Can a label help or hinder business success? The obvious answer is that it depends on the message behind the label and what one ultimately hopes to gain from it. Such is the quandary that confronts many minority architectural firms that opt to certify themselves as minority-owned or disadvantaged business enterprises (MBE/DBE) to compete for public-sector contracts.

Illustration © Paul Blow

These well-known industry acronyms are the product of government regulations designed to help businesses owned by members of economically disadvantaged groups gain access to contracts funded with public dollars, such as education, transportation, and infrastructure projects. Businesses obtain actual certification at the state and local level by fulfilling specific qualifying criteria related to firm size, revenue, and the ethnic background or gender of the owners.

Black architects such as Roland Wiley, AIA, managing partner of RAW International, a DBE-certified firm in Los Angeles, have expressed unease with the negative perception he believes such labeling can promote about the quality and capability of black firms. Yet, as he takes note of the dearth of major projects designed by black architects in Los Angeles and most large urban centers, he acknowledges the value certification can provide.

“In reality, yes, we are disadvantaged because of our lack of access to social and financial opportunities,” Wiley says. “But on the other hand, you don’t want to perceive yourself as disadvantaged or being ‘less than.’

” Wiley, who estimates 10 to 15 percent of his firm’s revenue comes from public-sector contracts, says there can be significant financial benefits to taking advantage of certification programs, particularly for up-and-coming firms.

“Notwithstanding the current economic times and the scarcity of projects,” he notes, “we are still at the bottom of the ladder in terms of access to opportunity, so you still need those kinds of programs to ensure some level of participation from qualified, and potentially great, architects.”

Wiley’s conflicted reaction reflects the ongoing challenge for many minority-owned architectural firms; while more plentiful in number than they were decades ago, they can still find opportunities to design major projects difficult to come by. This reality is further buttressed by limitations created by a lack of access to well-established social and professional networks that determine who gets work, as well as perceptions about race and gender that influence which firms or architects clients choose to hire. It is these persistent challenges that certification, in its spirit, has attempted to address by aiming to achieve the lofty goal of “leveling the playing field.”

Sanford Garner, AIA, a partner in the Indianapolis-based, minority-owned firm A2SO4, believes there are advantages and disadvantages to being a certified minority firm, but the benefits mostly depend on how firms go about it.

“With anything, if you manage it well, there can be huge advantages,” Garner said. “What a certification status could do is give you the opportunity to interact with other companies on larger projects — different types of projects — that you more than likely may not have the chance to participate in.”

Garner argues that firms that team on projects must be concerned about being labeled or marginalized as “just minority firms” that can fulfill a required small percentage on a contract but are not selected for the quality of their work or reputation.

A2SO4 has turned down teaming opportunities with majority firms that merely needed a minority presence in order to bid on a project. In those situations, the firm’s response to such offers has always been “ ‘No, thank you,’ ” Garner says. “Because if I do that, I am perpetuating a stereotype.”

To avoid allowing “minority status” to define its firm, RAW International uses its DBE certification as a valued-added service rather than directly promoting it to secure work. Wiley says it is about letting the quality of your firm’s work speak for itself.

“We will use the wow factor: the quality of work, our client list, the size of work, how long we’ve been in business. We go through all those bells and whistles about how great we are and then at the bottom is: By the way, we are DBE certified.”

David Kirk, AIA, founder and principal architect of DNK Architects, in Cincinnati, cautions against another pitfall firms should avoid: overdependence on certification programs to get work, which he says can stifle growth. “Often firms that continue to market themselves as MBEs or DBEs tend not to grow because you can’t build a business off a percentage of a project,” he notes.

Perhaps it is the potential for even those small percentages of work, among other things, that led some black architects to regard minority certification as, at best, a necessary evil. Lingering barriers to access and opportunities in the architectural profession mean that certification programs are still needed, they believe, in the contemporary marketplace.

Wiley says there is clearly a larger handful of black-owned firms that exist today, but it is still not nearly enough, so certification programs continue to have a place in 21st-century architectural practice.

“The playing field isn’t level,” Wiley says. “Yes, we have a black president, but the playing field isn’t level.”

Kirk, who boasts of having a highly capable and talented 24-year-old firm that can compete against anybody, says he wishes there weren’t still a need for certification programs, but that some aspects of the U.S. culture have been slow to change.

“Certification is something that’s been imposed upon us because culture in this country just hasn’t caught up to where it should be,” says Kirk. “So the only way to even out the playing field is to have this mechanism in place.”

But it is important to recognize that this mechanism, whatever its value and application, is also by no means one that all minority firms are compelled to use or rely on. Kirk, for example, asserts that there are many times that being a minority firm — certified or not — can have its own advantages strictly because of the design perspective and experience such firms can bring to the table, which was the case in two projects completed by his firm.

The first project involved developing a $1 billion master plan for the Cincinnati Public School District in 2002. His second commission, the $100 million Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, involved designing a facility for a major health-care client in a predominantly African-American community. In both instances, DNK’s presence, experience, and history in the urban community proved to be an asset for the clients.

“We understood the community and could address community concerns in a way that I’m sure other, non-African-American firms would not have been able to do,” Kirk said.