Morning Coffee with Tamara Roy

We met with Tamara Roy, Principal at Stantec in Boston, on a beautiful summer morning. Voted one of Boston's Top 50 Power Women in Real Estate, Tamara was the design team leader for the new residence tower at MassArt, described as 'the most interesting high-rise in years' by the Boston Globe. She was elected to be the President of the Boston Society of Architects in 2016. Nicknamed 'the mother of the micro-unit', Tamara became one of the earliest promoters of compact living when she advocated for changing the policy of minimum unit sizes at a 2010 Innovation District housing symposium. Take a peak at some words of wisdom she shared with us.

Tamara Roy

Tamara Roy

How did you get on the architecture path?

I didn’t even know architecture existed until high school. I loved to paint and wanted to become an artist. I come from a lower middle class family and my parents, who divorced when I was 13, were very clear that they would not support me as a painter. My dad said, “What about architecture?” I got a scholarship to attend Carnegie Mellon and totally loved it, so I stayed. From then on, I was pretty much on track to become an architect, except for a brief time in my mid-twenties when I became really disappointed about how much of a male-dominated profession this was. I thought about going to get a medical degree as a pediatrician or a gynecologist so that I could work with women! Of course I didn’t have the money to return to school since I already had an enormous amount of student debt.  The funniest thing that turned me off when I was dreaming about being a doctor was that I would have to work in a hospital - back then they were the most depressing architectural spaces ever.

How did you get into designing affordable housing?

I did a series of jobs, trying different things. In college I worked for two professors of mine, who renovated a gospel church for an African-American community in Pittsburgh. As a junior designer that was an amazing experience – the congregation was quite poor yet they were such a close knit, loving community. Then I worked for a while doing small houses for private clients, but I found that getting to know everything about a couple or family’s private life did not quench my thirst to make a larger difference in society. I didn’t want to talk for hours about where your toasters would go - I wanted to work in a city.

Affordability was a big thing for me because my own financial insecurity drove my decisions for where and how I lived, what types of jobs I could take, and the social circles I inhabited. At various firms I tried designing schools, hotels, and retail-driven mixed use projects.  At ADD Inc, designing student housing for state colleges was very fulfilling work, because the need to create communities was paramount and budgets were tight. I realized at that point, mid-career, that the combination of grass-roots community and place-making with the challenge of financial constraints was the type of project that most ignited my passion and brought out the best of my talents as a designer and leader. Working in the affordable housing sphere is that challenge x 10. The most perfect example right now that I am working on is the project in Charlestown, which is ⅓ public housing and ⅔ market housing. It is taking the Bunker Hill public housing development, tearing it down and putting up 14 new blocks of housing. The reason I get up in the morning is to make a new neighborhood that is fair and equitable, one that has the best possible urban design and sustainable thinking.

What are your reflections on career path in architecture?

In my opinion, the first part of most architect’s careers should be to try many different areas of the practice and see what excites you most. Architecture is so complex and is constantly changing, and there are so many things to figure out about yourself as well as about the world you are going to work in. Do you want to work on museums, housing, commercial?  Urban, suburban or rural? Do you like the conceptual or technical aspects of design? In order to make a steady climb while you are trying out all these aspects of architecture, one thing I have learned is that you have to be able to turn what you know into something of value even when transitioning into something different. You don’t want to lose the momentum, the salary and the power. In a very steady and hard climb, I got in the position that I am - a Principal. Now I can really be the one saying “I want to chase this project and this is how we are going to proceed”.

Is there a difference being a female architect?

A thing that has really benefited me being a woman is that collaboration is something that we fundamentally believe in. Everybody around the table has something to offer. The project is better if we can crowdsource - not just from our team but from the client team, the consultant team, and the neighbors around the site. Most women I know don’t expect to be a leader who has all the answers or comes up with the entire vision.  My goal has always been to make sure that we get to the best solution in a flexible process that allows many inputs and iterations. It is important for women to learn to be both comfortable in their own skin while having the confidence and courage to not give a quick answer but try to find the best answer. This it is not the easiest path towards promotion though. The architects who build themselves up are the clear ones to promote whereas if you are giving credit to the entire team, it is harder to recognize that it is the collaborative leader stitching it all together.

Are there any challenges being a female architect?

Most of my clients in the private development world are male. I still walk into large meetings with 10-20 people where I am the only woman there. I always stop and think, “Really? This is 2017! And where are the people of color?” It is very lonely at times. Having a husband, who is doing the same kind of work in architecture, was helpful in a way. I could see through him the opportunities that he was getting and I was missing. We both would work with the same male client but when it came time for them to call us about the next project, they would inevitably call him.

