Building a Diverse Future in Architecture

Mdumuka, Kav
Mar 28, 2024

By: Kav Mdumuka, Technical Designer

When I was an architectural graduate student at the University of Minnesota in 2015, I taught a design fundamentals class. 

Looking out into the classroom, I was pleased to see quite a diverse mix of students sitting in the seats. They were eager to become the next future of architecture.  

But by the time graduation came around a few years later, I noticed the class composition had changed. 

The diversity had diminished. 

Now as a Technical Designer on Ryan’s Architecture + Engineering team, I serve on numerous committees to further the diversity conversation within the architectural industry, including:

  • AIA Minnesota: Equity in the Built Environment committee
  • National AIA: Equity and Future Architects
  • Associate Director: AIA Minneapolis Board
  • Member: National Organization of Minority Architects
  • Ryan Diversity Scholarship Committee

My participation in these national committees has opened my eyes even wider to the hurdles we face in the architectural industry, and the ways in which we can work together to help move the needle forward when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Here’s why I believe it is vital to help build better buildings and support the communities where we live and work—and how we can help continue to create those buildings across the architectural industry.

Go beyond “checking the box.” 

Diversity and inclusion can't just be a percentage to meet or a box to be checked. Companies frequently state things like, "We've met our diversity goal because we have 13% of women working here." But it’s important to break down those numbers:

  • What does that 13% actually mean?
  • How many of them are leaders?
  • How many of them have manager roles?
  • Who are they managing? It goes way beyond a percentage.”

A company can check the box, sure. But a year later, are they still at that same percentage? Or did those employees leave because they were unheard and unnoticed? 

Going beyond checking the box centers around engagement. It’s interacting with team members. It’s hearing every voice in a meeting. It’s asking, “What are your thoughts?” It’s saying “hi.”

It’s valuing people for who they are, as they are.

Understand the importance of diverse thought.

Not only can a diverse team accurately reflect our world, but it helps create environments where all people can thrive. People want to walk into spaces where they feel seen because their life and background were considered—and that consideration is evident—within the building. 

For example, our team recently worked on a project that required a prayer room that faces to the east to best meet the needs of employees using the building. By having a diverse team who can ask the right questions and bring this perspective up in meetings, we are being mindful and inclusive, as well as efficient because the design element was included in an early part of the process, rather than an afterthought.

Recognize that diversity goes beyond race or gender.

Diversity also encompasses much more such as cultural, social, and economic backgrounds. How did one grow up? Did they come from a single income family? Or from generational wealth? What about cultural background? What are their values, norms, or way of being that they bring to the table?

We can say we are going to be a diverse team and place people with different race and gender on the same committee…but if those team members all grew up under the roof of a two-income household and similar cultural background, we are not bringing as widely diverse of thought. We must look at diversity from all angles and infuse varying perspectives.

Combat industry’s key barriers. 

A current barrier in architecture is representation—especially when it comes to the pipeline feeding the career path. As I witnessed during graduate school, the makeup of students is still less than diverse, which is why we must go to the source: high schools and colleges. Professionals in other career paths—engineers, doctors, the trades, etc.—often come in and speak to students and promote their career paths. We need to show up and accurately represent our industry, as well.

Economic challenges are another barrier that students face, whether it’s due to a low-income history, unemployment, life crisis, etc. The inability to pay for schooling can create a hurdle that halts students from continuing their architectural education: a traditionally longer program than other areas of study. 

Scholarships are one solution to help combat this barrier. For the past five years at Ryan, we have offered the Ryan A+E Diversity Scholarship to six college students in their final year of college. Valued at $5,000, the scholarship is intended for diverse students pursuing architecture, interior design, or civil and landscape architecture at schools located within the communities Ryan serves across the country. 

Participate in industry-wide conversations.

All it takes is a willingness to join the conversation in order to add to it. Take the National Organization of Minority Architects, for example. Show your support by hosting one of their annual meetings. Invite the organization to your place of work. Give a tour of the space. The best way to show support is to act.

Vocalize support of colleagues. 

When it comes to involvement in diversity-focused efforts while working at Ryan, I have always felt immense support from leadership and colleagues. Because of such open support and encouragement, I feel validated to continue my efforts without fear of consequences. Rather, I have immense confidence that my colleagues willingly will support me as I attend conferences and committee meetings, even encouraging me to bring the information back to the team to grow. 

To prevent the dissolving of diversity within architecture, the architectural industry must continue to analyze the reasons why—and commit to continuous action by welcoming diverse thoughts.

It starts and ends with those who are passionate about making change. By taking intentional steps to deepen the conversation, invite others in and widen our perspective, the architecture profession can continue to grow alongside the world while also reflecting an accurate picture of our world, the buildings we build and the communities we serve.

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