Spaces for Reflection

May 25, 2021
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Understanding the impact of mental health and wellness, colleges and universities are implementing new strategies to better serve their students, faculty, and staff. Well-being is multifaceted and can have many different influences depending on the needs of the individual and community served. It is having effective means to deal with stress, it is feeling accepted on campus, it is inextricably tied to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Most importantly, it is recognizing the importance of belonging.

This is a big topic and eschews simple answers, but it begins with institutions and partners recognizing the importance of the discussion, and continues with implementation in the physical world. There’s no universal solution, so designers must resist preconceived notions and actively pursue holistic designs that reflect the unique needs of the project and shared values of the team and community at every scale.

Arizona State University has a broad mission of inclusion as part of student success. As evidenced by its Charter: “ASU is a comprehensive public research university, measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed; advancing research and discovery of public value; and assuming fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities it serves.” Inclusivity is a vital piece of their mission. At the heart of campus, the university seeks to ensure that there is a place for everyone and that all are supported. A goal of Ayers Saint Gross, in all our work, is to translate mission into the built environment. The Hayden Library Reinvention presented an incredible opportunity to tie all these elements together.

Serving more than 70,000 on-campus students, and receiving close to 2 million visitors annually, Hayden Library is open to students, faculty, staff, and the public, providing vital support to the community. The Hayden Library Reinvention incorporates gender-inclusive restrooms, wellness and lactation rooms, an interfaith reflection space, and an ablution room to better serve its diverse users. Providing these spaces in a landmark building within the campus core is the built implication of a cultural shift toward equity and inclusion.

The interfaith reflection space is open to all and is an important example of how everything in the Hayden Library is designed to create a comfortable and supportive environment. The team sought to push beyond what has been done with similar space in the past. It was vital that the room was not just a room with a window and that nothing about the room was an afterthought – this is a programmed and well-designed space in a prominent location. Users do not need to force another space into this role and the room aids the goal of normalizing that stress and anxiety are major issues and that it’s okay to need to pause and refocus.

There is a high level of intention in the design. The team engaged extensively with ASU stakeholders to get a deep understanding of the mission before progressing with the programming. The design team looked for how to ensure that the location of the space made sense, was accessible, and was visible. This space is a priority, and its location in the building needed to reflect that. Throughout the building, layered thresholds transition to the interior of the building. Traditionally enclosed programs break out and open into each other, blending use and ownership, and creating opportunities for cross-pollination. So here, the rooms have access to view and natural light. The space is proportioned and sized for groups and individuals. The colors are rich, but tonal and calming. The light is filtered from the circulation space, controllable at the windows, and dimmable within the rooms. The design meets the acoustic goals for the space and maximizes the control occupants have on their immediate environment. All of this is to further connect people and place to protect and improve physical, mental, and emotional health and well-being.

The interfaith reflection space has an intentional proximity to other wellness functions in the library. It is located at a primary entrance and stair, to be most convenient to students traveling between classes in and around the library. It is paired with a small market and open hospitality areas for making and eating a meal, studying, and socializing, along with other wellness related programing. These are active and well-traveled spaces. This sets up the space to be seen and used. It also establishes a sense of place and theme for the area as people traverse the building. It is also adjacent to an ablution room and wellness rooms. Reinforcing the need for everyone to be welcome and supported, this is again specifically designed to provide a comfortable place for people to perform their daily practices, meeting their needs where they are.

While visibility and ensuring that this space was as celebrated as the rest was important, when seeking a place of meditation and reflection, privacy may be the priority. The room features several private enclosures for this purpose. The diversity and versatility that characterizes the other spaces in the building is extended here as well.

Solutions that prioritize human health and well-being are larger than their project boundary and engage the broader community in building wellness and resilience. It is important to engage the community in a dialogue to consider the opportunities and impact around encouraging healthy lifestyle, increasing occupant comfort, being welcoming and inclusive, connecting people with place, and the environment, and reducing negative impacts or barriers to wellness, throughout the design process and through implementation. Hayden Library Reinvention is a testament to the importance and value of welcoming and supporting every individual, to foster their success within and beyond the institution.

Green Week 2021: Celebrating Sustainability Accomplishments

April 28, 2021
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Last week was an incredibly special week at Ayers Saint Gross with so much to celebrate:

On Earth Day, the AIA announced this year’s COTE Top Ten Award winners and we are ecstatic to see the Arizona State University Hayden Library Reinvention recognized with this prestigious award. The reinvention of Hayden Library was a unique opportunity to transform a place for books into a place for people while preserving the project’s historic legacy. The precision of the design was inspired by critical and analytical discourse, a respect for past wisdom, a mind to future potential, and our belief that we have an obligation to leave places better than we found them. We offer a special thanks to all of our project collaborators especially our incredible client, Arizona State University, and our teammates Affiliated Engineers and Holder Construction. This project would not have been a success without their unwavering support and dedication.

Sustainability at Ayers Saint Gross has always recognized the careful balance between the unique needs of people and ecological systems with the economic realities inherent in each of our projects. Justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion are integral to the way we develop our projects, operate our practice, and develop future talent in the design industry’s pipelines. Completing our first Just Disclosure in 2019 was a critical step on our journey to becoming a more inclusive practice because it helped us quantify our commitment to equity in addition to following our instincts about doing what is right. We have recently renewed our Just Disclosure and are honored to be recognized as the first Just Organization of the Year and reaffirm our commitment to keep going – there is no sustainability without social justice.

Last, but certainly not least, we recognized the top-performing projects under design in 2020 with our in-house Carrot Awards. Sustainable design is sometimes oversimplified as a “carrots and sticks” process, in which carrots are incentives that inspire great design and sticks are cumbersome requirements design teams have to meet. We believe sustainable design is great design and we recognize our top performers each year with Carrot Awards to inspire healthy competition within ourselves to progress toward our goal of reducing the embodied and operational carbon of our entire design portfolio 50% by 2030.

