Blog %

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% [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.



EQxD's TEDxPhiladelphia Video - Why does Equity in Architecture Matter?

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

TEDxPhiladelphia 2015 - Why does Equity in Architecture Matter?

TEDxPhiladelphia 2015 - Why does Equity in Architecture Matter?

On June 11, 2013, I made one of the most important life changing decisions, ever. While I was having a pre-midlife crisis and could have easily chose to give up out of hopelessness, fear, and self-doubt, I was asked to present as a panelist at a conference called "The Missing 32%".  There, I met my future champions, who assured me that my career, life and achievements had value worth sharing with others. We collectively agreed to take action in the name of equity in architecture. On that fateful day, I asked many to come to the table to form what would become "The Missing 32% Project" and later evolved into Equity by Design, a committee of AIA SF. On June 11, 2015, I shared the amazing story with an audience of 1200 at TEDxPhiladelphia of what came about during the 2 years since I made the decision to stay in the profession and take action for positive change. There is a lot of work still to be done, and plenty more bites of the whale to go around. But the sight of more people coming to the table with forks in hand is very encouraging and we have a lot more in store for 2016! So grab your fork, watch the video, share with all the architects and non-architects you know. We can make a difference, one bite at a time.

This week, TEDxPhiladelphia is releasing all 14 talks to the public via Youtube. I am honored and humbled to be in the presence of so many amazing people, their work and causes, and their message to the world. Please visit the official website to view them all and please consider supporting future talks produced by this amazing group.

Winning the lottery, requires buying a ticket

“You can’t win the lottery, if you don’t buy a ticket”.
— Julia Donoho, AIA, Esq.

At the AIA Women's Leadership Summit in Seattle, there was advocacy; taking action to drive positive change for equitable practice and representation. Julia Donoho, AIA, Esq., in her presentation about leading the campaign to nominate Julia Morgan for the AIA Gold Medal summed it up pretty well; "You can't win the lottery, if you don't buy a ticket". 

That message was already on our minds prior to the summit and in early discussions with the WIA/Equity Alliance Group of the AIA Diversity & Inclusion Council.  There was the discussion that AIA National Convention in the past has been lacking educational programs that addressed equitable practice and overall diverse representation on the panels groups. Applying the theory that you have to "Be in it, to win it", we asked everyone to submit an AIA Convention seminar or workshop program during the call for proposals earlier this summer. There were 10 proposals submitted with 2 phases of peer review. At each phase, there was great collaboration and strategic thinking about panelists for each program to increase the strength of the individual submissions. We are happy to report that 7 out of the 10 have been accepted as AIA convention programs for 2016 in Philadelphia!

Here are the 7 and their respective abstracts of each program for your reference:

  1. EQxD Hackathon : Architecture And...The Era of Connections
  2. EQxD What's Flex Got to Do with Success
  3. EQxD Negotiation is your Power Tool
  4. Establishing the Business Case for Women in architecture
  5. Moving the Needle: Achieving Equity starts with Architecture Schools
  6. Attract, Engage, Retain, Promote: Recommendations for Equitable Practices in Architecture
  7. Future Firm Culture: Defining a Path to Success

Here are the abstracts of each program for your reference:

EQxD Hackathon : Architecture And...The Era of Connections

One of the most unique and talked about ½ Day Pre-Convention Workshops is back! Join us for a new EQxD Hackathon this year. In Architecture AND the Era of Connection, we will explore the intersection of Design and Tech with a diverse panel of industry leaders and entrepreneurs to explore the practice innovations and future opportunities related to the business of Architecture in the new digital economy. The second half of the workshop will feature the popular "mini-Hackathon" format for groups to explore and develop a real plan of action that will have positive impact on the profession. (What is a Hackathon?) Very similar in format to a design charrette, this rapid prototyping format will leverage your Design Thinking skills to propose actionable initiatives and best practices for innovating equitable practice and exploring future business models for the profession. (Submitted by Rosa Sheng, AIA)


