One Question Series: Part 2, Breaking Down Barriers


What happens when you ask the same question to five designers with five different backgrounds? You get five very different answers that will put you in someone else’s shoes. From firm principals to emerging professionals, we’re diving in to better understand—and share—others’ personal perspectives. This is the second installment of the new monthly series—“One Question”—produced by our Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (J.E.D.I.) Committee. 

In partnership with the Colorado Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects, we invite you to see through the lenses of five different practitioners to learn how their unique backgrounds shape experiences in the firm and their approaches to design.


QUESTION NO. 2
How can we as a profession break down barriers for minorities in architecture?


Kari Lawson, Assoc. AIA
AIA Colorado Associate Director
Designer, TreanorHL

“We can always improve our ability to empathize with people from different backgrounds. A passion for architecture can begin at any time with any one person, and it is critical to value that perspective. It is also necessary to recognize that architecture is an important humanistic undertaking that affects the destiny of all.

Architecture often feels elitist whereas the quality of a designer is determined by their schooling and their professional network. Not every person has the resources and guidance to make it all the way to the finish line and often this disadvantage falls onto minorities. Meeting people where they are and fostering encouraging environments is hugely important. This country has a strong foothold in systematic segregation practices which has major impacts on access to education. Developing robust institutional partnerships within minority communities can help bridge this gap. We can improve the accessibility of our profession by tailoring support to include reducing inequalities of participation, bolstering scholarships, and establishing visibility of equal representation. Mentorship can be as simple as a conversation and there is a strong need for access/investment. Volunteering our time and knowledge to these communities can change the demographics of the architecture profession profoundly.

Recruitment incentives and bias practices have also had an overwhelming impact on architecture. The unpaid or non-livable wage internship can be a barrier of access for minority communities without the appropriate support systems. Poor advising has also affected who can and who cannot be a part of this occupation. A diverse profession requires professionals to become more aware of how attitudes and beliefs may stigmatize others and impact recruitment. Being intentional and conscious about the words and phrases used on the daily are also an important factor for fostering a diverse environment.

Another obstacle to overcome is avoiding the glass cliff, but first we must lay the groundwork for success. We are approaching a moment beyond the glass ceiling where more diverse and minority candidates are entering the field. The glass cliff is when these candidates are more likely to be pressed into leadership roles with high risks for failure without a secure support system or foundation. Strategic hiring of minorities during a firm’s crisis can be interpreted as exploitation. High expectations can induce an exaggeration of error which places significantly underrepresented minorities at a larger disadvantage compared to their peers. A lack of achievement may manifest into further bias in the future hiring of minorities and could create —or exacerbate— a toxic culture. It is important to build equitable relationships to promote an inclusive workplace from within so that the strategy for positioning is well thought out and genuine.

I understand that there is no one solution to the complicated problem of integration within our profession. We can approach diversity improvement by examining the tiers of education, recruitment, and professional advancement. Improving representation in the industry will ultimately yield better access to design with a rise in innovative and unique perspectives.”

Victor Gonzalez, Assoc. AIA, NOMA
AIA Colorado J.E.D.I. Committee Member + Editorial Representative
Davis Partnership Architects

“I believe that in order to start breaking down barriers for minorities in architecture we need to focus on education.

The first step in breaking down barriers for minorities in architecture is the acknowledgment and conversation of how systemic racism is present in the built environment and the profession. This step should be taken in the early phases of education and must be acknowledged throughout our architectural post-secondary education. Acknowledging how this issue is apparent in our industry helps provide some clarity on how systemic racism throughout architecture has affected minorities in the past and present. What this approach also accomplishes is a step towards combating the unconscious bias that transpires throughout professional practice towards minorities.

The issue of systemic racism and how it is apparent throughout architecture is not analyzed enough to make any progress towards a more inclusive profession. For that same reason it is the primary cause for why minorities in this profession continue to face the same barriers generation after generation. Having these difficult and uncomfortable conversations should not be looked over but be conducted in order to make any significant progress for minorities.”

Wells Squier, AIA
AIA Colorado President
Principal, Anderson Hallas Architects

“It is my opinion that diversity of experiences and perspectives contributes to better design. As a profession we must encourage and support more diversity to help us all address and respond in meaningful and effective ways to the unique challenges we are facing with regard to climate action and societal inequities that persist. I believe for all of us who care about our profession and its ongoing legacy, the future we will continue to define must consciously think about how to break down barriers wherever and however possible. We need a movement of change, where we all recognize the problem, commit to actions we can control, and affect measurable improvement. I also recognize the challenges and ambiguity of this statement. I believe this will need to happen on many different levels and scales.

We need to continue to recognize and celebrate the achievements of minority architects and expose minority youth to these achievements. We need to tell the stories of minority architects like Paul Revere Williams, Loise Harris Brown, Philip Freelon, and many others who persevered to achieve success in our profession, despite the many obstacles and challenges they faced. We must inspire more youth to follow in these footsteps, while seeking out ways to instill from a young age that the pursuit of architecture is an achievable path for them. For me, along with many others in the Denver architecture community, this has included volunteer work with elementary school aged kids where we introduce them to the profession of architecture and help them realize that this is an achievable aspiration for them.