Reducing embodied and operational carbon emissions starts with great planning and space analytics work that prioritizes renovation, renewal, and revised space metrics. This year we’re pleased to celebrate Northern Kentucky University. The space analysis completed by our team helped the planning process to elevate spaces to their highest and best uses which ultimately empowered a significant emphasis on renovation, renewal, and modest additions in lieu of tearing buildings down to begin again. The overall strategy will help preserve embodied carbon while improving operational performance.

In Architecture and Interiors, we use our most recent AIA2030 reporting data to identify which whole building project had the greatest reduction in predicted energy use intensity and which interior project had the greatest reduction in lighting power density. Reductions in these metrics help to reduce the operational carbon emissions of our projects by reducing energy consumption.

This year we’re proud to celebrate the Jack C. Taylor Visitor Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden as our whole building award winner. Currently under construction, this project is anticipated to have a 51% reduction in energy use intensity compared to baseline and will feature a rooftop photovoltaic array. The project is also pursuing a LEED Gold certification. We’re also pleased to recognize the interior renovation of Kent State University’s Cunningham Integrated Science Building. This renewal project is anticipated to reduce lighting power density by 40% from baseline. Together these projects, and so many like them across our practice, are helping to reduce the operational carbon impact of buildings for years to come.

Beyond reductions in embodied and operational carbon emissions, there are opportunities to sequester carbon in the landscapes our firm designs. Each year we look to celebrate the landscape design that stores the greatest amount of carbon annually as we understand that biodiverse landscapes have a critical role to play in the fight against climate change. This year we’re happy to announce the landscape we’re designing for Howard Community College’s Math and Athletics Complex will store approximately 240 metric tons of CO2 annually; that’s equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions of driving over 600,000 miles in an average passenger vehicle. Through a combination of native and adapted planting and a limited use of intensively mown turf grass, the project will productively manage stormwater while providing a welcoming environment.

The Carrot Award winner from our Graphic Design studio reiterates the importance of inclusion in our firm’s definition of sustainability. Our work on the Bowie State University Signage & Wayfinding project instantly developed a campus landmark that inspires campus pride and community connectivity. Developing signage and wayfinding signage also empowered both new and returning campus users in easily accessing Bowie State’s facilities.

Courtesy of Bowie State University

Congratulations to all our winners. I already can’t wait to see what’s in store for our firm in the next year and the meaningful ways in which we’ll continue advancing toward our goals.

Mentorship Leaders

February 10, 2021
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In addition to being leaders on their design teams, many Ayers Saint Gross employees devote themselves to mentorship groups. We are happy to celebrate some of their leadership successes and the causes they support here.

At the beginning of the new year Beresford Pratt stepped into the role of Communications Director and Editor in Chief of “Connection,” the publication of the AIA National Young Architects Forum (YAF). This comes on the heels of a successful two-year term as a Young Architect Regional Director for the YAF.

The YAF is one of three membership groups in the AIA and focuses specifically on Architects and designers who have been licensed for fewer than ten years. With a mission-driven goal of promoting leadership, mentorship, and fellowship, the forum allows members to explore issues that emerging professionals are passionate about, and provides a valuable platform for them to help shape the industry in real-time.

One of Beresford’s greatest accomplishments as a Young Architect Regional Director was authoring and leading the effort for a toolkit on “how to start/grow an emerging professionals committee”.

“This toolkit examines how to start and grow an emerging professional program. We interviewed 8 chapters across the nation, getting a wide breadth of chapter sizes and locations. We were able to gain great insight into how chapters operate and what made them successful.  I was excited to hear we even had international interest from as far away as Singapore to help build their program.”

“Connection” is the YAF’s most outward facing communication tool, and it plays a crucial role in bridging the gap between local and national issues while creating discourse on the most demanding current topics.

“This past year has been a year like no other, and emerging professionals have been striving to tackle some big challenges within our profession, from climate action, practice innovation, and JEDI. One of the most dynamic tools we use to communicate is “Connection,” produced by emerging professionals with practical takeaways.”

While his new role may have a more national focus, we are proud to share Beresford’s recent article highlighting some of the local pipeline initiative work he and others at Ayers Saint Gross have championed. These initiatives exposed more students to the possibilities of a career in design at Beechfield Elementary School as well as mentorship in design with the Baltimore Design School.

Beresford currently sits on the board of the Baltimore chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects and is a key force in continuing Ayers Saint Gross’s relationship with United Way–he sits on the Emerging Leaders United council. He has recently joined the board of the Baltimore Design School.


Allison Wilson is the 2020 – 2021 Chair for the ACE Mentor Program of America’s Austin affiliate Board of Directors.

ACE provides opportunities for high school students to get an inside look at the architecture, construction, and engineering professions and future careers of which they might not otherwise be aware. The program includes approximately sixteen weeks of mentoring, field trips, and team-based project development.

Within their project teams, students identify what aspects of the design process are of greatest interest and cultivate both industry-specific design skills, such as how to read and document floor plans and construction budgets as well as transferrable skills like collaboration, negotiation, and public speaking.

Allison served as a mentor from 2016 – 2017 and was recognized as Mentor of the Year by her students before joining the board to not just deliver the program but help design it.

“I got involved with ACE to help students better navigate their professional ambitions. As a high school senior, I was handed a list of every accredited school of architecture in the United States and my parents and I had to figure out the various program types and applications ourselves, which was overwhelming. Chairing the board allows me to empower future architects, engineers, and contractors with information that allows them to make better informed decisions about their futures.”

While the past year has certainly had challenges, under Allison’s leadership the program successfully continued.