Equity by Design: Win-Win Strategies for Work/Life Flexibility

Establishing a healthy integration between work and life positively impacts business bottom lines by: providing access to a wider talent pool; increasing employee satisfaction, engagement and productivity; and reducing costly employee turnover. Meanwhile, the architectural profession commonly demands long, and often unpredictable, hours spent in the office. In this panel discussion, we will explore successful strategies for both firm leaders and employees to develop infrastructure that promotes and rewards results over the “Culture of Busy”. (Submitted by Lilian Asperin-Clyman, AIA)


Equity by Design: Negotiation is your Power Tool

According to the 2014 Equity in Architecture Survey, negotiation skills are sorely lacking in our profession. The survey found that less than 35% of all respondents, regardless of gender, negotiated their current salaries. Those who had negotiated salary increases experienced similar rates of self-reported success, and successful negotiators of both genders made more money on average than their non-negotiating counterparts. Successful negotiation is a well-honed skill that requires a deep understanding of all the potential factors that influence positive outcomes. At this session, we will discuss and learn strategies for achieving success in negotiations. (Submitted by Lilian Asperin-Clyman, AIA)


Establishing the Business Case for Women in architecture

This seminar begins with trends of women in architectural school, practice, and leadership positions. We will then identify root causes of what holds women back, or causes them to leave the profession; explore the business case for integrating women into leadership positions; and define actionable items firms can implement to raise women into leadership roles. Panelists will discuss personal experiences with attaining leadership roles, overcoming barriers, and views on the importance of women in a thriving practice.(Submitted by Amy Kalar, AIA)


Moving the Needle: Achieving Equity starts with Architecture Schools

The number of women and minorities attending architecture school has steadily increased, yet the comparable percentage of professors, department heads, heads of schools and deans of colleges that are women or minorities has not increased in years. Come hear from several Deans and Department Heads that have broken through this barrier as they describe what it means to their university, to their students and to the architectural profession. (Submitted by Nicole Dress, AIA)


Attract, Engage, Retain, Promote: Recommendations for Equitable Practices in Architecture

While women graduate with architecture degrees at a rate equal to men, they still make up only 20% of practicing architects; and today’s emerging professionals, regardless of gender, demand new approaches to work-life integration and career development. This session uses research-based recommendations and tools developed by Iowa Women in Architecture to help firms attract, retain, and nurture diverse talent pools, and to aid individuals as they move through their own career paths. (Submitted by Ann Sobiech Munson, AIA)


Future Firm Culture: Defining a Path to Success

Every architect is seeking a good firm culture that nurtures personal and professional success. But defining the necessary ingredients for a positive firm culture can be elusive. How do you as an individual influence the mood and energy of your firm? Your success and happiness as a professional may depend on your thoughtful decision to join a firm that best fits you culturally as well as your skills. ((Submitted by Nicole Martineau, AIA)

In the months to come prior to AIA National Convention, we will continue to engage, promote and advocate for attending these seminars and workshops to move the needle towards equitable practice. This will include documentation of the events and providing the best information to participants prior to and after events as we continue to build a network of champions for change.

If you have an approved program at AIA National Convention that is focused on the topic of equitable practice that is not represented here, please let us know and we will add you to the list of workshops and seminars.


We are the Champions! Citizen Architects

By Rosa Sheng, AIA

Happy Columbus (& Indegenous People's) Day! #Architalks is back and no. 13 happens to be the topic of the "Citizen Architect" thanks to yours truly for suggesting it and Bob Borson with our lovely democratic voting process for allowing it to be chosen. 

What is a Citizen Architect anyway? I am not quite sure how the term first evolved. If you Google it, here is what the internet came up with:

Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio is a documentary film  on the late Architect Samuel Mockbee and the radical educational design/build program known as the Rural Studio that had its debut on January 1, 2010.

AIA Citizen Architect is a 2008 Resolution celebrating service of civically engaged architects and advocating for more architects within the Institute to engage in civic participation at all levels. This is an excerpt from the AIA website.

The Citizen Architect uses his/her insights, talents, training, and experience to contribute meaningfully, beyond self, to the improvement of the community and human condition. The Citizen Architect stays informed on local, state, and federal issues, and makes time for service to the community. The Citizen Architect advocates for higher living standards, the creation of a sustainable environment, quality of life, and the greater good. The Citizen Architect seeks to advocate for the broader purposes of architecture through civic activism, writing and publishing, by gaining appointment to boards and commissions, and through elective office at all levels of government.

