Opportunities for Equity in Architecture

I wanted to wrap up our informal series on accessibility, authenticity, and equity in the architecture profession with a summary of everything I’ve put out there and how it all ties together.

Architecture is a profession with a lot of steps to it, and I don’t mean the practice of project delivery, which certainly has lots of steps too. I’m talking about the steps involved in going from a young person in primary or secondary education that thinks, “hey, I want to be an architect when I grow up” to actually becoming a licensed professional architect. Every single one of those steps is an opportunity for architecture to open its arms to that young person who dreams of becoming an architect — or not.

Inspire and Welcome a Diverse Group to Become Architects Through Authenticity

We started the series with a look back at my experience with Sekou Cooke’s outstanding exhibit, “Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture.” In the Hip-Hop Architecture movement I saw an ethos that could push architects to become more authentic, which in turn could make our profession more accessible to all sorts of people, including those considering architecture as a career. Embracing Hip-Hop Architecture could also be a way to make design easier to relate to and more engaging for everyone, as I witnessed first hand. The exhibit and what I learned from it where a clear call to action to get real about equity in architecture.

Make the Path to Licensure Much More Accessible

Next, we explored the topics of education, licensure, and continuing education. Making the three experience prerequisites of licensure (education, work, and exam) and the means of maintaining a license more equitable and accessible is key to helping our profession become more diverse. We saw that learning doesn’t have to happen in an expensive, long-winded school experience. There’s also room in the ARE for it to cover the important topics that let candidates show their understanding of the diverse country for which they’ll be designing buildings and spaces. Continuing education is a prime example of how we can rethink what health, safety, and welfare are all about — let’s not lose HSW for buildings, but instead add HSW for people and communities to our CE requirements. All of these topics are opportunities to capture data we can use to monitor our industry’s progress towards equity and accessibility.

Train Our Emerging Professionals Better

How we train architecture professionals, whether it’s their first job or fiftieth (I know that’s a lot, but I bet it applies to someone out there) offers another great opportunity to make architecture more equitable and accessible. There are other industries that combine good training with a welcoming approach to diversity and architecture should draw inspiration from these approaches. Ridding ourselves of toxic attitudes around hiring and training is yet another opportunity to be better and level the playing field for everyone.

Stay Away from Racist Clients

The United States’ prison machine is an instrument of racism and abuse. We reviewed the myriad of reasons why architects keep working on prison design (hint: 💰). We can’t talk about making the world better while our profession continues to make it worse by designing prisons.

Make the Business of Architecture Equitable

There’s plenty of opportunity when it comes to the basic business model that most firms follow. Thinking about opportunities in the business of architecture leads us to look not only at the biz models, but also project delivery methods, and of course compensation. An equitable business is a diverse and fair business for all.

It’s Time to Move

It’s embarrassing that architecture is a profession that’s mostly white and mostly male.

It’s embarrassing that we put colleagues in charge of our educational institutions, businesses, and trade organizations that perpetuate our industry’s lack of diversity by focusing on all the wrong things.

It’s embarrassing that architects are talking about the change we can design into the built world as a part of our country’s efforts to end systemic racism before we resolve the systemic racism in our own profession.

We need to get real about the opportunities that are out there in each step a person takes on the path to becoming an architect. It’s going to be hard because we’re set in our ways, because change is hard, and because we have a lot of other things on our plates too. But all it takes is focus and goals to get there. Let’s make architecture a profession to be proud of not for what we design, but for who we are and what our community of professionals represent.

The Business of Accessible, Authentic, and Equitable Architecture

If you couldn’t tell from the recent posts on here, my thoughts have been almost exclusively focused on how the architecture profession can make itself more authentic, accessible, and equitable. Much of what I’ve written about recently are thoughts and ideas that have been on my mind for a long time now. Recent events have been a great motivator to get these thoughts out of my head and into articles. I’ve been thinking about a few other areas of practice, mostly related to the business side of things that we could positively impact, so here’s a list that may inspire some ideas for you or me later on…

Business Models

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on how the basic, core business model followed by firms (which revolves around wrangling work and getting it going, then keeping it going so you can invoice and cash flow while you wrangle more work) might contribute to inequality within the architecture profession. There are problems with this business model anyway, and we’ve explored some of those in earlier articles. Truly confronting and finally dealing with inequality in our industry will likely force our collective hand in creating new business models or mimicking those of other industries where some sort of disruption has occurred. I’m hopeful that alternative ways of making an architecture business profitable will also enable more sole proprietors and small firms to compete with larger firms in ways that they can’t today. Maybe change will even encourage more architecture professionals to start their own practices where they might not have otherwise chosen that path. This is where my mind always drifts back to technology as a means to enable new business models (doing more with fewer people for less money — stuff like that), which in this case, could make tech a great equalizer.

