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Katherine Darnstadt, AIA: Trial by Public Interest Design

Starting an architecture firm during a severe recession wasn’t Darnstadt’s first choice, but it might have been her best choice

By Angie Schmitt

Like so many young workers displaced by this recession, when Katherine Darnstadt, AIA, was laid off from her first job as an architect in 2010, her thoughts turned to grad school.

She was midway through the application process, however, when her life changed dramatically. The newly married 28-year-old learned she was pregnant with her first child. That —or “necessity,” she says—is what propelled her into entrepreneurship during a time when most architects were struggling to hold onto what they had. She founded Latent Design in Chicago that year. About two years old, this budding firm is building a local and national reputation for innovation and social consciousness, and collecting large and small clients and awards along the way.

With Darnstadt at the helm, Latent has won a series of high-impact, smaller-scale, community-based projects: a mobile food market, a popup store, an offbeat playground. Meanwhile, the firm has developed an innovative internal structure that has helped it thrive and grow financially during difficult times for the building professions. Darnstadt sat down with AIArchitect recently to share some lessons learned in her whirlwind journey from unemployed prospective student to mother, entrepreneur, and rising young Chicago architect, recognized most recently with a 2013 AIA Young Architects Award.

LESSON ONE: Treat All Professional Experiences as Education

“In an eight-month period, I got licensed, promoted, got married, laid off, and got pregnant. In 2010, I had a deadline of nine months to make some sort of income happen for my family. There were not a lot of opportunities out there at the time.

What are you going to do [when] you are pregnant, you have no income, and you have an architecture degree? You start your own firm. What else are you going to do?

I started at looking at opportunities as sort of ‘How can I use my profession as education?’ When I was laid off and founding Latent Design, Architecture for Humanity was really getting into full swing, and I started using them as a teaching tool for myself. I was trying to figure out how I could replicate a master’s degree design program for free in my own backyard. This led to a variety of collaborations, mistakes, and lessons that ultimately fed into how I structure Latent Design now.

 The first projects the [Architecture for Humanity] chapter assumed allowed me to experience community-based participatory design and understand a collaborative design process that incorporated other areas of influence on the built environment that are not traditionally seen as ‘billable’ in [my] previous places of employment. Our ability to leverage the organization's weight allowed the chapter to access institutional and policy partnerships that might have otherwise been closed, such as universities, parallel nonprofits, and the mayor's office. Given that each chapter is fairly independent from the national organization, we had to create a highly localized and sustainable model for the chapter to respond to the demand of both community and practitioners, which became the proving ground for a design process that was later incorporated into my firm.  

We [Latent Design] believe in embedding ourselves in a project in order to create an authentic and empathic design. We do this through observation, informal interviews, workshops, and storytelling. At times, we relocate the office and have worked for short periods directly in the facilities or neighborhoods of our project partners. This provides an opportunity for passive learning that directly feeds into the project.”

LESSON TWO: Be Creative about Generating Revenues

“We modeled ourselves much more like entrepreneurs. It’s been a lot of trial and error.

We have a marketing budget, but we don’t use it in a traditional way. Our marketing budget essentially goes to small micro-projects that might turn into larger projects. We do a little project somewhere and someone might see that and want to work with us; and we’ve already seen that [happen].

We also have within our firm a program where, when our contract employees come in, they are offered an opportunity to get a finder’s fee [for jobs they refer]. They get X percent of the profit. They are actively advocating for more projects to the firm. That has opened up so much more marketing potential. It’s organic that way.

It’s been sort of a petri dish moment over 18 months. We put a lot of our faith out there in the world. Every single day you kind of have a fingers-crossed moment and hope you’re still solvent the next month. Now that we’re getting more stable, we can be more precise about what we want to keep and what we want to let go.”

LESSON THREE: Put the Public at the Center of the Design Process

“The field of public interest design was starting to form [around the time Latent launched], so we’ve sort of aligned ourselves with that particular umbrella. It had really started to shape my viewpoints on architecture.

When starting Latent Design, I thought, ‘Can we start to look at not only architecture and design in the practice that I know, but can we look at front-end and back-end pieces as well that sustain good design?’

At the front end, we look at existing infrastructures and institutions (in the organizational and services sense of the word) that impact the built environment. We have consulted on policy, culture, and community development in the past as an extension of existing projects or initiatives, and this has grown [into] us creating an arm of the firm that will offer these services to nonprofits, agencies, and businesses. We see this not only in creating a continuity of projects for our firm, but it also offers opportunities to collaborate with other design firms.

By back end, we look at how our design is, or is not in some cases, being integrated as part of a long term post-occupancy evaluation. We look for opportunities during the design and construction process for the projects to become teaching tools, both internally for the client and externally for the public.

We have a skill set that is specifically architecture, but we’re trying to meet the needs of the other individuals that are in our world.”


Katherine Darnstadt, AIA. Image courtesy of Julia Franzosa.

Latent Design led the interior renovation of the Rebecca K. Crown Youth Center, part of Chicago Youth Centers. For $15,000 the 1,200-square-foot project was completed with public and private partnerships, using reclaimed wood from deconstructed Chicago buildings. Image courtesy of Latent Design.

Latent Design led Femme 2 STEM, a two-week intensive design workshop aimed at exposing girls to science, technology, engineering, and math fields as they relate to the built environment. Part of their work was planning, designing, and constructing a safe-haven playground based on an intensive community engagement process. Image courtesy of Latent Design.


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