Aside from Google, I also think of work in the realm of humanitarian relief related design like Architecture for Humanity founded by Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr as well as the many Citizen Architects involved in Public Interest Design and Impact Design movements. 

So beyond these examples of what a Citizen Architect did/does and what a Citizen Architect could do, I would like to give you my own interpretation: mic and cue the music please...

We Are The Champions” (lyrics by Queen)

I’ve paid my dues
Time after time
I’ve done my sentence
But committed no crime
And bad mistakes
I’ve made a few
I’ve had my share of sand
Kicked in my face
But I’ve come through

And we mean to go on and on and on and on

We are the champions - my friends
And we’ll keep on fighting
Till the end
We are the champions
We are the champions
No time for losers
’Cause we are the champions of the World
— Freddie Mercury

The lyrics to this epically amazing song by Queen's Freddie Mercury have so many layers of meaning. I will share just a few here. (I have included this version from Jimmy Fallon's diverse talent to put you in the right mindset.) 

In the Equity by Design conversations, we have talked about solutions to the bleak survey results regarding advancement.  Based on our research findings and understanding of the pinch points, there are currently many phases in your architectural career to become disenfranchised and lose your way. This happened to me, despite early successes and without any idea that there were others who had or currently have similar challenges. 

In the course of reading for solutions to the road blocks of advancement (structural or implicit bias), I came across examples inspiring the concept. of the Champion. "Women, Work and the Art of Gender Judo" an article in the Washington Post written by Joan C. Williams, a professor of law at UC Hastings sites that studies indicate women are more successful at negotiation when they are authentically advocating for others (individuals, or the greater good of a larger group). Additionally, studies have shown that women who self promote are not viewed favorably by other women and to some degree men as well. In order to get around this bias, Williams suggests finding advocates who will help support your case or promote your achievements to support your advancement. She calls this forming a "posse". I like to think of these people as "Champions" (compliments of Mr. Mercury's inspiring ballad and mic drop.) This concept can be applied to a larger audience to advocate for our profession, including those historically marginalized.

So Are Champions mentors? And are Mentors champions? The main differentiator for Champions is that they are actively and openly advocating for you and others. They are going to bat for you and they have vested interest in your success. They can be your clients, your "report to", your firm Principals, your peer colleagues, your consultants, and even general contractors that you engage on projects. They can even be people you meet thru social media who are endorsing you, your company, your cause.

The Hall of Justice was modeled after the Cincinnati Museum Center

The Hall of Justice was modeled after the Cincinnati Museum Center

And a further spin on Citizen Architect and Champions is the modern day superhero. Does the Hall of Justice and the Superfriends come to mind? Not necessarily your marvel comic incarnation, but a worthy do-gooder who cares about changing the world, improving the lives of others and making a difference. Because isn't that one of the reasons we all wanted to become Architects in the first place? 

And while there is much about the profession that needs to be fixed, who do you propose will go about fixing it? So, as a Citizen Architect, I suggest we expand the definition and that each of us has a responsibility to ourselves and the profession to take action to improve Architecture and Practice.  In the Shel Silverstein poem that I often reference about a little girl who claims she will eat an enormous whale by herself, she completes her task in 89 years by herself. If she had only known to ask others to be her Champion, to take a bite or two of the whale with her, she could have finished her daunting challenge much earlier.

At the AIA Women's Leadership Summit last month at our panel session "Defining the Problem, Crafting Solutions" we asked the participants to answer these two questions: 

  1. What are 2 things that you would like to change about yourself? your firm? the profession at large?
  2. What would you prescribe as a plan of action to make that happen?

