Wanda Lau

The day before thousands of people poured into the Pennsylvania Convention Center to watch the opening keynote of the 2016 AIA Convention, the thought-leadership group Equity by Design held its second-annual EQxD Hackathon: Architecture and the Era of Connections on May 18. The group was founded as an AIA San Francisco committee and formerly called The Missing 32% Project.

The Hackathon's premise is straightforward. Inspire an audience of enthusiastic change-makers with firsthand stories from presenters (Rosa Sheng, AIA, senior associate of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and Equity by Design chair; Phillip Bernstein, FAIA, vice president of Autodesk; Yasmine Mustafa, CEO for Roar for Good; and Robert Yuen, CEO and co-founder of Section Cut, Dixon and Moe, and Monograph) who have broken down barriers in and around architectural practice, divide into groups to formulate and propose actionable best practices and new business models for equity in architectural practice, and then pitch them Shark-Tank style to a panel of judges (Lilian Asperin-Clyman, AIA, associate and project director at WRNS Studio and co-chair of Equity by Design; Anthony Gold, co-founder, chief operating officer, and chief technology officer of Roar for Good; and Frances Choun, vice president at McCarthy Building Cos.).

The EQxD hackathon kicked off with inspring talks by Sheng, Bernstein, Mustafa, and Yuen, moderated by Asperin-Clyman.
Wanda Lau The EQxD hackathon kicked off with inspring talks by Sheng, Bernstein, Mustafa, and Yuen, moderated by Asperin-Clyman.


The event offered several takeaways for the building industry. It demonstrated how architecture can embody the lean-transformation, rapid-prototyping, and design-thinking practices that the business and tech sectors embrace and employ. To spark the Hackathon participants’ ideation period, Gold gave the group his secret to a successful pitch:

  • First, hook the audience with a personal story or account.
  • Second, relate to the audience by connecting to them with an authentic message and delivery. Otherwise, your pitch will fall on deaf ears.
  • Take the audience on a journey by explaining the problem, building up to the solution to that problem, and then concluding with the impact the solution can have on the problem and beyond.
  • Finally, rather than worrying about perfecting a pitch, connect to the audience through laughter, tears, action, and thought.

Beyond these simple but invaluable lessons, the Hackathon offered a dynamic environment in which groups of mostly strangers could meet, conceive and develop an original idea, and then pitch it with conviction as a team to an accomplished jury.

And that happened. Each team developed a promising idea and took Gold’s advice to heart, pitching it through role-playing, firsthand accounts, and conceptual sketches. Despite having the option to stray beyond architecture, all five teams devised a digital app, program, or platform to address a perceived shortfall in the practice, from a lack of educational games about architecture to the disconnect between the public and design perception of a building’s success.

Bernstein weighs in on a team's discussions during the solution finding period.
Wanda Lau Bernstein weighs in on a team's discussions during the solution finding period.


The jury (l to r: Asperin-Clyman, Gold, and Choun) reacts to the pitch by the ultimate winners of the EQxD Hackathon.
Wanda Lau The jury (l to r: Asperin-Clyman, Gold, and Choun) reacts to the pitch by the ultimate winners of the EQxD Hackathon.

The winning idea was “Firm Architecture Information Management” (FAIM), an online tool for identifying in-house talent for projects in need of a specific expertise—a digital matchmaker of skills and people, if you will. “How many people feel underutilized in their firm, or feel like they can’t comment on the work of another project team?” asked Hackathon participant Jayshree Shah, AIA, who kicked off the pitch alongside teammates Ryan Orr, Rachel Williams, AIA, and Jonathan Meadows, AIA. Through FAIM, project managers looking to create a team for a specific project type could find people with the appropriate expertise, interest, and experience. Furthermore, teams looking to bring in a subject-matter expert for a portion of the project duration—for example, to consult on photovoltaic panels—could find someone on FAIM.

Gold was so impressed by all five pitches that he offered to help any of the groups take their ideas to the next level—an affirmation that architects and designers have the ability, creativity, and business savvy to turn an idea into an achievement, particularly with the support of a team.

Strategizing on the pitch.
Wanda Lau Strategizing on the pitch.
Brainstorming ideas to pitch.
Wanda Lau Brainstorming ideas to pitch.
Crafting the story to open their pitch.
Wanda Lau Crafting the story to open their pitch.
Sheng welcomes everyone to the happy hour, where the jury announced the EQxD Hackathon winner.
Wanda Lau Sheng welcomes everyone to the happy hour, where the jury announced the EQxD Hackathon winner.
The winning team reenacts its pitch at the happy hour.
Wanda Lau The winning team reenacts its pitch at the happy hour.