December 18, 2023

Kimberly Dowdell Set to Make History as the AIA’s First Black Woman and Millennial President

December 13, 2023 | HOK

With a slogan of ‘#MoreIn24,’ Dowdell brings new energy and a fresh perspective to the AIA.

Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, NOMAC, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, 2024 president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), is the first Black woman and, at only 40, the first Millennial elected to this role. She’ll be inaugurated as the 100th AIA president in a ceremony on Friday, Dec. 15. In her current position as a principal and director of strategic relationships at HOK, Dowdell brings a diverse background encompassing architecture, public service, development, and academia. This Q&A offers insights into her experiences and ambitions as AIA president.

How will you use the unique aspects of your identity to influence the AIA?
Kimberly: As the first Black woman elected in the 166-year history of AIA, this is meaningful on many levels. We’re long overdue. I want to leverage the unique aspects of my identity to help signal to the profession, the marketplace, and people who may not see themselves becoming an architect or a leader that it’s a possibility. When I ran for president, my campaign slogan was ‘Envision new possibilities.’ That’s exactly what this represents. I’d love for my service at the helm of AIA in 2024 to symbolize hope for younger people, people of color, women, and anyone who feels marginalized. Overall, I want everyone to feel a sense of belonging in this profession.

Who have been your role models?
I’ve had more role models than I have time to name. But within the AIA, Marshall Purnell was the first Black president in 2008—the same year Barack Obama was elected. There was a lot of excitement around President Purnell stepping into the role and breaking that glass ceiling. I knew him through the NOMA community. We are the only two people to have served as president of both AIA and NOMA.

Another role model who I have not met in person but have had some video calls with is Susan Maxman, who in 1992 became the first female AIA president. Here we are a few decades later and I’m the seventh female president of the AIA. I’m looking forward to the day when having people from diverse demographics in this role is no longer a unique thing.

I also have many mentors from my time at HOK—many dating back to 2008 when I initially joined the firm.

Can you elaborate on your vision for increasing diversity within the architectural profession, especially in leadership roles?
Architecture has historically not been a diverse profession or seen as accessible to people without privilege. I want to make it more accessible. Gender equity is improving, but racial inequities persist. Of the 120,000 U.S. architects, just over 2,500 are Black—only 1.8%—and less than 600 are Black women, which is not even half of 1%. There are so few Black women in architecture that we all know our number in terms of the sequence in which we were licensed. I was licensed in 2013 and am number 295. I want to leverage my position to highlight the opportunities in architecture while advocating for policy changes to make the profession more accessible and equitable, with a larger ambition of eliminating bias in all its forms.

It’s not just about numbers. It’s also essential to get more people of color into leadership roles. As NOMA president, my slogan was ‘Access, Leadership, and Legacy,’ or ‘#ALLinforNOMA.’ That was about providing access to the profession, fostering leadership opportunities of various types, and building a legacy through mentoring.

At HOK, our Diversity Advisory Council focuses on promoting mentorship within the firm so that people can be cultivated for diverse opportunities here—specifically for our core boards: design, management, marketing, and technical, which serve as a talent pool for our board of directors and, eventually, for senior leadership positions. I want to take advantage of what we’ve learned through HOK’s process to help other firms diversify their teams and put in place more inclusive pathways to leadership.

Given the climate crisis, which strategies do you propose for architects to address sustainability more effectively?
By now, it’s well-known that buildings contribute about 40% of annual global carbon emissions. Climate action is one of our most pressing needs. There’s so much architects can do to help. Science is telling us we’re behind schedule, so we must keep pushing to ensure that our solutions address the needs of today and the challenges of tomorrow.

We want to ensure our members are tuned into the wealth of resources available through the AIA to help them integrate sustainable strategies into their work. I’m thankful that at HOK, we have a very strong culture around sustainable design that goes back to the publication of “The HOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design” in 2000.

One of my interests is in elevating adaptive reuse—repurposing existing buildings. Recognizing that the most sustainable building is the one that already exists, we need to explore creative ways to reprogram and fund these projects. This also intersects with the housing crisis that we’re seeing throughout the U.S. By transforming some of our vacant buildings into affordable housing, we can help renew our cities.

Health equity is another priority. Investing in our inner cities and reusing existing building stock helps combat blight, significantly impacting health disparities. In cities like Chicago, where I live, there’s a 30-year life expectancy gap between the most affluent and impoverished neighborhoods. That’s shocking, and we must do something about it.

It’s so important for architects to be involved in discussions about how we can improve the built environment in the most sustainable and equitable ways. I recently had the opportunity to speak at the U.S. Conference of Mayors. I tried to impress upon them the value of architects as ‘the civic problem solvers you didn’t know you needed.’ My call to action was for every city to appoint a chief architect to serve as a key advisor on built environment issues, focusing on sustainability and health equity.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the architecture profession today?
One huge challenge—and this is closely tied to equity and diversity—is attracting more people of color to the profession. There are several factors at play. One is the lack of representation today. Some may hesitate to enter a field where there aren’t a lot of people who look like them.

Another factor is the compensation of architects. On average, it’s much lower than people assume—particularly when you look at how much time and expense is required to educate and license an architect. Our training spans five to seven years. Physicians and lawyers also follow rigorous pathways, but their starting salaries are considerably higher. If you come from an under-resourced background, that financial barrier can be daunting.

We must be more intentional about communicating and elevating the perceived value of architects to the public. The success of our businesses directly impacts the salaries we can pay our staff.

The procurement of professional design services is another area that needs improvement. The process of pursuing work can be very costly. We need to introduce efficiencies that will save firms money. I plan to work with focus groups to look critically at the value of architects and streamline the procurement process for design services.

Which initiatives do you plan to introduce to better support young architects, especially from underrepresented groups?
Mentorship is crucial for creating the future of the profession we want to see. The AIA has local K-12 programs, and I’ve personally worked on outreach to youth of color through the NOMA Project Pipeline Summer Camps. Earlier in my career, I was also involved in the ACE Mentor Program, which exposes high schoolers to architecture, construction, and engineering careers. It’s so important to engage young people early since they typically decide on architecture as a career by the 10th grade. I knew that architecture was my calling at age 11. Many people don’t realize that you need a portfolio to apply to architecture school, so it’s difficult to pivot if you don’t start working on that months or preferably years in advance. Mentorship through various programs helps students navigate admissions, financial aid, choosing classes, applying for positions with firms, and more.

What guidance would you offer young architects embarking on their careers, especially those aspiring to leadership roles in organizations like the AIA?
To some extent, being an architect means being able to see the future. That’s a big responsibility. It’s a privilege to address some of society’s most pressing problems. People need the kind of help that architects are uniquely positioned to provide.

My main advice is to embrace what I call the ‘4 Cs’: Curiosity, Creativity, Courage and Consistency.

Be curious. Always question why things are the way they are.

Be creative. Seek innovative solutions to the challenges you encounter.

Be courageous. It takes bravery to propose solutions and stand by them.

Be consistent. Success comes from showing up and giving your best every single day, regardless of the difficulties.

This approach is integral to solving architectural problems as well as thriving in a leadership role.

What else are you excited about for the year ahead?
I’m looking forward to being more open about what has traditionally happened ‘behind closed doors’ at the AIA. My first step toward transparency was proposing that we livestream the inauguration. People everywhere can watch by tuning in on the AIA’s LinkedIn page on Dec. 15. If we share more broadly what we’re doing and get more people involved, we can have a much bigger impact on many different fronts.

I’m also excited about my slogan for this coming year, which is ‘#MoreIn24.’ This signals what I want for all architects, and especially AIA members—more.

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