stirred, not shaken
Underrepresented firms have made real progress by way of affirmative action, or some form of it. Half the work Westbrook has today is the result of having first worked as a minority vendor. In business for the past 11 years, she routinely gets called to work on projects that don't require minority participation, from single-family homes to multifamily tenant and mixed-use projects. But the difficulties persist. Often there are unrealistic expectations about the role she will play. “Some clients expect that we don't know how to practice architecture, and we spend more time defending what we can do than we would if we were in a relationship where there was mutual understanding and respect,” she says. “Those kinds of projects we have to pass on.”
Like JH+P, Westbrook conducts due diligence on prospective partners, interviewing them, talking to others, and starting with a small project. “You do have to have clearly defined responsibilities,” she says. “We've had people request integration, but we generally don't do that. We can't run a business that way.”
She learned that lesson the hard way. Recently, she says, a majority firm she was partnering with stole an employee who had been working off site for months on a dedicated design/build team. “All the investment we put into hiring that person, we lost,” she says. “So many issues we deal with are just business issues,” she acknowledges. “But they're harder to deal with because you're a minority, typically underfunded, and not respected.” When Westbrook confronted the architects, they apologized and agreed to compensate her by offering her firm other business opportunities.
Roberta Washington, FAIA, who's also black, recounts similar stories in her 23 years at the helm of Roberta Washington Architects, a 10-person firm in New York City. When things go wrong, it's usually because her role isn't clear-cut. “To be successful, it's important to have people at the larger firm who, while they understand it's all about getting the job, also have some appreciation that they're hiring people because [those people] can do something,” she says. Some years ago she sent two employees to another firm for an extended period of time for work on a residential project. When the project ended, one employee was hired by the prime architect and the other went elsewhere. “The lead architect said it would mess up the budget if I were there, so the people I sent got the experience instead,” she says.
“You need to come to an understanding about how the two firms can work together before you get the job, because after you get it you have no leverage,” Washington adds. “The contract that's checked is basically the one between the architect and the development agency; no one's paying that much attention after you leave the interview room.” (Two recent hospital projects went much more smoothly. On one, Washington's firm designed the freestanding clinics, while the prime firm did the hospital.)
If choosing among jobs and joint ventures requires savvy jockeying even among the most mainstream firms, being a minority adds another layer of political maneuvering. Washington recalls being telephoned late one Friday evening by an architect in a large, out-of-state firm who urgently requested that she send her credentials. He wanted her help to land a large school project in a black school district in upstate New York. In subsequent discussions, however, it became clear that he didn't want to share the design work. So Washington turned him down and decided to compete for the job with two other black-owned architect firms, each with 10 employees.
That joint venture was successful in getting work on eight schools. Washington designed a new school and four renovations, and has gone on to do more work for the school district. “Everyone is always trying to come up with the ‘A' team,” she says. “But I first try to figure out a way to do it on my own terms.”