“We pivoted our whole program to a fully remote experience in 10 days. We have continued to meet every Thursday, just like always. Sessions in Spring 2020 were recorded and we cut together the student videos with support from Lost Note Productions to one final presentation that we showed during our live streamed party. Now, moving forward, we know we can do this and how.” The program hosted a mini-series in Fall 2020 and began its Spring 2021 program on February 4.


Principal Stephen Wright, AIA, was elected President of the Washington Architectural Foundation (WAF). Founded by the American Institute of Architects DC, the WAF focuses on outward-facing initiatives. This includes mentorships, public outreach, and community-oriented programs to open the world of design to a broader number of people. As a mission, the Washington Architectural Foundation is dedicated to educating and engaging the greater DC community, focusing on students, teachers, professionals, and the public to demonstrate the transformative power of architecture.

“This is our chance to get people excited about design and the world around them. Especially in a city like Washington DC, there are so many buildings to wonder ‘what does this mean?’ and ‘how did it get there?’ But it is most rewarding to focus on the next generation. We bring architecture to schools, and show opportunities exist that students may not even be aware of. We encourage people to think bigger, and I love to help raise the discourse in design.”


Read more about Ayers Saint Gross employees work outside of the office:

Amber Wendland Joins the Neighborhood Design Center Board of Directors
Elevating Design and Research Outside of the Office

Elevating Design and Research
Outside of the Office

October 9, 2020
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As an employee-owned firm, our people are our greatest strength. Even in the most challenging times, they exhibit expertise and leadership in their fields. October is Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) month, and a great time to celebrate the incredible work that employees are doing to elevate design and research in addition to providing great client service.


Architect Shannon Dowling was awarded a Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) fellowship. The SCUP Fellows program “supports members of the SCUP community seeking to carry out research that will benefit the integrated planning community and establish an accelerated path to an exceptional future.” Recipients are supported in their research by the organization and present at the national conference.

Over the next year, Shannon will study how colleges and universities can plan and design diverse, equitable, and inclusive learning environments that embody those values in physical space and provide campus planners and facility designers with a set of metrics with which to assess physical space. The results of this study will help inform how to manifest these values on campus.

“Through the research, I hope to create a roadmap for architects and campus planners to address these issues in a way that is meaningful, authentic and creates a more inclusive and student-centered campus environment through thoughtful, informed, and provocative integrated planning.”

The project will use a case-study methodology, and Shannon will be analyzing the mission, vision, values, and most recent strategic and master plans for three different universities, looking for measurable physical goals relative to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Through interviews with the University Architects and Campus Planners at each institution and comparisons of their plans and progress to peer institutions, she will look for patterns of successful ideas, designs, and campus interventions.

In the spring of 2021, Shannon will lead a workshop with interior design students, giving them a voice in the project and another avenue to share what’s been learned.

See the SCUP page for more details.


Melonee Quintanilla, a student intern working in the architecture practice group, won the 2020 AIA Maryland Excellence in Design Award for Graduate Student, Beginning Design. Her design “Lightbox,” was a vision for the renovation of the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation Building.

“I chose to do a renovation instead of demolishing and starting over for sustainability reasons, but I also wanted to preserve the existing sense of place in the building. The school has a lot of built-in memories, but there was room for improvement. The design goal was to uplift and share the architecture program with others and get more people exposed and involved in the practice. I also wanted to ensure that the landscape improved existing issues and presented a learning opportunity.”

The jury commented:

A thoughtful and well executed project. It received high marks in design excellence for literally elevating the architectural program on campus and incorporating a bioswale to deal with flooding issues. It was a very smart design move to put a light, glass-filled addition above the existing brick building, signaling the department’s activity to the university community and increasing the transparency of the architectural field.


Abby Thomas, with assistance from Connor Price and Mike McGrain, all from the landscape architecture practice group, had a concept selected for the Design for Distancing competition. This initiative by the City of Baltimore, the Baltimore Development Corporation, the Neighborhood Design Center, and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public health set about looking for designs to reconfigure public space to safely patronize small business during the COVID-19 Pandemic. There were 162 total submissions, 10 of which were chosen for the design guidelines book. These designs will be implemented in some small business districts in and around Baltimore, and offer solutions that could be taken up nationwide.

The chosen design, “ParKIT” is a mobile kiosk designed to hold the key items for creating a pop-up park (the kiosk itself can then be used for any number of vending or service functions).

ParKIT and the other winners design briefs are here.

See page 48 for ParKIT from Ayers Saint Gross.

Amber Wendland Joins the Neighborhood Design Center Board of Directors

September 21, 2020
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Amber Wendland recently joined the board of directors of the Neighborhood Design Center.

Founded in Baltimore during the civil rights movement, the Neighborhood Design Center (NDC) has for decades been committed to engaged and participatory urban design to advance equity and strengthen communities. This has proven, wide-ranging positive impacts with over 3,500 projects across Maryland.

Amber has worked tirelessly over the years focused on improving Baltimore and its communities, including the East Baltimore Revitalization Plan. We spoke with Amber about her role with NDC.

What does being on the board entail?

The board has a number of subcommittees, but the general purpose is to help support NDC’s mission and grow their reach. NDC has a close relationship with their board, and they look to it for expertise and support. The organization is formed with a deliberate dedication to diversity in all its forms, including gender diversity, racial and ethnic diversity, diversity of experience, and diversity of talent. There are a lot of different backgrounds and knowledge people bring to the table and part of my responsibility as a board member is to uphold this heterogeneity moving forward.

How does this connect with the work you’ve done?

The Neighborhood Design Center is dedicated to the growth of healthy, equitable neighborhoods, and this appointment allows me to further advance my passion for designing with and advocating for under-invested communities while also advancing the mission of Ayers Saint Gross. NDC prioritizes engagement and this is a great opportunity to continue connecting resources and getting people involved in designing a more equitable, beautiful, and just Baltimore.

