertainty, I started asking questions.

I talked to a lot of people: to mentors, to people who had jobs I could envision myself having, to those who had jobs I’d never want.  Things began to solidify.  I attended the AIA WLS Conference in Seattle and met amazing people, and I sat at a lunch table called “Taking Risks,” although I’m not quite sure why I chose that table… maybe the title was direct and short enough for me. Maybe I felt that I wasn’t taking enough of those.  I listened… really listened.  And I discovered that we are all searching for a place where we feel important, utilized, and a place where we are comfortable and can contribute… and lead.

All of this talking led me to discover that it was time for a change.  But, who wants to move, change jobs, find a new relationship?  It’s easier to do what we know, especially if we’re good at it.  But sometimes, we need to realize that the desire to move on, to do something different, to ‘go boldly where no man has gone before’ is just as human as the desire to stay put, and feel safe.

What was I doing?  I had one of the coolest jobs, EVER!  At parties, people’s eyes widened when I told them what I did for a living.  Visions of Night at the Museum and of the those Mixed-Up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler danced in their heads.  They can be magical places, right?  My daughter, I’m convinced, thought I was working in some fairy tale.  I had been to architecture school with the Gallery as THE goal….but what do you do when you get what you want in the middle of your career?  Sit still?  Camp out?  The more I became an expert, the easier things got.  Perhaps that was it.  I have a great fear of complacency, which is very different than boredom.  My work has never been boring, or easy. But in closing my mascaraed eyes, I took a deep breath and imagined… what would the Shonda Rhimes show of my life look like if I could “design it?”

It wasn’t that the museum was “wrong”.  I was ready for a different path…my own yellow brick road.   Journeys teach us something.  This time, I’m on my own terms:  I’ve picked my specialty,  I have a ton of knowledge many don’t, I’m confident in what I can do, and I’m confident I’ll pick up on the stuff I have no idea how to do.

I want to do more, I think I can, I will.

I was concerned, frankly, about some people’s reactions to my decision.  It takes a lot to get over what you may think other people’s expectations of you are.  I worried a little.  The reaction that had the most impact was my daughter’s. Change and suspense are not thrills for her and we had a fascinating series of conversations about it (which might be yet another post).  I was able to tell her that there was no boogie-man in the office and that she could visit the museum any time.  I think she understood.

You see, support matters.  There is absolutely no way I could do the things I’ve been able to do throughout my life without it.  I’m talking support in the form of a spouse that knows that my work and how I spend my time away from my family is one of my personifiers that makes me ME, in mentors who simply listen and then at times offer suggestions, in friends who give hugs and order champagne when they hear my good news, in parents who made sure I had the most fantastic art teacher they could find, in professors who were direct and supportive, in bosses that hired me for my potential, in a child that gives me hugs and looks up to me as if i am the most impressive thing in the world.  

You have to find support somewhere. You can't isolate yourself, and you can't do it all by yourself.

I’ve been surprised by the responses I’ve received about my “transformation.”  I've heard a lot from folks.  There have been some "Wows", the normal "Congratulations" from others, and the "What about your benefits?" from those who think I'm nuts.  Then, from most architects, an immediate commentary on how difficult my new life will be due to the pace of things, as if there's a secret I don't know.

But I try not to take it as patronizing.  There have been countless articles about women in the workplace that Leaned Back… that selected what's called a slower track or slower paced professions, took time away during their child-bearing and raising years.  I think it’s unfortunate to see choices through these do/don’t filters.  Nevertheless, I didn’t Lean Back, I did exactly what I set out to do when I enrolled in architecture school in the first place: work in a museum designing things.  I tried to be as smart as I could about my career, work in a firm to follow through on my education, and get licensed. It wasn’t for another 5 years that I had my kid. I feel lucky to have been able to do it that way… get ME done first before dealing with mini-ME.

Timing sometimes works, things sometimes fall into place.  But sometimes, you have to do some leaning.

Back to Architecture… this fictional place I left. Now, I can say I’m an Architect with no one asking me what I mean without the addition of the words Exhibit Designer.  Does that matter? People seem to need very cut and dry terms.  People also have a lot of crazy ideas about what an architect is or does… I’m not walking around with a blueprints, although I do still wear a lot of black.  But I don’t allow others to define me.  I am an architect, and I have been one, for quite a while. Now, I hope I am in a place where I can make spaces and containers for beautiful works of art, and also build buildings again, while I look at the greater whole. My experiences are not two separate pieces, they are part of me.

I want both, you see.  Will I get it? Who knows, but there is only one way to find out.

OK, the first month has been weird… honestly… and yet, exhilarating.  I have this headset at my desk and no actual phone (which makes me feel like Brittany Spears or Tom Cruise a la Magnolia).  Not that we used rotary phones at the museum, but you get what I mean.  Then there’s the culture, and the notions of money (profit vs. non-profit) which are quite new.  Most days my new colleagues say things to me and I stare back at them blankly.  Every trade and office carries its own language around, its lingo, its series of acronyms that one has to decipher.  Architects especially are known for their, wait, our, made up words.

I went on my first project interview this week.  It was peculiar not being on the client side of the table.  I felt very “nervicited” (a word from my daughter)  But, feeling uneasy is something I asked for.  Honestly, I question myself too, just like anyone.  Will I succeed? Can I contribute enough?  Will I be good at this again?  It all creeps in.  But I’ve learned to let it go.  No one has all the answers, no one can do it all, and no one is better than you, they are just different.  I just keep reminding myself that I have a ton of knowledge many don’t.  I’m confident in what I can do.  I’m confident I’ll pick up on the stuff I have no idea how to do.

I want to do more, I think I can, I will.  (But I've been here for like 3 months… talk to me in about 6 more.)

In writing this I began to wonder who reads the Inspire blogs? Who are you, reader? If you are mid way through your career, are you keeping up the good fight?  If you are in the beginnings of your life as an architect, or are contemplating a career as one, I’ll leave the cheese and get down to those brass tacks…


Here it is… the unsolicited advice…ready? 

Get licensed.  

Look at it like brushing your teeth… it’s something you have to do. If you never use it that’s another matter entirely. Just get it, and you will have it.

I would not have been at the level I was outside of the profession without this credential. I would not have had any choices in a return to an architecture firm without it.

So many of the other things that affect diversity in practice are non-tangible and seemingly out of our reach. This one is very cut and dry.  It is hard, it is annoying, but it is doable and quantifiable. So, make a plan and follow through. Life gets in the way and always will. I get it.

You can fix it.

Get your license.

Don’t go missing.

Then, go through whatever process you need to in order to figure out what you WANT to do.  Write it all down, talk to folks, imagine your future, go see a fortune teller… whatever.  Design it.  But keep it short, succinct.  Don't get stuck in that planning stage forever… in the time it has taken you to read this long rambling post, you could've gone online and signed up for the exam.  I realize this simplifies everything, but seriously… there is no try there is only do.

Just Do it.

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