The California State University Chico State Physical Sciences Building, by SmithGroup focuses on meeting evolving student needs to support equity and well-being.
Emily Hagopian, courtesy of SmithGroup The California State University Chico State Physical Sciences Building, by SmithGroup focuses on meeting evolving student needs to support equity and well-being.

To better understand the intersection between equity and wellness in the architecture profession, ARCHITECT interviewed Rosa Sheng, FAIA, SmithGroup vice president, higher education studio leader, and director of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, and founder of Equity by Design.

ARCHITECT: Wellness can be a buzzword these days, so how would you define it for the architecture profession? Why does wellness matter?

Rosa Sheng
Scott R. Kline Rosa Sheng

Sheng: I have my own biases about what wellness means, as does everybody, but if we take it back to its architectural context, the charge of licensed architects is to foster the health, safety, and welfare of society at large. That’s our stewardship. So, I started with the definition of what welfare means. And when we think of welfare, it’s a triggered word because we think of government subsidies. But the first meaning of welfare is the state of doing well, especially through happiness, well-being, health, and prosperity, so it’s like a holistic wellness. There’s a focus definitely on the mental and physical health side, but then we don’t think about the social determinants that would affect wellness. In short, I’d like to get away from the word wellness, because I think it’s too monolithic and already triggered. I’d like to talk about well-being and welfare, in terms of health, safety, and welfare for architects, because I think architects, while they know that’s their charge, there isn’t enough unpacking of it.

What does it look like to work in firms that promote wellness?

In order to unpack a singular word into its deeper meaning, I think we could look at research on the eight dimensions of wellness: emotional, physical, environmental, intellectual, occupational, spiritual, social, and financial. All those make up the wheel of wellness that affects a person’s quality of life and their ability to thrive and be successful. So what’s that secret sauce? What’s actually the business value proposition?

The business value proposition is that if you don’t have people who feel like they belong and that they’re psychologically safe to contribute, not only is there a loss of creativity, but it’s also a loss of engagement and productivity. Especially in architecture and engineering fields, we have to be problem solvers. And so that sense of belonging is that core. You feel comfortable, and then that translates into your ability and willingness to contribute, which allows for cooperation and collaboration with other people in that aggregate. You can’t have collaboration without that kind of fallback of the sense of belonging and psychological safety as your core founding.

From a culture that generally emphasizes self-focused well-being, the greater reinforcement of well-being is when we help others. Our sense of well-being also improves; the satisfaction of seeing somebody else improve is equally as important as the daily self-related well-being.

Where does equity fit in? Do equitable workplaces and wellness-focused workplaces go hand in hand? If not, what are the equity-related blind spots that design professionals miss in the conversations around wellness?

I’d like to also expand [the word equity] because it’s become a catch phrase and watered down. So defining equity, justice, and even equality; it’s a mindset. Equity is a good word to start with because it acknowledges that there are policies, practices, and cultures in place that have historically harmed people or made people feel uncomfortable. That’s a core part of equity: not to say, nothing’s wrong or minimize it. In order to have that well-being philosophy grounded, we also have to consider the breadth of lived experiences.

In terms of people performing at their optimum, feeling trusted, or trusting other people, there are certain messages that firms send when they say, “Oh, we’re all about equity, we say the word and it’s in our brand.” But then when the reality hits, how do you demonstrate equity or justice in your practice? I think that’s where there’s a lot of improvement to be made. And there are several layers of that. So there’s education, cultural cultivation, change management, changing the narrative, and advocacy. How do we become champions [of others] when we know policies and practices are not only outdated but also prevent people from feeling that they’re safe and that they have that sense of belonging to how they engage and their ability to be their optimal selves?

The California State University Chico State Physical Sciences Building exterior
Emily Hagopian, courtesy of SmithGroup The California State University Chico State Physical Sciences Building exterior

Does working in offices focused on employee wellness help architects and design professionals better design spaces promoting wellness for users?

What we’re trying to do at SmithGroup is translate representation—or the lack thereof, and improve upon it—into this holistic idea of well-being and optimizing high-performing teams in the workplace. Then that translates into us being directly empathetic to the communities that we serve because we have representatives who actively know the lived experience of the users to reach out, to listen, and to teach their co-workers. To be comfortable saying: “Hey, we don’t know everything about this community that we’re designing for. We haven’t considered the working mom who needs to pump twice a day. We haven’t considered the neurodiverse person that needs the quiet room to decompress from the stress of just interacting with people and overstimulation.”

That’s where equity as a framework comes in, expanding one’s mindset, developing what’s called intercultural intelligence. We know of emotional intelligence—how to read people in the room and if they’re stressed or not—but then there’s another evolution, which is how do you understand and build competency of the various cultural backgrounds. But also understanding the lived experience that somebody has come from—whether an underserved population or if somebody is actively experiencing basic needs challenges.

