Photograph by Tessa Forde

Upon reading this series, head over to Hanley Wood University for the potential to earn 1 AIA Learning Unit.

Architecture remains very much a white profession. Although the demographics have become more diverse in the last decade, says Tania Salgado, FAIA, former chair of the AIA Diversity and Inclusion Council and co-founder and principal of Denver-based Handprint Architecture, “much work remains to be done.”

According to the Census Bureau, the U.S. population is 61 percent white, 13 percent African American, 18 percent Hispanic or Latinx, 6 percent Asian, and 1 percent Native American. Meanwhile, the makeup of AIA members is 67 percent white, 2 percent African American, 5 percent Hispanic or Latinx, 6 percent Asian, and less than 1 percent Native American, with 18 percent not reporting. (Though architecture also has a well-documented gender gap, particularly among leadership positions, this piece will focus on racial and ethnic disparities.)

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, The American Institute of Architects; National Architectural Accrediting Board "2017 Annual Report on Architectural Education"

The underrepresentation of many ethnic groups translates not only to inequities within the profession, but also to missed opportunities in business. Time after time, research has shown us that a diverse workforce increases creativity, productivity, debate, and problem-solving among companies. Furthermore, building owners (clients) are mirroring the general population (end users). “[Clients] want to make sure that the design team they hire can understand the needs and perspectives of the users of the building,” notes Erin McConahey, a Los Angeles–based principal and regional diversity advocate for the 14,000-person international firm Arup.

The underrepresentation of many ethnic groups translates not only to inequities within the profession, but also to missed opportunities in business.

For example, an informed design for a health care facility in an area with a significant Latinx population may include larger waiting and patient rooms in recognition that “often it’s more than one person coming to see the doctor,” says Sherry Snipes, founder and managing director of Washington, D.C.–based consulting firm Global Diversity Collaborative. “It’s usually three or four because the whole family comes.”

Leveraging the benefits of a diverse workforce, however, requires a culture of inclusion and equity. The former encourages everyone “to bring their whole selves to the table” and contribute, Snipes says; the latter ensures fairness. Achieving a culture like this requires the celebration of differences among people and, more importantly, the elimination of obstacles that the underserved and underrepresented face to access the same opportunities that others have.

This story is divided into three parts: Part 1, below, explores the barriers that people of color face in entering the design profession; Part 2 describes organizations and institutions addressing some of these barriers; and Part 3 looks at firm initiatives to create a more equitable work environment.

Upon reading this series, head over to Hanley Wood University for the potential to earn 1 AIA Learning Unit.

Courtesy 400 Forward

Part 1: Barriers to Entry

Primary school students with limited or no access to architects—or even to the concept of architecture—will, as expected, take longer to identify design as a potential career path. However, the students most likely to thrive in architecture programs are those who have committed to the discipline early on. Architecture students “have to start [their] programming in the first year of college, so it means you have to know you want to be an architect [by] your junior year of high school,” says Bryan Lee Jr., founder of and director of design at Colloqate, a New Orleans–based nonprofit multidisciplinary design practice, and the national chair of the National Organization of Minority Architects’ (NOMA’s) Project Pipeline. As a result, he continues, those “academically rigorous enough to be architects” often opt instead for medicine, law, and other fields where the primary training occurs in graduate school.

Still, early cognizance of architecture isn’t enough for some students to seriously consider it as a career. More obstacles exist.

Tuition is a significant deterrent to entering a design program, says Rachell Morris, Assoc. AIA, a former ZGF principal now based in New York. According to the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture’s online resource Study Architecture, the median in-state tuition for a five-year B.Arch. program at a public institution falls between $11,500 and $16,499 annually, not including living costs. For an in-state two- or three-year M.Arch. program, this figure jumps to between $16,500 and $21,499 per year. Tuition at private colleges and universities can be much, much more.