One aspect of unconscious bias is that we often prefer to work with people like ourselves – and that is true of developers too. I tried to bridge that gap by partnering with a male principal and it worked most of the time. We would get the work and I would do my job as well as I can.  On the upside, development is starting to change and now, somewhere in that team, there is a woman. We can establish a rapport about everything - about our kids, about common interests, and when you enjoy working together and do great projects, that is the key to repeat clients!

Are there any challenges to being a working mom?

We could do another hour long interview about what I learned being a working mom. Women should go in with their eyes open and not with this false sense that all of issues between men and women have been worked out in society because it is not true. When I married my husband, I thought we would be equals, and then we had to acknowledge the fact that he made more money than I did because he was five years older and he already had more experience. Suddenly, if anyone was going on a part-time schedule, it was me because we needed the money. That meant his career could keep going and mine had to flatten out for a while.  I worked between 20 and 32 hours a week as my children grew up.  

One of our male project managers was on a panel for work/life balance, and one thing he said was that his definition of success was that he provides for his family. That made me do some soul-searching since for me success was to be the emotional center of my family while I also lived up to my potential as an architect. It was challenging and exhausting. I cried quite often when I failed at one or the other. Men and women come to the world with those differences built into their DNA and I think society and the world of work still doesn’t accept the fact that women need different things for our success. If we start to feel that the balance is off and that work is taking too much time, we will back off work. It is really important to us to do that, for us and for the future of our children. We should not be penalized for that!

What policy changes should leaders focus on?

What we hear from our staff is that our flex-time policy at Stantec is super family-friendly. Childbirth is a temporary thing. You are going to take parental leave (women and men) and then you are going to come back. If you are good at what you do, it is actually going to make you better because you will become even more organized and efficient. I think that for the millennial generation that is starting to have families, it is essential to try and figure out how to make this balance work. But it is not just about having families, kids, or aging parents. You just want to have a life. You don’t want to be in the office all the time. You want to travel; you want to do other things. Having a well-rounded life and trying to figure out how architecture firms can support that helps women, men, minorities succeed and thrive.

What are some changes in the design field that you have noticed?

For the baby boom generation, technology has changed many times in their career. What it does to the younger generation is it dumps all of the need to know new software in your laps. You have to be careful that you don’t get stuck in this role of being the person with the technological skills. You need to grow your social skills too. I heard a principal say last week that he went to an interview and he was the oldest person in the room. The clients were 15 years younger than him. In every field there is a huge demographic shift happening. Suddenly the older generation is retiring and there are so few people in my (middle) generation to take over that the people who are really taking over are in their early 30s. This is great for you because you will grow together with your clients. I am very optimistic that issues of the environment and economic justice, which have been neglected and ignored by the baby-boomer developers, will become the center of the millennial project.

How do you encourage growth within your size firm?

In a bigger firm like ours, the responsibility is on the employees to advocate for themselves. We have twice a year performance reviews where you are asked what your goals are, what kinds of projects you want to work on, what you want to do and what you have learned. It is self-guided in that way. The advantage of a big firm is that we have so many different types of projects that if you decide you are tired of doing one project type, there are four other project sectors you can work on without leaving the firm.

What are some of the qualities that you see in emerging professionals?

At Stantec we give an award to the employee of the month. Team members get to nominate each other and you submit a paragraph about what makes them special. The qualities that a recent nominee had that were exemplary included: she came on the team knowing absolutely nothing about the typology she was going to be working on, she saw the gap in what the team didn’t know, she asked a ton of questions to figure out how they could get the knowledge to fill that gap, and in doing so she became the expert. In addition, she came to work with a positive attitude no matter what came her way. She never sat there waiting for something to happen. I was so impressed – that is the definition of how to get promoted.  Being flexible, responsible and positive means that the next project team says, “I need to have that person on my team!” Many emerging professionals have that drive. Their generation lived through the recession, realized that hard work is important, and that making a difference and changing the world is important. People come to work wanting it to be meaningful and not just pay the bills.

What is some advice you would give to emerging professionals?

To women Emerging Professionals especially, I’d tell them that I have always sought out women mentors. A lot of times you have to go outside your firm. I found that through my career, if I called a woman who I admired, they would meet me for lunch, tell me about their experience, and offer me advice. Our human resources staff actively pursues policies that help emerging professionals. Let us target those who we think have potential, bring them to a meeting, get them onto an interview team so they can see what the process is and they can learn it.

I am also trying to promote the idea that success is multidimensional. The world would be better off if we understood or tried to make it easier for working parents in terms of daycare, flex-time at work, and the way our teams work for other people. You should be able to construct a life where you do not have to sacrifice your work for your family or vice versa. The challenges for your generation are student loans and the housing affordability crisis - all those things make it harder for you to tackle the problem of work/life balance because there is little financial flexibility. Your generation will have to figure that out in a way that we could not. Our generation was struggling with existing systems - we had to try and tweak the systems, whereas if your generation is smart, you will remake the systems.