On Taking Risks in Architecture with Katie Faulkner

In a candid morning conversation, Katie Faulkner shared with us her reflections on the design profession and her advice to future designers.  Katie is a founding principal at NADAAA, overseeing firm operations, fabrication, and design on select projects. She has directed efforts to expand the firm's prototyping facilities and portfolio. With degrees from Dartmouth College and Harvard Graduate School of Design, Katie has worked for over 20 years on residential, academic, institutional, and health-care projects. After receiving an MBA from Boston University in 2010, she looked to re-focus her attention and joined Nader Tehrani and Dan Gallagher in launching NADAAA. Take a peak at how Katie got to where she is and what her wishes for the future of design are! 

What was the environment like when you graduated from architecture school?

Katie Faulkner, Principal at NADAAA

Katie Faulkner, Principal at NADAAA

When I graduated, it was the early 90s and there was no work. Some friends made a t-shirt for the graduating class with the floor plan of Gund Hall (Harvard GSD), and on the back of it, was written “Got Plans?” You have a whole class of about 70 people and almost no one had a job. After graduation I moved to Seattle and I worked at 3 or 4 different part-time jobs. An office would call you if they needed help that week. This went on for 3 years – no benefits, no health insurance. A number of my friends either did not enter in the architecture field or they did for a little while and became fed up. Things started bouncing back with the dot com era around 1996. Suddenly, there was a lot of work in various parts of the country. Whether this is statistically true or not, I feel I am part of a generation that got ‘lost’ in the profession. Of my female friends in my class, there are few that are still conventionally practicing. Some are doing interesting things in other fields. I do not know that you can attribute all of the attrition to the challenges of having a family, but if one did not get a solid few years before having kids, there could be little motivation to come back – long hours, low pay. It is difficult for women, no question.

How did you become Principal at NADAAA?

I had been working at Shepley Bulfinch for 7 years when I finished a part-time MBA program and wanted a change. My plan was to go out on my own. At that time, Office dA was beginning to close. Nader Tehrani, whom I had been friends with from graduate school, asked me to help him start a new firm. Even before leaving Shepley, I would come by the office evenings and weekends, looking at the projects and figuring out what could be reassigned to NADAAA and what was really an Office dA project. It was an interesting time in the economy when things were starting to turn around from the 2008 crash and there was not much work to reassign. It was a pretty clean start. NADAAA needed about 24 months to become a viable office. We were lucky to have a core group of 5-6 people from Office dA who had stayed with Nader, so we had experienced skilled designers. Firms that have a cold start don’t have that luxury. At the same time, we struggled those first months. There were a number of times when the principals couldn’t take salaries, it was a bit rocky. Now, it has been almost 7 years, and I think that we are on pretty firm ground as far as our comfort range, and the different kinds of typologies that we do. I did not think I would become a permanent part of NADAAA. I assumed that this would be some kind of a bridge while I figured out  how to start my own firm, but then time kept going on. I am still here.

Have you had to do any sacrifices because of architecture?

Yes - I have 2 children and I realized when they were babies that I was much better off in a management role than in a design role. I found management to be more predictable. I felt battle weary when they were younger, trying to multi-task. We lived in southeastern rural Connecticut and the daycare was pretty far from the house as well as far from where I worked. You never knew during the day when you are going to get the phone call that someone has a fever and you have to pick them up. I started to back off from design roles. I do not think that was a huge sacrifice, but I did miss the experimentation. Still, I love the field. I do not think that I could have had my own firm when the kids were small. It was just too difficult and we needed a steady income. Now that I am older, I think some design muscles and enthusiasm of a young designer have atrophied.

Was there a particular period of time in your career when you felt challenged?

I had been practicing for almost fifteen years. I was not quite a Principal, but I was an Associate Principal, which meant I had not quite gotten my wings. I found myself searching for support networks to help navigate that next step in my career. What do you do now? How could I learn to bring work into the firm? Suddenly, I found a lack of support groups for middle aged women. There seemed to be Women in Design programs that focused on helping people new to the profession, particularly to find their voice. All of us really needed that as new designers, particularly women who may not have the self-confidence they should. But, at the middle age, I was without a compass. I learned an important lesson. Building a network, whether it is another group of women, peers in your generation or an intergenerational mixed gender professional association is something to nurture.  It is a bit like friendship – something to be valued and not just sought when needed.

What challenges do you continue to face as Principal?

I always had an issue with self-confidence  - meaning I had none. Yet architecture requires a level of self-confidence. One needs to be able to take risks and argue one’s point in a voice that is both firm and constructive. There were times that I would feel bruised by criticism of being bossy or aggressive, convinced that a male colleague would not have the same critique. I continue to struggle with that balance, trying to defend something that I really care about without coming off as imperious. The older I get, the more sensitive I am to ‘bossy’ label, and now that I am in a position of leadership, I understand that it is not just about me. To pitch an idea as “my way or the highway” misses the critical input of others. I guess in summary I would say that a Principal needs to lead by allowing others to grow, and it takes a certain amount of self-confidence to encourage that dynamic.