Kimberly Dowdell
Kimberly Dowdell

Increasingly, summer architecture programs—themselves with price tags in the thousands of dollars—are becoming a prerequisite for admission to competitive B.Arch. programs, says NOMA president Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, a partner at Detroit-based real estate firm Century Partners. Los Angeles–based Synthesis Design+Architecture (SDA) founder and design principal Alvin Huang, AIA, agrees. Also an associate professor at the University of Southern California (USC), Huang estimates that at least 90 percent of USC applicants have attended at least one such program and submit portfolios demonstrating formal instruction. “The difference is hard to evaluate because one has shown they’ve been trained to do the work and the other hasn’t,” he says.

Although historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions offer more affordable programs and do graduate a sizable share of African American architecture students (32 percent, according to a 2017 National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) Annual Report on Architecture Education), they are shrinking as public and private funding diminishes, says Deryl McKissack, president and CEO of Washington, D.C.–based McKissack & McKissack. Financial support and scholarships explicitly aiming to increase diversity are available from several sources, including major firms, such as Gensler and SmithGroup, and nonprofit organizations, such as ACE Mentor Program of America and AIA/Architects Foundation—but they come nowhere close to meeting the need.

Post-graduation, even landing a design job offers individuals little reprieve. According to the 2017 AIA Compensation Survey, the average salary for a designer with less than two years of experience is $47,130. Among comparative professions, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) projects that 2019 graduates with bachelor degrees in computer science or engineering will receive average offers of $67,539 and $69,188, respectively. Newly minted MBA graduates can expect to earn an average of $84,580, and first-year law associates, an eye-popping median of $135,000, according to the National Association for Law Placement.

Andrew Phillips
Ariel Bowen and Teon White Andrew Phillips

“Internships paying below market rate prevent talented student access to the prime opportunities,” says Andrew Phillips, chief of innovation and design faculty chair for the Charter High School for Architecture and Design (CHAD) in Philadelphia. “Students coming from families of affluence that can support unpaid [or low-paying] work have more opportunity.”

Gabrielle Bullock
Courtesy Perkins and Will Gabrielle Bullock

Closed Minds
In a school or work setting, being one of a few members of an underrepresented group can be isolating. “You don’t necessarily feel like anyone else in the room can relate to your perspective,” says Gabrielle Bullock, FAIA, Los Angeles–based director of global diversity for Perkins and Will. In 1984, Bullock was the second African American woman to graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design’s architecture program. “There was a singular approach and language in architecture education that did not resonate with all students of varying cultural backgrounds,” she says.

Kevin Holland
Noah Pylvainen Kevin Holland

In the 1980s, Kevin Holland, FAIA, was one of three African Americans in a class of 100-plus architecture students at the University of Virginia (UVa). Now the Los Angeles–based director of operations and a senior associate at Perkins and Will, Holland says he often questioned his fit at UVa and “whether this was the environment for me.” He considered leaving the program, but an instructor “convinced me that I would make a pretty good architect. That was the first time an architecture professor had said that to me.” It was Holland’s last year of school.

To be accredited by NAAB, an architecture program must address in its curriculum the profession’s role in ensuring “equity of access” to the built environment. How meaningfully and broadly programs comply can hinge on the instructor makeup. “If the faculty who can bring that to the table isn’t being hired, it won’t exist in the curriculum,” says Los Angeles–based ZGF associate Christopher Locke. While studying at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, he was able to travel to Brazil to study the country’s Afrocentric culture and roots in the slave trade. A diverse curriculum that “challenges the traditional practices and education of architecture is necessary for the profession to evolve,” he says.

Christopher Locke
Courtesy Designing in Color Christopher Locke

Students investigating the minority experience also require faculty members with a level of cultural competency. The 2017 NAAB report also finds that design faculty in the U.S. are 71 percent white, 8 percent Latinx, 7 percent Asian, and 3 percent African American. This disconnect in demographics can become clear at crit time when students may “have to work harder to justify [their] ideas,” Locke says.

He recalls a review of his own studio project exploring racial identity and imagery in architectural space that detoured into a discussion about gender representation because of a juror’s comment. Although Locke apologized for the juror’s misreading, the moment “changed the tone of the review” and left the remaining jurors uncertain of how to proceed. Locke recounts another occasion in which a professor halted the critique of a peer’s project when it became clear that the visiting jurors had no understanding of the significance of barbershops in African American culture.

