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Double Whammy

Would there be more women in architecture if there were more women in development?

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.
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.

It was a brownfield site, an old car dealership in New Orleans’s Warehouse District. Five years ago, Angela O’Byrne, AIA, envisioned something more there: a mixed-use, 10-story, carbon-neutral redevelopment, the first of its kind in the city.

She would develop as well as design the project, she decided. Taking on both roles made sense. After all, O’Byrne, president of Perez, a New Orleans–based architectural and engineering firm, had earned a master’s in real-estate development at Columbia University and, decades earlier, had developed smaller projects. She also had $1 million in cash as collateral.

Her architectural, business, and civic bona fides were clear. A past president of AIA New Orleans and founder of the nonprofit City-Works, she was one of the most successful and recognized architects in the city, a Hispanic woman in a profession with no shortage of white men.

Still, the banks weren’t inclined to lend her $40 million for the project, and so she began wooing more established developers, almost all of whom happened to be men. She hit the golf course with one prospect. With another, who had especially good connections in the banking world, she went on an overnight fishing trip. She was the only woman in the group of five—“I didn’t even know how to fish,” she recalls.

O’Byrne caught the biggest fish (“they were all delighted”), but not the bank loan, despite two years of due diligence. Someone else closed on the property. She is quick to note that her development experience may have been too dated, that she probably hadn’t networked long or hard enough with key players. “I had not spent enough time building that network, and then I walked in and wanted to do a [big] deal,” she says.

Still, she couldn’t help but wonder: Had she lost out because she was a woman?

The Gender Imbalance
Architecture is a man’s game. Only 16 percent of the AIA’s membership is female. Forty-nine percent of architecture students and 39 percent of interns are women, but just 17 percent are firm principals and partners, according to a 2012 AIA survey of 2,805 member firms. For some reason, while they’re ascending the architectural career ladder, thousands of women hit a glass ceiling, leave the profession, or get pushed out.

Real-estate development suffers from a similar gender imbalance, as O’Byrne discovered firsthand. According to the Commercial Real Estate Women network (CREW), just 30 percent of all development professionals are women. In fact, developers account for only about 4 percent of CREW’s 8,000 (mostly female) members around the country and are far outnumbered by lawyers, brokers, and property managers.

Both architecture and development lag behind law, medicine, and accounting in the percentage of women represented in each profession, according to research by Catalyst, a nonprofit that promotes women in business.

There are, of course, prominent women-led architecture firms—including those headed by Julie Snow, FAIA; Andrea Leers, FAIA, and Jane Weinzapfel, FAIA; and Ann Beha, FAIA—all of which have been celebrated for their award-winning cultural and education projects. Yet women architects have had a much harder time landing developers as clients, with Jeanne Gang, FAIA, and her Aqua Tower project in Chicago a notable exception.

Architecture and development are tied together in a close and sometimes uneasy symbiosis. Architects complain that they’ve ceded the role of master-builder to developers, yet depend on them for work. For developers, the architect is only one performer (albeit a key one) amid a host of contractors. But smart developers know that hiring the right architect can make a project, just as hiring the wrong one can doom it.

Many studies over the years have investigated the gender imbalance in architecture, but few have explored the potential connections with the male-dominated world of development. Does the prevalence of male developers help perpetuate—subtly or indirectly—the lack of woman architects? Why aren’t there more projects led by women developers and women architects? Could greater inclusion of women within real-estate development, just maybe, foster a more inclusive architecture?

The Rarest Of Species
As a journalist who has covered architectural practice for several years, I’ve come across only a handful of women who have been the principal architects on developer projects. It’s a stereotype that women architects gravitate toward interiors and custom home design, yet there is also some truth to it, in part because women are often subtly—and not-so-subtly—steered into those specializations.

Bay Area architect Anne Fougeron, FAIA, is, like Gang, one of the few exceptions. Fougeron, who founded her own practice in 1986, recently designed a condo-and-retail project in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley for DM Development, headed by Danielle Dignan and Mark McDonald—a project that makes Fougeron that rarest of species: a woman architect who has designed a project for a woman developer. (At press time, the project—called Wavehouse, a joint venture between DM Development and a New York City development firm called DDG Partners—was in CDs.)

Wavehouse was Dignan’s first experience working with a female architect as the design lead. She describes Fougeron’s architecture as “forward-thinking” and “cutting-edge,” and says, “Regardless of whether she was a man or a woman, I would have hired her in a heartbeat.”

But she adds, “It’s impossible to separate that completely. Here’s this fantastic architect doing the exact kind of work we want to do. For me, it’s a huge bonus that she’s a woman.”

Indeed, Dignan clearly grasps the social significance of her collaboration with Fougeron. “I’m glad my daughter gets to see me as the head of a company. If she were a little older, I’d be proud for her to understand what Anne has done, and what we collaborated on. I think role modeling is incredibly important [for young women].”

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.

There’s also the question of the glass ceiling that women face in development. Studies by CREW do report increased gender diversification at real-estate companies, including in development roles. The growing number of women graduates from Master of Real Estate Development (MRED) programs is creating an important pipeline: 30 percent of current MRED students at Columbia University, for example, are women.

But women still are having a difficult time moving up the ladder, much like their counterparts at architecture firms. According to a 2010 CREW study, women are well represented in junior level development positions, but become scarcer with each step up the pay scale, representing just 9 percent of C-level employees. Women rarely rise to senior executive positions at large real-estate firms—making it difficult for them to gain the experience necessary to strike out on their own.

Fixing The “Diversity Problem”
If women aren’t becoming decision-makers and equity-holders, they can’t act as influential mentors. If women entrepreneurs struggle to get financing—whether for a business or a building—they’re less likely to strike out on their own as architects or developers, and those who do so could be more vulnerable to market fluctuations.

Some of the giants of commercial real estate, such as Forest City Enterprises, have gone public about trying to fix their “diversity problem” by redoubling their recruiting efforts and promoting networking opportunities and workshops that can help recruits make important connections.

Assuming that the development industry can make progress in retaining and promoting mid-career women—a big if—today’s pipeline of aspiring female developers could grow and gain better access to capital than ever before. That’s good news for women architects. Even if these new developers are largely gender-blind when hiring architects, their arrival would be a wake-up call for design-firm leaders: Retain and promote women designers, or risk losing out to the competition.

People often feel more comfortable working with others who are like them, notes Rena Klein, FAIA, a management consultant to architects. “Part of the business case for gender diversity in [architecture] firms is that we are going to be seeing more diversity among our clients.”

In New Orleans, Angela O’Byrne isn’t waiting for that to happen. Still eager to develop her own projects, she’s trying again—with one difference. She has hired a male developer with 30 years of experience. “We’re going to hatch all sorts of plans,” she says. “I figure he will get the financing more easily than I will. He’ll be the face of the project.”