What challenges does the profession have?

In the context of a socioeconomic balance, race, and gender, the profession is having a shake-up. The good news is that there is a lot of conversation, but I do not think anyone has cracked to code to making us more diverse, both in background and globalization. It is also on my mind in the wake of the recent hurricanes that we are ill equipped to mobilize our skills to rebuild those who need us.

What changes in the design field have you observed throughout the years?

In some ways, I have observed huge changes while in others not so much. If we speak broadly for the profession, the way we deliver projects in architecture is relatively unchanged. I am packaging  projects pretty much the same way I did 25 years ago. You may say that there are various models of integrated deliveries or fast tracking, but they are quite minor in use. At the same time, the way people work, the ability to visualize and create things, and the nimbleness with which people work through projects is startling. I am amazed by the way that interns or new graduates move across different platforms. The depth may not be there as far as knowing how to put a building together and understanding the kind of rule book that the contractor is looking for when it comes to project execution. We need to change either the project delivery method or the training so that nimble visualization leads to a shorter design and construction duration. Otherwise what you will end up with is a really amazing ability to dimensionalize projects without understanding the systems and to design in a way that makes them optimized, cost-effective, and sustainable. On one hand, we have lightning speed of the way we can conceive the project and on the other hand, we have glacial speed as far as the way we are actually packaging it and getting it out to be built.

If you could make a policy change in the design field, what would it be?

I do not know if that is so much ‘policy’ as a perception. I find it frustrating in the field that it is difficult for new practitioners, designers, and even older firms to break into a new area where they don’t have a proven track record. For example, a public school comes out and it would be wonderful to have a really innovative one. The truth of the matter is you are unlikely to be able to compete for one if you have not done a public school before. That cuts out a lot of young designers. So who suffers there? The school system suffers because the community will not get an interesting, different perspective. The design profession suffers because we will end up with silos of firms organized by typology. Sometimes that is very appropriate. Having worked at Shepley Bulfinch, healthcare is not a field that should be opened up to the inexperienced. There is a required depth of knowledge for healthcare planning. But other times, the barriers are unnecessary. As I look at the building boom that we have right now in Boston I am dismayed at the quality of the work. Relatively few firms have had the opportunity to make an impact on the recent transformations to our skyline. I suspect that developers are just looking for something safe; they may not be all that interested in the design, having to consider not only the return on investment but the operating income they will get when the building is occupied. Perhaps they are not thinking about the legacy they have left behind. So the current system leaves a lot of Boston’s talent out of the game. I find that incredibly frustrating - not only from our own perspective. Yes, NADAAA would be able to contribute great architecture, but looking at other firms that I also know are doing great work. And why, when this city has more talent and progressive thinking in the field per capita than any other city in the country, would we not have the skyline to prove it? I find this heartbreaking. No matter how loud I scream or to whom I appeal it does not seem to resonate with the right people. So if I could change one thing, that would be to incentivize developers and the city to raise their design standards.

Where are some areas that young designers could improve?

Young designers want to understand how to deliver a project, how to speak confidently in front of a group, and how to present their ideas. We all grow up in the critique process - we are accustomed to standing up and defending our work, but we are not used to doing it in a way that is normal. It is not very likely that you will be brought into a white room full of people, who are sitting down while you are standing before a model and drawings, describing a set of conditions that you made up yourself. More likely, you are part of a team and you are working on something particular. So, how are you prepared to put ideas out there and be articulate in a way that will help the deciders who are very likely not a part of your team? How will you convince them? I do not think that people get that experience, although some schools base curriculum around collaborative projects. I have also heard of schools moving towards a science fair model where jurors are coming to visit your project among many. All day you are answering questions and talking about your project. At the end of the day you have presented this thing about nine times – the talking points are tight down to what is truly important about the project. That is how you learn.

I feel comfortable bringing our emerging professionals to interviews. I think clients like to see the younger staff; they really like to talk to them; they want to hear about their ideas. They feel like they bring a freshness to a project that the project needs. But later on, as the project can get challenging - when there are decisions that need to be made about quality vs cost or time vs money – then you need a bit more depth and background to articulate the essential point.

What advice would you give to young designers?

When asked, I always say, “Don’t be afraid to take risks” which sounds so canned, but the truth of the matter is that the young architect is the most nimble.  Later on life happens and it gets harder to change gears. Whether you choose to have a family, whether you choose to buy a house, whether you are caring for your parents - the older you get, the roots start to sink a little bit deeper and it becomes that much less viable to do something crazy like quitting your job and doing a competition, taking a teaching job, and trying to start your own venture.