NDC does so many incredible projects for the City of Baltimore. Their dedication to promoting equity and ensuring an inclusive and collaborative design process resonates deeply with me.

So much of the East Baltimore Revitalization Plan was about ensuring the community had agency in the process and set the direction and vision of the plan. You could design a beautiful master plan, but it is meaningless without community voices and the passionate support from local leaders. Historically, urban planning and policy has often marginalized Black and Brown communities through a top-down planning approach, resulting in many of the challenges we see across Baltimore today.  Reversing that approach by fostering a community-led planning and visioning process must start with listening and building relationships with the community. This relationship needs to be prioritized and fostered, and among the best ways to do that is to listen intently, celebrate the voices of the community, and empower leaders.

At its heart, planning is about providing a roadmap—a series of options to fulfill the needs and desires of the community and a path to move forward. A plan brings cohesiveness and a shared vision, which in turn allows for clear messaging of the community’s needs, and allows funding, investment, and philanthropy to be sought, procured, and effectively allocated. Ensuring that community voices are the foundation of that cohesive vision and that they are intimately entwined with the process and thus represented in the product—a true sharing of knowledge—are critical elements to the success of a neighborhood plan, and I’m eager to bring the lessons learned, and continue learning, with the work of NDC.

So, what’s next?

The work that NDC does to improve neighborhoods, amplify the voices of community members, and fight for racial justice is incredibly important and continuing that mission is paramount. This work is especially salient as we as a city and country continue to push for equity and civil rights.

Over the past six months, we have had to adapt how we engage with communities, expanding virtual engagement and taking social distancing precautions for in-person meetings as the pandemic continues.

Another goal moving forward is to build a closer relationship between NDC and Ayers Saint Gross. The relationship between our organizations goes back decades, ebbing and flowing throughout the years. Now is a great time to reconnect and continue to build strong connections as we move into the future. Several of our staff have volunteered with NDC in the past, and this will increase volunteering opportunities. Much like a successful planning effort, this association will provide ways to engage and volunteer in a more cohesive way.

Amber Wendland is a senior associate in the Planning and Architecture practice groups, working in Baltimore.

The 2019 AIA Women’s Leadership Summit

November 5, 2019
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Equity, diversity, and inclusion are core values at Ayers Saint Gross and are vital to increasing the representation and advancement of women in architecture and design. This September, the AIA Women’s Leadership Summit was held in Minneapolis. Spanning three days and featuring dozens of workshops and speakers, more than 750 women architects and design professionals gathered at this important event, themed “Reframe. Rethink. Refresh.”

I have attended the past Women’s Leadership Summit programs with fellow colleague Elizabeth McLean, AIA; Seattle in 2015, Washington, DC in 2017 (I was fortunate to be on the Mid-Atlantic strategic planning committee) and this recent summit. Reflecting on this year (the largest attendance on record), it was interesting to see a diverse range of attendees in Minneapolis – in age, geographical representation, and many first-time attendees. For me, the summits provide both challenge and encouragement — replenishing my well year after year. The women pioneers around these issues in our industry come; Beverly Willis and Rosa Sheng, among others. And so do the local chapter committees, sole proprietors from rural practices, and the mid-level architect struggling with what’s next for her career. They each have an impactful story, a welcoming spirit, and a wave of commitment to our practice.

The summit was spent unpacking leadership styles, practicing active listening, and uncovering intentional impact areas. The benefits are not only personal but bring into focus the strengths needed to continue to support Ayers Saint Gross’s diverse clients and projects.

The metrics still show small growth for women as they progress through our profession and into leadership or more prominent design roles. The 2019 AIA Women’s Leadership Summit demonstrated a record number of women and firms committed to accelerating progress. It is this level of conversation that our profession deserves and requires to continue the hard work to bring about more equitable architecture. In addition to myself, Ayers Saint Gross was proudly represented by multiple attendees from across our offices. I am happy to share their thoughts and impressions.

Elizabeth McLean, AIA:

The AIA Women’s Leadership Summit strives to raise the profile of leadership in architecture, share and promote the design work of women, explore paths to leadership, and provide women the opportunity to learn from each other. This format crosses boundaries and allows for both strength and humility to shine. Our participation is important, with it we recognize individuals at different levels and support them to engage, learn, and extend the conversation when they each return to their offices and communities. The summit offered a space to share and grow; to reconnect.

This year’s gathering supported the conversation around moving forward and regrouping. I appreciated reframing the conversation. The public acknowledgement that every woman in architecture is a leader is powerful, and it provided the opportunity to be more inclusive and allow the numbers to increase the inspiration and potential for impact. It shifted focus beyond the individual and promoted empathy and generosity, acknowledging that leadership is empathetic and comes with accountability.

There is still a lack of women in leadership positions. We are urged and inspired to be on the forefront of confronting the issue and not only aware of it. The summit operated as a laboratory to test the potential for change across scales. There is an action-based emphasis on commitment and accountability. Considering formal and informal power, and large and small commitments, we challenged – What’s the stance, goal, commitment, and change? With this, there is meaningful purpose to gathering together.

Anya Grant, AIA:

As a first time attendee to the AIA Women’s Leadership Summit, I expected to be impressed by prominent women architects whose experiences paved the way and continue to clear a path for practicing architects like me. I was. What I didn’t expect was to also have the time and space to meaningfully engage with other women at various stages in the profession who are making their own mark as leaders. 