Discussing hopes and concerns for communities at Small Talks:LA, a Designing in Color spin-off
Tessa Forde Discussing hopes and concerns for communities at Small Talks:LA, a Designing in Color spin-off

Biases, Latent or Expressed

Deryl McKissack
Courtesy McKissack & McKissack Deryl McKissack

For firm owners of color, competing for projects can be challenging because people prefer to work with those they like and know, McKissack says: “Architecture is such a chemistry-driven business. Sometimes the relationships can span years and are cultivated through personal and professional networks,” making them difficult for outsiders to penetrate. (The 2018 AIA Firm Survey report found that 71 percent of billings come from repeat business, 43 percent of which were from clients without a competitive selection.)

To win a commission without these connections requires a proven track record, but “firms can’t show a rich portfolio if they have not had the chance to build it,” McKissack points out. “There are many qualified firms who need the opportunity to build a body of work that leads to large-scale projects.” If a minority firm is hired, she adds, then “there is very little room for error. Small and minority-owned businesses rarely get a second chance if they underperform.”

McKissack & McKissack’s own portfolio comprises 65 percent public work and 35 percent private. The high proportion of public work is not uncommon among minority-owned firms: Public agencies often mandate participation by a minority business enterprise or women business enterprise to give firms, such as hers, a chance to compete.

Such stipulations don’t exist in private development. “Look at Washington, D.C.,” McKissack says. “As progressive as it is, we had only one office building designed by an African American company as recently as about seven years ago. The big developers aren’t using minority firms to do their design work.”

Alvin Huang
Ariel Sinson Alvin Huang

Although Asians are proportionately represented in architecture, their numbers dwindle among senior leaders, firm owners, and sole practitioners, says SDA’s Alvin Huang. “Part of it might be structural,” he says, referring to the dearth of Asian leaders to serve as role models and the persistence of the stereotype that Asians are quiet and hard-working, but “not necessarily as visionary … or charismatic—the qualities that define leadership.”

Cultural differences are a factor. Huang himself has noticed a reluctance among his Asian students to ask questions out of fear of seeming unintelligent. Yet in his own career, being inquisitive with colleagues, supervisors, and clients has not only deepened his knowledge, but also helped make his presence known. “They have to talk to you, so you’re part of the conversation,” Huang says.

Unconscious or implicit bias is another factor. A product of one’s life experiences and the culture and environment into which one is socialized, implicit bias refers to assumptions about individuals, groups, and behavior that are steeped in stereotypes based on race, ethnicity, gender, or age. Unlike explicit bias, which is self-reported and measurable, these assumptions are less accessible but more pervasive: Everyone has them.

When unaddressed, implicit bias can muddle hiring practices, compensation, and promotions for minority architects, who are more likely to report exclusion from important conversations or projects, lack of acknowledgment for their contributions, and limited opportunity for advancement than the general profession. According to the AIA’s 2016 report “Diversity in the Profession of Architecture,” women and people of color say they are less likely to be hired out of school, paid equally, or promoted to senior positions than white men.

When unaddressed, implicit bias can muddle hiring practices, compensation, and promotions for minority architects.

In conducting bias training with corporate and design firm clients, Snipes has observed that résumés with ethnic-sounding names tend to be judged unfavorably and receive less consideration. Huang has also noticed an industry tendency to attach cachet to certain accents—usually European—and stigma to others, which “may not affect Asian Americans, but may affect colleagues who immigrated when they were teenagers.”

Mina Chow
Raul Lopez Mina Chow

Intersectionality can multiply the consequences of bias. For example, students of color who have to work two jobs to support themselves or their families—and thus have limited time to spend in studio—may be viewed as lazy or less dedicated by their professors and peers.

Even so-called “positive” biases can impede advancement, says Mina Chow, AIA, adjunct associate architecture professor at USC and founding principal of Los Angeles–based design and media production studio Mc2 Spaces. “Any type of stereotype,” she says, “is always going to undermine who you might actually be as a human being.”

Continue to Part 2: Designer-Led Solutions > | Read Part 3: Firm Initiatives >>

Upon reading this series, head over to Hanley Wood University for the potential to earn 1 AIA Learning Unit.