R. Steven Lewis, FAIA, NOMAC, was privy to the challenges of being Black in architecture. His father was an architect, and Lewis himself grew up during the Civil Rights era. He heard no shortage of stories about obstacles—but also some about success. More than 40 years of practice later, he has seen excitement for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) emerge and fade every 10 years or so.
The past 18 months have been no exception. The murder of George Floyd and extreme health inequities exposed by the pandemic have been coupled with ongoing civil unrest and calls to action by citizens and corporations. Lewis, a Los Angeles–based principal at ZGF, says his life experience “has allowed me to meet this moment … with a lot of energy, hopefulness—and caution.”
Let’s be clear: The awakening of our collective consciousness should never have taken the public execution of a Black man. But Lewis’ hesitancy speaks to his understanding of what achieving equity in architecture will require.
According to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, 16% of licensed professionals are people of color; 2% are Black. In comparison, 42% of the country’s general population identify as people of color and 12% as Black. But equity goes beyond aligning these numbers. The profession also needs to stop alienating, isolating, and marginalizing underrepresented designers.
To Lewis, corporate diversity initiatives represent the bare minimum of effort. “Your hiring and retention policies, promotional policy, recruitment policies—those are the low-hanging fruit,” he says. “Once you’ve exhausted those, the question [remains]: How do we realize the richness of lived experiences and cultural backgrounds in a design process and a design outcome?”
Civic leaders are starting to channel attention and funds into communities of color that, for generations, have been sacrificed for freeway construction and industrial development and disenfranchised through redlining and rampant demolition under the guise of “urban renewal.” Similarly, institutions and corporations are beginning to request or require diversity metrics for project teams and suppliers. The gears of market demand are turning.
Increasing diversity—and thus perspectives, experiences, and empathy—in architecture can better prepare clients to address current needs and future unknowns. Moreover, a representative profession won’t benefit just one company, university, or city. Rather, its impact will radiate and weave into the fabric of our communities while dispersing the planning power held largely by wealthy white individuals and institutions.
To achieve representation—and, frankly, relevance—architects must do what they tell clients they do best: listen, research, ideate, and innovate. And they must go deep, starting with the acknowledgment of long-standing problems in every aspect of design, from the pipeline to retirement.
Priming the Pipeline
Many professional industries have so-called pipeline problems. When people are not introduced to a particular field, they are less likely to pursue careers in it. Design firms asked about their lack of staff diversity will sometimes cite the pool of available candidates. Given the fact that half of all new NCARB record holders are people of color, with gains made largely in Asian and Hispanic or Latino populations, that excuse may not hold water much longer.
Aligning the talent pool to our country’s demographics will require changes at the pipeline’s head: youth education. In 2006, the National Organization of Minority Architects began Project Pipeline, holding nationwide summer camps that bring middle- and high-schoolers of color together with architecture students and practitioners to learn design thinking, research, and technical skills.
Jason Pugh, AIA, NOMA, the 2021–2022 president of NOMA and a Chicago-based senior associate at Gensler, says recent alumni of Project Pipeline are often tapped as junior mentors or camp counselors while professional NOMA members serve as supervisors. “You can literally see the physical pipeline between students, high schoolers, college students, and young professionals,” he says.
Similarly, the ACE Mentor Program of America and Hip Hop Architecture Camp offer free programs to underserved high school students interested in the building and planning sector. Initiatives like these provide participants not only tangible skills, like drafting and model-making, but also skills to navigate difficult situations. Alumni may find themselves as the only person of color in their future workplace, says Krisann Rehbein, executive director of the Chicago chapter of ACE. After one to three years of participating in ACE, she says, “you have the confidence to be able to navigate that situation.”
Tracking students who go on to study and practice architecture is challenging, but necessary to measure the programs’ effectiveness. Rehbein says ACE Chicago encourages participants to stay in touch by offering college scholarships and internship leads, as well as training on using LinkedIn for networking.
Pugh says NOMA is open to sharing its Project Pipeline data with other programs because students who catch the design bug often enroll in multiple camps and workshops. NOMA is also planning to rebrand Project Pipeline as an umbrella that includes any activity—scholarships, NOMA Students fellowships, and internship programs—that aims to increase the number of architects of color.