When employees see that organizations lead with mission and purpose, and that profit is secondary as a result of mission and purpose, there is a greater sense of trust, and a sense of psychological safety, and therefore belonging, when there’s an alignment of core values with the individual and the organization.

The California State University Chico State Physical Sciences Building all gender bathrooms and lactation rooms
Emily Hagopian, courtesy of SmithGroup The California State University Chico State Physical Sciences Building all gender bathrooms and lactation rooms

The recently released “An Elephant in the ‘Well-Designed’ Room: An Investigation into Bias in the Architecture Profession” study highlights bias that architects—non-male architects and architects of color—face in the workplace. Do traditional wellness practices tend to prioritize the wellness of one group of employees over the other?

More abstractly, it’s an education process: Applying best practices of the Lean Enterprise Institute, studies about high-performing teams, and research such as The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni (Jossey-Bass, 2002). Essentially there’s a pyramid, the foundation of which is to build trust or psychological safety.

I think the study went into a deeper dive of these nuances, but most people know these problems exist. The important thing is to apply these best-practice principles but with an overlay of intercultural competence. So how do you trust people from different cultures and lived experiences? It’s fostering the opportunities to get to know those people on an individual level. And that takes time. A mantra that I try to practice is moving at the speed of trust. I’m not going to convince somebody to do something, or try something new, or believe in my design idea, unless I’ve built that trust with them.

In that answer, I'm hearing that a tripping point can sometimes be trying to fast forward through progress. Is that correct?

Yes, or hiring and promoting people as tokens. So not truly honoring their value or their potential or their worth, but hiring them for a face value of perceived contribution, to not being criticized right. It's done for the wrong reasons. When we intentionally hire people of color, that's great as a starting point, but then what do we do in supporting their professional development and understanding the barriers to their success, historical or day-to-day? Do they get opportunities to lead a project? Do we have opinions about whether or not they're capable enough of doing something compared to somebody who is historically in the majority? Deep diving, looking inward, and self-reflecting, that's the difficult conversation part, because it's easy to dismiss. Nobody wants to be labeled as part of an 'ism,' whether it's sexism or racism.

In Ibram X. Kendi's How to be an Antiracist (Random House One World, 2019), the premise is that racism is pervasive. It's in our systems already. It started with people thinking a certain way, but it's already baked into our societal systems over time. If we're not actively working to dismantle those systems—ie., policies, practices, and behaviors, we're complicit and we're contributing to its perpetuation. It has to be an active dismantling or calling out of when we see things—when you see something, say something, not just for yourself, but for somebody else.

The University of California Davis Teaching and Learning Complex in Davis, Calif., by SmithGroup offers students spaces for gathering and decompression.
courtesy Rosa Sheng The University of California Davis Teaching and Learning Complex in Davis, Calif., by SmithGroup offers students spaces for gathering and decompression.

Is neurodiversity part of this conversation? Is wellness in the profession typically tailored to neurotypical individuals?

Yes, and there's a spectrum. Some people are diagnosed with Autism or on the Asperger's spectrum, but then there's all the rest of us in between: How we react or are triggered by anxiety or past, current, or recent experiences of trauma. We need to be mindful of that when you hear about it and not be dismissive, minimize it, or not acknowledge it because we're in the office and we're all about business.

I think one step is acknowledging everybody where they are and having check-ins. We try to do that in our studio meetings, especially over the last two years. It is, and it continues to be, this overwhelming rollercoaster ride of outward-facing stresses and traumas affecting various people. There can be an impulse to ignore [the situation] so that it doesn't affect us, but I think that has the inverse effect by increasing the anxiety of people affected and triggering more neurodiversity related negative impacts.

How can firms better integrate mental health and wellness into their practices?

It goes deeper into architecture culture and studio practice as a whole and what we value and honor. There's been a sea shift, if you will, from the single star practitioner, for lack of a better term, with the worker bees of that support their vision at all expenses. So long hours, low pay lack of consideration for somebody's personal life. There is a transition now of exploration to kind of pouring into that work is how do we achieve productive work, meaningful work, impactful work, but balance while also being mindful of a person's personal obligations and quality of life. The firm should also acknowledge that there is a life outside of the office and that making commitments to clients about unrealistic schedules or fees has a direct impact on the staff person's well-being, even though it doesn't feel like there is a direct connection.

In the messaging of, ‘we'll take any fee to get any project to sustain the work,’ this beautiful architecture comes at the expense of the employee and lack of acknowledgment of the employee's labor. When we say ‘it's an individual's work,’ or ‘it's the firm's work,’ but we don't acknowledge the individuals involved, we are perpetuating that stress of not being seen, belonging or valued. mattering. This has a direct impact on staff, therefore, are not feeling psychological safety, and then the physical wellness has secondary outputs from that stress and anxiety over time.

This interview appeared in the April 2022 issue of ARCHITECT.