On Leadership with Laura Wernick
With a strong passion for the relationship between space and learning, Laura Wernick, Senior Principal at HMFH Architects, shared with us her career path and observations. Laura has an extensive knowledge of the physical, social, emotional and pedagogical basis of education and a large portfolio of innovative schools. She has been a crucial member shaping the culture of HMFH Architects. In 2012 Laura was President of Boston Society of Architects. Learn about the various forms of leadership she shares with us.
How did you get into architecture?
When I was in high school, I was sent to a special week-long program about urban planning; students from different high schools got together with architects and urban planners and planned a city. I thought, “Wow, this is really interesting!” I got an after-school job working for a group of architects and they were very supportive. I worked there my junior and senior years after school and summers. I decided I wanted to be an architect, applied to college and got my degree. I came to Boston and I worked initially for what is now Finegold Alexander and then came to HMFH.
How did you become a Senior Principal at HMFH?
HMFH was run by 5 male partners at the time and they were very supportive of me individually and of women in general. I never felt any sense that men would be promoted more than women or that I was given different responsibilities from anyone else. There was nothing in the office that made me feel like I was a second-class citizen. I think my personality was such that I was able to provide glue between people, bring people together around issues, and also push new ideas both on projects and across the firm. The Principals at the time appreciated that and ultimately I was made a Principal in the firm.
What were your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
Certainly when I was raising my kids, that was a very challenging time. Once I came back from having taken some time off for each kid, I reduced my hours to 32 hours. In reality, I was working more hours than that. Because I was not there every day, I felt guilty so I always had to get an earlier start and stay later when I was there. There was always a feeling of tension that when there was a sick child, I had to run off and run back. Should I be home, should I be at the office? That is a very common set of tensions that women in the field feel. On the one hand, there is an amount of flexibility so you can adjust your hours to some extent, but on the other hand, everybody is working endless hours and never working enough. No matter what you do, you could never do enough. There is always that sense of inadequacy and that you should be working a little bit more, a little bit harder. That is partly a female thing as well as the culture of architecture. My husband was very supportive; he had a fairly flexible schedule so that was very helpful. He traveled a lot so he was not always home, but when he was home, he was often doing pick up or providing help whenever he could. But, I was certainly the prime care-taker. It was a very stressful time. And, you were never sure you were providing your kids with enough, that you were doing the best by your kids. But we made it through. We survived.
What does leadership mean to you?
Leadership for me has been trying to be a role model but, primarily following my interests - finding things I cared about and that also moved the office forward. One of the reasons I came to work for HMFH was because of their work in education which was always an interest of mine. How does physical space support learning? How does learning take place? That was always a particular fascination of mine. So I did a lot of research, I wrote articles, and I gave presentations. I continue to do that. I try to make sure the firm is always aware of the latest educational research out there. So that has been my entry point into leadership, having something that I cared about that had a positive impact on the firm. Also, I work well with others. I am a pretty good listener. Through a couple of flukes, I ended up being involved with the BSA, and happened to be in a position where all of a sudden they needed a Vice President of the board. Eventually I became President of the board. I had been around for a while and a lot of people knew me. That gave me the opportunity to learn how to be a different kind of leader outside of the firm. There are different types of leaderships; there is no single model for leadership. Some people have certain strengths, which make them better leaders within a non-profit, within a teaching environment, or within an architecture firm. You have to find what your skills are that can be put to good use and what things provide energy for you to keep the excitement going.
Do you have a favorite project?
I get excited about a lot of the different projects we do. There is always the feeling that the next project is going to be even better. Some of them are more successful than others. I have been on a lot of projects where we did something interesting, something different, or worked in a certain way with the community that made us particularly proud of it. There is not one project. Maybe you make some special relationships over the course of a project. Everyone has its own special place in my heart in some way or another. You might have some specific design success in one and another has an innovative programmatic success or some sustainability break-through that you feel good about.
What changes in the design field have you observed?
One of the biggest transformations is a flip in how people work with one another in the office. It takes a lot of experience to become an architect; it takes a lot of time to understand all the technical building issues. But at the same time people coming out of college have much higher flexibility, adaptability and agility with technology. All of a sudden senior people are looking to younger people for help to do things in different ways or to learn how to run different programs. That is really different from when I was coming up when there was the senior architectural people and they were God and you follow what they say. There was no questioning, that was how knowledge flowed. Now, there is a real need for young people to be leaders and for them to bring the latest to the firm. Firms rely on that influx of new energy and new skills all the time. We constantly need to understand latest graphical ways of presenting something. That is a real different structure to what was a very tradition-bound profession. So that’s one.
