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Diversity in architecture matters for communities – and the bottom line

Words:
Taz Khatri

People thrive with more inclusive built environments, while practices see better business outcomes and have an edge over the competition. Equity in the profession is vital and benefits everyone

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Diversity and inclusion in architecture isn’t just a moral ideal to strive for; studies show that it directly affects the bottom line.
Diversity and inclusion in architecture isn’t just a moral ideal to strive for; studies show that it directly affects the bottom line.

This is an edited excerpt from an article that originally appeared on Design & Make With Autodesk, a site dedicated to inspiring construction, manufacturing, engineering, and design leaders.

Read the full article here

In the US population, the percentage of non-Hispanic white people is expected to drop below 50 per cent by 2045, according to demographer Dudley L Poston Jr, with corresponding increases in the Black, Latinx and Asian American populations. Yet the field of architecture, a key player in creating and maintaining the built environment for all communities, doesn’t come close to reflecting the current or projected demographics of the country. In 2022, white males comprised 69 per cent of all architects in the US while only 10.2 per cent were Latinx, 15 per cent were Asian and 3 per cent were Black, according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). Men also continue to outnumber women in the profession, with only two in five licensed architects being women.

Although there is still a significant disparity in the profession, many would agree that strides have been made in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Jason Pugh, global director of DEI and principal at Gensler, cautions that ‘the industry is striving to become more diverse and inclusive but still has a long way to go’.

While some historically marginalised people are beginning to receive long-overdue promotions, the industry still has a lot of work ahead to do.
While some historically marginalised people are beginning to receive long-overdue promotions, the industry still has a lot of work ahead to do.

Expanding DEI in architecture

Recent appointments of Black women at the highest levels of national design-related professional associations shows expanded DEI efforts, including by Kim Dowdell, the 2024 national president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA); Alumna Angela Brooks, the current president of the American Planning Association (APA); and Tiffany D Brown, executive director of the National Organisation of Minority Architects (NOMA). Gary J Nelson, vice president of the west region of NOMA, says that ‘marginalised people have gotten long-overdue promotions' and that ‘we’re getting better at exposing young people to the profession’.

However, there is still a lot of work to be done. One area that has not improved despite increased awareness and DEI efforts is the number of licensed Black architects, which has hovered around 2.5-3 per cent for decades, a significantly lower figure than the 13 per cent Black population of the US. And despite Black women being appointed to visible leadership roles, the total number of US licensed architects who are Black women is 593.

As the world changes, so do professions like architecture – which has increased efforts to create a more diverse, inclusive workforce.
As the world changes, so do professions like architecture – which has increased efforts to create a more diverse, inclusive workforce.

Global barriers to entry

The UK faces similar issues with DEI in architecture. Robbie Turner, director of inclusion and diversity at the RIBA, says that ‘architecture in the UK is not representative of the society it is here to serve. We have a significant under-representation of women across the profession and a significant over-representation of white people.’ According to Turner, only 31 per cent of architects in the UK are women, 2% are Black (compared to a general population of 4 per cent), and only 1 per cent of architects in the UK are those with disabilities (compared to a general population of 21 per cent). 

One reason that architecture does not accurately reflect the society it serves in the US and UK is that historically it has been ‘a privileged white male profession’, says Turner. Pugh agrees, adding that in the past architects were likely to come from higher socio-economic households or well-to-do families with connections in the industry. Students of colour, women and other marginalised groups rarely saw themselves represented in the field or on academic campuses with university faculty and staff. 

Another reason for the profession being largely privileged, white and male is the expense of becoming an architect, with sky-rocketing tuition fees and cost of supplies compared to relatively low starting salaries. Average tuition fees to get a degree in architecture range from $50,000 to $175,000 according to US News and World Report. An entry-level salary for an architectural designer can be as low as $35,000 a year in some areas of the US, according to Indeed.com. 

Another barrier, that affects marginalised communities disproportionately is that the path to becoming a licensed architect is long and arduous, starting with a five-to-six-year college education, followed by an internship where prospective architects have to log their experience in various aspects of the industry – culminating in a series of rigorous exams. In part to address this, and the exams being a barrier to entering the profession, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) recently eliminated the rolling clock policy – a policy that was shown after analysis to disproportionally affect women and people of colour.  

Read the full article for a deep dive into the merits of a diverse workforce, with examples of how to engage the next generation to develop workplaces that are both diverse and inclusive.

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Contact:
redshift@autodesk.com


Taz Khatri is a licensed architect with over 20 years' experience on projects including commercial, residential and historical preservation in Arizona, US.

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