Donald King, FAIA, a black architect in Seattle, founded his firm in 1989, but he never wanted it to carry the “minority-owned business” banner. Like everyone else, he wanted his work to speak for itself. But he soon discovered that the market reality was something different. As the firm began to establish itself, King certified it as a minority business with Washington state and with the federal government, using his status as another tool to build relationships with clients to whom he otherwise wouldn't have had access. His reputation started to jell, and soon he was landing jobs as the primary architect on major projects. By the time the state banned affirmative action in 1996, his firm was on solid ground.

“Affirmative action introduced a lot of people who wouldn't have otherwise been noticed, sometimes because they were a minority firm and in some cases because of unintentional racism,” says King, who heads DKA, a 15-member architecture and planning firm. “People work with people they know, who are friends of their friends, and who they know are competent.”

For both mainstream and minority firms, team quotas are a double-edged sword. Minority-owned businesses—those that are disadvantaged socially or economically or because of race or gender—have to put up with the public assumption that if they need incentives to get work, it must be because they're second-rate. Being a token team member doesn't guarantee a level playing field either. Often the prime architect simply assumes that person isn't up to the job, so he or she has to fight even harder for a meaningful role. It's a good news/bad news scenario for majority architects, too. The search often turns up excellent firms with whom they partner again and again. On the other hand, quotas add complications and costs. It can be tough to find minority partners with the expertise they're looking for. And fees are set regardless of how a project is pieced together. A diversified team costs more to manage, and the fees rarely cover the added complexity.

Working with underrepresented professionals “is a good thing socially and in terms of getting out of your rut of using the same people each time, but there's no denying that it's less efficient,” says David Baker, FAIA, David Baker + Partners, Architects, San Francisco. His office teams up with disadvantaged consultants (from architects to electricians) on about 25 percent of its projects. He says, for example, that if a disabled veteran is required on a school project, chances are there's only one company that qualifies, and that firm is often stretched thin. So the requirements can reduce the pool of available talent. “If you take the pool of consultants in general, we'd only want to work with 10 percent of them, whereas San Francisco redevelopment groups often require 50 percent of the contract to go to small business enterprises,” Baker says. “It's unfortunate that the employee mix of a firm isn't considered, just ownership. It seems the firm should have some ‘social justice' index.”

Affirmative action is fraught with contention and politics. At least two states—Washington and California—have banned laws giving businesses a competitive advantage based on race or sex and have replaced them with mandates supporting small businesses. But the broader federal legislation still exists. For the foreseeable future, at least, quotas—and the opportunities and constraints they represent—are here to stay.

the minority dance

“You have to go into a project with the attitude that you support the goals of participating with disadvantaged firms; otherwise it becomes just another hoop to jump through,” says Shalom Baranes, FAIA, managing principal, Shalom Baranes Associates, Washington, D.C. Quotas have forced him to scout for additional consultants in virtually every field beyond the circle of folks he would typically talk to. In the process, he's discovered talent that he calls on repeatedly, whether it's required or not. As with every other partnership, the key is to look for both skill and dedication. “A lot of firms do just need experience, but there has to be a sense of mission about their profession,” he says. “There are so many architecture and engineering firms in the United States that basically just want to make money. Those companies do not produce the best work.”

James, Harwick + Partners, Dallas, has something in common with Baker and Baranes' firms: They're all practicing in states with a high percentage of businesses owned by racial and ethnic minorities. That may partly explain why, although public projects comprise only 12 percent of JH+P's work, roughly 35 percent of the professional firms it works with have minority status. “The consultants we pick may be on our regular projects or on our minority projects, and we pick them not because they're minorities but because they're the best at what they do,” says senior associate Bob Bullis, AIA.

The firm began culling a stable of top-notch minority teammates back in 2001 when private-sector work dropped off and the firm shifted its attention to public projects. Marketing starts on JH+P's Web site, where minority firms are invited to contact Bullis. “I'll find out what their experiences are and whether they're compatible in size and experience to us, and then I'll ask them to send some official documents showing what they've done,” he says. “I'll do interviews if I feel I want to get to the next level.” The interview often leads to a trial run with the firm on a small private project.

Whereas JH+P finds itself in the trenches most often with minority engineers, everyone agrees that projects get a bit bumpy when there are two architects involved. Among other things, you have to figure out whether you complement each other and decide who's doing what. “You can say, ‘You do your part and we'll do ours,' but often you need to value-engineer together, so everything gets mixed up,” says Peter Landon, FAIA, principal, Landon Bone Baker Architects, Chicago. “Who's in charge of the details? If they are different, who's right?” he asks.

Landon and two other partners oversee a staff of nine, taking on projects as varied as affordable apartments, single-family homes, libraries, stores, and office buildings. For Landon Bone Baker, teaming up with minority architects goes fairly smoothly, mainly because the firm typically works on large projects (100 units or more) that offer plenty of work to go around. For instance, it's currently working with the minority-owned Johnson & Lee Architects/Planners to redevelop Robert Taylor Homes, a HOPE VI project on the South Side of Chicago. The award-winning Johnson & Lee did the planning and design of 110 units adjacent to the Robert Taylor site, and Landon Bone Baker was invited to help plan and design about 40 percent of the 250-unit first phase of on-site housing. That job led to West Haven, another HOPE VI project on which Landon is working with Chicago-based Brook Architecture, owned by RaMona Westbrook, AIA, a black woman. Since Landon Bone Baker has more experience, it's coordinating the detailing and construction drawings, but the design work is split along agreed-upon stylistic lines, with Brook Architecture designing the project's more traditionally inspired pieces.

The relationship is symbiotic. “We have a reputation for doing good work, but sometimes we don't have the political connection that's important,” Landon says, adding that he and Brook Architecture occasionally join up to go after work that neither one could get on their own.