A multilevel support system is required to move students from youth interest to licensure, says Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA, NOMA, who chaired AIA’s 2015 Equity in Architecture Commission and is the Institute's 2022 vice president/president-elect. In January 2017, after 14 months of research and work, the commission presented 11 priority recommendations to increase diversity in the profession. Two specifically pertained to the pipeline: engaging children and families “within all demographic communities” in K–12 architecture programs and “advocating for a more accessible path” that bridges two- and four-year higher education institutions with degree programs approved by the National Architectural Accrediting Board. “Not everybody approaches college from the standard five-year bachelor’s, or four-plus-two [graduate degree],” Grandstaff-Rice says.
Also in 2017, NOMA and the AIA Large Firm Roundtable began discussing strategies to increase the persistently low numbers of Black architects. Then someone suggested the group treat the issue in a manner similar to sustainability. In 2020, the organizations announced their joint 2030 Diversity Challenge, aiming to double the number of Black architects in 10 years. “If you reverse-engineer it, it’s damn near impossible to even think how that can happen,” Lewis says, referring to architecture’s lengthy licensing process, which averages upward of 11 years to complete. “But if you aim high and work toward it, a great deal of progress will be made.”
A Hard Look at Licensure
While people of color make up half of NCARB’s new record holders, their numbers begin declining at architecture’s next milestones: garnering experience hours (known as the AXP) and successfully completing the Architect Registration Examination. In its September “Baseline on Belonging: Examination” report, NCARB found that white test-takers had higher pass rates across the six ARE 5.0 divisions than Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Asian candidates; respectively, the differences ranged from 27 to 38 percentage points, 24 to 32 percentage points, and 16 to 27 percentage points.
In 2019, Tiara Hughes, Assoc. AIA, NOMA, passed three ARE 5.0 exams in six weeks. The Chicago-based senior associate urban designer and project manager at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who also works as a real estate broker, had planned a break after taking—and passing—her fourth exam in October 2019. Then George Floyd was murdered. “It was difficult for a person like myself, actively advocating for equity, to focus on exams last year,” she says.
Still, Hughes believes the reasons for the lower pass rates run deeper and may include “who is creating the tests, how the questions are phrased, and who can relate to the content … as well as the socioeconomic issues that [the different] groups deal with.”
“Baseline of Belonging: Examination” digs into possible socioeconomic barriers, which NCARB studied with NOMA. Candidates of color surveyed in the study were more likely than white candidates to report that financial burdens—including family obligations and college debt—affected their ability to pay for the exams, which cost $235 per division and offer no discount for retakes. A 2018 survey by the AIA San Francisco Equity by Design committee found that Black designers reported having nearly three times as much college debt as the average respondent.
NCARB’s report also reveals that candidates of color, particularly women, receive less support from their workplaces in obtaining exam study materials and payment assistance. Latinas were the most likely group to spend $500 or more on study materials—but they also felt the least confident of their ability to afford the AREs. Ultimately, though candidates of color make up 44% of test-takers, only 29% complete the exam process.
To move mountains, the industry must start somewhere. This summer, Hughes, based on conversations with other Black practitioners, proposed on social media that NCARB make tests free for Black emerging professionals. Some of her followers pushed back, saying the idea wouldn’t yield higher pass rates. But Hughes says that wasn’t her intention: “The point would be to bring more people to test in general and therefore take more tests.”
A.L. Hu, AIA, NOMA, was also concerned attention to surveys and statistics was distracting from effecting real-world impact. The New York–based Enterprise Rose Fellow, who identifies as non-binary, became a member of NCARB’s Re-Think Tank, which engages recently licensed practitioners to discuss concerns and ideas to update the path to licensure. Through this experience, they believe NCARB is grasping the importance of moving beyond data and into storytelling as a way to shed light on both structural and enigmatic barriers to equity.
Like many professionals in marginalized groups, Hu says getting licensed increased their chances of promotion. “As an Asian American person who reads as a woman in most professional spaces, I have to get licensed to be taken seriously,” they say. Only after working last year at a nonprofit that maintained a strict 9–5 schedule, coupled with having projects postponed due to the pandemic, did Hu find time to prepare and get “the edge to pass all my exams. … It’s a whole other job to actually study for the exams.” Without this time, Hu says they would have “kept failing exams [until] I finally learned the material.”
Industry organizations are trying to help. NOMA has partnered with online test-prep company Black Spectacles in a 50×50 Challenge program to provide its members low-cost, high-quality study materials and resources.
Some NOMA chapters reimburse exam fees, which the Architects Foundation also does through its annual Jason Pettigrew Memorial Scholarship.
But relief is inconsistent. Many emerging designers of color won’t land at a large firm that can connect them with study groups or reimbursements—much less offer a 40-hour workweek that enables study time. Hughes’ proposition, to make exams free for Black designers, is a strategy for repair, but, as such, it opens the door for uncomfortable conversations about reparations.
