• Danielle Dignan (left) of DM Development and Anne Fougeron of Fougeron Architecture are an industry rarity: a woman developer and woman architect who are collaborating on a project—a condo-and-retail development in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley.

    Credit: Noah Kalina

    Danielle Dignan (left) of DM Development and Anne Fougeron of Fougeron Architecture are an industry rarity: a woman developer and woman architect who are collaborating on a project—a condo-and-retail development in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley.

Social significance aside, such collaborations may also lead to better design work, says Romy Goldman, the founder of Gold Development in New York. Goldman bought land for her first building, in Harlem, in 2005, after a stint consulting for another New York developer and several years at a design/build company in San Francisco, where she ran four projects at a time as a project manager. Her second project at Gold Development was 48 Bond Street, designed by Deborah Berke, FAIA. (The project architect was a woman, too—Chika Yamada of GF55 Associates.)

The idea that women design and respond to spaces differently—that a “feminine architecture” exists, or ought to—remains controversial and difficult to quantify. But Goldman argues that women, because of the attention they tend to give to details that make a place more livable, can make a qualitative difference on a project. Real-estate decisions often come down to stark math: How many units can we fit into this footprint? If there were more women in real estate, “I’m sure we’d have nicer product,” Goldman says. For instance, all the bathrooms at 48 Bond have linen closets, which she regards as a selling point; to a male developer, they might seem like wasted square footage.

Yet significant barriers remain for most architects, not to mention women architects, who attempt to land developer projects, says Audrey Matlock, AIA. Matlock designed the Chelsea Modern, an 85,000-square-foot condo building that opened in Manhattan in 2008, for developer client Madison Equities, and also designed the recently sold-out boutique condo at 57 Irving Place, developed by Robert Gladstone. To compete for such work, architects usually need experience designing at the requisite scale. “I believe it’s very difficult to make that hurdle into doing larger projects,” Matlock says of young architects. “Where do you learn to do them?”

Matlock learned at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). During her seven-year tenure at the firm, she also helped with hiring for the design department and made a special effort to recruit female talent. It was tough. “When I’d find someone really good, they wouldn’t accept a job,” she says. “They saw a big male bureaucracy, and wanted to go somewhere where they’d have more autonomy.” Women who shun male-dominated corporate firms, she says, may be inadvertently making it more difficult for themselves to gain the experience they need for developer projects.

That is, if a woman architect is inclined to pursue such projects in the first place. Working for a developer client can entail higher risk than designing for, say, a university or a local government. As the recent recession made clear, when financial markets plunge (or level off), construction financing freezes up, and so can an architect’s work. A developer might ask an architect to do preliminary studies for a deal under consideration. Sometimes such work is paid, but sometimes it’s not, on the assumption that the architect will be hired if and when a deal is made. The prevalence of spec work, plus higher exposure to the fluctuations of the market, could make developer projects less appealing to designers with certain personality types or personal circumstances—having a young family to support, for instance.

Plenty of critics may question gender-based paradigms, but a number of academic studies have found that women are, on the whole, more risk-averse than men. (One commonly cited study with that finding, “Gender Differences in Risk Taking,” was published in 1999 in Psychological Bulletin.) Development work may favor “certain personalities” better than others, as Romy Goldman puts it. “[You’re] on a jobsite with all men; it’s dirty; you’re not dealing with a formal environment. You have to be very comfortable with risk and the unknown, because that’s what it is on a daily basis,” she says. Danielle Dignan, for instance, notes that she has always been drawn to high-risk, high-reward pursuits: As a licensed Coast Guard captain, she used to race boats in San Francisco Bay. And though she’s hesitant to suggest a correlation, she can’t help but wonder if some women are put off by the risk inherent in development.

More important may be the question of access to capital. Abby Hamlin, president of Hamlin Ventures in New York, argues that there’s a stubborn cultural bias against lending women money to build, on the assumption that it’s “not what women do.” There’s evidence to back up the assertion that women have a harder time securing financing. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City–based nonprofit that supports entrepreneurship, released a study this year titled “A Rising Tide,” which was based on a nationwide survey. The study found that men who started businesses raised, on average, about 80 percent more capital in their first year than women did, and were more willing or more able to raise funding from external sources.