Lauren Harris, Assoc. AIA, explains why architects must champion diversity and embrace AI
Libertad Lauren Harris, Assoc. AIA, thinks a lot about how architecture is changing daily.
For Hispanic Heritage Month, AIA spoke with the BIM (Building Information Modeling) manager at Stantec about how changing technology and increasing diversity can shift the profession forever. Harris also talks about her unique career path, attending college with her son, and how a Richard Gere movie altered the course of her life.
What inspired you to become an architect?
When I was little, I was always fascinated by historic preservation projects and buildings.
We went on a family vacation when I was 11 and my mom was just obsessed with a movie called Sommersby. We went to the house that was part of the set and they welcomed us in and showed us that it was a historic preservation site and an archaeology site as well as the movie set. I was young and inspired and enchanted and that was the genesis of my interest in design.
You ended up going to architecture school later than many. What was the inspiration? How did your previous life experiences both positively and negatively impact your time at school?
I was working as an interior designer on the client side for a big chain and it was an old boys club, I would say. The consensus was that as someone working on interiors my job was to make things look pretty. I think a lot of us, whether you’re in interiors, or you’re a woman in architecture, people say that you’re here to make things look pretty. I had the mentality of the old Ginger Rogers quote, “anything you can do I can do backwards and in heels.”
My son was in an exploratory process of looking at engineering schools and I asked him “how would you feel if your mom went to college with you?” He was so excited, and he told me that we are doing this. He went and lived in the dorms and did the typical college experience and I did the full five years with him, but I commuted. We were together, but separate enough that he had a different experience than I did.
In the architecture program, I was embraced as the mother hen of the group. When you’re in the studio you’re together with people all the time. I did all-nighters when they did all-nighters, and I still have lifetime relationships with so many of those people that I spent all of that time with.
Other than the grueling hours, the experience was very smooth. I don’t think anyone is really prepared for architecture school, the expanse of it, the hours that you put in and the depth of the projects and the work. The hardest part was giving up family aspects, giving up Thanksgiving because projects were due and giving up other holidays, but other than that I was embraced by the students and the school.
Why do you think diversity is especially important in the field of architecture?
When you see the numbers about the number of female architects and the number of architects of color, it’s just abysmal. When you compare architecture to the legal profession and the medical profession, and you look at their numbers you ask how they’ve righted the ship, but we can’t. This is a problem that has to be fixed. And who’s going to fix it?
Whoever’s brave enough to deal with the repercussions of being involved with the conversation is the person who is going to fix it. I’ve always been a fighter for the underdog, I’m always going to be an advocate, I was born that way. I’ve made it my mission to explore issues related to diversity in the field. I know I can’t fully fix it, but if I can start the conversation and let others come up with creative ideas. If you surround yourself with people from your community, they’re going to keep bringing in people from your community. We have to say to firm owners that they need to pull from different resources.
As a BIM Manager, you think a lot about the role of new technologies in architecture. What are some ways these technologies will change architecture in the future?
Everyone right now is working on artificial intelligence and machine learning. How does that work in our industry, in our firm, and in our life? There are so many complex issues, who owns the copyright, who owns the images, how do we deploy this technology in a responsible and ethical way? It’s not just technological, there’s ethics and morals involved.
Everyone is trying to figure out how to best deploy this technology so we can use it to do the things that we don’t want to do, so we have the time to do the things that we love, and that is a long process.
Even code research, is it ethical to let a machine do that when that is something you’re supposed to do as a professional. Is it fortuitous to use AI to generate renderings, because it is something that takes an enormous amount of time, but it’s something that many people love to do. Part of the job is to research what parts and pieces people love and ensuring that we’re not making an industry that eliminates the fun for the sake of being fast.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing the architecture profession right now?
The biggest problem right now is the cost of education. The cost of an architecture education is expensive and it’s causing people to look elsewhere. We’re not getting the best candidates for the industry that we could be because they can’t afford to be in the industry. We’re pricing out some of the greatest talents that will never be realized. We need to have a reckoning and figure out the math to ensure we’re providing higher starting salaries, so we don’t have a dwindling industry.
Another important challenge is contending with technology. The same way we embraced CAD when we went from paper to computer aided drafting, we need to again embrace AI because it’s not going anywhere. Don’t be afraid of it but learn how to wield it.