Another one has been sustainability; it has really transformed our role as architects, how we think about architecture and what we do in trying to control some limits on climate change. There is a real urgency among a lot of architects, particularly young architects, to see how we can push this, what we can do in the next building, and how we can talk to our clients so they understand. There has always been a desire to make buildings responsive to people’s needs and now there is a different language describing that. There are new materials, new technologies, and new approaches around sustainability.
How about any changes with women in the profession?
Being a woman is much more difficult in certain areas of design. I am in an area of design where our clients are often women - principals, teachers - so it is much easier to be a female leader in that market sector than if you are designing office buildings downtown where the predominant client is a wealthy white male. They are looking for other people like him with a similar background and style to work with him and build teams with. It is not even just being male, it is being a certain kind of male. Maybe that means that women tend to go to different market sectors, more residential or retail rather than office buildings. A lot of your ability to be a leader is your ability to be a rainmaker. It is hard to be a rainmaker if your clients don’t see you as their peer. So, that’s the bigger barrier. We all like to be around people who are like ourselves. We are more comfortable talking and socializing and building relationships with people who are like us. Men have to be not only open minded but fight their own natural tendencies to be around people like themselves in order to bring more women in. That is a tall order to ask of anybody. It is a leap to understand that a good team is a diverse team with different people thinking different ways. That is slowly changing but I think there are still a lot of people in leadership roles who don’t think of themselves as being prejudice or having anti-female feelings, but who don’t see women as natural business collaborators on their projects. If we face this barrier as women and we’re half the population, think of minority groups who don’t even have that advantage. We need to get more women into that leadership across the building and development sectors so that our clients are more like us and help everyone understand that diversity leads is a strength! That’s a couple of generations away I fear.
I do think that having more women in architecture has changed the profession. It has certainly changed how things are done in Boston. You don’t stop that type of transformation. It may not be happening as rapidly as we would like. There are still firms where it is still not a great place to be a woman but it is happening; it is changing. That transformation is not going backwards. So the more we can push it, the more people understand it and see what the issues are. I think having women in the profession makes it easier to be a woman in the profession. We ultimately change how clients get the buildings built. Slow transformation is taking place but it is there. It is not going to stop.
What is a policy change you want to make in the profession?
The design and construction industry has been very tradition-bound, and other than the impact BIM technology has had, we are still building buildings the same way as 100 years ago. It keeps us all in a very constrained world. My frustrations are that we are providing a service which is not always respected or thought to be of significant value. Architects are not always valued despite the extent of education that is required and the care and passion that people bring to their work. Unlike other professions, the construction industry has slipped in production and efficiencies over the last 30-40 years. We are in a very old fashioned industry where things are highly defined and regulated, and we need to somehow burst out. I am not quite sure what that means, but I think that there is going to be some major transformation in how buildings get built and we have to make sure that architects are integral in that transformation. We have to help create a new system that is not a crappy, cheap modular system, but that there is design happening. Maybe the key is that we integrate and embed design culture in young kids in order to have design thinking be more integral to our culture like in Copenhagen. Right now, there is a big disconnect. That is slowing everything down, limiting who we can be, and limiting our design because it is not valued. We have to embed design value in our education and understand that design is integral to moving ahead as a society.
From your perspective, what challenges do young designers face?
The design profession is a cyclical profession. When things are busy, there are lots of opportunities, but when things are not busy, there are fewer opportunities. It is a tough profession to make a living at over the course of your professional life because there are these ups and downs. You can feel like your career is moving forward and you are getting some recognition but then the economy can stink for a while and all of that is lost. I have seen very good people filled with self-doubt and lose confidence in themselves because the greater economy has not been there to support them. That is one of the most challenging parts of being an architect. It is not a steadily growing profession. It is a profession that is very quickly influenced by the greater economy. That is hard on individuals.
That being said, I think we could, as leaders within the profession, do better to clarify what skills are and what the pathways are to advancement within our firms. I don’t think a lot of senior leaders take enough time to make those pathways clear and to help people understand that either yes, this is a good place to advance or maybe this is the wrong firm for you. Simultaneously, I think it is important for people who are looking for work and who are in a new firm to try and understand the culture of that firm. Does that culture align with their own interests? Firms are very different and if you don’t fit in here, that doesn’t mean you are not going to excel over at another firm. There should be a lot more openness, communication and opportunities for employees and employers to have those conversations. Young architects have to understand that they might not fit everywhere and that’s not necessarily a black mark on their lives. Different places have different ways of seeing and approaching problems and approaching design.