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The NOMA National Conference: The Importance of Inclusion & Diversity in Design Excellence

November 09, 2020

At this year’s virtual conference, I had the privilege to serve as a judge for the prestigious Barbara G. Laurie Student Design Competition

The National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) plays a critical role in advancing and supporting the education and careers of those who have been historically under-represented in the field of architecture. Recently, I was privileged to serve as a judge for the prestigious Barbara G. Laurie Student Design Competition.

It was during that process that I learned a valuable lesson: Sometimes we the judges learn just as much from the students.

When you look at the percentage of minority architects—2% of licensed architects are Black, 1% are Hispanic—it’s vital that we embrace a more diversified workforce and representation of our profession. NOMA, from the local chapters to the national organization, is leading that charge. And I’m proud that Stantec is playing a key role, too.

Earlier this year we supported and sponsored SoCal NOMA’s Project Pipeline Summer Camp for the third consecutive year. The camp helps students ages 10-17 learn from a diverse set of professional mentors. Camp attendees learn the basics of architecture, participate in group activities, and design projects that connect to practical, current industry conditions.

Most recently, we sponsored NOMA’s annual national conference, where I served as a judge for the design competition. Originating nearly 20 years ago with just three schools, the competition today features the work of 40 NOMA chapters from across the country participating in a two-step competition.

In this year’s virtual event, architectural design teams were asked to develop a program for a sustainable, community-owned, mixed-use development entitled the ‘Black Cultural Zone Resilience Co-Hub’, with an emphasis on net-positive design strategies and a culturally responsive development.

The university teams focused on creating a mixed-use incubator in Oakland near one of the BART stations. Critical elements included intergenerational cooperative housing, adaptation for climate change, community and nonprofit co-working space, and net-positive design. Collectively, we, the judges reviewed the design submission from 29 schools from all parts of the US and Canada. We selected 6 finalists from a blind review of boards and an accompanying narrative video.

Judging the 2020 Design Competition finalists.

Background and culture on display

I’ve been a practicing architect for more than 30 years, working around the world and designing multi-use buildings and mixed-use environments in Miami, New York State, Boston, and San Francisco. I’ve participated in academic and professional design competitions for most of my career and taught students for more than two decades. Judging this competition reemphasized the value of what students bring to the discussion.

Seeing the next generation of minority architects truly celebrate their cultures and come up with inspiring and thoughtful design solutions assures me that the future of our profession is in good hands.

The truth is globally, cities are changing. We, as designers, community members, leaders, and environmental stewards, need to be prepared to champion and shift the issues of our current buildings and infrastructures to more equitable environments. We must fight to provide access for all to quality public spaces and create opportunities for everyone to enter and engage in our profession and have an integral voice in our communities.

The winning design team—Oakland Flowz by California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo—created a thoughtfully conceived vertically integrated mixed-use project with a universal identity and a broader sense of how mobility is a key aspect of our ability to shape our environments. While the design concept works uniquely for Oakland and its surrounding communities, the design’s power lies in its inherent universality. The students focused on the concept of mobility, adaptability, and diversity, and the plan integrated the buildings into the context of the BART system, with a unique approach to broaden community outreach and accessibility to public essentials (represented by the powerful motif of unique transit cars, each carrying a different essential). 

First Place – Oakland Flowz, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

In their presentation, the team told the judges “historically, new transportation infrastructure has torn neighborhoods apart … we have reimagined this new infrastructure completely differently.” Understanding the minority community—and designing to prioritize its continued growth—was critical to the success of Oakland Flowz. While they were tasked to come up with solutions for a Black and diverse community in Oakland that faces gentrification, the solution is both local and global. Yes, the design is for the context in Oakland—and respective of and responsive to that site— but the concepts are enduring and applicable nearly everywhere.

Inclusion and diversity—our strength and future

For me personally, judging the competition re-emphasized the beauty and importance of inclusion and diversity.

At Stantec, our goal is to have an inclusive and diverse workplace. That comes about by inviting, embracing, and celebrating differences. Our workplaces must empower and inspire all our employees. Seeing the next generation of minority architects truly celebrate their cultures and come up with inspiring and thoughtful design solutions assures me that the future of our profession is in good hands. The voice of the next generation of architects—a voice that includes so many minorities—resonates.

We focus each day on designing with community in mind. That community includes a diversity of cultures, ethnic groups, genders, and more. Race is just one part of the picture of our cities—and the architecture profession. We need to embrace diversity in design, which means diversity of experience, perspective, and creativity. By weaving these principles into the design of our project work, only then can we achieve true design excellence. 

Like I said, the students taught me. 

The Oakland Flowz winning team.

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