Emily Grandstaff-Rice
Paige McWhorter Photography/courtesy Perkins&Will Emily Grandstaff-Rice

For Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA, there's no question that 2022 was a year for the books. Not only did she join Perkins&Will's Boston studio after a years-long tenure at Arrowstreet, the RPI- and Harvard-trained architect kicked off her biggest leadership role to date: serving as the 99th president of The American Institute of Architects. Just before her December 2022 inauguration, we caught up with Grandstaff-Rice to chat about her new positions, advocating for equity, and the best professional advice she's ever received.

What’s your first order of business as the new AIA president?

When you enter leadership at any level or organization, there is a responsibility both to ensure that those who you are working with are engaged and their voices are being heard, and that you get good work done. It's also important to bring other leaders up and to identify potential in people, perhaps before they even identify it in themselves. There are moments throughout my career that you can chalk up to luck or opportunity or whatever, but in reality those were very intentional moments when people invested time and resources in my leadership development because they saw that potential. I'm extremely grateful for that. Now, I want to be able to identify and develop future leaders in AIA.

I have considered myself a bridge in this profession for many years. When I started in my first job, I was still a high school senior in 1999. The profession has exploded since then, and I feel like I'm a bridge from the culture that was to the culture that is now. I still have another 20 years of my career and I recognize that I can't reminisce for the old because the profession is constantly changing. There's going to be a whole explosion of what we can do as designers of the built environment, as advocates towards greater equity and greater climate action. It’s just exciting for me to go forward. I will be the youngest female AIA president for a hot 356 days before Kimberly Dowdell is inaugurated. I'm in this moment in time but I know that there are going to be even younger voices than mine that'll come up. And Kimberly will be the first Black female president. It’s fantastic to be part of this larger story.

So I guess my first action is I need to tell everybody that we need you as leaders. We need your voice because this is too important for us to think that we can only do it in one year. We have to build upon each other if we really want to get where we want to go—which is getting a hold on the climate so that we are not to the point of no return, especially in terms of global warming, and ensuring that we're building resilient, sustainable, and also equitable communities that recognize that people come from so many different backgrounds.

You’ve mentioned equity a couple of times. Can you point to specific experiences that have shaped your perspective on the issue?

I served as president of the Boston Society for Architecture in 2014, and previous to that I was on the board for about six years. It wasn't until I was in the position of leading the local AIA chapter that I realized what my role was as an architect who also identifies as female in the profession. [As of last 2021], 26% of licensed architects within the AIA identify as female. When I started in the profession in 1999, it was 11%. So double today from where I started, but we may not reach gender parity by the end of my career. So I recognized that my professional activities were amplified because they stood on themselves and my leadership within the BSA stood on itself. But it was even more important because at the time, I was the 10th female president ever at the BSA. And I would hear from other members how excited they were that it was a different voice. And part of it was also that I had pursued that position earlier in my career than a typical BSA president had. And so it gave me this experience of understanding that leadership is not bound to how old you are, or how many years of experience you have. There is an opportunity and a voice for architects of all levels and genders to be part of the conversation. In that process of being BSA president, I became more self-aware of my external representation in a way that I hadn't realized before. And it was about that time that I started talking publicly about what that meant to me personally.

In 2014 or 2015 I was asked to speak at what is now the AIA Equity by Design symposium in San Francisco. I shared that my daughter was a preschooler at the time, and they had this saying at her school: Don't hurt other people's hard work. Just because something’s easy for you doesn't mean it can't be hard for somebody else. I loved the poetics of that being a tenet that you learn in preschool. It's helped me recognize that we're all different. And you can translate this into the realms of equity, climate action, and resiliency. We need to recognize that everyone's coming to these realms on their own spectrum. Just because you aren't at the same level as somebody else, it doesn't mean [what you’re doing is] not still important and valid and good. In our progress towards where we need to be with decarbonization and climate action, for example, anything you can do is good; don't dismiss it because it's not at the top level. We need all these little actions to build up to something else, and you always have a choice to do a little more.

What fascinates me about these conversations is that because we're all entering them from different perspectives and lived experiences, sometimes we need a framework by which to talk about these things and enter with curiosity. And I think curiosity is incredibly important. A couple of years ago, we were launching the AIA Climate Action Plan and, at the time, I was an at-large director on the board leading a meeting of various communities who needed to comment on that. The ground rules that I set were that any comment on the plan had to be put in the form of a question based on Warren Berger’s wonderful book called A More Beautiful Question: The Power Of Inquiry To Spark Breakthrough Ideas. It allowed us to be able to be curious without necessarily overstating personal opinions, and it allowed whoever was answering the question to make their own impact and grapple with it. I think ways in which we as a profession can stay curious and can ask the right questions are important. I don't have all the answers, but I know the right questions to ask and I know that we have an amazing AIA membership base that can help me get the right solutions to problems.

Leadership is not bound to how old you are, or how many years of experience you have. There is an opportunity and a voice for architects of all levels and genders to be part of the conversation.

You just mentioned a book you really loved. What else are you reading these days?

One thing in my Kindle right now is Imagine If, by Sir Ken Robinson, who was an educator and an expert in creativity, and his daughter Kate Robinson. I'm also reading Donna Hicks’s Dignity: The Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, and Prya Parker’s The Art of Gathering. I binge read, and I also am that mom who likes to read the same books as her kids. My son is reading To Kill A Mockingbird, so [that's been] fun.

You’ve spoken before about the importance of mentorship. What’s one piece of advice you received from a mentor?

When I was searching for my first job in Boston, a professor of mine connected me with some architects who were a couple of years older than I was. One gentleman told me that the best advice he received was not to go to a firm based on name only. Follow the projects, he said. Look at the clients they attract and work with. Look at the impact. If what you see aligns with what you want to do, that's more important than the name of the firm. As an emerging professional, that was important to me because people would say certain things about different [places]. But at the end of the day, looking at what I'm going to work on and how that work would impact the community was very important. That has been good, solid career advice for me, even 25 years later. I translate that to my most recent decision: joining the team at Perkins&Will. The firm does have an exceptional reputation, but they are impressive on so many different metrics. When you also look at the work and how it helps people—promotes well-being, contributes to climate solutions, designs for joy—that to me is more important than anything. It aligns with why I wanted to become an architect.

In our progress towards where we need to be with decarbonization and climate action, anything you can do is good; don't dismiss it because it's not at the top level. We need all these little actions to build up to something else, and you always have a choice to do a little more.

On that note, congratulations on your move to Perkins&Will.

Thank you. I'm very excited.

Do you have projects lined up already?

I will be somewhere in the educational learning environments realm, and there is one project in play which I can’t talk about yet. I've always believed that learning environments are not always discipline-specific. We can learn a lot from K-12 that translates into the higher education market, as well as things that we learn in formal classrooms that can inform informal classrooms like the workplace or museums. Education in itself is a much larger concept than one specific market sector, so I'm excited to be able to be fluid in that. One thing that drew me to Perkins&Will is the firm’s deep commitment to research and collaboration in house with experts. We have a public health expert, for instance, who is based out of the Boston office and is intimately working with the various teams to not just put environmental solutions forward, but to ensure that they’re research-based, they're evidence-based, and that they work. So it's exciting to see that in action.