Here are 5 things to kickstart equitable practice in action today:

  1. Embrace Technology - Leverage technology and social media to share our stories of Practice, promote resources, strengthen communication and support each other's initiatives for change. Join Twitter. Follow your champions. Update your Linked In Profile. Start a Blog.
  2. Document, Document, Document - Take notes, Take photos, keep good records of projects, conferences, meetings, etc that will help tell your story. Submit your records to BWAF DNA. Write blog entries about events immediately after they happen and link to reference tools and resources. (Don't have the time to start your own blog? Write a guest blog for the Equity by Design blog!)
  3. Recognize - Help extract notable and inspirational women in architecture and write a Wikipedia entry so that we can create a legacy. Write about women contemporaries in architecture that you admire. Use the WiKiD guide developed by Justine Clark's Team at Parlour. Collaborate with other groups like SheHeroes.Org to expand our storytelling beyond our profession. 
  4. Participate - If you don't see a panel with diverse participants including women and or people of color, speak up AND submit for future panels. Get on the selection committees that determine panels and awards. If you don't see women being recognized for awards or listed on project teams receiving awards, speak up AND submit for future recognition. You have to be in it, to win it. Buy your lottery ticket as proclaimed by Julia Donoho, AIA
  5. Advocate - Take action, start a group, start an initiative, start something that will move the needle. Use the Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice as a reference tool. Find others to build your tribe who will support you. Mentor future leaders and bring them with you. Become a Champion: be an advocate not only for underdogs, but for our whole profession. Celebrate and convey the value and power of design in everyone's lives. Equity is for Everyone, and Architecture is for Everyone.

So I challenge you to be a Champion for yourself, for others around you, your communities, and our worthy profession. We can be agents of change, but we can't do it alone. Get connected, find your Champions, be a Champion, because WE are the Champions...of the World.

Here are my Champions, writing their take on Citizen Architect for #Architalks No. 13. Enjoy and please let them know who sent you! 

Bob Borson - Life of An Architect (@bobborson)
Citizen Architect ... Seems Redundant

Matthew Stanfield - FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
Citizinen Architect

Marica McKeel - Studio MM (@ArchitectMM)
Good Citizen Architect

Jeff Echols - Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
What Does it Mean to be a Citizen Architect?

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
small town citizen architect

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
#ArchiTalks: The everyday citizen architect

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
Citizen Architect: #architalks

Jes Stafford - Modus Operandi Design (@modarchitect)
Architect as Citizen

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
My Hero - Citizen Architect

Meghana Joshi - IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA)
Meet Jane Doe, Citizen Architect

Amy Kalar - ArchiMom (@AmyKalar)
Architalks #13: How Can I Be But Just What I Am?

Stephen Ramos - BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@sramos_BAC)
Help with South Carolina's Recovery Efforts

brady ernst - Soapbox Architect (@bradyernstAIA)
Senior Citizen, Architect

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Citizen Architect

Tara Imani - Tara Imani Designs, LLC (@Parthenon1)
Citizen Starchitect' is not an Oxymoron

Jonathan Brown - Proto-Architecture (@mondo_tiki_man)
Citizen Architect - Form out of Time

Eric Wittman - intern[life] (@rico_w)
[cake decorating] to [citizen architect]

Sharon George - Architecture By George (@sharonraigeorge)
Citizen Architect #ArchiTalks

Emily Grandstaff-Rice - Emily Grandstaff-Rice AIA (@egraia)
Citizen of Architecture

Daniel Beck - The Architect's Checklist (@archchecklist)
Protecting the Client - 3 Ways to be a Citizen Architect

Jarod Hall - di'velept (@divelept)
Citizen Developer??

Greg Croft - Sage Leaf Group (@croft_gregory)
Citizen Architect

Courtney Casburn Brett - Casburn Brett (@CasburnBrett)
“Citizen Architect” + Four Other Practice Models Changing Architecture

Jeffrey A Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
How Architects Can Be Model Citizens

Aaron Bowman - Product & Process (@PP_Podcast)
Citizen Architect: The Last Responder

Samantha Raburn - The Aspiring Architect (@TheAspiringArch)
Inspiring a Citizen Architect

Jeff Echols - Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
What Does it Mean to be a Citizen Architect?