Through the medium of storytelling, we were guided through the personal accounts of women practicing in and reshaping the profession around the issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. As we grapple with how to maintain a sense of inclusion in our profession, several presenters made a case for how it is not only relevant in our workplace, but also in engaging our clients. They raised the following question – whose voices are considered when design decisions are being made and how can we elevate the voices that are often unheard? One speaker, Malaz Elgemiabby described her efforts to meet community members on an individual basis when designing a community center. She not only learned about global needs that informed the design, but also points of neighborhood pride that were highlighted in murals. Pascale Sablan, in highlighting initiatives that promote diverse representation in architecture, described a community fellow position where a community member impacted by a design project is selected for a paid position to have a voice in regular design meetings. These accounts, among others, challenged us to think of the architect’s ability to engage and empower.

After days of stimulating conversations, we were invited by Pascale at the conclusion of her seminar, to turn to our neighbors and tell our own stories of leadership. This moment, where each woman spoke confidently of her ongoing work to shape our profession, highlighted the collective power of the hundreds of architects in attendance.

Nicole Ostrander, AIA:

Priya Parker, the keynote speaker, immediately set the tone of the summit as a supportive, collaborative, and empowering gathering of women, focused on storytelling. For the first several minutes of her session, we were encouraged to get up from our tables and step from our sphere of comfort to connect with new individuals by sharing a piece of own story with each other. Through this activity, Parker, author of The Art of Gathering:  How We Meet and Why it Matters was creating what she defines in her book as a transformational gathering. The AIA Women’s Leadership Summit was a created space in which attendees could open themselves to each other and forge connections. Parker provides excellent insight on how to give your gatherings purpose – whether a meeting, workshop, or dinner party – to create meaningful encounters.

Many of the sessions at the conference were focused on the topics of leadership, professional and personal development, and time management. With a range of women, all driven individuals at various points in their careers, there was a common narrative of navigating our own professional and personal responsibilities through shared experiences.

Teri Graham, AIA:

This was my first AIA Women’s Leadership Summit. It was powerful experience both in self-discovery and connection with other women with similar journey. We are not alone. The session “How To Set Your Career Path And Lead Authentically” presented by Jill Bergman, Katie Fricke, and Sandy Tkacz focused on self-discovery and connecting with others to advance in our careers. Emphasizing the importance of investing in yourself, the first step is to know thyself. Accomplished by growing your soft skills, assessing your skill gaps, and being resilient and proactive, you can be your own change maker. The next step discussed networking by both giving and receiving through finding an advocate and advocating. Career reflection points combined both know thyself and connecting through discussion on coaching, listening, taking ownership, understanding purpose, leading, and believing you are worth it. The big takeaway was we need to be a BRAT: Being Bold, Being Resourceful, Take Action, Have Tenacity.

Alice Brooks, AIA is an associate principal based out of the Baltimore office. Contact Alice.

The Value of Engagement

September 27, 2019
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This post is a collaboration between Amber Wendland and Corey Rothermel.

Engagement is at the core of Ayers Saint Gross’s mission and our planning practice. We strongly believe in the collective wisdom of a facilitated, inclusive planning and design process. In our rapidly changing world, communication, knowledge sharing, and connections are vital to generating consensus around shared visions. We work with varied and diverse groups of stakeholders to generate creative ideas that respect local culture, climate, and setting.

Our planning process involves overlapping activities that bring together the people and information needed to create a plan for the future. Effective implementation of planning visions is only possible through a carefully designed and executed process that engages stakeholders to reflect the mission and values of each institution, organization, or municipality.

Project success is more easily achieved through better knowledge, understanding, and buy-in. Engagement achieves all three of these things. Engagement not only allows us to be better designers by coalescing more input, but it is also an opportunity to generate excitement and harmony among stakeholders around a shared vision.

Engaging On Campus

In a higher education setting, in addition to the senior leadership that typically makes up a steering committee, broader public engagement is a way to bring students, faculty, technical staff, operational staff, and community members to the table. These stakeholders are the experts on how the campus is working and what is needed to best support student experience, student success, and operations.

Higher education clients also bring unique challenges; a significant one is finding the right time to engage stakeholders. Students, staff, and faculty have different schedules and are on campus at different times throughout the day. Identifying the best time (or times) to engage with stakeholders is the first hurdle.

It is critical to market the event through multiple avenues (email blasts, posters, web postings, adverts, etc.) and convey why it is important. Support from the client helps in this arena. They are critical in spreading the word, providing space to host an event or activity, and supplying incentives. Perhaps even more important, the client is the one that can best identify who should be in the room. This entails not only bringing in the right stakeholders to provide input, but also making sure that they are comfortable sharing their thoughts in a safe setting.

Stakeholders can tell when planners and designers are not genuinely interested in hearing their thoughts. At Ayers Saint Gross, we emphasize the value of bringing a broad and diverse set of stakeholders into our process and incorporating their valuable insight and input into our projects. Ultimately, this is the best way to produce dynamic projects that have wide-spread support, clear implementation, and create great experiences for all.

Ayers Saint Gross helped assist Tarrant County College (TCC) in creating a vision that would help to transform their traditional format libraries into Learning Commons to better meet the needs of today’s students and faculty. Building off our previous work with TCC that identified a college-wide need to increase pedagogical connectivity between learning inside and outside the classroom, we knew that the existing libraries were less than ideal for educators and students alike. Our team lead an engagement-heavy planning process for all five physical TCC campuses that included parallel in-person and online efforts for students, staff, and faculty.

Each group was asked a unique and comprehensive set of questions that collectively helped formulate the vision and scope for what the new Learning Commons could be. Responses highlighted the opportunities that existed to capitalize on the transformation of libraries into Learning Commons by incorporating spaces, programs, and resources that would help redefine the relationship between pedagogy, teaching, and the library space. Ayers Saint Gross then took this feedback to college leadership and used it to guide and facilitate the decision making that led to final designs.

