When I started my practice 38 years ago, my goal was to survive in a profession largely devoid of minorities. I dreamed of creating great design, but I also had business matters to square away: building up my firm’s credentials and establishing relationships for repeat work so I could pay my bills and, more importantly, my staff. Most architects can relate to that dilemma. As an African American architect, however, I was paving new roads.
After graduating from Ohio State University, I worked for several firms. However, I never had a mentor who looked like me. In hindsight, I realize such a mentor may have helped steer me away from some hard knocks, such as teaming with firms that only want to appear to meet MBE (minority business enterprise) goals, but have no intention of actually doing so.
Before I went out on my own, I took on small clients, with my employer’s approval, to start what would become Moody Nolan. My partner, African American structural and civil engineer Howard Nolan, and I won projects because of our skill sets, yes—but also because we were willing to charge less than our competitors. I wish I could say we had a choice in charging fair market value, but we didn’t at the time.
In terms of diversity in architecture, we were it for a long time. We wanted to make Moody Nolan the business we wanted it to be. Our mission wasn’t to go it alone as African Americans, but to be the best we could be with the best talent. We looked for people who wanted to be part of a firm that embraced all ethnicities and genders (women were also undervalued in the profession).
When we were denied opportunities due to outright or latent discrimination, some of our white staff members were the most shaken: They were not accustomed to such treatment. However, we got smarter and doubled down. We began explaining to prospective clients that our team better reflected the diverse populations that they served. (It is widely known now that better solutions result from an array of perspectives, but this was not the case 30 years ago.) Our approach led us to win projects from clients who years before would not have considered us.
We continue to prioritize and set goals for diversity in our firm: You can’t achieve what you don’t plan and measure. Today, our firm leadership is 35% women and 20% minority. Our staff represents 12 countries and speaks more than 15 languages.
We’ve also learned to become nimble. The 2008 economic downturn was hard on the entire industry, but we survived by not turning away from projects that other firms ignored. We became generalists instead of specialists. We put our clients’ needs first, regardless of project type or size. Currently, we specialize in many market segments, but we had to regain that luxury over time.
Ten years ago, I decided to transition from my role. It was essential that I be proactive, or time would get away. This year, I officially turned our firm’s leadership over to my son and fellow design architect Jonathan Moody, AIA.
Staying with the firm as chairman, I can now serve more clients as their lead designer and return to my original passion of creating great architecture. I’ll also help our firm achieve its new goals and aspirations, centered on continued growth in size and markets, most likely through acquisitions. While serving our current clients will always be our first priority, we are also in the position of seeking new clients who value high design that demands greater creativity in all of their projects.
Once upon a time, I set out to show the profession and the greater public that an African American firm could exist, thrive, and design significant architecture. Today, I have hope that I’ll be remembered for my contributions not as an African American architect, but as an exceptional architect.
This op-ed appeared in the March 2020 issue of ARCHITECT with the headline "Business First, Break Through Second."
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