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)

INSPIRE% Best Practice: AIA National Firm Award winner Ehrlich Architects

An Interview by Susan Kolber (Part 1 of 2)

The Equity in Architecture 2014 Survey Report revealed respondents identified three key elements to success in their careers, “Working with the A-Team, Significance of Meaningful Work, and Work/Life Flexibility.”  With these three themes in mind, Equity by Design wanted to continue the energy of  INSPIRE% Best Practice blog post in January, an initiative that features Architecture firms that support equitable practice. We wanted to learn how Ehrlich Architects (EA) winner of the 2015 AIA National Firm Award fosters equity in their practice and firm culture. Known for their design approach deeply rooted in the needs of inhabitants, the surrounding culture and site context that has been coined as “multicultural modernism,” EA believes their firm culture should be equally focused on participatory and healthy community. How many firms do you know use words likehigh level of trustand “family” to describe their firm culture? We explore EA’s firm life with interviews from Principal Patricia Rhee (PR) and staff members: EJ Fernandez (EF), Will Korchek (WK), Amanda Snelson (AS), and Lyannie Tran (LT).

You practice multiculturalism in your work, how does this translate to your firm culture?
(PR)  Our firm is its own unique blend of People and Place. Our Place--the building itself--is a living breathing creature with a life of its own, that we interact with every day. Its size, compactness, its blend of casual, homey spots and intense coming-together spots--is an inspiration to work in. Our People, the greatest resource of EA, are what make our firm culture. The varied personalities, backgrounds, histories, knowledge and experience are ever-changing yet we maintain constant threads of openness, humor, familialism and of course, a love of food!    

Ehrlich Architects winners of the 2015 AIA Firm Award  photo courtesy of Miranda Brackett 

Ehrlich Architects winners of the 2015 AIA Firm Award
photo courtesy of Miranda Brackett 

Ehrlich Architects is a family. We have strong leadership and young staff that collaborate together and learn from one another, which is one of the many strong qualities we have at our office. There is a sense of community and genuine appreciation for one another that resonates within our projects and the clients we work with.
— EJ Fernandez

Can you walk us through a week at the studio? Do you have daily/ weekly meetings that everyone participates in? What firm wide activities foster community? (PR) A week at the studio? Sorry, that would take too long! We do have a bi-monthly office-wide meeting to review project/staff status, where every single person shares with the group what they've been working on since the last office meeting. Because our project teams vary in size and type, there is not a standard way of running all project meetings--and each principal has their way of managing their projects.
We have been using an intra-office website--a virtual "water cooler"--for posting events, inspirational/fun images or blurbs, recent construction photos, and soliciting responses for questions on a variety of issues: code, Revit, the next softball game. It's a great way to be inclusive and crowdsource contributions from our people--the most invaluable resource of our office.
As for firm-wide activities, once or twice a year we will rent a bus for a field trip day and visit local projects recently completed or under construction. We have a tradition of summer multi-culti barbecues, hosted (sometimes lavishly!) by the current interns. We also have themed pecha kucha nights on the patio, which have been a great way for staff to share something about themselves. A growing number of action committees have also sprung up, with staff eager to delve deeper into arenas of interest and to make things happen in tandem with their project work. It's this balance of project work and non-project work (that sounds so dry!) that makes our office special--the amazing community of people working together, accessible to each other with a wealth of experience and knowledge that allows us all to learn from each other every day. It never gets boring.
(EF) Our studio is a very active space in which there are constant meetings happening either within the project team or with clients.  We have quarterly office meetings that allow every person in the office to speak about their current project.  If there is one firm that loves to have a good time and knows how to foster community within our office and those affiliated with us, it is Ehrlich Architects.  We engage as a family in countless office events and gatherings that are catered by different individuals in the office which allows for everyone to participate in creating community.
(AS) There is usually one event at least every other week, either a lunch and learn to hear the latest product or technology or sustainability update, or office-hosted BBQ, or softball game, or movie night, or a Friday happy hour at a nearby bar. EA differs from other firms because we all play hard – frequently together!
(WK) We relish times during the week that we are able to come together as a staff and enjoy a birthday celebration, an office announcement, or other quick gathering. We don’t have formal meetings very often, but are working to start meeting office-wide every other month. As we grow, it is becoming more important that we meet as a full office to hear what everyone is working on and build camaraderie. After-hours events like summer barbecues and movie nights are essential to fostering community.

