By Beth R. Mosenthal, AIA, 2019 AIA Colorado Member Voice Committee Member 

Beth Mosenthal, AIA

Beth Mosenthal, AIA

In early November of 2019, AIA Colorado held their annual Practice & Design Conference in Breckenridge, Colorado.  With over 600+ participants from around the state, the aptly titled conference, “Future Forward,” explored how the architecture profession is currently responding to rapid changes in the environment, technology and society.

While design and technical explorations were discussed and presented, societal shifts were also explored through the lens of recent advancements in equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives within the architectural profession. Ignacio Correa-Ortiz, AIA, first led a panel discussion entitled “Inclusively Leading the Next Generation of Talent.” Later in the day, a keynote was delivered by Rosa Sheng, FAIA,  Principal and Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at SmithGroup and founder of Equity x Design, a group dedicated to “minimizing barriers to provide fair and just access to the resources and opportunities design professionals need to thrive – regardless of gender, socioeconomic, racial, or ethnic identity.” While Correa-Ortiz’s discussion took on discussions focused on equitable practice within firms and employee/employer relationships, Rosa Sheng discussed how equitable practice might be scaled to more thoughtfully inform our projects and processes.  In a two-part post, I will share summaries from both sessions, beginning with Rosa Sheng’s keynote.

For more information regarding EDI, I encourage AIA Colorado members to look into what the AIA Colorado EDI Taskforce is up to, as well as consulting the recently published Guides for Equitable Practice.

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Rosa Sheng’s Keynote at the AIA Colorado PD&C; “Why Equity Matters; A New Value Proposition for Design” Looks Back and Forward at On-Going Efforts, Resources, and Next Steps Towards Implementing Equity within the Architectural Profession and Beyond

By Beth R. Mosenthal, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of a movement is the spark that ignites it. Sometimes it’s a small voice or event that smolders and burns in the form of quiet conversations and grassroot efforts that, over the arc of time, result in tangible change. Other times, if the spark is struck by just the right match, a fire is ignited in what might seem like only a matter of moments.

Rosa Sheng of SmithGroup JJR by SRK Headshot Day

Rosa Sheng of SmithGroup JJR by SRK Headshot Day

The formation of Equity by Design in 2014, founded by Rosa T. Sheng, FAIA, currently a Principal and the Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at SmithGroup, was arguably the architecture industry’s proverbial spark, igniting an emblazoned dialogue regarding the dire need for architecture to become a more equitable profession.  Fast forward through numerous surveys, conferences, media coverage and the release of “Guides for Equitable Practice,” in 2018 by the American Institute of Architects and the University of Minnesota, and one might find the profession’s perceived staples of homogeneity and tradition challenged by the rally cry of Sheng’s keynote at the 2019 AIA Colorado conference, “Why Equity Matters; A New Value Proposition for Design.” 

To introduce her talk, Sheng opened with a slide from the infamous “I Love Lucy” episode in which Lucy and Ethel go to work in a chocolate factory. Tasked with wrapping chocolates coming down a conveyor belt that seems to outpace human ability, the women stuff chocolates into their clothing and mouths.  Their efforts are in vain; by creating the illusion of progress, the conveyor belt runs at an even faster speed, making it impossible to complete the task at hand.  Sheng explains; “It is a losing premise to simply keep up appearances—to continue to just get by,” intimating that the architecture profession, after decades of systemic exclusiveness, simply can’t afford to not put in the work, time, and effort necessary to become more diverse, inclusive and equitable.

In many ways, the survival and relevance of the architectural profession depends on it, as Sheng suggests in a 2016 article for Trim Tab, “’The lack of equity in architectural practice and allied professions has made them prone to lose talent to other seemingly more lucrative career paths due to multiple factors that challenge retention: long hours, low pay, lack of transparency for promotion, and work that is misaligned with professional goals. In order to have justice and equity in the built environment, the AEC design workforce needs a more diverse representation that reflects the rapidly changing demographics that we serve.” 

Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory.

Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory.

The sentiment that a more equitable profession provides a greater value proposition is reinforced in the introduction to intercultural competence in the first AIA Guide for Equitable Practice (in which Sheng was a contributor); “Increasingly, organizations are seeing the value of workplaces where differences are recognized as strengths that contribute to reaching common goals.  This inclusiveness is important for how all individuals within a firm work together, and it also matters for how a firm and its employees connect with individuals and groups outside the firm.”  

Sheng’s keynote tackled the value proposition for equity in architecture from both a personal and professional standpoint. Similar to her 2016 TEDx Philadelphia Talk, she first shared her professional and life experiences that led her to recognize and question demonstrated inequities in architectural practice, which led to her leadership in Equity by Design and tangential initiatives.

Where Sheng’s talk began to introduce fairly new ideas beyond equity, diversity and inclusivity within firm culture began with a series of questions and initiatives that demonstrated the impact equitable design practices might have on the public sphere.  In addition to improving diversity, inclusivity and equity initiatives within firms, what if architects begin to conscientiously practice in more equitable ways? 

“Does design perpetuate injustice?” Sheng asked the audience.

She then cited examples of redlining and the notion that a person’s life span can depend on where they live. Sheng proceeded to discuss how equity matters for the health and that the welfare of humankind can explicitly be addressed through safe and dignified design. Some examples she shared were non-gendered bathrooms, the addition of nursing rooms to accommodate breastfeeding mothers in public spaces and designing for universal access.

To begin to address the underserved more directly, Sheng implored architects to consider our user engagement processes; “It’s not always who is in the room, but rather—who is at risk? When we ask who is missing from the table, it changes what we do.”

As the talk closed, these big questions related to the profession’s responsibility to help design in equitable ways that continue to serve and improve society and the environment loomed large. While Sheng and countless others’ past efforts have led to important resources to facilitate equitable and just professional practice, these larger questions suggest yet another reconciling amongst the architecture profession aimed at more accountability regarding how, where and why buildings impact the built environment and the new and existing communities they serve.