Imani Day
courtesy Gensler Imani Day

Two years ago, I wrote an article calling for specific and intentional diversity and inclusion in the field of architecture. Today, the concept of inclusion has evolved and broadened into a discussion of civil rights; of how we, as architects and designers, respond to the systemic racism that plagues our society and profession.

Our licensure rests on the responsibility to protect the health, safety, and welfare of our communities and yet, for generations, these concepts have been selectively applied in many Black communities. Unfortunately, the task of holistically interrupting and reversing systemic racism remains optional for many in our industry, which poses a question: How can we consciously embed inclusion and equity into our codes, our policies, and ultimately the built environment to keep ourselves and, by extension, society accountable?

Generations of activists have discussed the same issues and emerged with proposals such as the protection of Black spaces; the accurate telling of our histories; and the course correction of racial and economic disparities. Activism is often born out of crisis. As we realize the need for change, we have struggled to design a clear, indelible path forward. In the current moment, our industry has the opportunity to pivot from dispersed discussions and one-off strategies to a structured framework that calls for a major shift in private, public, and political priorities.

It is difficult to legislate for fairness and behaviors—especially through the lens of blending creativity and law. However, in looking more closely at past policies that have successfully changed the way we design, architects can find a more linear path. The typical design process today is shaped inherently by strict parameters of protection and justice that are built into our work through building codes, accessibility, and sustainability. But that was not always the case.

Our industry has the opportunity to pivot from dispersed discussions and one-off strategies to a structured framework that calls for a major shift in private, public, and political priorities.

Building codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act—which turned 30 this year—arose from the need to save lives and reject exclusionary practices. These policies revolutionized the design industry by providing a legal armature by which we hold architects accountable. Each is rooted in a well-researched, well-governed, and policy-based strategy to collectively regulate the quality of our built environment. We cannot disregard the local and state authorities of our respective jurisdictions. We are careful not to ignore the design parameters that ensure inclusivity in the realm of physical and mental impairment that are mandated nationally by the Department of Justice.

Why then should we have the choice to ignore racial equity as part of our practice? How can these existing models of structured policies apply to a mission of racial equity?

Furthermore, both building codes and ADA regulations display an organized prioritization of complex topics in the profession—agnostic of any partisan views. In helping to carefully draft each, the architecture profession has distilled complex histories to address specific categories of necessary change. We have seen a unified shift in design thought, academia, policy, and practice to reflect new values based on these specific, imperative guidelines. Furthermore, our understanding of best practices has continued to evolve: Our building codes are updated periodically based on new technical and scientific findings. Most importantly, these codes are not meant to be interpreted differently by individual firms and practitioners; they are applied equally across various projects and scales.

This has not been the case with racial equity. In recent years, we have seen a decentralized strategy with multiple centers of gravity. Individualized efforts have set a network of positive movement in motion; firms have created their own separate strategies to implement programs, task forces, recruitment, and training. And while the immediacy of racial justice and parity is palpable, the progress we make runs the risk of being topical and temporary without an explicit rejection of the recurring roadblocks we have seen in the past: ignorance, complacency, and performative talk without action. As a result, our industry remains in a stagnant loop—unable to reach racial and economic prosperity. For the historically disenfranchised and segregated, we must understand how to organize a new system of multifaceted, industry-wide support.

As an architect, I proudly accept my responsibility to protect the health, safety, and welfare of society without the choice of whom I will protect and exclude. As we reimagine an improved, equitable profession, perhaps we should all ask ourselves what should be written into code-based solutions—and whether we are truly practicing at or above the baseline of the law.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

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