Architecture Matters: Diversity in Design

There are more lawyers in the state of New York (184,000) than there are architects in the entire United States (121,997), so why does it matter how diverse the architecture profession is?

“Like any profession, if you have diversity, you’re going to have more richness,” said Bridget Harris, Associate AIA with BTH Construction Delivery. “If the same type of person with the same background designed everything, it would be boring. If you want diversity in buildings, you need diversity in the people who design and construct them.”

The people who use buildings are diverse. In the United States, half the population are women, over 40% are a racial or ethnic minority, approximately 25% have a disability, and 20% of Americans speak a language other than English at home. Millennials, Gen Z, and younger make up over half the population of the country.

“In architecture, you have a diverse group of clients or populations,” said Bryant Phares II, Associate AIA with SHP. “Everyone has different needs – racial, social, economic, neurodivergent – so having someone on the team with a similar background helps in relating to the building user.”

The United States has increasingly multi-lingual workforce and population. Having a diverse design team can facilitate communication on the job site and in community engagement.

“Being Hispanic and speaking Spanish helps a lot,” said Maria Walker, AIA with Alto Design. “I worked on a project where half the staff spoke Spanish, so if they needed the subcontractor to understand something, they got me. It was good to feel valued.”

Unfortunately, the profession of architecture has struggled to become a diverse field. In 2021, 83% of architects identified as White and nearly 80% as male. What are the barriers to a diverse field? What’s being done to address it? And why should anyone care outside of the profession?

Lack of Diversity Impacts Everyone

While it’s easy for people not working in the field of architecture to ignore the lack of diversity, the reality is, everyone is impacted. If you’re a woman, you’ve likely encountered long restroom lines at sports events, concerts, and theaters. If you’re a parent of small children, you’ve probably noticed a shortage of changing tables or that they’re only in the women’s restroom. If you have mobility issues, you’ve often found the accessible entrance or elevator isn’t centrally located. While these issues are improving, they’re the legacy of a profession made up of primarily able-bodied men.

“As a woman, a Black woman, and a mom, I’m looking at things differently than others,” said Harris. “I had a project where I wanted the railings to be higher than code required so they were safer for kids, but the contractor fought me on it. After measuring the railings at his own house and seeing that they were the height I suggested, he came around. If you don’t have to think of certain things, you might not consider it in design. The collaborative process is important.”

Diverse teams are more innovative and creative in finding solutions to problems and designing structures that meet a wider range of needs.

“Usually, the client is not the end user of the project,” said Ivan Cheung, AIA with GBBN. “As a minority, we grow up to observe the world outside the mainstream so it is easier to develop an empathetic understanding of different situations and challenges. That mentality gives perspective when we’re designing – thinking about how the space will be used and using our experience to help us inform the project.”

When a design team is diverse, the outcomes will likely be more positive for the people using the building and the client seeking the best solution for their design problem.

Widening the Pathway to the Profession

For all the benefits of diversity to firms, clients, and the public, achieving it is challenging. If asked to imagine what an architect looks like, the image that comes to mind is likely an older White man. Pursuing a career in a field where no one looks like you is difficult, which makes recruiting diverse people perhaps the biggest barrier to diversifying architecture. Two Cincinnati programs introduce students to architecture in the hopes of eliminating that barrier.

The Cincinnati Architectural Mentoring Program (C.A.M.P.) was developed to encourage minority middle school students to explore architecture. Participants work on a real-world project while getting an introduction to architectural history, vocabulary, and drawing. Last year, the program expanded to provide mentorship beyond the summer to year-round interaction with design professionals that continues through high school.

“We ask the C.A.M.P. kids if they have ever seen a Black architect before, and the answer is almost always no,” said Harris. “If architecture is something that they’re interested in, it’s helpful to see people who have done it so they can understand how to get to the next phase and know that it’s possible.”

Design LAB provides a 17-week program led by architects and designers for kindergarten through eighth-grade classrooms, as well as Boys and Girls Clubs. Participating classes are introduced to architectural concepts, then students design and build a model for a specific client that responds to the needs of a theme — the 2023 program focused on gathering spaces. At the end of the semester, the models are brought together for a public exhibit where students present their designs.

