The Importance of Flexibility at the Work Place with Nina Brown
With special thanks to Aminah McNulty
Over a candid lunch conversation, Nina Brown, Principal at Brown, Richardson & Rowe shared with us how she co-founded a landscape studio with Clarissa Rowe. Nina Brown received her undergraduate degree from Harvard College and her Master of Landscape Architecture degree at the University of Pennsylvania. She enjoys working on parks, waterfronts, trails, transportation, and historic preservation. Nina was Co-Chair of the Chairman's Council of the Trustees of Reservations and President of the Arboretum Park Conservancy. She served on the Brookline Parks and Recreation Commission for seven years. Take a look at Nina's story and her advice to designers.
HOW DID YOU GET TO WHERE YOU ARE, PRINCIPAL AT BROWN, RICHARDSON & ROWE?
Clarissa Rowe and I both worked at Sasaki Associates. In the spring of 1981, I had heard about a master plan project for a new Riverfront Heritage Park System in the Amoskeag Millyard on the Merrimack River in Manchester, NH. Clarissa had left Sasaki the year before and I had just given six weeks’ notice. I asked her over for tea and we decided to go up to New Hampshire for the briefing. When we got to the sign in sheet for the firms in attendance, we said, “Oh! What is the name of our firm?” Clarissa said that our names should be in alphabetical order so we wrote down our firm name, “Brown & Rowe.” The City selected us to do the master plan. I was 32 and she was 33 when we started the firm. Clarissa had worked at The Architects Collaborative and Sasaki. I had worked at a landscape architectural firm in Portland, Oregon, a regional planning commission in New Hampshire, and Sasaki. Neither of us were licensed. Clarissa had taken some parts of her tests, but neither of us had a stamp. When I was at Sasaki, I liked the planning section, so I had not planned to be licensed. However, as Principal of a firm, I knew I had to be licensed so I took the test. That was the beginning.
WHAT DROVE YOU TO START YOUR OWN FIRM?
It turned out Clarissa was pregnant when we prepared for the New Hampshire interview. We both weren’t optimistic that we could find a firm where we could balance work and motherhood. I was unmarried, with no marriage plans in sight, but we both wanted to have the option for flexible schedules. We started the firm in May 1981 and Clarissa’s baby girl was born in February of the following year. Flexibility has always been very important at our firm. I ended up getting married a year after we started Brown & Rowe and had my first child in 1985. We worked three days a week in the office when our children were little. We were always available to our clients during the days we weren't there. It was unusual at that time to work part time. We didn’t advertise our flexible schedules. We were committed to doing what needed to be done whenever it needed to be done. Both our oldest children went to family day care. We switched to full time babysitters as our families grew to give us further flexibility with our work schedules when the children were sick.
We now know that flexibility is also important to men. For a long time, the majority of our employees were women - 10 women and two men; now we have five men, and eight women. This shift has been very positive. Four of the five men have kids; two have very young boys. Some work places, when you ask for time off to go to a school play, may frown upon your request . We support our staff members’ needs to have time with their families. Children or parents sick? Absolutely, stay home to take care of them. Flexibility is an important part of our culture.
One of the things I would say looking back over the past 36 years is that I wanted to have control over my time. I could only do that by starting my own firm with another woman. It did not seem as if any firm was going to give that flexibility to me. I was lucky to be able to take that risk. Many women don’t have the same opportunities. That's not right!
WHAT CHALLENGES HAVE YOU FACED AND HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THEM?
Our youth was our initial challenge. Our firm hadn’t been in business for very long. We were lucky that we got the first project we went after. Being young women business owners was unusual at that point. The Commonwealth’s Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprise program really helped us. It was set up to increase inclusion for minorities and women in public work. Engineers and Architects had to have WBE’s on their projects. Engineers would cold call us and invite us to join their teams. Ten years later, we were working on six different segments of the Big Dig, thanks to Affirmative Action. The program made it easier for us to meet new people.
Getting work, having it spaced out evenly over time, and avoiding big swings in the firm’s workload are the biggest challenges. We tell ourselves during lean times that the economy will change again and we will get through this. Our biggest challenge was the 2008 recession. We had a reduced work week so that we didn't have to lay anyone off. And we got through it. That was a time when people were scared of the present and the future. We haven't had any lawsuits in 37 years, knock on wood! Overall, there are lots of challenges in the design world, no question about it: getting your fees accepted and managing additional services requests. However, getting the work done on time has not been a big problem for us. It is something we have always been able to do in spite of our unusual schedules. We have done well with keeping projects within their construction budgets. Sometimes we have found it hard to break into a new project type.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE PROJECT OF YOURS?
