AIA HBCU internship program: Designing AIA’s future
AIA HBCU internship program: Designing AIA’s future
To help develop a sustainable, equitable, inclusive design, AIA welcomed six students from HBCUs as interns for AIA’s headquarters renewal project. Hear from them as they share their hopes for the profession and the future of design.
HBCU future architects help design AIA’s future
AIA is undertaking a renewal of its headquarters in Washington, D.C. to design a workspace of the future, for the workforce of the future.
Who better to advise the landmark project than the members and shapers of that future workforce: Future architects?
To help develop a sustainable, equitable, inclusive design plan, AIA welcomed six students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to serve as interns for the project. Virtually embedded with the design team from April through August 2021, these students are gaining real-world experience while offering invaluable insights into designing a post-COVID workplace of the future.
Collaborating closely with San Francisco-based architecture firm EHDD, which is leading the project, interns are engaged in every aspect of the design process—from stakeholder engagement to contract document preparation and decarbonization plans to construction management.
“AIA’s HBCU Internship program provides the experiences needed by young professionals previously underrepresented by our profession to keep them engaged with our practice, including support from mentors; insight into professional practice; personal introductions to industry leaders; meaningful networking opportunities; and usable AXP hours,” said EHDD Designer Kevin Moultrie Daye, who serves as the internship coordinator. “For these reasons, the execution and expansion of this program has the potential to craft more positive change in the industry.”
In weekly virtual sessions, interns meet with a variety of mentors in a variety of formats, including workshops, charettes, and informal “fireside chats.”
Morgan State University student Rahmah Davis says the interactions have sparked a productive dialogue that’s inspired the future architects to share their design ideas. “I’m not going to lie—it can be intimidating to be in a room with all different types of people,” she commented. “But everyone’s been really warm, and they welcome our opinions. Something I contributed was encouraging community engagement and using the plaza between the Octagon and the headquarters as a way to welcome people into the space and also use it as a workplace.”
Kimberly Villagomez, of Florida A&M, agreed that AIA’s outdoor space offers potential: “Doing research on the history and culture of the local area—in this case, Washington, D.C.—has been helpful. We know that design can be used to smooth out conflict and use spaces to bring communities together. We talk a lot about how greenery and vegetation is an important key to that.”
For AIA’s interior, the interns agree it’s all about adaptable, collaborative spaces. “One of the things I think is important for the space is incorporating natural light evenly throughout the building, plus flexible space,” noted Simi Stanford, a University of DC student. “There are definitely some floors where things are kind of fixed, and some places get more natural light than others. The design is still iconic, but there are ways to improve the experience inside the building.”
Architects leading the project are taking the students’ insights to heart. “Collaborating with these students in the Visioning process has been invigorating,” said Conor Dunn, AIA, EHDD associate. “As active participants in the design dialogue and initial workshops, their candor and perspective has challenged both the Design Team and AIA in assessing and developing our project goals.”
Key to those goals is a focus on demonstrating the power of design to address society’s most pressing challenges. “The goal is for this once-in-a-generation project to serve as a model of stewardship and sustainability for the public and the profession,” explained AIA EVP/Chief Executive Officer Robert Ivy, FAIA. “We intend to create a flexible, equitable, inclusive, and collaborative work environment that embodies the AIA’s mission and values.”
Chief among those values is a commitment to expanding equity, diversity, and inclusion in the profession. Focused action is required to open doors to future architects who may struggle to see themselves reflected in the profession as it stands today. “In the broader context of the architectural profession, there is a crisis of performative action masquerading as real change,” Moultrie Daye stated. “The problems of the field’s lack of diversity—in gender, race, and thought leadership—cannot and will not be solved with a statement of solidarity or a nicely worded paragraph.”
Through increased engagement, broader network support, and access to employment opportunities, the internship program is designed to provide a pathway into the profession and serve as an example firms can emulate in their own internship programs.
For their part, the interns say expanding diversity requires a multi-faceted, purposeful approach. “We have to have a plan to support diverse students and future architects in the profession,” said Davis. “Whether it’s education, sponsoring a student, or scholarships—that will help future architects be successful.” Other tactics these future architects cited include outreach—explaining what architecture is about—and design strategies to create welcoming spaces.
The interns all agree that the connections they’re making through the program are appreciated and, in some ways, more accessible in a virtual setting. “It’s more flexible when you’re on your computer and able to have those conversations with everybody,” Villagomez observed. “Meeting so many different people is a big plus.”
Davis concurred. “The information we’re learning, the people we’re meeting—it’s not something we can take for granted,” she commented. “It’s very much a learning experience every single day and being able to sit at a virtual table with the president of AIA and others, that’s something we’re all grateful for.”
For Tuskegee University’s Tyler Littles, the experience has provided insights into “the value of processing design.”
“I knew that it was important before, but now I’m beginning to grasp a deeper understanding,” Littles said. “Being able to sit in on different meetings and witness how experienced architects interact with their clients, I can see the different moving parts that contribute to effective architecture.”
The virtual internship experience also has the interns considering new horizons. “I never thought I could work or intern in a firm that’s across the state,” Davis shared. “It’s opened my eyes to perhaps living in San Francisco or elsewhere. The way the world is heading, you don’t have to be in a place to work there. It definitely opened my mind.”
As so much of the workforce has learned during the pandemic, remote interaction can also have its drawbacks. “The only thing that’s challenging for me is that I’m a hands-on person, so I like to be in an environment where I can connect,” said Hampton University’s Tasheena Lawrence.
One thing is certain: These future architects will bring a sense of optimism, and a healthy appreciation for the power of design, to the profession. “We can help people through building design,” Stanford commented. “It has an impact physically and psychologically, more than most people think. What drew me to architecture is you can use design to change the environment. Architecture is all around us.”
What do these future architects most hope to see when they return to a renovated AIA building in the years to come? After a year of pandemic isolation, Villagomez spoke for the group with a simple answer:
AIA is making this virtual internship program an example for other firms to emulate. AIA’s goal is to improve the diversity of the profession through increased engagement, broader network support, and access to employment opportunities for future architecture graduates. To learn more about implementing a similar internship program at your firm, please contact AIA’s Nissa Dahlin Brown.