Project Delivery Methods

Something else that comes to mind when thinking about better business models is project delivery. I can imagine a future where some form of integrated project delivery, which today kind of seems like it’s exclusively for super mega AEC corporations and their super mega clients, could evolve into a means of project delivery that allows small firms and/or sole proprietors to band together to form project teams capable of competing with much larger firms — where they can act like those big companies when it comes to project delivery. Getting newer and smaller practices competitive with larger, established practices is vitally important to architecture becoming for accessible and equitable, as it’s no good for the industry to consolidate and be dominated by a few big, bland corporations.

Compensation

Unionization in architecture is a topic that excites emerging professionals and sends established firm owners into fits of rage. Regardless of how you feel about unionizing architecture professionals, it’s important to remember we wouldn’t be talking about this topic if we were fairly compensating everyone like Mr. Philips did (actually, we don’t need to go that far) and we weren’t abusing overtime work. For every firm that’s doing the right thing with compensation and work/life balance, there’s another that’s run by assholes who fuck over the people that are making them money. In between those two extremes, there’s a lot more people who hit glass ceilings, feel stuck at some level in firm hierarchy, have work/life imbalances, or are watching people who look different from them earn more and/or get promoted faster.

Compensation is a topic that should be closely tied to the conversation around architecture education. There’s an increasingly bad ratio of time and money spent on architecture school versus initial earnings once one joins the workforce. I don’t think schools will bring down costs since they essentially have a monopoly, which is one more reason why we should be reintroducing apprenticeships as a means to learn — give the schools some competition, force them to lower their prices, and get that ratio back to where it needs to be relative to compensation.

Fair and equitable compensation may very well be the first issue of equity and accessibility we must address, simply because it positively impacts everyone already working in the profession and big change starts from within. The ideas and conversations out there on this complex subject have a recurring theme around the need for transparency. It’s important for staffers to be able to see how they can progress in an organization and what kind of pay they can expect when they get there. Lots of professions are looking at this topic, but what if architecture took the lead and in doing so became the most transparent profession, the one setting the example?

Relevance

Ahh, yes…the ongoing debate over the relevance of architecture and architects. I can make this one short and sweet. It’s well past time to give someone other than old white men a shot at making the case for architecture to: the youth, the business world, and the public at large. ‘Nuff said.

Next Up…

For the next post in this unofficial series I’ll bring together all of my recent articles on accessibility, authenticity, and equity in some final thoughts on how the architecture profession reinvents itself.

Better Training for a More Accessible Architecture

This is another in an emerging series of articles here at ALL CAPS reflecting on how we make architecture a more accessible and authentic profession. We’ve previously looked at education, licensure, and continuing education. We’ve also looked at how the Hip-Hop Architecture movement can be a gateway for established architecture professionals to be more accessible and authentic; and also a beacon for some who might not otherwise consider an architecture career. In this article, we’ll dive into how training contributes to an accessible and authentic profession.


I was going to write about this from the perspective of mentorship, but that’s kind of a limiting perspective. This profession moves faster and faster as time goes on. We accomplish things in a few hours today that used to take days or weeks to get done. There’s more pressure than ever to be productive and therefore profitable. People move around jobs with ever increasing frequency. All of this puts a lot of pressure on the traditional vision of what mentorship is for architecture professionals. I’m not saying that mentorship is bad (endangered, maybe) — I think it’s the best way to learn. But the dynamics of today’s practice mean that we should speak more broadly and instead talk about training, knowing that a few points here apply to mentoring as well.

No matter the type of schooling or degree earned, we all come into our first jobs having some level of familiarity with the practice of architecture, but little to no idea of how to apply ourselves. This, of course, is where training comes into play. Over the years, I’ve heard from a lot of people who were new to the profession about their experiences with being trained, and more often than not those were bad experiences. For those who had bad experiences, sometimes it bothered them to the point where I could see it had stunted their growth, and other times they turned inwards and stumbled through by teaching themselves. An anecdote for sure, but I’d love to see some research into training in architecture as I have a hunch it’s a significant contributor to who stays and who goes in our profession. When your trainer is a white male (as it’s likely to be now and at any time in the past), the perspective of that training may unconsciously tilt in ways that marginalize the trainee (especially if they aren’t a white male). Compound that with degraded training quality due to being in a rush on a project where the budgeted hours and schedule were established by another white male who last did production work when drafting tables were where the computer workstations are today and well…you can see how training could really suck ass for the new person.