At each student open house, we brought 40 pizzas anticipating that we would be well covered. Thanks to fantastic event marketing by the client, students showed up and participated en masse leading to the pizzas quickly disappearing. In all, we went through 200 pizzas over a 48-hour period.

Engaging in the Community

In urban planning, the most important stakeholders are community members. To produce an ethical, sustainable plan, it is vital that we begin by openly listening to the needs of the residents, business owners, elected officials, city government, and other stakeholders. Engagement must continue throughout the development of the plan to ensure the vision accurately depicts the desires of the community. This requires listening and a thoughtful exchange of knowledge; the community educates us on their needs and we educate them on components of the planning process. Engagement strategies include addressing individual questions in breakout sessions, polling, design stations, or boards where people can deliver comments and have conversations more intimately. This makes engagement more personal and is the kind of one-on-one interaction required to build rapport and consensus.

For the East Baltimore Revitalization Plan, the community had been the unfortunate recipient of decades of underinvestment, discriminatory practices, and neglect. There was an understandable skepticism of planners. The residents remembered decades of urban renewal when whole neighborhoods were razed and communities were torn apart. The team needed to develop trust to create a Master Plan that captured the community’s fundamental needs and served as a vision for them to champion moving forward.

When designing exercises, it is critical to make a strong effort to minimize implicit bias and design activities that accommodate variety of perspectives and abilities. This covers everything from the selection of images and wording of questions to the actual physical layout of exercises to enable stakeholders of differing backgrounds and experiences to participate. It is vital that everyone feel and be included.

Our carefully crafted engagement strategy was founded on these principles and we were able deliver a vision and plan for the community while building relationships, trust, and confidence within the community to carry the plan forward into implementation.

Transferring planning knowledge to community members should not be approached didactically, but instead as a two-way conversation to help inform and empower community residents. Speaking personally, during a final community meeting for the Southwest Neighborhood Plan, while reviewing final recommendations, I carefully walked one woman through a recommendation for increased zoning capacity, as it was a crucial move in order to be able to provide adequate affordable housing in the future. About 15 minutes later her friend arrived and had the same concern, I watched her explain to her friend exactly what I had walked her through. Not only allaying someone’s concerns, but giving them the tools to share with their fellow community members is incredibly rewarding and a great reminder of the real-life impacts of our work.

First Annual Jim Wheeler Day of Service

July 26, 2019
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“We engage people and places to create designs that enrich the world.” This philosophy guides our design thinking for our clients and is a standard to which we hold ourselves. Putting our values into action across our offices in Baltimore, Tempe, and Washington DC, this spring we held the Jim Wheeler Day of Service. Named in honor of our former president and current chairman of the board, this is a day for us as a firm to give back to the communities where we live and work.

When Jim Wheeler came to Ayers Saint Gross in 1987, the firm was already 75 years old with a venerable history and deep local traditions, but also ready to transform itself. He saw a collection of people willing and eager to take on the future – and change. That’s what Jim has always been about, and still is.

When it came to connecting with our communities, Jim understood the importance of giving back, which led him to the United Way early in his career. When the challenge of leading the United Way board of directors came along, Jim saw a chance for growth and change – in the United Way and in himself. He helped lead them to pioneering projects and a new home.

This is a legacy we seek to live up to by continuing in this example and expanding our reach. We are happy to continue our long relationship with United Way and to forge new bonds with non-profits nationwide. The activities for the Jim Wheeler Day of Service included neighborhood cleanups, helping create parks, gardens, and greenspace in the inner city, volunteering at food banks and kitchens, Habitat for Humanity, and helping at local elementary schools.

We look forward to repeating the success of the day for many years to come and are happy to share these images from the events. We encourage others to get involved with these great organizations.

DC Central Kitchen
United Way – Maree G. Farring Elementary School
City of Refuge
Duncan Street Miracle Garden
Maryland Food Bank
Arizona Habitat for Humanity
Kirby Lane Park

Ayers Saint Gross Completes JUST Disclosure

March 4, 2019
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We’re excited to announce that our firm’s JUST Disclosure went live this week, check it out online here.

JUST is a voluntary reporting tool developed by the International Living Future Institute for organizations to describe operational, social, and financial actions that contribute to what equity looks like at that organization. The program includes 21 different social justice and equity indicators within six categories. Each indicator has three levels of achievement and reporting that must be updated at regular intervals to maintain a JUST Disclosure. Participants in JUST must disclose information on at least 18 of the 21 indicators and can only opt out of at most one indicator per category.

Our firm’s definition of sustainability has always recognized the careful balance between the unique needs of people and ecological systems with the economic realities inherent in each of our projects. Today we advance our commitment to sustainability by sharing more quantitative data about the social equity and justice issues embedded in who we are and how we practice design. We hope that our transparency will inspire others to engage in critical discourse about equity in design as well as how these issues manifest in the built environment.

Ayers Saint Gross’s culture has always valued social, educational, and cultural engagement that aligns with social sustainability. We actively engage with the United Way of Central Maryland and Valley of the Sun United Way; our staff serve as mentors and board members for the ACE Mentor Program of America across the country; we finance scholarship opportunities at a number of institutions to support students in attaining the education that will advance them in the design professions; we staff a Careers in Design exploration program to inspire fifth graders at Beechfield Elementary School in West Baltimore; and this spring we are hosting our first Jim Wheeler Day of Service in honor of our firm’s former president.

We believe in an equitable community. Our firm has already invested a lot in supporting equity, diversity, and inclusion in our professions and within the communities where we live and work, but we have often followed our instincts rather than evaluating against benchmarks. This JUST Disclosure helps us make and track measurable commitments and is the next step in our commitment to social sustainability. We look forward to advancing our discussion about equity, diversity, and inclusion in quantitative ways in addition to the activities we already qualitatively discuss across our practice.

