Equity in Architecture
2020 has been an upheaval where the presence of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the ever growing climate crisis have seeped into every facet of society creating a tumultuous environment for any creative industry. In this context, it is more important than ever that we, as architects, are aware and do our part to encourage equity, equality, and justice. This means that everything from what we design to how we operate must be conscientious of all demographics, creeds, and backgrounds. The first step is to understand what exactly equality, equity, and justice mean and analyze the differences between them.
Equality is treating everyone the same. It aims to promote fairness, but it can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same help. A classic example of this giving two people identical ladders and expecting that they will be able to pick apples off a tree. Unfortunately, the tree is crooked and one of the ladders will not be high enough to reach the apples, which leaves one person empty handed.
Equity often appears unfair, but it actively moves everyone closer to success by understanding what individual people need. In the same apple picking scenario, the person who could not reach the apples is given a taller ladder.
Justice looks to fix the system by eliminating inequalities all together. Our apple pickers would fix the tree itself so both of them can reach the apples with identical ladders.
(image from paperpinecone.com)
But what does any of this mean for architecture? We need to be more inclusive when it comes to our design decisions and truly collaborate with the people who will be using these spaces. The architecture has to reflect the true needs of others; not just the stereotypical needs of an ‘office worker’ or a ‘homeowner’. An example of this is the reception desk TABC designed for SPLC (Senior Persons Living Connected) in Scarborough. The client needed to comply with the AODA - which addresses the needs of varying visitors to the space - so the barrier free countertop was developed. However, our design went further in two very important ways:
We did not simply add an accessible section or station, we made the entire desk accessible and the main place to receive service happens to be barrier free. In this way, we are not ‘Othering’ those with disabilities by sequestering them to one designated area: they can approach the reception counter like anyone else.
Secondly, we went beyond the guidelines and made the workplace behind the reception desk completely accessible. Now SPLC can adequately employ disabled persons instead of simply serving them. In this project we have provided equal opportunities to both SPLC’s patrons and their staff.
The SPLC reception desk was a wonderful learning opportunity for TABC. We had the pleasure of collaborating with Greg Papp; a member of the Standards Development Committee For the Built Environment. He showed us where we needed to grow as a firm and that a diverse collection of lived experiences and perspectives would benefit our work. This desk has been one of our most successful forays into equitable design because we tried to consider all parties, whether they be clients, employees, or future visitors.
Additionally, our experience taught us that equity is also affordability. Good design should not be reserved for those who can afford it, especially when it involves healthy living and environmental awareness. Green, sustainable options should be available at every price range. However, high construction costs discourage most property owners from adopting modern materials and technologies. This is why we have invested extensive time into reducing the cost of green design while also making it more. Our goal is to make green, healthy living an accessible reality to those who need it most.
True equity in architecture extends far beyond the realm of emerging green initiatives. The industry on the whole has always suffered from inequality with the majority of architects being straight white men. While this dynamic has improved over recent decades it is still pretty far from equal. As recently as 2018, the American Institute of Architects conducted a survey demonstrating that architects practising in the USA were 53% male, 47% female, 76% white and 90% heterosexual. It also showed a 32% gap between women graduating from architectural programs and those actually practising (check out http://eqxdesign.com/why-equity-in-architecture-matters). Perhaps the most important aspect for architectural equity is to keep learning and to always be conscious of current injustices in our field. Here in Toronto, the volunteer-run organization, BEAT (Building Equality in Architecture Toronto), have been prominent advocates for industry wide change. We recommend checking out their website at http://www.beatoronto.com/
(Image from metropolismag.com)
Betsy Williamson, the principal of Williamson Willamson, summarizes our collective responsibility when advocating for equity. In her Canadian Architect article, Pandemic Effect: Equity in Architecture Firms (Aug. 3, 2020) she underlines the point by explaining:
“Design excellence, diversity and equity must be achieved together, and each of us must contribute to our fullest—and have the tools and resources to do so.”
Just like our apple pickers every architect has different circumstances and true equity is impossible without a plethora of adaptive tools. Some people may need more support than others to reach the same levels of success. There is value in humility and respect which is something the architecture should continue to aim for.
In this spirit of continual growth,TABC has an opening for an experienced Senior Designer/Project Lead who shares our passion for green design and social innovation. To check out the current posting, go to tabc.ca/careers.