From a business perspective, this is insane. It’s expensive and time-consuming to put out a candidate search and do interviews and make an offer and finally hire someone. But it keeps happening. Firms that are bad at this stuff have a myopic focus on brining work in when it’s slow, and then keeping their noses just above the water line when it’s busy — there’s no planning, even though we’re supposed to be planners. During economic booms, labor needs get so bonkers that you end up with new hires being trained by other slightly less new hires. Not only does this frustrate staff, but it contributes to the profession being inaccessible since no one is trained properly. No one is learning anything.

This is a good spot to bring up that we all need training. Even if we’re not new to the profession, we’ll need to be trained at a new job as there’s always new stuff to learn about the firm, the standards, and the clients’ projects, to name just a few topics. So this is yet another opportunity to get training wrong for all of the same reasons noted above, even if the trainee previously had good training experiences elsewhere.

Fixing Training

The first step in fixing training is to document training procedures for incoming staff that are new to the profession and for staff that are simply new to the company. I know from experience that just creating the training documentation alone will trigger better training. But we don’t stop with the documentation. This is where I changed my own views of training based on experiences outside of a traditional architecture firm setting.

Identifying staff members to become the go-to designated trainers is the next step, and one I borrowed from the restaurant operations staff I worked with during my time as a corporate design professional (the restaurant industry has great approaches to training new hires). These designated trainers have regular jobs within the firm and should have a designated backup staffer to fill in for their day-to-day work when training needs arise (part of the training procedures need to include the ramping up for this handoff to the backup). The identified trainers need to have great emotional intelligence and an open mind, all coupled with the patience to be good teachers. They should also be capable of providing objective evaluation to the hire’s supervisor(s) so the assigned work can be aligned to the new hire’s skills; at least in the beginning as they get settled into their new role. The trainer will work side-by-side full time with the trainee for a period of time set forth in the training procedures, and end that time by providing their evaluation to the supervisor.

Another thing that the restaurant training staff I’ve worked with do well is getting a diverse group of people to both function as, and feel a part of a team. They do this by being open and flexible with their understanding of people and their personalities, which is going to be challenging for some architecture professionals; at least in the office setting where it seems like we don’t always present our true selves (or where we’re even directly or indirectly discouraged from doing so). Restaurants seem to bring out the authenticity in people more easily, which may be a function of the hospitality of that industry — this is a big deal and is key to success — it’s going to be difficult for architects to cultivate that hospitable environment. It’s not necessarily about the “family atmosphere” that you see some firms brag about on their websites because a lot of that stuff is a reflection of the lack of diversity within those firms.

Toxic Attitudes Around Hiring & Training

So documenting training and using talented designated trainers is a big step forward, and the smaller the firm, the bigger the step that’s going to be due to deeply embedded bullshit mindsets. There are so many toxic philosophies out there about training, many of which are tied closely to hiring practices. From thinking you shouldn’t have to train experienced hires to using software proficiency tests in the interview process. Another one is the probationary period for someone to learn software or get to a certain level of productivity — this one really gets me because if you just trained people properly to begin with it goes away (they’re basically paying you less to not train you and let you stumble along). We need to reframe how we look at all of this bullshit: the firms that engage in it are actively making their firms and our profession less accessible, less diverse, and less equitable.

When people are trained well, not only are they more productive, but they feel more connected to the organization and the profession. We don’t get this right because we don’t manage the ebb and flow of workloads. We just react, and training is directly impacted by that poor reaction. That’s not appealing to outsiders looking to come into the profession, and all the HR diversity initiatives in the world won’t help if training sucks. Let’s fix training and the toxic mindsets that so often come with training and hiring.

Rethinking Access to the Architecture Profession

As we continue to reflect on what exactly the profession of architecture is going to do to make itself more accessible and authentic (hopefully as a part of a broader reinvention of America doing the same thing), a lot of the initial chatter on Twitter has turned to education, licensure, and continuing education. I have some thoughts…


Education

In my mind, education is the single biggest barrier put up by architecture. Education experience is one of the three pillars of prerequisite experiences alongside work experience and exam experience that every architecture board has in place for people wanting to become licensed architects. We need to honestly examine if a NAAB-accredited bachelors or masters degree is the only path.

