Carpet design

Integrating equity into design practice

During this studio session, ARCHITECT Editor-in-Chief Paul Makovsky dives into a lively discussion with Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, HOK Director and 2024 AIA President-Elect; Rosa Sheng, FAIA, Vice Principal of SmithGroup and Founder of EquityxDesign; and Royce Epstein, A&D Design Director of the Mohawk Group. Their conversation examines how architects and designers can work to advance equity in their businesses and in the built environment.

Last December, the American Institute of Architects published the AIA Hastings report (“An Elephant in the ‘Well-Designed’ Room: An Inquiry into Prejudice in the Architectural Profession”) who has studied and proposed strategies to combat prejudice in the architectural profession. The report, which included a survey of workplace experiences, found that black architects and designers said they experienced racial bias at high levels. 52.4% of black women and 50% of black men said they faced negative racial stereotypes at work. As the study points out, one of the costs of racism is the time and effort people have to invest in managing it and permanently, that is, stopping it without triggering resentment or retaliation. Architects often blame the educational pipeline for the lack of racial and gender diversity in the profession, as the AIA Hastings report illuminates, however, this is also a cultural issue. Overt racism and sexism play a role in the multiple challenges facing the world today. What is the role of architecture in solving them?

“I think a big part of what we need to do is also give our profession more diversity so that more people in communities are reached,” Sheng said. “And have the skills, resources and connections to really help solve problems within their own communities.”

Epstein observes that we can choose to hurt, or we can choose to help. “When you think about equity and diversity and how to incorporate that into our practice, there’s so much we need to do, and I think a lot of designers intend and maybe the mindset, but they don’t really know how to put that into practice,” she says. “Identifying all the challenges and really working on them individually. As an individual, what are my biases? How do we redesign the system? »

Sheng also believes that now is the time to disrupt long-accepted systems. “For so long, we have devalued the worker with low pay and long hours,” Sheng says. “If we keep thinking ‘my building is my creation’, we’re just going to dig ourselves in the hole, if you will, and bury ourselves.”

Dowdell argues that, as a profession, architects need to do a better job of promoting their value and identity. “The general public has a pretty big misunderstanding of what we do,” she says. “Building that understanding will actually help bring more value to what we do so that we can be better compensated. If our customers compensated us accordingly, I think that would actually start to address some of the inequities.

Show Notes

This Studio session is underwritten by Mohawk Group.

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Kimberly Dowdell
courtesy H.O.K.
Kimberly Dowdell

Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, is a principal at HOK and works with other members of the HOK Chicago studio leadership team on strategic business development and marketing initiatives. In addition to cultivating and maintaining relationships with customers and partners, she is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and events and a mentor to emerging HOK leaders. She is Co-Chair of HOK’s Diversity Advisory Council.

In 2021, Kimberly joined the board of directors of the Architects Foundation, the philanthropic partner of the American Institute of Architects. She also joined the board of the Chicago Central Area Committee, which works to shape growth, equity and quality places in the city. She is a board member of Ingenuity Chicago, which improves access, equity, and quality in arts education.

Kimberly is the Past President (2019-2020) of the National Organization of Minority Architects and a member of the Council of the National Organization of Minority Architects, which is the organization’s highest level of recognition.

She was the recipient of the 2020 AIA Young Architects Award and was recognized for her activism efforts by Architectural Record’s 2020 Women in Architecture Awards program.

Kimberly is also a member of the Urban Land Institute. She pioneered the concept behind Social Economic Environmental Design, an organization she co-founded in 2005, and has been honored “40 Under 40” in both Crain’s Chicago Business and Crain’s Detroit Business. In 2019, Kimberly delivered the 19th Annual Dunlop Lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. This year, Kimberly was elected 2023 First Vice President/2024 President-elect of the AIA. She will be the 100th president of the AIA and the first black woman to hold this position.

Rosa Sheng
Scott R.Kline
Rosa Sheng

Rosa T.Sheng, FAIA, serves as Vice President of SmithGroup and serves in multiple roles as Northern California Higher Education Studio Manager and National Director of Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. She is also the founder of Equity by Design (EQxD) and the first Asian American woman to serve as President of AIA San Francisco (2018) in the organization’s history. Recognized as a designer, architect, strategist and thought leader, she is known for delivering design solutions with transformational impact in the built environment. When asked, “What kind of architecture do you do?” His response, “The kind that’s never been done before.”

This mindset has resulted in a variety of award-winning and internationally acclaimed projects, including the aesthetically minimal and highly engineered glass structures for Apple’s original high-end retail stores; groundbreaking workplace of the future in the Steven P. Jobs building at Pixar Animation Studios; and ongoing work to advance equitable and sustainable design solutions for higher education institutions in California. These include the Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business at Mills College and STEM projects at UC Davis, SF State, and many community colleges to advance underrepresented students in academic retention and future resilience.

Rosa has presented her work both domestically and internationally, including “Why Equity Matters for Everyone: A New Value Proposition for Architecture” and in 2020, “The JEDI Agenda – An Intersectional Approach to Designing a Just Future” . In 2019, Rosa was honored by Metropolis Game Changer. Additionally, she has been featured in Architect Magazine, Architectural Record, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, including talks at ILFI Living Futures Conference, Harvard GSD, Stanford University, SxSW, TEDxPhiladelphia, KQED/NPR and the Cannes Lions Festival.

Royce Epstein
courtesy of Royce Epstein
Royce Epstein

Royce Epstein is both a Philadelphia-based historian and futurist who shares her passion and vision for design, cultural trends, and the meaning of materials in a broad context. Trained in art history, she spent two decades working as an interior designer and materials specialist in architectural firms before working in product development for commercial textiles and rugs. Royce is currently Director of A&D Design for Mohawk Group. She is always on the lookout for new trends in all aspects of culture, fueling this view of our industry’s touchpoints as a strategic designer, trend forecaster, teacher, speaker, critical thinker and writer. She is co-founder of Dissent by Design, a website and Instagram account that explores the role of design in social movements.