Building Connections and Businesses
In this country, people of color consistently earn significantly less than their white peers. In architecture, the 2018 AIASF Equity by Design study found that white men reported the highest average salary—upward of 30% more than that of Black women around the 15- to 20-year career mark.
For architects of color, starting their own firm has been one way to gain agency in their career and grow professionally. But that first commission typically comes from connections—professional, familial, collegial, personal—with financial power. This alone can preclude one from making the leap.
Even so-called reparative avenues to bolster minority-owned firms may not be what they seem. In 1983, Roberta Washington, FAIA, NOMAC, started her eponymous firm after realizing that large, white-owned firms wouldn’t allow her a path to principal or even associate. After setting up shop in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, Washington began attending community board meetings to connect with the community and participating in programs designed to connect minority-owned businesses with civic projects. “They … supposedly helped Black architects work with other architects to get … experience in a particular area,” Washington says.
Large, established firms would list Roberta Washington Architects as a part of their design team and get an edge in winning projects. But then, Washington says, her firm would rarely receive credit for its contributions—credit that was critical to obtaining future work. “No one would accept it,” she says. “They would say, ‘You were there for show, for window dressing.’”
She realized that the best way to be taken seriously on these teams was to secure a part of the project that could be identifiably hers.
In the mid-1990s, after a large design firm presented a modernization plan for Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., at a community board meeting, the audience—primarily Black residents—asked if Black architects were involved. Washington, who wasn’t in the room, was told that the design firm replied, “No, there are no Black architects who specialize in hospital design.”
But the audience knew otherwise, Washington says. “Somebody called somebody who called me and asked, ‘Didn’t you get a degree in hospital design?’”
She did, in fact—an M.Arch. from Columbia University with a specialty in health care design.
The large firm invited her to submit a proposal to them, and RWA was named an associate architect. For more than a year, Washington’s firm worked on the project, with significant design oversight on the ambulatory care unit. Though the election of a new governor led to the premature termination of the commission for the entire team, Washington was happy for the experience on a mega project with the large firm—which wouldn’t have known she existed save for her community.
Washington kept networking and making connections. She continued attending community board meetings and then joined the board for eight years. Over time, she became a design advocate for the entire neighborhood, advising on development issues and chairing and co-chairing Central Harlem’s Housing Committee and Land Use Committee, respectively. “In local communities,” she says, “if they know that you exist, there is power there.”
Washington epitomizes how representation in the profession can radiate well beyond a single project through community connectivity. Still, the renowned architect continues to ask herself, “How many times have I gotten something by … luck?”
Luck—like Hu’s unexpected free time to study for the ARE—is not a practical or sustainable business tool. Instead, emerging firms need targeted initiatives to help them get off the ground and running.
At NOMA, Pugh is prioritizing the help firms need to grow. Next year, the organization will launch Leveraging Legacy, a program that will pair established firms of color with early- or mid-career professionals, with hopes that the latter group will begin to build legacies of their own. “It’s important that we continue to focus the narrative and dialogue around entrepreneurship, encouraging folks to start their own practice and … give [others] those first steps and tips to get them going,” Pugh says.
Many of the minority-owned firms established around the same time as RWA “have not survived their founders,” Pugh says. In fact, only a single firm started by one of the original 12 NOMA founders remains in business today: Sulton Campbell Britt & Associates, in Baltimore, which Leroy Campbell co-founded with John Sulton, FAIA, NOMA, as Sulton Campbell Architects in 1964.
Starting a minority-owned practice is hard enough, but sustaining it after the departure of the founders is crucial to maintaining diversity in architecture and firm ownership. Pugh says NOMA’s Leveraging Legacy program will also broach the critical but often overlooked topic of succession planning.
Additionally, the mentor–mentee relationships Pugh hopes to foster through Leveraging Legacy can bridge different companies and institutions. Lewis has recruited a JEDI task force leader in each of ZGF’s six locations to cultivate relationships with small, minority-owned firms across the country. “It has produced incredible results,” Lewis says. Some relationships have evolved into project partnerships, where the smaller firms can bid on large-scale, culturally significant projects with ZGF—similar to Washington’s experience with early collaboration initiatives but more organically derived.
One such project is an urban plan that reimagines the Minneapolis commercial corridor on which George Floyd was murdered. Led by Damaris Hollingsworth, AIA, NOMA, principal of local firm Design by Melo, the team will also consult with stakeholders in the neighborhood revitalization.