While these programs introduce students to architecture and diverse architects, getting them to pursue a career in the field has additional barriers. University programs often lack diverse faculty – 63% of non-adjunct faculty are male and at least 59% (likely over 70%) are White according to recent reports. Having teachers with diverse backgrounds helps students find role models and mentors, and can also impact the inclusion of projects by diverse designers in architectural history and theory courses.

“When you study how different people and cultures construct their communities it gives you perspective,” said Cheung. “Architecture is shaped by its context, such as culture, climate, geography, and religion. There’s a huge amount of possibility out there. The architecture where we live isn’t the only solution.”

In addition to the academic challenges, the financial cost to pursue a degree can be daunting.

“It is an expensive career to pursue,” said Walker. “In one of my first studios we had to build a model, but I didn’t have $300 for those materials so I made it out of something else and explained why to the professor.”

After completing college (and often graduate school) graduates face additional expenses to become a registered architect. The six exams required to become licensed cost upwards of $1,400, not including study guides and other materials. Then there are fees for annual license renewal. Exacerbating those expenses are the salary disparities in the field: for every dollar earned by a White male, non-White males make 88 cents, White women make 75 cents, and non-White women make 72 cents.

Where do we go from here?

Being the only woman, person of color, or person with a disability in the classroom, office, or meeting room, can be lonely and stressful. The American Institute of Architects recently released a study on bias in the profession. Whether intentional or not, bias takes a toll – physically, mentally, and on productivity – and can cause people to leave the field.

“I am always aware of my clothes, what I’m saying, how I look,” said Phares. “I have to make sure I’m making everyone feel safe, that I am using the King’s English. When there are other people of color I can be more myself. I can talk and not worry about what I’m saying or my facial expressions or what I’m wearing.”

Embracing differences instead of forcing assimilation is essential to addressing equity in the profession. Part of the solution is raising awareness of the extra burdens placed on minorities in the profession, working to remediate them, and having honest conversations.  

“Diversity can be a very sensitive issue,” said Cheung. “I think our industry is becoming more open to talking about it. Our firm has an equity program led by a consulting group to provide a platform for us to have open conversations about racial equity, which has helped a lot.”

Building community internally within firms is important, as is the opportunity to connect with peers. The National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) provides a professional network to support minority architects and architecture students (NOMAS). University of Cincinnati and Miami University have student chapters and a new Ohio Valley professional chapter is starting up to serve greater Cincinnati.

“NOMA let me know I could stay in this career and have longevity in this profession,” said Phares. “At the conference you meet minority firm owners, professors, and other members who’ve been through it. It’s a space where you are authentically yourself.”

Mentorship provides additional support as people move through their careers. While the student-mentor relationship might be the most common, it’s also critical for early professionals to find mentors already established in the field.
RSVP to continue this discussion in person:

When: Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Time: 5:30pm-7:00pm

Where: Miami University Center for Community Engagement in Over-the-Rhine.
1300 Vine St, Cincinnati, OH 45202

Cost: Free. Please register; seating is limited
“Those of us who’ve come to a leadership position, we need to recognize and encourage the people coming up behind us,” said Walker. “I’m trying to become a good mentor and a positive influence in somebody’s career.”

The challenge of diversifying the field of architecture will take more than a generation to solve. While the burden falls largely on design professionals and academics to create equity in firms and university programs, there are opportunities for others to support this effort. Anyone can donate to C.A.M.P., Design LAB, or NOMA’s Project Pipeline, as well as to scholarships at the University of Cincinnati and Miami University or through organizations like the AIA Ohio Foundation and the Architects Foundation that fund scholarships for licensure exam fees. People and communities in a position to work with architects can actively seek diverse firms to lead their projects. Getting informed about systemic issues and advocating for policy changes to increase equity will also help. It will take time, but increasing diversity in design is a problem worth solving.

The series, Architecture Matters, is supported by AIA Cincinnati. Learn more at

The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the American Institute of Architects or the members of AIA Cincinnati.

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Read more articles by Julie Carpenter.

Julie Carpenter has a background in cultural heritage tourism, museums, and nonprofit organizations. She's the Executive Director of AIA Cincinnati.