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AIA Young Architects Award: Elizabeth McLean

Elizabeth McLean shows a drawing on an iPad outside Arizona State University's Hayden Library

Architect Elizabeth McLean specializes in the design and delivery of large-scale academic facilities requiring complex programs. She approaches her work with intention to prioritize social, economic, and environmental sustainability, and has led award-winning projects like Arizona State University’s Hayden Library Reinvention and the renovation of Durham Hall. This year, she was one of 23 architects nationwide to earn an American Institute of Architect’s Young Architects Award, which recognizes individuals who have demonstrated exceptional leadership and made significant contributions to the architecture profession early in their careers.

What does it mean to design holistically?

I don’t think we can design sustainably without also thinking holistically about the environmental, economic, and social aspects of our work. I really appreciate thinking at all scales about any of these hairy problems that we have and how what we are doing in one place can affect things across the board.

I also like my involvement in a project to be holistic. I tend to be on a project before it starts and stay on it long after it finishes because it’s just continuous for me. My work doesn’t stop or start with project phases or deliverables. How does this project fit with the larger vision of what is happening? How can we continue to make this better? I want to always look at a project and try to see the larger impact of what it means and who will be impacted by it.

Outside the firm, you teach architectural studios to both graduate and undergraduate students. Why is teaching important to you?

Teaching has been a consistent piece of my career because I really do see the value in a commitment to both academia and practice. I see the benefit to myself, I see a benefit to the work, and I see the benefit when I’m working with students and this next generation of young architects and designers . They’re really inspiring.
I try to approach my classes like we’re all learning together, like it’s a collaborative effort even when the projects are individual for each student. There is a lot of dialogue that happens in my classes where we try to solve problems better than they have been solved before or to solve problems that are bigger than they have been before. It’s an incredible privilege to work with a group of students coming into the profession. There are a lot of things that could scare them, but they aren’t afraid. They have a tenacity for the work. They want to get at the issues and find ways to link them to architecture. It’s also really great to be able to encourage them that there are so many opportunities within design and architecture and prepare students to make those later choices about how they can branch off in their work. I think there is so much potential for what the future of architecture can mean.

Which projects have been the most impactful for your career?

They all have been important to me. I love what I’m able to learn and how I’m able to grow with each one, so every new project springs a level of excitement about that potential, regardless of budget, typology, or ambition. I think that’s an important piece of the way that I work, which is trying to balance and remain committed to both academia and the profession. I see that there is potential for learning and improving the work both ways and when those two paths can influence each other, I think that’s very valuable.

Regardless of what the project is, I think it’s important that we are listening and ready to engage with the community and the clients in a dialogue about the potential of the work. It’s about resisting preconceived notions and ideas so that we can work through the vision together and create something that is reflective of the place and the real needs and vision of the community. I appreciate different ways of viewing the design process. I really enjoy celebrating that process and the work.

In this interview, Elizabeth shares her thoughts on designing holistically, teaching, and what inspires her for the future.

The South elevation of Hayden Library Reinvation at Arizona State University showing layered thresholds...
Arizona State Library's Hayden Library Reinvention
Exterior Entrance of Peak Campus' Vertex Student Housing
Exterior Entrance of Peak Campus' Vertex Student Housing
University Of Arizona Biomedical Sciences Partnership Building Interior Lobby With Stairs
Interior Lobby of the University of Arizona Biomedical Sciences Partnership Building
South entrance view through south lobby at Arizona State University Hayden Library Reinvention.
South Lobby of Arizona State University's Hayden Library Reinvention

How do you think the emphasis on justice and equity in the field has changed over the past decade and where do you hope it goes in the future?

When it comes to JEDI – justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion – I want our work to focus more on the justice and equity as the process because without those, I don’t believe we can achieve authentic diversity and inclusion outcomes. When we are really critical and we make design decisions through that lens, I see a lot of value there, but it is a mindset shift. And as much as those aspects are so important to me, I understand I’m just a small piece of the puzzle. I’m encouraged by the next generation because they understand the impact and the barriers to justice involved in our work and they’re actively thinking about how designers can design justice into the practice or their future careers.

What does this award mean to you?

It was an incredible honor to even be nominated and to have the support of people from across the nation. This award focuses on leadership – service leadership, design leadership and professional leadership – and that piece of it is meaningful to me. I’m thankful to have this kind of snapshot of what the first ten years of licensure has been for me and I’m excited to be included in this group, but I also think this award comes with responsibility. I’m looking forward to what’s next, what comes out of this? This is just a moment in time and I am really thankful for it, but there’s more work to do.

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