On Affecting Change in Architecture
With special thanks to Youngsoo Yang
A Senior Associate at Arrowstreet, Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA talked with us about making policy changes, being a woman in architecture, and observing challenges for emerging professionals. Emily served as Boston Society of Architects President in 2014 and is currently the Chair of the AIA Equity in Architecture Commission. She is the 2018-2020 Director at-large for the AIA Board of Directors and is a major advocate for equity and diversity in the field.
How did you enter the architecture profession?
Looking back, there were clear signs that I was going to be an architect, but I didn't know it when I was younger. I was always into art and drawing. I got in trouble at age 5 because I was in my bedroom drawing on my bed sheets. When I was older, I had the opportunity to join an all-day St. Louis architecture sketching trip lead by architect, Eugene Mackey, FAIA. This opened my eyes to the connection between drawing and the built environment. I was also fascinated by the stories embedded in the design of buildings—the reasons why certain decisions were made and why some construction methods were chosen based on what was considered technologically advanced at the time. Before my last year of high school, I went to a six-week pre-college program at Carnegie Mellon University to get a taste of architecture school before I applied for undergraduate programs. After my summer in Pittsburgh, I was hooked!
There were moments when I questioned my decision to pursue architecture. Architecture school forces you to break down your assumptions of how the world works. That is both demoralizing and empowering. Some say you must be strong to go through architecture school; I believe it’s more important to have an open mind. An architect needs to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. It’s about developing a personal resiliency and finding solutions to address many needs.
What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?
Being able to sustain the pace of the work is a challenge. Issues of self-care and working with the right people have become more important to me. When you do something that you are passionate about, like architecture, it is very easy to be myopic and think it becomes everything. Unfortunately, I must remind myself not have to spend all of my waking hours on work, and that it is okay to take a step back. Architecture is full of personalities; some are easier to work with than others. If you believe that everybody wants to create good work and has the right intentions, it is easier to resolve interpersonal challenges. I love the people that I work with: my clients, my colleagues, and the people who use buildings. We might disagree on things from time-to-time, but we are all in this together.
Self-advocacy is a huge issue as one develops their career. One of the things that has always fascinated me about architecture is the responsibility to make decisions that affect people's lives. There are ethical implications to this responsibility. Architects make thousands of little decisions. Not only do architects need to be comfortable with a massive amount of information, but also the implications of their choices. Your relationship to the work, as an individual and as a team, is important for influence but also attributing credit when projects are completed. Sometimes I have put my career at a disadvantage because I didn’t feel comfortable taking individual credit with larger team projects. What was it that I couldn’t assert myself? Often because we would speak of the work as a team effort and I always thought of it as such, but in different settings we must be able to also give ourselves permission to take credit as an individual on that team especially if the effort is significant.
Have you experienced any Advantages / disadvantages of being a woman architect?
Last year I ran for the AIA Board of Directors even though it wasn’t in my short-term plan. I ran against a well-qualified male candidate. In the wake of the 2016 national election, I was aware of a candidate’s double bind with special consideration of how women are often perceived either not strong enough or too strong when speaking publically. I purposely never played what some call the ‘woman card’ because my gender was pretty obvious when we were grouped with the candidates for the other positions who happened to be all male. I decided to have fun during the campaign wearing the brightest colors I could find—red, bright pink, and purple—to make the difference visually clear. This is something that has changed for me recently, feeling comfortable with visually standing out in a crowd. I find that it has also helped me continue to stand out in my advocacy for architecture and other issues.
You are changing policies at AIA. What is a current policy change you are working on?
There is a part in the AIA Code of Ethics that talks about civil rights addressing how AIA members should not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, ability. It does not address gender identity or gender expression. Every little step that we take is important knowing that policy is a constant work in progress, reflecting a moment in time. The most important thing I would say is that policies do need to be changed and evaluated. Many times emerging professionals think it doesn't affect them because it is not really exciting. It does affect them and the strongest recommendation I can give is to understand the language that is used.
How can one affect change?
The first step is to define your intent and be clear about why the change is needed. You can change things in the Code of Ethics, or you can change things in terms of public positions. Any change that you make has to be affected on multiple platforms - media and outreach. That is the unrecognized work that has to be done to make things happen. Sometimes people take one path and they hit a roadblock but have to reverse. Often you have to test multiple paths to get to a destination; there isn't one way to do anything. This always tends to require more effort than you think it does, and it will require a flexibility and understanding. Pushing on one end to get the other to budge; then readjust to move one step closer. That works with architecture practice as well… and construction administration… and negotiation with my kids… All those things in life. But above all, you need to believe in what you are doing. Question things and be open to the idea that you could be wrong. It is through struggle that the most beautiful things are created.
What are some challenges that emerging professionals face?
Architecture has always been apprentice-based. It must be learned in context and carries a long tradition of culture of mentoring—which at its best is a form of teaching. In 2012, I was enrolled at the Harvard Extension School getting a graduate degree in educational technology. I did a research study looking at professional continuing education, especially from the perspective of emerging professionals. In this I discovered the work of two educators, Bryan Lawson and Kees Dorst, who studied how architects learn. They found a unique exchange of collaborative learning through our external context. Architects also understand representational relationships—like how a building can represent other abstract forms. They see the world through a unique perspective.
One of the challenges that I see emerging professionals encounter is reduced face-to-face time with established professionals. Everyone is busy and that critical learning time is dwindling. Lost are casual conversations and the ability to ask questions with the speed of work. Always a work in progress, I have to be intentional about making time to check-in often with my teammates. There is a balance between being respectful with people’s time and attention and understanding that as an emerging professional, your development is also critical to continue growing.
What changes do you see in the profession?
My first job was in 1994 when I was a senior in high school. On Day 1, I was handed Frank Ching's Architectural Graphics book and asked to learn how to learn lettering so I could add notes to hand drawings. I also started some of the first CAD details in that office. (They only had one computer at the time.) This experience has allowed me to bridge generations—moving past the paper vs. pencil argument—to see both sides. Since then I have experienced the dramatic shift from 2D to 3D and parametric tools. I guess I take a more open philosophical view that we’re not really losing things, but developing different tools or languages for design. The fundamentals are still there and we all have our own comfortability and favorites.
Emerging professionals today have fantastic communication skills, especially visually. There is a lot of fear of change in architecture. Ways that I would like to influence the profession in the next 5-10 years include a robust conversation about what the future of architecture will be, and how architects can prepare for changes to come.
What tips do you have for emerging professionals?
Find a small peer-to-peer networking group. Develop your own Board of Directors; for example five or six people that you really trust at the same developmental level as you. Start to meet regularly and build that trust. Being able to have a forum to explore things like, “I do not think I am getting paid enough, what do you think?” or “I want to have a child, but I do not know if it's the right time” are important conversations. Sometimes the topics are minor; sometimes it may completely change your perspective. In my group, we have the ability to say tough things to each other that you could never say to a coworker, which has been great for developing confidence factor. Knowing that others have your back and understand your experience can be transformational.