Making our JUST Disclosure also supports our clients and projects. Third-party certifications for high performance buildings, including the Living Building Challenge and LEED, recognize the importance of social equity. Our JUST Disclosure will support the Living Building Challenge Petal Certification of Semans-Griswold Environment Hall and allow every one of our LEED projects to access LEED’s Pilot Credit for Social Equity within the Project Team. We are encouraged that third-party rating systems are increasingly engaging in dialogue on social sustainability and are enthusiastic to be a part of that conversation.

Our JUST Disclosure helps us walk the walk when it comes to social equity and we hope our colleagues in other organizations will join us in advancing this dialogue.

Hack the Block: Notes from the Equity by Design Hackathon 4

July 24, 2018
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I recently had the opportunity to attend the Association of Community Design Conference, an event hosted by the Neighborhood Design Center, a Baltimore nonprofit that facilitates the development of healthy, equitable neighborhoods. The conference was two days filled with discussions about the roots and relevance of community design. Over and over again, conversations referred back to Whitney M. Young Jr.’s famous keynote address at the 1968 AIA Convention, in which he called out the architecture profession’s “thunderous silence” in the face of civil rights movements.

I revisited the full speech and was struck by how relevant it still is. In 2018, even though architects have the skills to be strong stewards of equitable communities, we sometimes fall short of our own tremendous potential to have a positive impact on the built environment and on people’s lives.

While the task at hand can seem tremendous, I am interested in how we can change that. This is why I attended the Equity by Design Hackathon 4: ArchitectuREvolution, a terrific event that took place at the Syracuse University Fisher Center in New York City on June 20.  This occasion brought together designers to tackle the ideas of improving justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in the architectural practice as well as the communities we serve.

Here are my major takeaways from the event:

  1. We have a lot in common. There were around 40 people at the event, of various ages and backgrounds, but when we broke into small groups for an icebreaker two common threads emerged: bilingualism and urbanism. Almost all of us spoke at least two languages and we either grew up in or currently lived in large cities. Finding emphasized our shared experiences over our differences.That said, another experience we all seemed to share was the sense that architecture is a tough profession for women and people of color. We need to push harder to make ourselves heard in order to avoid being sidelined in our careers. It was both good and bad to hear that other people were struggling with similar issues.
  1. Working fast is fun and useful. I really enjoyed the hackathon experience. It was invigorating to brainstorm and present a transformative idea in a single day. Having to think up and communicate concepts quickly is essential for designers and architects in all stages of their careers.
  1. Data is an essential component of 21st century design. Thanks to our shared experiences of living in urban areas, the members of my hackathon team were familiar with one of the downsides of city life: abandoned and neglected properties. How could architects address this problem systemically as a profession? My experience working with the East Baltimore Revitalization Project made it clear how essential it is for architects and planners to engage with a community. We need to make the design process transparent, teach non-designers important terminology to make discussions understandable, and really listen to what residents want and need. The social benefits extend well beyond any individual project. A community that understands the process of how its physical environment changes, from concept to design to construction, is well-equipped for future challenges or opportunities that arise in its neighborhood.

So, for the hackathon, our team decided we wanted to create a resource that would allow architects to work with people to repurpose or redesign spaces to align with local needs. Our proposed program, dubbed Hack the Block, was a nonprofit that would map both vacancies and needs in underutilized areas with community members.

The data collected would eventually inform community-led construction efforts and be shared with government organizations to build upon what we’d started.

To be truly successful, Hack the Block’s community engagement would be key. Telling people what they want or need is usually far less effective than asking them.

In the end, Hack the Block didn’t win – that honor went to Team Value Menu, which envisioned a Zillow/Yelp-type reviewing system for architecture firms that would allow job applicants to evaluate firms on a variety of metrics like community engagement, office culture, and mentorship opportunities. Often, young architects have only one hard number – salary – to go on when making crucial early career decisions, and a more complex and informative way of comparing employers would be useful.

I did, however, notice that Hack the Block and Team Value Menu shared a common thread. Both teams saw that people want to make well-informed, empowering decisions about their own lives. Top-down thinking from existing power structures doesn’t produce good design or good work environments. I love that Equity by Design is working hard to create a profession that reflects and serves a diverse world.

My hope is that the future of architecture looks more like another passage from Young’s speech: “It took a great deal of skill and creativity and imagination to build the kind of situation we have, and it is going to take skill and imagination and creativity to change it. We are going to have to have people as committed to doing the right thing, to inclusiveness, as we have in the past to exclusiveness.”

Eating the Whale: Equity in Architecture

February 15, 2017
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To illustrate the very serious task of fighting for equity, AIA San Francisco’s Equity by Design Committee uses the poem “Melinda Mae” by children’s author Shel Silverstein:

Have you heard of Melinda Mae,
Who ate a monstrous whale?
She thought she could,
She said she would,
So she started in right at the tail.

And everyone said, “You’re much too small,”
But that didn’t bother Melinda at all.

She took little bites and she chewed very slow,
Just like a good girl should…
…And in eighty-nine years she ate that whale
Because she said she would!

We in the architecture profession have slowly been “eating the whale” for more than 100 years, regarding the task of getting more women and minorities into the profession. There have been some great milestones along the way, including:

  • In 1881, Louise Bethune became the first professional female architect. (Like me, Bethune was from the great city of Buffalo, New York.)
  • In 1923, Paul Revere Williams became the first African American AIA member. He was also the first black architect elected into the College of Fellows and is this year’s AIA Gold Medal winner. He is the first black architect to be honored the AIA’s highest award.
  • Lou Weller said to be the first Native American architect* and was the first Native American awarded the AIA Whitney M. Young Jr. Award in 2000. Today, Native Americans represent less than 1% of licensed architects.