What is the team structure of a normal project? Is it highly collaborative? Do junior staff have opportunity for design input or other opportunities/roles besides production? How do you promote team building and collaborative design?
(PR) The team structure varies depending on project type and size, but essentially, there is a principal in charge, project manager and project architect (sometimes one person) and supporting design staff. Junior staff have always been a very important part of the practice--typically coming out of our internship program or former students of ours--and depending on their unique skill set, will contribute to the design process and productivity of the overall firm. It always amazes me what the junior staff will come up whether it's design solutions, a new or better way of using software or a different approach to social media--because they are engaged with these elements and see things in a way that the older generation may not--and that makes our group all the more educated and enlightened. We encourage everyone, regardless of experience level, to speak their mind and contribute (and trust me, they have!) on their projects and to also have the freedom to reach out to the rest of the office for advice and support.

photo courtesy of Ehrlich Architects

photo courtesy of Ehrlich Architects

The open environment and density of the office also lends itself to collaboration. We've learned this through co-location with client and consultants in our design-build projects as well--the closer in proximity you are to your fellow teammates, the more in-tune you are with the issues of the team and equipped to help. Building 3d models to study design, physically and virtually, is integral to the way we work--and is also a great way for junior staff to contribute their design ideas from the beginning of a project.

Our People, the greatest resource of EA, are what make our firm culture. The varied personalities, backgrounds, histories, knowledge and experience are ever-changing yet we maintain constant threads of openness, humor, familialism and of course, a love of food!
— Patricia Rhee

What characteristics does Ehrlich Architects encourage in their employees?
(PR) I encourage the staff I work with to be self-motivated, confident, responsible designers who are not just focused on the project tasks at hand but also understand the bigger picture of the work they are doing--the economics, the politics, how it affects our clients and our communities. These are the invaluable lessons that are best learned on the job.
(EF) Honesty and hard work.  Ehrlich Architects encourages everyone to be true to their work and honest in their architecture.  Working with different teams you develop trust with everyone you work with and every employee is encouraged to participate and support each other.
(WK) Self-reliance, determination, and hard work. Compassion, understanding, and sympathy.
(AS) Positivity, Rigor, Curiosity, Confidence, Friendliness
(LT) To be current, to be able to relate to stakeholders and to be a communicator.

How is Ehrlich's firm culture different from other firms you have worked at?
(EF) Ehrlich Architects is a family.   We have strong leadership and young staff that collaborate together and learn from one another, which is one of the many strong qualities we have at our office.  There is a sense of community and genuine appreciation for one another that resonates within our projects and the clients we work with.  We are different because our firm culture extends beyond the walls we work in and is cultivated through activities outside of architecture.  This develops trust and builds team character even before we begin working on projects together which is what some firms do not offer.  We like to keep things light yet take our work very seriously.
(AS) I’ve never partied as hard with my boss before working at EA!  At work, we are given many responsibilities, which forces one to learn a lot quickly. It all stems from a high level of trust between everyone.
(LT) The culture here is more interactive in the sense that it is important for employees to not only get along but to build friendships.  There is a work hard play hard mentality here but it seems that the firm also supports the play hard factor as well.


Read Part 2 of 2 INSPIRE% FIRM CULTURE: Inside View of Ehrlich Architects

I Make Things - Jame L. Anderson, AIA

I make things; the labels we wear, the ways we define who we are and what we do.

When we are born, we get our first label.  On a form generated at the birthing center, hospital, or other, we are designated as Boy or Girl, Male or Female….Baby Girl So-and-So.  Generally, at the hospital, our last names are first our mother’s, before the birth certificate and naming conventions begin.

But at that moment, we are labeled, even before our parents label us.  With this little tag, much of our cultural norms follow: the pink or the blue.  No matter how hard one may try as a parent to skirt these norms and create something un-stereotypical, it is ever present. Then, we get the next label that our parents choose for us, our name. I’m a Jame—not a Jamie, or Jaime, or Jayme.  My Dad is James, thus Jame.

I have discovered that I carry a lot of those little titles on my Self. 

But starting at the beginning, I have always made things. From little ghost scribbles on the white walls of my parents’ home, to sculptures of the slate roofs of caving in barns out in our fields, I have always made things.  When I was in high school I made things and was labeled “artistic”.  Then I went to college and made more things, and considered myself and gave myself the label of “Artist”. 

