In this studio session, ARCHITECT editor-in-chief Paul Makovsky dives into a lively discussion with Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, HOK principal and AIA's 2024 president-elect; Rosa Sheng, FAIA, SmithGroup vice president and director of Justice Equity Diversity Inclusion, and EquityxDesign founder; and Royce Epstein, A&D design director of the Mohawk Group. Their conversation examines how architects and designers can work to advance equity in their firms and in the built environment.

Last December, The American Institute of Architects released the AIA Hastings report (“An Elephant in the ‘Well-Designed’ Room: An Investigation into Bias in the Architecture Profession”) which studied—and offered strategies for addressing—bias in the architecture profession. The report, which included a workplace experiences survey, found that Black architects and designers reported experiencing racial bias at high levels. 52.4% of Black women and 50% of Black men reported dealing with negative racial stereotypes at work. As the study points out, one cost of racism is the time and effort people need to invest in managing and definitely, that is stopping it without triggering resentment or retaliation. Architects often blame the educational pipeline for the profession's lack of racial and gender diverse diversity in the profession, as the AIA Hastings report illuminates, however, it's also a cultural issue. Open racism and sexism play a role to given the multiple challenges in the world that we're facing today. What is architecture’s role in solving them?

“I think a big part of what we need to do is also empower our profession to have more diversity so that an increasing number of people from the communities are being impacted,” Sheng says. “And have the skills and resources and connections to actually help address the issues within their own communities.”

Epstein observes that we can choose to do harm, or we can choose to help. “When thinking about equity and diversity and how to embed that into our practice, there's so many things we need to do, and I think a lot of designers have the intent and maybe the mindset, but they don't really know how to put that into practice,” she says. “Identifying all of the challenges, and really working on them individually. As an individual, what are my biases? How do we overhaul the system?”

Sheng also believes that now is the time to disrupt long-accepted systems. “For so long, we have devalued the worker with low pay and long hours,” Sheng says. “If we continue to think that 'my building is my creation,' we're just going to dig ourselves into the hole, if you will, and bury ourselves.”

Dowdell argues that, as a profession, architects have to do a better job of promoting their value and identity. “The general public has a pretty grand misunderstanding of what we do,” she says. “Heightening that understanding will actually help to bring more value to what we do so that we can be better compensated. If our clients would compensate us accordingly, I think that will actually start to address some of the inequities.”

Show Notes

This Studio Session is underwritten by Mohawk Group.

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Kimberly Dowdell
courtesy HOK Kimberly Dowdell

Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, is a principal at HOK and collaborates with other members of the leadership team in HOK’s Chicago studio on strategic business development and marketing initiatives. In addition to cultivating and maintaining relationships with clients and partners, she is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and events and a mentor to HOK’s emerging leaders. She is a co-chair of HOK’s Diversity Advisory Council.

In 2021, Kimberly joined the board of directors of the Architects Foundation, the philanthropic partner of the American Institute of Architects. She also joined the board of the Chicago Central Area Committee, which works to shape the city’s growth, equity and quality of place. She is a board member of Ingenuity Chicago, which increases arts education access, equity and quality.

Kimberly is the past president (2019-2020) of the National Organization of Minority Architects and a member of the National Organization of Minority Architects Council, which is the organization’s highest level of recognition.

She was a 2020 AIA Young Architects Award recipient and was recognized for her activism efforts by Architectural Record’s 2020 Women in Architecture Awards program.

Kimberly is also a member of the Urban Land Institute. She initiated the concept behind Social Economic Environmental Design, an organization that she cofounded in 2005, and was a “40 Under 40” honoree in both Crain’s Chicago Business and Crain’s Detroit Business. In 2019, Kimberly delivered the 19th Annual Dunlop Lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. This year, Kimberly has been elected as AIA’s 2023 First VP/2024 President-elect. She will be the 100th President of AIA and the first Black woman to sit in the role.

Rosa Sheng
Scott R. Kline Rosa Sheng

Rosa T. Sheng, FAIA, is a vice president at SmithGroup serving multiple roles as Higher Education Studio leader in Northern California and National Director of Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion. She is also the founder of Equity by Design (EQxD) and the first Asian American woman to serve as AIA San Francisco president (2018) in the organization’s history. Recognized as a designer, architect, strategist, and thought leader, she is known for delivering design solutions with transformational impact in the built environment. When asked, "What type of Architecture do you do?" Her answer, “The kind that’s never been done before."

This mindset has resulted in a variety of award-winning and internationally acclaimed projects, including the aesthetically minimal, highly technical glass structures for Apple’s original high-profile retail stores; revolutionary workplace of the future in the Pixar Animation Studios Steven P. Jobs Building; and current work to advance equitable and sustainable design solutions for institutions of higher learning in California. These include the Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business at Mills College and STEM projects at UC Davis, SF State, and many community colleges to advance underrepresented students in academic persistence and future-ready resilience.

Rosa has presented her work both nationally and overseas, including "Why Equity Matters for Everyone: A New Value Proposition for Architecture" and in 2020, “The J.E.D.I. Agenda – An Intersectional Approach to Designing a Just Future.” In 2019, Rosa was honored by Metropolis Game Changer. Additionally, she has been featured in Architect Magazine, Architectural Record, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times including talks at ILFI Living Futures Conference, Harvard GSD, Stanford University, SxSW, TEDxPhiladelphia, KQED/NPR, and the Cannes Lions Festival.

Royce Epstein
courtesy Royce Epstein Royce Epstein

Royce Epstein is both a Philadelphia-based historian and a futurist who shares her passion and vision for design, cultural trends, and the meaning of materials in a broad context. Trained in art history, she spent two decades working as an interior designer and materials specialist in architecture firms before working in product development for commercial textiles and carpet. Royce is currently the A&D design director for Mohawk Group. She is always on the watch for new trends in all aspects of culture, feeding this insight to our industry’s touch points as a strategic designer, trend forecaster, professor, lecturer, critical thinker, and writer. She is the co-founder of Dissent by Design, a website and Instagram account that explores design’s role in social movements.

This article has been updated to to correct Rosa Sheng's title. Rosa Sheng, FAIA, is the SmithGroup vice president and director of Justice Equity Diversity Inclusion, and the EquityxDesign founder.