Architects in Heels: Women Architects Take the Lead

By Kristi Eaton

As architect Erin Nunes Cooper arrived at a construction site for a meeting, the new site supervisor approached her and asked if she was lost.  She wasn’t lost in fact, she was running the show.  “He was quite surprised when I introduced myself, and he realized not only that I belonged there, but that I owned the company whose stamp was on all the drawings,” said Cooper, owner of Florence, Massachusetts-based Cooper Green Design.

In a field that has historically been dominated by men, it’s a scene that many female architects can probably identify with.  While there has been improvement in the male-to-female ratio in recent years, men still far outnumber women in the industry.  A 2009 study from the National Architectural Accrediting Board showed 41 percent of architecture program graduates were women – but even fewer become licensed.

“Even though architecture schools produce an equal [ratio] of women and men when they graduate, for some reason not a lot of women go on to pursue getting licensure,” said Lira Luis, a principal architect at Atelier Lira Luis, LLC, in Chicago and Manila.

One of the biggest problems for women is getting licensed, said Jane Frederick, who owns Frederick + Frederick Architects with her husband, Michael, in South Carolina.  “I think this is due to life getting in the way.”  Frederick said she’s thankful she passed her licensing test while she was six months pregnant, because it would have been difficult to study with an infant at home.  However, firms today seem to be more flexible and accommodating to mothers, she added.

Luis, like many others in field, knew at an early age that she wanted to become an architect.  She was in first grade when she decided to pursue her dream.  She eventually became the first Filipina to be accepted into Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Preservation and earned American citizenship because of her personal determination. “It was an uphill battle being a woman in architecture, from my architecture school days to getting license to getting my own work,” said Luis, who counts the Perkins+Will’s Project Architect of the Bank of America headquarters, a high-rise building pursuing LEED gold certification, as her most complex building.

But not everyone knows they want to be an architect as a child.  Cooper didn’t consider studying architecture until a series of injuries sidelined her dreams of becoming a dancer and choreographer.  She applied to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh on a whim, but is grateful she found the perfect marriage of her rational and creative sides.

Gail Zylkowski Merth, design director for BCRA, a 140-person design firm with several offices in Washington and Virginia, said she is often the only woman on a project among engineers, contractors and subs.  However, Merth added, “I expect this to change dramatically during the next ten years or so.”

Architecture has many opportunities for women and favors to the natural multitasker.  “One peek into the calendar of a working mother proves these abilities,” Merth said.  “I’ve also noticed that we tend to be good at compromising when the situation demands it and work very hard to listen and meet client needs.”

Julie Heiberger, a project architect at Appleton, Wisconsin-based Hoffman LLC that specializes in the Senior Living and Women Religious sector, believes sustainability can come in two variations: the person who lives and works within the built environment and the actual building site itself.  “They complement each other and one can’t work without the other,” said Heiberger, who counts a new convent, Cenacle Sisters, targeting LEED Gold in New York as one of her most noteworthy projects.  “Design has to ultimately be functional — both the residents of the building need to feel at home and the staff needs to have work areas in order to provide services to residents when needed.  [Additionally,] the process of good design is not self-serving but listening to the needs and challenges of our clients and recommending solutions that address the issues.”

Jennifer Knudsen, associate principal at CO Architects, said she envisions a time in the future when architects move beyond checklists and scorecards for measuring sustainability.

“These tools have been important for the advancement of sustainability, but are less successful in measuring more subjective approaches, such as integrated design,” said Knudsen.  Her take on new technology is that 3D building modeling systems like BMI allow for greater collaboration between owner, architect, contractors and engineers, and allow for better sustainable methods.  Knudsen is currently working on the SF Health Sciences Building on the Phoenix Biomedical campus.

Sharon Woodworth, senior associate architect with Ashen+Allen in San Francisco, believes architects need to reclaim sustainability.  “The LEED program has made it convincing for clients to participate in sustainability, but clients are now left with the impression that ‘accreditation’ is required to do the right thing when I believe the education of architecture has always strived for sensitivity to the Earth.” Woodworth is part of design teams that help design hospitals ranging from 5,000 square feet to more than 1.5 million square feet.

Building responsibly — the first time — is important to Kim Fernandez, a principal with ABA Architects in Tucson.  “I would like to find a way to build more responsibly the first time — back to 50-year-building quality — since the best green building is one where we keep reusing it and not using up valuable resources to demolish and build more and more cheap new construction,” Fernandez said.

While leading architecture organizations have chapters and committees devoted specifically to women, Cooper thinks that with the strides women are making many organizations will blend together as one.

“I think the smartest and most savvy male leaders in the field will begin to recognize that women have talent and skills that the profession really needs,” Cooper said.  “It wouldn’t surprise me if these men start showing up at the women architecture events to learn how they can adapt their practices to embrace women architects.”

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