As I discussed in my response to last month’s question, I was inspired to pursue architecture from a young age due to exposure, and I never wavered in my own focus to achieve that goal. How can we collectively help inspire younger people who otherwise might not have the exposure to our profession from a young age? How do we create these opportunities for inspiration? I believe the answer (or at least a significant part of the answer) to this month’s question must include a broader discussion of how we as professionals can connect with minority youth to inspire, challenge, and support them from an early age. I also believe this is a responsibility of all of us who are passionate about our profession and who have the opportunity to open doors for others within our practices.”

Patricia Joseph, AIA, NOMA
Project Designer at Cuningham
President-Elect of NOMA Colorado
Lecturer, CU Denver College of Architecture & Planning

“As a profession, we break down barriers for minorities in architecture when we all, individually, engage in doing so. We as designers of the built environment need to stand up for what we believe is right, especially in the workplace where it is easy to hide behind company decisions. It takes consistent, persistent change to break down the barriers that have defined our practice and have held back minorities for so long. Yes, many barriers still exist and are being created, from systemic to targeted levels, and the individual can make those types of barriers thrive. We all have a voice, whether it is for this mission or inadvertently for something else, and we should employ it for the sake of others. We need allies who can remain honest to their dedication to change and to practicing the change that will allow minorities to overcome. We cannot waiver when our commitment to making equitable spaces is tested. We cannot waiver when a new policy in our office only works for the majority, when a POC interviewing for a new position does not make “the culture fit,” or when we forget our colleague’s pronouns again. If we all follow through with the subtle, delicate parts of breaking these barriers down, we will change the profession of architecture for everyone.

On a firm level, there are many things we can do. We can commit to creating transparent promotion processes, sponsor minorities financially for career-building opportunities outside of our minority networks, and actually pay our employees for the time needed to participate in initiatives being put in place to change this profession. When it comes time to support your community through outreach, like NOMA’s Project Pipeline, play an active role in organizing, and be there to patch the holes in the pipeline. As a profession, we can be accountable to our organizations when we are following through or not, no matter what level of leadership or years of experience.

We will break down barriers when we stop putting them up. It is easy to be complacent and comfortable continuing the way we practice and accepting the current conditions challenging our minorities within the profession. We should continue to question the structure of this industry and the motivations around our traditional work cultures. The profession should not seek to forget the past; it should remain woke to what it has learned from listening to and believing our BIPOC community. To continue breaking down barriers, we should remember that everyone has a place in architecture. We must never forget architecture is for everyone; we all have a relationship with the built environment, and there are barriers architects should never design to build.”

Sarah Broughton, FAIA
AIA Colorado President-Elect
Principal, Rowland+Broughton

“Barriers for minorities in architecture can be broken down by increasing exposure to what architecture is starting very early. Our firm is involved with the CAL Program (Cleworth Architectural Legacy Project) in Denver that exposes diverse dual language and minority K-8 classrooms to architecture education, inspiring learners to think critically about our built environment. This early hands-on experience fosters possibilities and dreams. The exposure must continue and the curtain be pulled back, casting a wide net into our communities and populations. I remember as a senior in high school, I approached my calculus teacher with a list of professions. He took the time to listen to me and understand my aptitudes and suggested that architecture was a good fit. How can we partner with high schools to make architecture well known and a profession that is viable and meaningful to their students? How do we partner with community programs to embrace diversity and expose the greater population to architecture? One example is the work my firm does with the Aspen Art Museum on a series of workshops on architecture that are open to all community members and give visibility to our profession.

A huge barrier to our profession is the cost of education. We need to continue to hire and write our job descriptions to allow for bachelor’s degrees and on the job training as the prerequisite for advancement. Too often, I speak with emerging professionals who think that the path to licensing and a career in architecture is through more education (and often suffocating debt). We need to be open to various paths, openly discuss them, and provide multiple examples of how to achieve success as an architect.

We as a profession need to continue to be open and collaborative. Architecture is about people and problem solving. By increasing visibility of what we do and how we do it, it will inspire dreams and continue to encourage architects to remain in the profession. We need to give permission to participate and ask questions. We need to refrain from preaching what it was like when we started in the profession (times have changed, that is inevitable). We need to encourage multiple viewpoints and paths to a fulfilling architectural career. We need to be generous with our mentoring and telling our story, because our journeys are diverse and hopefully your journey inspires the next architect to jump in!”


We invite you to read or revisit Question #1 of the series: “Describe how your career has been enhanced by exposure to diverse people, places, or experiences.”

We’d like to extend our sincere gratitude to our One Question participants for their vulnerability and humility. You can expect to hear more from them over the course of the next four months as we continue this monthly series, culminating with a live panel discussion reflecting on this project at the AIA Colorado Practice + Design Conference, November 2-4, 2022, in Keystone.

About the Author

AIA Colorado

AIA Colorado—the Colorado Chapter of the American Institute of Architects—is the voice of the architecture profession in Colorado. 

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