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AIA Young Architects Award: Allison Wilson

Allison Wilson volunteers with students as part of ACE Mentors.

As an architect and the firm’s sustainability director, Allison Wilson serves as a trusted advisor helping clients to make equitable, enduring investments in their built environments. She has assembled a dedicated team and guided numerous projects in integrating and elevating their performance, including Ayers Saint Gross’ first Living Building Challenge and WELL Building projects. This year, she was one of 23 architects nationwide to earn an American Institute of Architects Young Architects Award, which recognizes individuals who have demonstrated exceptional leadership and made significant contributions to the architecture profession early in their careers.

In the interview below, Allison reflects on her own career, the projects that have made a difference, and what this recognition means to her.

What drew you to work in sustainability?

Every other year, the US Department of Energy hosts a Solar Decathlon build challenge for college students in which interdisciplinary teams compete to design and build net-zero energy homes. The University of Maryland participated in 2011 and I got involved as a graduate student. I took a studio course geared toward the Decathlon, and I never looked back. Of all the things I loved about my Solar Decathlon experience, two stand out: the collaborative relationships I made with my teammates and the storytelling aspect of the project.

Prior to the Decathlon, I was learning to become an architect, primarily from other architects, alongside other aspiring architects. After we started the Decathlon, my team of teachers grew rapidly to include my teammates and their faculty members in other disciplines – engineering, landscape architecture, construction. I am a better architect today because of the interdisciplinary, experiential opportunity of the Solar Decathlon.

During the showcase event on the National Mall, we had a long line of people waiting to tour our house, WaterShed. Our team engaged people in line by explaining our project and answering questions and I remember talking about sustainability, why it matters, and trying to get our house’s story across to the crowd. I really liked being able to connect with others and tell the project’s story.

At the end of the day, we can talk about technical details and the context of projects all we want, but the true context for our work is people and they are what matters. Sustainability is a very human problem in that the planet will be fine with or without us. I think that’s why I get so excited to talk with people and engage with them about the decisions they’re making that could lead to lasting change for our shared environment.

Which projects that you have been a part of have had the biggest impact on you?

The Maryland School for the Blind was the first major project I remember working on. I was doing exterior building details and I had sheets of drawings covering every vertical surface of the room where we were working. I had a half-day pinup review where I brought all my questions to Ayers Saint Gross architects Joel Fidler and Lex Schwartz and we walked through them all as well as all the questions I didn’t know at that time to ask. If I think about why I’m a successful architect and why I am competent at what I do, it’s because I was given lots of runway to explore and figure out how to make those details work, but also because Joel and Lex and many others put in great blocks of time to sit down and review that work with me and answer my questions. Every new architect needs that coaching to help unpack and understand why and how designs work.

Another big project for me was the Texas A&M Sustainability Plan. Influencing the strategies an entire institution will undertake to advance environmental, economic, and social sustainability is such a huge opportunity to do good. It’s been amazing to leverage that work into additional efforts for Texas A&M as well as work at Montclair State University, the University of California, Los Angeles, and beyond. I love engaging each unique campus community to understand the complexity of their situation relative to carbon neutrality, fiscal responsibility, and social equity and co-creating an actionable strategy for progress.

Exterior view of Semans-Griswold showing solar panels
Exterior view of Semans-Griswold Environmental Hall at Washington College
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Texas A&M University’s Sustainability Master Plan
Texas A&M University’s Sustainability Master Plan
Nelson Harvey Building for John Hopkins Health System
Nelson Harvey Building for John Hopkins Health System

You were a leader on the firm’s Just Disclosure to describe and quantify operational, social, and financial actions that contribute to what equity looks like in our organization. As a result of this accounting, Ayers Saint Gross was named the Just Organization of the Year in 2021. Can you explain why that effort was important to you?

Topics around justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion can be challenging and involve uncomfortable conversations. When we track our metrics and have a framework for understanding ourselves with more self-awareness, I think a lot of those conversations become easier. What has been beneficial now that we’re four years into tracking our own data is that we can start to see what change looks like. We can quantify our evolution over time and improve because we’re more self-aware of who we are as Ayers Saint Gross.

Another benefit of the Just Disclosure is that it’s given us a common vocabulary surrounding justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion within our firm and in the profession. I think we’re having more interesting conversations about what the built implications of a just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive environment can look like. We certainly don’t have it all figured out, but we know who we are, we increasingly know how to talk about these issues both internally and within our projects, and we can continue to improve going forward.

Outside of the office, you are an active volunteer with the ACE Mentor Program of Austin, a  mentorship program that teaches high school students about careers in Architecture, Construction, Engineering, and other built environment fields. How did that come about?

I was involved in a lot of professional service activities through AIA Baltimore and USGBC Maryland when I lived in Baltimore and when I moved to Texas, I wanted to be similarly involved in my new community. I went to an ACE mentor recruiting event and I was excited to see people my age who were showing up and committed to putting their time and talents into helping the next generation of practitioners. When I decided I was going to apply to architecture school in high school, my guidance counselor literally handed me a list of every accredited program in the country and my parents and I had to figure it all out ourselves which was overwhelming. Being involved in ACE means I can help keep other students from having that same overwhelming experience.

I served one year as a mentor before joining the board and getting involved with the leadership team. I was the chair last year and now I’m serving as treasurer and it’s been a really great experience collaborating with my fellow board members and determining how we can grow our impact and maintain continuity through the pandemic. In addition to mentoring over 450 students since our inception in 2015, we’ve awarded $125,000 in scholarships to students to pursue careers in the built environment.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

It’s a three-way tie among engagement, storytelling, and coaching. I’m genuinely curious about people and understanding what their stories are and how they work. Despite how important sustainability and carbon neutrality are, they are still kind of underdog causes in many communities and I appreciate the power storytelling can have in accelerating the social capital of the group of people who work in sustainability and how much that can benefit all of us.

We have become used to advocating from an underdog perspective, but within a decade or so we should stop being an underdog. We’ll have to transition from advocating for sustainability and carbon neutrality to mainstream operationalizing it. How will we continue to grow the movement from a place of success rather than a place of difficulty or disadvantage?

As my team has grown, I’ve also discovered how much I love nurturing and celebrating talent in others. My colleagues, Rishika Shrivastava and Sung, Di, have similar passions but different backgrounds and skillsets than I do and it’s awesome to coach their continued growth and development and witness their successes.

What does it mean to win this award?

It was very therapeutic to go through ten years of my work and try to figure out what it means, what do I know now that I didn’t know then, and what do I hope I know ten years from now. When I learned I had won, I felt a lot of gratitude for the people who supported me and validation that this collection of experiences I’ve acquired in the last decade is valuable. It’s been nice to reconnect with people and to have this kind of recognition for my work.

It’s also really exciting that there are two of us who won from Ayers Saint Gross. Elizabeth McLean and I have totally different personalities, but similar passions for what we think are good and different ways of influencing the practice and profession of architecture. It’s exciting for us both to be recognized from within the same firm because it shows that leadership looks like a lot of things and that there are many ways to be excellent. We’re hoping that while we may be the first Young Architect Award winners from the firm, we absolutely should not be the last. Both Elizabeth and I are looking at how to pay it forward. We want to make sure other people are supported in telling their stories.

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