The collaboration enables a Black woman–owned practice to “touch a lightning rod of history and have a significant role in repurposing and redefining the future of those places,” Lewis says.
In Chicago, Deon Lucas, AIA, NOMA, created a similar model with Beehyyve, an architecture and engineering cooperative of solo practitioners and small businesses in the city’s South Side neighborhood. As a group, Beehyyve members can bid on larger-scale projects, but each member can still pursue its own projects.
Cooperative models, like those by ZGF and Beehyyve, aren’t new. In the early 1970s, Lewis says, a group of Black architects running small firms collaborated to bid on the AT&T Building in New York. Though Philip Johnson ultimately won the project and the group splintered thereafter, Lewis says the architects later reunited as NOMA members.
One unexpected benefit of our increasingly remote and socially conscious world is the emergence of grassroots organizations to meet the needs of practitioners of color and the communities they serve. The agile groups are able to tap into the ethos “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
Hu calls this “bias toward action.” In large institutions, an individual or even a small group “couldn’t try to push action to happen,” they say. “It has to come down from the top.”
Along with NCARB’s Re-Think Tank, Hu is actively engaged in Design as Protest, a grassroots group of architects, designers, writers, and illustrators that is creating accountability in architecture education and practice and championing a radical vision for the design community at-large through virtual training, programs, and publications. Though NCARB and DAP are significantly different entities, Hu sees both as being crucial to moving the profession toward justice.
NOMA itself was started in response to what its founders perceived was lacking in AIA. According to Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, NOMAC, the 2019–2020 NOMA president and a Chicago-based marketing principal at HOK, the 12 founders bonded over their desire to support underrepresented architects. “Instead of trying to get AIA to contort to and serve the specific needs of Black architects at that time, they focused their energy on creating and using NOMA as a support system,” she says.
Bias toward action has carried both DAP and NOMA forward, one at its infancy and the other at 50 years old. Their shared ethos has made for a long list of accomplishments, including the creation of welcoming and supportive communities for all designers. Working with DAP “feels like a different world,” Hu says. “You can be yourself. Everyone is accepted for who they are and what they bring to the space.”
Pugh and Dowdell both liken their involvement with NOMA as “being a part of a family.” Support and meaningful connections are critical to retention in any field—and they are frequently absent in design culture.
“Oftentimes, when you’re at a firm or an office, you may be the only person of color there,” Pugh says. “And you’re working on projects for clients or in communities or countries that you have no connection with. It’s easy to lose focus and forget about your passions and the things that pushed you toward architecture.”
Community is built on connection and longevity. And, done right, the communities architects build will not only sustain their careers but also outlive them and nurture generations to come.
Architecture’s shift in demographics, particularly among emerging designers, addresses only the “D” of JEDI—the “low-hanging fruit,” as Lewis calls it. Achieving justice, equity, and inclusion will require not just number-crunching and one-off initiatives but collective and courageous commitment and action. “There’s an intense focus on channeling resources and development efforts in marginalized neighborhoods and Black and Brown communities,” Pugh says. But “if diverse teams and minority architects and planners are not fully engaged with a prominent seat at the table … and having a hand in [design], then we are at serious risk of repeating the mistakes that devastated our communities decades ago.”
Playing the long game takes more than anticipating when the next generation of underserved and underrepresented youth are ready to enter the profession. It requires taking down barriers practitioners of color face today.
When Grandstaff-Rice presented the AIA Equity in Architecture Commission’s priorities in 2017, some people expressed shock at the amount of work the recommendations required. They believed a solution could be had via K-12 education or more scholarships. The commission “knew that there was no one thing we could do that was going to fix it all, and that frustrated people,” she says. “They were like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Architecture does not need only more youth engagement, scholarships, research, individual storytelling, and changes to human resources. It needs all of it plus action toward addressing intersectional inequalities—like the racial wealth gap—and identity biases toward employee gender, citizenship status, and ability. This will require intercessory but also reparative work that acknowledges histories of oppression and corrects policies and structures.
The process will be earth-shattering, Lewis says: “For some, there’s a fear in revealing what’s unknown, because it’ll threaten the foundation upon which their value structure and their pedagogy have been built.” The air we breathe contains carbon and oxygen but also other elements that have enabled our survival, he continues. “One is the racist foundation of the United States, a country built on the concept of manifest destiny and of using human labor to create wealth that has extended and multiplied itself into where we stand today.”
For many in this field, the air is not just toxic—it is suffocating. Let the ground shake. This is the only way to know what has long been in need of repair.