These labels begin to become part of our identity and in a country preoccupied with what everyone does for a living, this is especially true. When I left the sanctuary which is the college art studio, and struck out in the world on my own, I continued to make things…but they were for other people, things in museums. Not the artifacts, the stuff around the artifacts.  Then I went back to school again. I chose an art school with an architecture program.  On entering, I never considered I’d ever be an “Architect” with that capital A.  I’m not really sure what I thought I was going to do; make really big sculptures perhaps?  But the little girl that used to dress up as Thomas Jefferson in rural Virginia was a grown up girl at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) in the process of realizing that making buildings would be the next thing to do.  So I strove to define myself with another label.

I recall that in 1998, when I completed my Masters, the statistics held that 12% of licensed architects were women. I was amazed.  Amazed.  It was 1998 after all.  What happened to the burning of bras and to Virginia Wolf, Germaine Greer, Camille Paglia, Naomi Wolf and Gloria Steinem? It was as if I was reading Linda Nochlin again while sitting around a triangular dinner table eating from really strange plates.  With this knowledge I pushed forward and took exams and got my next label, AIA...Architect.  Boy, I showed them!

Somewhere after that I got another set of letters, this time at the front of my name. MRS. (Although my last name stayed the same.)  I was legally partnered with my soulmate, declared my love in front of 92 people and ate some cake. I was a fish with a bicycle and enjoying it.

But I was still “making things” (in quotations). At this point, I drew things, designed things, coordinated things that other people “made”. Hardhat and boots on, I stood on construction sites, argued with contractors and did everything an Architect should.  And I was part of a really big team that made really permanent things.  But I was definitely in the minority on site, and that first label was omnipresent.

The label of artist was becoming more and more a distant thing, switching perhaps to lower case and the upper case Architect took over. I then switched artistic capacities, moving in house to an incredible museum.  There, I designed things-that-other-people-made-that-made-things-that-other-people-made look good (if you can follow).  I was marrying art and architecture, or trying to.  I got to hold Picassos and install Rothkos and talk art, and design space.  One day somebody called me an exhibit designer and I wondered, is that what I am? What is the set of dress up clothes for that profession?

Then, I made my masterpiece, and got my next label, and honestly the one that has changed the most aspects of my life: the label of “Mom”, “Mommy”, Mother. This new label: did it obscure all of the other ones?  I make things for her too – things I never could have imagined making.  A non-cook who would prefer to use a drill or a welding torch to a sewing needle, my daughter’s requests have pushed my making into even newer territory.  I was taught never to learn to sew, cook or type because then someone would expect you to do so, but now I find that these new things are making challenges of their own.

So, I took a trip. Back to France and to stand in front of my two BFFs: Nike and Venus.

My soul mate/best friend/spouse was with me and we had a talk.  I was questioning who I was and it had dawned on me that it wasn’t having a child, that it wasn’t any career strife, it was that I had become distant from the direct making. I was 40.  (Maybe it was the zero.)

So I renovated an attic and got to work. 

I don’t make “art” for others.  Those objects are mine: uncompromised, unshared, things that exist in my own mind.  I use what I find in my studio and my home – readily available materials that are sometimes the cheapest and most immediate sort.  They, often, mark the passage of time in the least graceful manner.

I am still very interested in what is termed by many as “women’s issues” although I no longer see them as just affecting women – they are shared by us all.  I am interested in our labels and lines and intersections: boy/girl, pink/blue, black/white, either/or, virgin/whore, in/out, dead/alive, good/bad and either that line that separates them, or the space between them and the symmetry that is formed by them.

I am wondering about the term “artist” and all my other labels.  Which one is accurate?  Which one should I choose?

Art is not my profession, does that make the label untrue? I am a “person engaged in one or more of the broad spectrum of activities related to creating art, practicing the arts or demonstrating an art”.  So why have I not called myself an artist lately?  When did I no longer exist as one in my mind?

Am I an Architect with a capital A?  I am not in private practice, I have not built a building in several years and I do not have my own firm bearing my own name as the ‘big boys’ do, although I still have a piece of paper from the state of Virginia and a membership in the AIA

What does that make me?