Despite these achievements, architecture still lacks diversity. As of 2014, 22% of licensed architects are female, 2% are African American, and 3% are Latino. That’s not great for a 136 year timespan. More than 50% of students enrolled in architecture schools are non-white, meaning that in five to 10 years, we should see this diversity reflected in our workplaces. But relying on diversity to happen over time only is not enough.

The Equity in Architecture Commission is the vehicle that creates a greater urgency within the profession (and AEC community at large). The percentages will continue to grow at a snail’s pace until the profession allows all of its members to flourish. We must create equitable and inclusive practices to encourage individuals from underrepresented groups to get licensed, remain in the profession, and ultimately thrive. Pushing for equitable practice will create the surge needed to make the diversity of our firms reflect the diversity of the clients and communities we serve. Hopefully, it will take less than another 136 years.

The Equity in Architecture Commission was approved in May 2015, as a result of the Resolution 15-1, approved in May 2015. The commission is a call to action for both women and men to realize the goal of equitable practice in order to retain talent, advance the architecture profession, and communicate the value of design to society. With increasingly greater numbers of women and minorities in architecture schools, it is vital that AIA addresses this opportunity to foster and support a more inclusive workforce across the profession.

The commission serves as the framework for developing a well-conceived and thoughtful action plan and set of recommendations. The initial charge of the 22-person commission, of which I was proud to be a member, was to:

  • Develop specific recommendations that will lead to equitable practices
  • Create measurable goals and develop mechanisms for assessing ongoing process
  • Present a plan of action based on the commission’s recommendations

Dr. Shirley Davis who specializes in organization transformation, diversity and inclusion, implicit bias, and strategic development, facilitated the commission. We started by asking, “When we achieve equity in architecture, what does it look it?”

The question prompted hundreds of responses, which were then categorized into five topic areas:

  1. Education and Career Development
  2. Leadership Excellence (within AIA and the profession)
  3. Firm/Workplace/Studio Culture
  4. Marketing, Branding, Public Awareness, and Outreach
  5. Better Architecture

We then focused on these five areas for the remainder of the year, creating actionable items that could create change in both the short and long terms.

All of the recommendations and initiatives are being compiled into a final report which will act as a road map for equitable practice. For the next three years, the commission has recommended the following eleven initiatives which were approved by the AIA National Board of Directors in December 2015:

  1. Equity, diversity and inclusion as a core value for the board of directors
  2. Measure and report how equity, diversity and inclusion permeates within the AIA
  3. Equity, diversity and inclusion training for AIA volunteers and components
  4. Guides for equitable, diverse and inclusionary practice
  5. Create a firm self-assessment tool
  6. Position paper on equity, diversity and inclusion and the profession
  7. Collect equity, diversity and inclusion data of project teams, firms and clients on work submitted for AIA Awards
  8. Advocate for equity in higher education
  9. Engage and expose kids to architecture through K-12 programs
  10. Tell our stories
  11. Ensure media reflects diverse range of architects

To download the entire Equity in Architecture report, click here.

My experience on the Equity Commission was one of the most fulfilling things I have done professionally. The Equity Commission was charged with taking action and making real change. As a Millennial, this was music to my ears. I’m encouraged that the eleven initiatives will make real, long-lasting change in the profession.

There are so many great resources out there to read (architecture and non-architecture related) and get involved in the conversation. Here are five to you get started:

I’d like to end this post with a challenge for everyone: imagine if Melinda Mae had help eating the whale. She could have accomplished her task faster, and had more fun doing it!

If everyone takes a bite out of the whale, we can achieve equitable practice much more rapidly. This is a conversation must be inclusive of everyone that everyone must join.

For anyone who is more interested in hearing more about the eleven initiatives, please do not hesitate to reach out! You can reach me at LGraff@ayerssaintgross.com. Let’s eat that whale together.

* AIA did not begin collecting data on race and ethnicity until 2000.

The Season of Giving

December 21, 2016
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As 2016 draws to a close, we reflect on the Ayers Saint Gross mission statement: “We engage people and places to create designs that enrich the world.”

As a firm, we strive to make the world a better place through our designs and through service in our community. Real change takes real effort, a willingness to get involved and the strength of a team that shares those goals.

One of Ayers Saint Gross’ longest philanthropic relationships, now in its 18th year, is our commitment to Beechfield Elementary/Middle School in West Baltimore. In addition to drives for school supplies, canned goods, and books, our firm participates in a six-week introduction to design seminar with Beechfield students. At the last session, the students come to our office to do design exercises and to receive certificates of completion and “honorary designer” business cards. In 2017, we aim to strengthen this relationship even more, by helping students map out the path from high school to college to real design careers.

Ayers Saint Gross is also a strong supporter of the United Way. In addition to our financial contributions, we sponsored a Day of Action, during which several staffers volunteered at My Sister’s Place serving women and children in need. One of our most beloved firm traditions is the annual Chili Cook-Off – a crossroads of giving back and strengthening our team culture. We are active in the greater Phoenix community, helping to build a playground for Sunshine Acres Children’s Home, making donations to the Tempe Mission, and more. We participate in (PARK)ing Day, celebrating green spaces in the urban environment.

Most recently, we won a Mayor’s Business Recognition Award for planning work in East Baltimore. In partnership with the Southern Baptist Church and other stakeholders, we began with two kick-off workshops in April and continued with a design charrette in September. Ayers Saint Gross designers facilitated these meetings, engaging with community members and teaching the value of thoughtful planning, successful placemaking, and sustainable neighborhood development. A final community meeting will occur in January 2017.

We hope that the successful conclusion of that project is the first of many opportunities we’ll have in 2017 to engage, create, and enrich. The new year will be full of innovative thinking and problem-solving, as well as investment in people and places. We look forward to the many good things that are to come, at our firm and in the communities we serve.