Why do it?
Most women interviewed who decided to go it alone wanted a practice where they made the design decisions, period. Suman Sorg, FAIA, who has a 40-person office, Sorg and Associates, in Washington, D.C., says, “I was obsessive, an achiever, and felt I could do it better. Also, I wanted the freedom.” Anne Fougeron, AIA, with a nine-person firm, Fougeron Architecture, based in San Francisco, says, “I want to prove a point about being a female architect with her own office.” Some of the women who had male partners for brief stints, often when starting out, agree with Page Ayres Cowley, AIA, whose 11-person New York practice specializes in preservation: “Partnerships don’t work out if you have different expectations about the time and income it takes to run your own business.” Ann Beha, FAIA, who owns a 30-person, Boston-based firm, finds her partner of 20 years, Pamela Hawkes, FAIA, integral to her design and renovation practice.

Photo © Albert Vecerka/Esto
Above: Katherine McGraw Berry, AIA, House in Tivoli, Tivoli, N.Y., 2000

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Many of the women came out of architecture school just after the 1970s, and did it just because it seemed possible. Others backed into having their own offices by taking on small jobs, sometimes when moonlighting while employed by large offices. Women raising children argue that owning their own firms has given them more flexibility with their time, since it was hard to stay competitive in larger firms while tending to a family (even with helpful husbands).

Katherine McGraw Berry, AIA, who started her own one-person office in New York in 1985 when she had twin boys, came from Kohn Pedersen Fox. But she found the flexibility of her practice meant it stayed small. Heather McKinney, AIA, of Austin, Texas, observes, “By the time children are old enough, the female practitioner may not have enough experience in the variety of building types—especially complex ones—needed for a large practice.” About 40 percent of the women interviewed have had children. As Beha, who raised two children, says, “It’s just one more hard thing to do.”

Most women in this sample come from the generation of women educated in the late 1970s and 1980s, and have been in business for themselves about 10 to 20 years. The size of the offices ranges from one to 40, with a number in the 20-to-30-person range. Most offices, however, average eight to 16 architects and designers. One architect, Sophia Gruzdys, AIA, who spent her formative years in a large office—at Pei Cobb Freed—where she says principal Harry Cobb “was instrumental in my development,” has a one-woman office in New York. Now director of undergraduate studies in the architecture major of Yale College, Gruzdys explains, “I don’t want to work for someone where I have no control.” But freedom has its price: To maintain her solvent, solo status, Gruzdys, who opened up her office in 1988, has taken some architectural jobs she was not that crazy about.

Gisue and Mojgan Hariri, two sisters who have practiced together since 1986, got the idea to join forces after visiting the houses of Greene & Greene in Pasadena, California. “If two brothers could do it, we thought we should give it a try,” says Gisue Hariri. Robin Elmslie Osler grew up in an architectural environment—her father, David Osler, had his own firm, and her great uncle, George Elmslie, was a partner in the Prairie School firm of Purcell & Elmslie, in Minneapolis. Although Osler came to architecture after a career as a fashion model, the early exposure to construction sites with her father convinced her to go to Yale’s architecture school, where she graduated in 1990. Osler opened her New York office, EOA/Elmslie Osler Architects, in 1996; it now numbers eight people. Not surprisingly, contacts in the fashion business have generated a number of commissions—although one of the earliest, the offices for DNA Model Management, actually came through architect Richard Gluckman, FAIA.

Getting clients

The time-worn method of depending on referrals operates for women, many of whom met clients while working in others’ offices. Some took a more aggressive tack. Wendy Evans Joseph, FAIA, started up her six-person office in 1996, when she designed a pedestrian bridge at Rockefeller University in New York City. One night at a dinner party, the president of the research university had described the economic problem of building the bridge to her. Joseph, who had worked on large commissions, such as the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., while she was at Pei Cobb Freed, submitted an unsolicited proposal, using engineering consultants plus Columbia students working on her dining room table. She got the job.

Andrea Leers, FAIA, and Jane Weinzapfel, FAIA, who opened their Boston-based, 22-person practice in 1982, specialized in infrastructural and technical work, such as the Operations Control Center for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, from the start—and still do. “We have had a slow, steady growth with low budget, low visibility projects, which insulated us from economic boom-and-bust cycles,” said Leers. It also has meant that the gender question has been less of an issue, since public-sector programs encourage minority involvement. Karen Bausman AIA, notes that New York City is trying to include women-only architecture firms in its commissions. Both she and Beyhan Karahan, AIA, each with 11-person and 15-person firms, respectively, in the city, are on the list of architects for New York’s design excellence program in its Department of Design and Construction.

One major change that female architects have noticed over the past 20 to 30 years is the increase in women as clients, especially in cultural, institutional, and public-sector work. Leers has noticed, that “being women means we appeal to clients who are risk takers.” But Gisue Hariri notes about selection committees, “If no women are among the listmakers, then no women get on the list.” For her part, Diane Lewis, AIA, who maintains a New York City firm that ranges from one to 11 architects, says, “I attract a special client—one with a particularly intellectual and artistic bent.” Her projects include art galleries, and currently a charter school, and a loft for Mark Wigley, dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Planning and Preservation and his wife, Beatriz Colomina, Princeton architectural historian and theorist.