Yes. Bremen Street Park in East Boston. It was done as part of the Big Dig. The site was an 18 acre parking lot that the Big Dig needed for laydown for construction. Through a variety of advocacy efforts by non-profits and people in the community, the Big Dig agreed to spend $20 million to turn the parking lot into a first rate park and to expand an existing park. Bremen Street Park is on one side of Airport Station, Memorial Stadium Park is on the other. As part of the Big Dig, Bremen Street Park became a completely new park, Memorial Stadium Park was expanded, and the two parks were joined. They are now part of a larger bike trail system that goes through East Boston. Brown, Richardson & Rowe has designed five segments of the East Boston Greenway. New open space amenities and trails stimulated growth in this part of East Boston. Bill Rawn designed a new public library at one end of Bremen Street Park. Then behind the library, a charter school was built. Next to Memorial Stadium Park, the Goddess Bra Factory was turned into the Porter Street Lofts. There is a non-profit music group called Zumix that does great things with teenagers in the park’s amphitheater. An old Engine House in the park was transformed into a YMCA and guaranteed activity in the park. There was a ton of public participation during the design process. The project was incredibly challenging because transportation departments were not yet used to finding themselves in the position of being clients for the design of big parks, rather than highways. I like projects with substantial community benefit. It is satisfying to convert degraded urban sites into nice places for people.
IF YOU COULD CHANGE A POLICY IN THE DESIGN FIELD THAT WOULD INFLUENCE THE FIELD, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Selection processes are not always fair. An architect I know reminds me frequently that in public projects, the public agencies are not supposed to ask for a fee proposal until after the firm is selected. That rule is widely ignored. The BSA is making an effort to support architectural firms and push the public agencies to implement a more merit-based selection process. Having a consistent, fair selection process is important. Sometimes, firms may be a shoe-in and the outcome is predetermined even though the selection process is public.
Education -- there is a very large difference in the level of professional training at different design schools. Cornell, the University of Virginia, the University of Georgia and the University of Wisconsin have terrific landscape architecture programs. I went to Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania for graduate school. Occasionally, I have been a critic at the HGSD for the MLA program. Some of the faculty members are not registered landscape architects and the students do not seem to have a thorough understanding of natural processes. A plan shown to our jury illustrated a wetland in the shape of a half circle with no water flowing in and out of it. I love the idea of students having the latitude to explore their creativity, but feedback should be grounded in practice and realism so that they can learn the skills they need to be hired. Professional education is expensive. Students deserve to begin to learn what they need to know in the workplace.
HAVE YOU SEEN A GENERAL SHIFT IN TRENDS AND CHALLENGES THAT YOUNGER DESIGNERS ARE FACING?
I am thrilled with the young designers at our firm. They are fast and versatile. The largest change in the profession has been the shift from hand drafting to CAD and hand renderings to computer graphics. There has also been a big shift in style during my career -- Postmodernism was really big when I began. Now we are back to Mid-Century Modern. Making sure you can respond to changes in taste in a way that you feel good about is important. New materials, concern about sustainability and rising sea level are also shifts. The Dutch have a deep understanding of sea level management. The United States would benefit from learning from people in other countries who already know how to manage rising sea level. It is important to be rigorous in our search for workable solutions. We are behind!
HAVE YOU FACED ANY ADVANTAGES OR DISADVANTAGES IN BEING A WOMAN IN THIS FIELD?
Affirmative Action has been an advantage for us. It has been hard on some male-owned firms, particularly during the era of the Big Dig, which lasted 15 years. Working on six different artery projects made it necessary for us to have a computer on every desk. When we began we had no computers. By 1991, we “advanced” to one computer. When we began there were no faxes or email!
In the design and construction field, men were not used to working with women. Even this year, we have had men who do not listen to women. To deal with this recurring situation, sometimes we say, “We won't be able to stamp the drawings if we make the change you are requesting because we must meet professional standards. We won’t be able to put it out to bid”. A matter of fact, calm tone can help convey the message. Trying to get things done correctly in public jobs with low bids can be a problem for all of us. Public agencies have been more open to hiring women than private entities, even women’s colleges.
A man once told me I needed to learn how to interrupt, otherwise I would never be heard. When someone breaths, he said, that is your moment! Once, I was on a board of an organization, and the chairman of the board said to a room full of people, “Nina loves to interrupt.” He was annoyed. Years later, he did call me the conscience of the board, but that I was a thorn in his side. I was proud.
WHAT KIND OF ADVICE/TIPS DO YOU HAVE FOR THE FUTURE GENERATION OF DESIGNERS?
No one is going to ask you if you want to be a leader. You just have to decide and take on stuff that you feel is important to do, and do it. You are choosing to be leaders by doing this study. You saw a need and you are working to address it.