A'21: How can your firm transcend the industry’s biggest challenges?

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During Day 1 of AIA's virtual 2021 Conference on Architecture, the leaders of four breakout firms shared their solutions.

The profession of architecture is at an inflection point. Many firms, spurred by urgent conversations about racial equity and the growing threat of climate change, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic’s shakeup of our traditional work environments, are being challenged to apply strategic solutions to several crucial issues at once. How can firms go about elevating their profile under these conditions, as well as their bottom line?

Brainstorming solutions is a challenge in and of itself, especially when it comes to making sure that everyone’s input is equally valued. Four industry professionals discussed this, and other challenges facing their firms and the profession, during “Transforming the Business of Design,” a keynote panel held on Day 1 of AIA’s 2021 Conference on Architecture and moderated by 99% Invisible podcast host Roman Mars.

When Deryl McKissack founded her firm in 1990, she strived to create an environment where everyone’s voices were equally valued. “When I came in this industry 30 years ago, especially being black and female, I was told to keep my head down and do my job,” said McKissack, President & CEO of McKissack & McKissack. “I wasn’t supposed to ask any questions; I was the last one to find out what was going on because I wasn’t in the inner circle. So, I started a company where everybody had a seat at the table, because I believe that perspective helps us with a better solution.”

Addressing the historical problems of a male-dominated profession won’t be accomplished overnight, but identifying the problem is the first step in remedying it.

“We want whole people to come to work because we feel healthy people build healthy teams, and they build a healthy organization, which expands out to a healthy community,” McKissack said.  

Increasing diversity helps the bottom line

One of the major challenges facing many firms is recruiting diverse talent and building more equitable and diverse workplaces. Sheela Søgaard, CEO of Bjarke Ingels Group, stressed that good intentions aren’t enough.

“Intentions have to be backed up by deliberate action,” Søgaard said. Despite BIG’s attempts to recruit employees of diverse nationalities, as well as ethnic and racial backgrounds, Søgaard noted that while many of the entry-level employees were from diverse backgrounds, that didn’t necessarily translate to the upper echelons of the firm. BIG new they would need to find a way to address this.

“It’s good for business to have diverse leadership,” Søgaard said.

Kim Yao, AIA, Principal of Architecture Research Office, said that this is something her firm believes and has been working toward, as well. “We’re being asked to be accountable not just to our peers and our team and staff, but absolutely in terms of client interviews and new business and new projects, people are asking how you’re implementing change in your firm,” she said. “They want you to lead with this perspective of who the firm is, and the diversity represented there.”

And, of course, being aware of biases is the first step to dismantling them.

“How do you get that bias out of the way?” – Roman Mars

As Gregg Pasquarelli, AIA, Principal and Founding Architect of SHoP Architects, pointed out, not wanting to talk about money is not an equitable or sustainable practice as architecture strives to be a more inclusive profession.

“I can’t think of a less equitable way to be,” he said. “People have to make a living.”

“If it’s a profession that can’t engage in finance, then that’s about the most exclusionary thing I could ever imagine,” he continued. “From the very beginning, we always have said, ‘It’s great business and great design, and those two things are not mutually exclusive.’”

In order to address pipeline issues in the profession, ShoP talked to staff and made the decision that the best thing to do would be to invest in developing talent at the high school and pre-college levels. Working with the University of Southern California and the University of Michigan, SHoP’s goal is to build a bridge to architecture for students who might not otherwise be exposed to the profession.

“In 20 to 25 years, the principals at ShoP will hopefully not be people who look like me,” he said.

Getting an equal share of created value

Another crucial piece of the equity, diversity and inclusion puzzle, Søgaard argued, rests on architects getting their fair share of the value they create – which, historically, has not been the case.

“We must not lose sight of our jobs as leaders in this industry to ensure that we increase our financial prowess, that we don’t leave all the money on the table for the developers and the real estate agents.” With more access to their fair share of value, Søgaard reasons, architects can provide better wages and have more resources generally to create a more equitable profession – despite the constant pressure to be fee-competitive on projects and enter design competitions where there may be no payoff for hours and hours of work.

One of Mars’s final questions was about how to navigate tough periods of necessary change. “When you trying to change, you’re open to more criticism. How do you get through that hard period of time?” he asked.

For McKissack, it is essential to engage with tough conversations even when they are uncomfortable, or when people may not feel like they have the right words to talk about a given equity issue. “You have to have those conversations – you can’t shut down and say, ‘I’m afraid to say this correctly or I’m afraid to say it incorrectly.’ You just have to say it the best you can, and if your intentions are right, and the other person’s intentions are noble and right in the sense that they want to work through it – we’ll get to the right terminology,” she said. “Communication is so key, and if we don’t do that, we’re not going to know the similarities that we have.”

For Søgaard, being open to constructive feedback is essential. “It’s not necessarily a fixed target that we’re moving toward on any of the challenges,” Søgaard said. “It’s a constant moving target and a continuous journey with continuous learning. It’s really important to invite everyone continuously into the conversations where their input is relevant. Even those who may feel like they have nothing to contribute, or where there is a fear of offending someone.”

Another “moving target” is the role of mentorship in the profession. Mars acknowledged the challenge of making sure that mentor-mentee relationships fall under closer scrutiny than they have in the past. “That is something that we have to account for, but we also don’t want to stymie those relationships that involve mentorship and bringing people up,” he said. Creating an environment where everyone feels that they are empowered to speak up is key to making sure that no one is placed in a situation where there may be an abuse of power, as called out in the #MeToo movement.

“It’s constant mutual respect,” Pasquarelli said. “We work in a field where criticism is supposed to be a good thing that drives work forward and pushes boundaries and makes a better world.”

Creating this culture of accountability and constructive criticism won’t happen overnight. “It’s going to be the constant work of all of our firms, to become the places we want to be and make the world we want to have,” Mars said in closing.

Image credits

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