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March 3, 2021

Equity and Diversity in AEC and the Built World

Diverse team working together

Leaders in the fields of architecture, engineering, and construction are working to increase diversity and equity in their teams. While research shows that diverse and inclusive teams are linked to better outcomes in business, only 2% of licensed architects in the U.S. identify as Black, and only 17% are women.

Further, as the industry responsible for designing and making our built world—from schools to skate parks, homes to hospitals, offices to airports—those in AEC have the added responsibility of considering the impact of their work on equity and inclusiveness in our broader society.

At AU 2020, AEC professionals explored the ways we can build teams, structures, and communities that promote inclusion and create equity among diverse populations. They shared their perspectives in panels, Theater talks, and meetups, and discussed what it means to build a better world both in their companies and in the work they do.

Equity in the built world

“For me, having equity in the built environment means moving beyond having a seat at the table to having a discussion about what the table is and who created the table,” said Mike Ford, founder of the Hip Hop Architecture Camp. He participated in the AU 2020 panel discussion, Equity & the Built Environment: A Conversation on JEDI in the Industry, hosted by Esther Dsouza.

He was joined by Melissa Daniel, an architect and host of the podcast "Architecture Is Political." “I got into architecture because I thought it was a way to make safe and healthy built environments for people who look like me,” she said. “Architecture is still writing design narratives for affordable housing that don’t include the voices of poor black and brown people.”

Addressing inequities built into existing architecture and infrastructure was also the focus of Danielle Civitillo’s Theater talk, Engineering More Equitable Communities. A civil engineer by trade, Civitillo shares how planning decisions made decades ago can continue to hamper equity and diversity even today. She cites how the Southern State Parkway in New York was purposely designed with low overpasses to make sure that local beaches were not easily accessible to public buses—or the people who relied on them for transportation.

She also notes how the zoning decisions made in the early 20th century commonly referred to as “redlining” have resulted in inequitable distribution of civic amenities and public green spaces today. As a result, temperatures in these urban neighborhoods can be 5-12 degrees hotter in the summer than adjacent neighborhoods where more trees were planted and more public parks were constructed, exacerbating health problems for the residents in those underserved neighborhoods.

One solution? Using new technologies to engage diverse communities. While those outside the industry may have difficulty understanding standard construction drawings and plans, Civitillo says, we can now share designs in intuitive ways using virtual reality and other immersive technologies. This can bring broader perspectives into the conversation early in the planning phase, when feedback is most meaningful, and can begin to rebuild trust between residents and the institutions that govern them and the organizations that provide services.

Diversity in industry

It’s one thing to talk about making diversity a priority, and another to do it. Amie Kromis of Skanska hosted an AU 2020 fireside chat about how to walk the walk with two giants of AEC: Deryl McKissack of McKissack & McKissack and Michael Russell of H.J. Russell & Company. Both companies have blazed trails for minorities in AEC over the past century and continue to make it a priority to work with Minority-Owned Business Enterprises (MBEs) today. “Diversity is more than the color of your skin, your gender,” McKissack points out. “It’s where you came from, how you were educated, your experience.”

Cliff Cole of the PENTA Building Group talked about practical approaches to change in the AEC industry with Black colleagues from around the country in the session, Blacks and Minorities in AEC: Perspective of Diversity and Inclusion. Vincent Spencer of LS3P Associates shared his efforts at outreach to serve as a role model for elementary school children and his work to build a Diversity and Inclusion task force within his company. And Kim Bates of DPR Construction talked about how behavior can be seen differently through the lens of race and gender.

Values in action

Achieving a truly equitable industry and an equitable world won’t happen with a snap of the fingers. It’s a gradual and on-going shift, and each of us has a responsibility to support the transformation. As Deryl McKissack said, “Stay hopeful, stay engaged, and measure. And be accountable, hold people accountable. That’s how we move the needle.”

Learn more about the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion and approaches to transformation with this related content: