Rachel Jones
Rachel Jones

“We all inhabit multiple identities,” says Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA. A senior associate at Arrowstreet and AIA at-large director, Grandstaff-Rice encourages her colleagues to think “we’re architects and,” so they will feel confident allowing their different identities to influence how they design.

According to Grandstaff-Rice, just as project teams need to include individuals of various skills and expertise, they should also include equal opportunities for people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. The future of the profession depends on it.

Gender expression, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, physical abilities, religion, and socio-economic status all influence our point of view and in turn, our contributions at work and in society. The acknowledgment that architects can—and should—use their experiences and background to inform their work is catching on. They just need the chance to do so.

“I define equity as the opportunity to engage in the profession of architecture,” Grandstaff-Rice says. “It’s really about being aware and breaking down barriers that might keep people away.” Throughout her career, she’s noticed a trend: a growing idea that you can “bring your whole self” to work. This trend may point to a cultural shift where diverse identities are celebrated, not diminished or ignored in the workplace.

Academic researchers, as well as architects like Grandstaff-Rice, have found that diversity in teams drives a high level of performance. “Well-managed diverse teams are utilizing their differences in a way that’s productive, giving more points of view, more creativity, more innovation,” said Renée Cheng, FAIA, dean of the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments, from the AIA + ARCHITECT stage at the AIA Conference on Architecture 2019.

And what is architecture if not a profession that seeks to be more creative, innovative, and forward-looking?

Bringing Equity Into Focus At Firms

Cheng and Grandstaff-Rice were both central to the development of the AIA Guides for Equitable Practice. Under Cheng’s leadership, work on the guides began at the University of Minnesota and moved with her to the University of Washington. Partnering with Cheng and her team, AIA’s Equity and Future of Architecture Committee set out on a monumental task last year—to give architects the tools they need to address issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace. The guides are a part of AIA’s long-term commitment to “lead efforts that ensure the profession of architecture is as diverse as the nation we serve.”

The guides currently have a total of six chapters available to everyone with internet access, covering topics of intercultural competence, workplace culture, compensation, recruitment and retention, negotiation, and mentorship and sponsorship.

“We designed them to be very accessible in order to convert intentions into actions,” Cheng said at A’19. Each chapter provides case studies, a list of supporting resources, and tactical advice so any individual employee or group, regardless of role or position, can have productive conversations about equity and inclusion and make changes in the workplace.

At Arrowstreet, which was founded in 1961, Grandstaff-Rice has noticed “a larger inclusionary conversation” taking place among colleagues recently. She says that seemingly small acts of inclusion like asking about food sensitivities are reshaping the way employees interact day-to-day.

Actions towards achieving equity can be big or small, structural or informal. In addition to facilitated conversations, widespread change and commitments on behalf of firm leaders need to happen to ensure not only that their workplace is equitable, but that everyone has a chance to participate, and hopefully, succeed.

“The bigger move,” Grandstaff-Rice says, “is being intentional about making connections with people who are different from you.” To this end, Arrowstreet has established a buddy system for new employees to connect with established professionals in different studios, and the firm hosts in-office networking and mentoring events to encourage an open and collaborative environment. “You can’t truly understand architecture or how it works without interacting with your co-workers,” she states. “And even if you’re a sole proprietor, you have many people outside of the office that you have to interact with just to get something done. It truly is a social profession.”

For some firm leaders, equity and inclusion are at the heart of their mission. “Our practice and our business are shaped around our beliefs,” says Mark Gardner, AIA, principal at New York’s Jaklitsch/Gardner Architects (J/GA). Gardner and his partner Stephan Jaklitsch, AIA, strive to hire employees with differing backgrounds and experience levels so their projects can be more reflective of the clients and communities they serve. They find the rich discourse that takes place in their office of eight contributes to more successful designs. “As a group, we tend to actually help shape and make something better,” he says.

In recent years, J/GA has pursued more and more public projects, finding satisfaction in working with a range of stakeholders and community members. Gardner believes “it starts with the power of empathy and acknowledgment of difference.”

“Being inclusive means that you’re taking the extra steps to look for viewpoints and experiences that are outside of your own,” Gardner says.