I’m a wearer of all of these labels—Architect, Designer, Mom, Wife, Woman, and countless other things too.  I am not Pablo Picasso, Frank Gehry, or Coco Channel and I don’t need to be.  In fact, I don’t want to be.  And by defining myself, these labels are only adjectives, personifiers of me that speak to my experience, which I have learned helps me to make me, Me. 

So, what do I do? What am I?

I make things.

Written by Jame L. Anderson, AIA

Can Design Solve the Confidence Conundrum?

When the Atlantic featured The Confidence Gap article in early April about Claire Shipman and Katty Kay's new book, The Confidence Code, there was a tidal wave of response, both in agreement and counterpoint of their take that women's confidence challenges are heavily genetically driven and therefore an unavoidable impediment to their success.  Shipman and Kay postulate that women lack self-assurance relative to their male competitors. In a study referenced, women would not apply for a job unless they had 100 percent of the qualifications, men would apply even if they only met 60 percent. And even if women are truly qualified and competent, their is constant self-doubt, anxiety, guilt and apologies about under-performing when the reality is far from critical self-perception.

A tidal wave of debate came in its wake voicing concerns of strongly flawed theory that will further hinder women's professional advancement. Jessica Valenti's article The Female Confidence Gap is a Sham in The Guardian argues that the Confidence Gap theory is driven by varying degrees of societal gender bias, rather than biological differences between men and women.

"The "confidence gap" is not a personal defect as much as it is a reflection of a culture that gives women no reason to feel self-assured. ...A Women's lack of confidence could actually just be a keen understanding of just how little American society values them."

If encouraging women to be more confident in seeking leadership roles and in turn teach self-assurance to others that results in meaningful change for future generations – we as a society need to start by creating a culture that values and supports assertive women. 

Similarly, Tracy Moore echoes that perspective in her Jezebel piece Solve Sexism with Overconfidence, hope and changing your brain. Moore's issue with the Confidence Gap is rooted in how women are presented as "lacking" confidence vs. looking at men as being overconfident. Thus, the skewed frame of reference (and burden of fixing) is focused on women. 

"So when the authors call it a "confidence gap," I have to wonder why they didn't call it an "overconfidence gap"? Is the problem women not thinking they are good enough, or men thinking they are better than they are? In other words, they totally wrote the article like the women they describe: too willing to point the finger at themselves.

After hearing both sides of the discussion, the relevant points of this complex issue lead us to consider the Confidence Conundrum: Do we accept a gender biased status quo and put the onus of achieving equitable advancement on qualified competent women to work harder, stronger, smarter with a heaping dose of self-help induced confidence, (without complaint) to overcome systemic gender challenges? Or, If Equity rides more heavily on fixing a gender biased society that requires major systemic change, where do we begin the disruptive, long and challenging road to shifting the current culture. And realistically, as true systemic culture shifts happen over decades and generations, will our generation get to experience gender blindness and true Equity in Architectural Practice in our career lifetime? 

As Architects, we are trained to solve design problems of aesthetic and technical complexity.  At times, many of our design projects have had a conundrum-like quality with diametrically opposed factors pulling and pushing us to near points of despair. The iterative, dynamic and morphing nature of the design process that is subjected to constant internal and external critique can be applied in our approach for seeking solutions to the Confidence Conundrum and concurrently in Equitable Practice.  While considering the powerful potential of supporting Equity by way of Design Thinking, I came across a parallel strategy. Could design thinking help bridge the Confidence Gap? by Anne Gibbon for The Stanford D School uses Strategic Design Thinking to address the gender bias / confidence conundrum in Technology. It all started with a simple question on a whiteboard: If you were to take on the challenge of growing the number of women in leadership roles, how would you go about it?  Anne's strategy of taking her idea and quickly creating an actionable prototype worked for her own self-coaching for leadership goals.

What if we applied our years of architectural design training and critical thinking to individual and collective challenges of licensure, career advancement, recognition, work life flexibility and retention of Women in Architecture? Is there a way to leverage our training to test and critique best practices that promote Equity? And how do we track what we implement is working? Concurrent with the results of the Equity in Architecture Survey and ongoing research initiatives, we will be hosting a series of discussions on this topic culminating this fall with the 3rd Symposium for The Missing 32% Project: Equity by Design. So Stay tuned.

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