A small handful of states currently offer alternative paths, with some requiring a 4-year college degree of pretty much any kind, and others allowing a high school diploma plus documented work experience in lieu of any college degree. Alternative paths like exchanging work experience for school are great ways to be more accessible, as it lets people earn money instead of pay money to learn the trade. If you’re poor coming out of high school, you’re often working to help support your family (that is, your parents and siblings) at that young age, and no amount of scholarship money to offset the enormous expense of architecture school is going to help with that because you need a job and income now. Sitting in classes and studios for the next five to seven years that absorb all of your time and energy just to get through won’t help that. This is personal, it was me; and there are more people in similar circumstances all over the country today, it’s a very real barrier.

It’s time to bring back apprenticeships, and we have plenty of national organizations who could set standards to protect apprentices and incentivize practices to engage in apprenticeship. Part of apprenticeship is the formal titling of the apprentices — we could finally embrace the architectural equivalent of the EIT with such an effort. If something like this moves forward, it will be equally important for our industry to avoid creating castes based upon level or method of eduction. The toxicity of professions with castes (looking at you legal profession) is critical to avoid, as we’d end up right back at an inaccessible profession. So there are challenges here, but if we’re truly open to considering change, we can work through them.

Licensure

Tied closely to education is licensure. If we move forward to open up the means by which people get an architecture education, then we must allow those new methods universal access to licensure across the country. This will be extremely tough to achieve, but if we create a wave of change with architecture boards that are ready to make practice accessible, then we’ve seen how other movements can make change spread from state to state.

All but a small handful of states in the US require a NAAB-accredited degree in architecture in order to fulfill their education prerequisite to sit for the ARE and get a license. The rest of the states either require some sort of 4-year college degree or a high school diploma at a minimum; and most of these states have experience-based equivalencies that a person can use to demonstrate they’re ready for licensure, despite the lack of an architecture school degree. These are great examples of making licensure more accessible, and the rest of the states need to follow. Who are we trying to serve by restricting exam access? Who do we keep out by restricting exam access?

The ARE is central to the topic of licensure and it needs to change to be more accessible. Right now it’s focused on being broad and general, which is definitely how architects need to be. But we should pull back some of that which is of limited relevance and reclaim it for test content that’s focused on demonstrating an understanding of equity and social-awareness from the perspective of the designer and the leader of the project delivery team. This new content should be aligned with the same kind of content introduced to continuing education requirements, too (more on that below).

I’ll mention the work experience component of licensure here as well. The beauty of apprenticeship is that it fulfills that experience component. Schools have already started pushing students to start NCARB’s AXP while they’re still in school. These efforts help move the work experience component along, and get people more capable faster. Like I mentioned for the ARE, the AXP and apprenticeships should have to include training focused on equity and social-awareness topics from the architect’s point of view. Additionally, all of the currently required volunteer hours should be switched over to have this same focus.

Continuing Education

The idea of including requirements for learning about equity and social-awareness content such as unconscious bias and multi-cultural communications to continuing education is important. Some states already require ethics as a CE subject, and that should become a nationwide requirement too, as ethics topics dovetail nicely with equity topics.

Where it’s currently required, ethics training is tracked independently from HSWs or LUs. Equity and social-awareness training needs the same breakout from the existing CE categories. Leave HSWs for building and occupant safety, with the “social heath, safety and welfare” content separated due to its importance.

Tracking and Reporting Progress

Key to making sure this effort doesn’t dissolve into more talk without meaningful change, or that an emerging movement doesn’t fizzle out, is continuous tracking and reporting of our progress.

Our profession needs to start reporting workforce diversity in greater detail and with more frequency — the schools need to do the same. There should be staff at AIA dedicated to studying metrics and providing regularly-scheduled interpretations of the numbers — basically an ABI, but for diversity. A big, big challenge will be additional tracking and reporting of firms’ interactions with clients where we follow the kinds of projects with a focus on the ends of the equity spectrum with projects that actively promote inclusion and equity at one end versus projects that restrict or even hurt inclusion and equity at the other end. This client and project tracking will be critical to understanding how well architects serve society and would need to be interpreted and reported regularly, just like the diversity data for employers and schools.

Get It Done

We’re at the start of a conversation about making architecture more open, accessible, and authentic. It’s vital that we don’t lose momentum. It’s probably best to start on these changes at the local/state level with the various industry boards and organizations and build the momentum from there to make things happen nationally.