Inclusion means that people not only are included, but also feel included. That can be tricky for young people who don’t see their identities reflected in schools of architecture or who witness others struggling in the profession itself.

The barriers to entering the profession are notably systematic in architecture, an industry with deep patriarchal and white male–dominated roots, as well as ableist and gender-normative ones. Coupled with the fact that young people of color and those with lower socio-economic status often don’t have family members working in design fields, limited education about architecture in primary and high school curriculum persists. As a result, many don’t even know that architecture school is an option. Those that do consider pursuing a degree are often discouraged because of limited funding, bias in the application review process, and exclusive or hostile environments at colleges and universities.

Having a Seat at the Table in School and in the Field

As an assistant professor of architectural practice and society at the New School’s Parsons School of Design and a board member of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Design, Gardner experiences firsthand the struggles that educators experience in engaging a diverse student body within design schools. Gardner and his colleagues challenge structures that have prohibited students, specifically students of color, from awareness of architecture and access to architecture education. “Everyone acts like the choices are outside them,” he says about administrations who have looked the other way as the lack of diversity continues in academia.

He’s found that being intentional and personal with outreach is crucial for educators, likening these efforts to a handshake. “You don’t just stand there waiting for the other person to put their hand out. It’s a mutual thing,” he says. “You have to show that any particular group is welcome here, and in fact, you really want them to be there.”

For Gardner and his fellow educators, it’s an “ongoing struggle” to demonstrate to all students that they are welcome, and that their viewpoints are appreciated in architecture school. Getting students of diverse backgrounds in the door is one massive challenge. Providing proper support and guidance can prove equally difficult, he says.

That’s a big problem for many practitioners, as well. When it comes to supporting and retaining women once they reach the workplace, the profession particularly continues to fail itself. “We’ve been graduating the same number of men and women for 20 years and we still have a problem,” Grandstaff-Rice says.

When women are met with structural barriers, like unequal pay, a lack of comprehensive or flexible benefits, and little opportunity for growth, that cause them to leave the profession, their voices are lost and their seats at the table eliminated. The industry can’t hope to have highly diverse teams when half the population has been sidelined for so long.

Seeding even deeper than structural workplace barriers, women are subject to bias (some unconscious, some conscious) that prevent them from working on complex and rewarding projects. Grandstaff-Rice says that there are common misconceptions that women are best suited to be project managers and are less technologically inclined. Getting past those assumptions is necessary for any firm leader, regardless of the size or location of the company. “If you’re a two- or three-person firm,” she says, “I think you [need to] ask yourself if you give equal opportunity to people regardless of gender.”

Diverse Teams Make the Profession Stronger

While a lack of equity in the architectural workforce can be attributed to pipeline issues and workplace barriers precipitated by centuries of precedent, the potential negative implications of it expand far outward. Well supported diverse teams not only improve office culture and employee morale, but they are better equipped to serve their clients and the public. Simply put, diverse teams “create solutions that are more relevant and of greater value,” Grandstaff-Rice says.

Making thoughtful choices to achieve equity inside a firm is not only an ethical necessity, it’s also what architects must do to withstand some of the challenges that are closing in on them. “We have to care about diversity, equity, and inclusion beyond the fact that it is the right thing to do,” Cheng said at A’19. “It will ensure the relevance, success, and resilience of the profession.”

Technological advancements and addressing the effects of climate change will define how buildings are designed and constructed in the coming decades, but architects can’t solve the challenges of the 21st century alone, according to Cheng. “We have huge ground to make up,” she said, referencing the changing influences to the way architecture is practiced. “We have to address this cultural issue, or we run the risk of missing out on those new technologies and opportunities.”

Encouragingly, Gardner finds that the rising generation of architects are hungry to collaborate with diverse teams and that they inherently design more holistically, taking into account materials, energy, health, and wellbeing. He says their approach to thinking about how a building is made and how it affects its inhabitants and community is “at the very core of what we should be concerned about.”

Including diverse perspectives also means going outside the world of the architecture firm. The AIA Guides for Equitable Practice give architects an opportunity to “lead a larger industry conversation,” Grandstaff-Rice says. Engaging engineers, contractors, landscape architects, and urban planners will encourage a more connected, diverse, and equitable industry capable of addressing the environmental and social problems facing us all.

But architects must step up in their firms first.