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Local female architects share keys to success

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Columbia is home to a plethora of talented architects at both established and up-and-coming firms, and many of those companies share a common characteristic: They feature award-winning women in leadership positions. The Columbia Regional Business Report asked five of those women to share key elements of their success.

Asheley Scott St. John, owner and president of 1x1 Design, is the 2019 winner of the American Institute of Architects Young Architects award. She holds architectural registration in 10 states and serves as president of the board of trustees of the Clemson Architectural Foundation.

Scott St. John (Photo/Provided)St. John founded 1x1 Design while struggling to emerge from the 2008 recession, the event she said had the biggest impact on her burgeoning career. She said the economic crash put things “into brutal perspective” and helped her prioritize what she loves about her job.

“I learned a great deal about business, finances and what made me get out of bed in the morning,” she said. “While I certainly don’t want to repeat that time period, it was a great opportunity to ‘check’ myself and learn what we can and can’t control in our professional lives.”

St. John said she enjoys “being able to translate ideas from one’s head (that no one else can see) into drawings that can be built and understood.” She said an aspiring architect should “figure out what piece of the architecture profession makes you the happiest, and then find a way to do it. … Architecture is a very broad discipline with many areas of focus and specialization. … Figure out what piece of the profession is the most fulfilling and hang on.”

St. John said the best thing about her job is the nonstop learning: “Every time I think I know what I need to know about a code, it changes.”

St. John said that while her career has had both good and bad moments, the bad have rarely stemmed from being a woman in a male-dominated field. “Do I have difficult days? Absolutely! Do I have incredible days? Absolutely!” she said. “I’m thankful to the many hard-working women who have come before me, because very, very rarely have I ever had to say that the ups or downs have been directly related to being a female.”

Lorraine White has been a project architect in Pond’s Columbia office for three years and was appointed to the board of directors for the American Institute of Architects Greater Columbia Section in March. She has recently worked on the S.C. Air National Guard’s $7.5 million operations and training facility at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, among other projects.

White (Photo/Provided)Introduced to drawing perspectives in seventh-grade art class, White said architecture is a perfect fit for her because it  “allows me to use different parts of my brain on a daily basis. I get to use my creative side when designing a new building and my Type A/organized side when preparing a schedule or for a meeting.”

White advises new architects to do as many different things as possible, from taking minutes in meetings to visiting construction sites, and to become involved in their communities because “design should not happen in a bubble.”

White said being a female architect can present challenges, including a lack of role models and women in industry leadership roles. For the first time in her 16-year career, she said, she is currently working with a female construction project superintendent.

“I am frequently the only woman on site,” she said. “You can feel the stares as you walk around. … The long hours, travel, and a heavily male-dominated field don’t make it easy. However, I’ve been fortunate to work for people that have never made me feel ‘other’ for being a woman and have allowed me the flexibility to try to attain the elusive work/life balance that I feel all women strive for.”

White said the best thing about her job is seeing her ideas come to life. “I remember the first thing I drew that a contractor built: It was a simple handicap ramp addition to an existing building, but the image of that ramp is burned forever into my mind because someone was able to take what I drew and make it real,” she said.

Gretchen Lambert is vice president of Studio 2LR and has served on the Columbia Empowerment Zone board of directors. Lambert formed Studio 2LR along with president Wes Lyles and fellow vice president Tripp Riley in 2015. The studio’s numerous honors include a pair of 2018 Historic Preservation awards from Historic Columbia.

Lambert (Photo/Provided)“When my partners and I started Studio 2LR, we didn’t have a single client or project.  We had to create everything from scratch — marketing, contracts, interviews, design, accounting, etc.,” Lambert said. “The research and energy that went into that time period had a huge impact.  You can learn and accomplish a great deal when you throw yourself into the fire.”

Lambert said she is “extremely interested” in the business side of architecture and development, and encourages anyone thinking of pursuing an architecture degree to minor in business: “Business knowledge can never hurt you — it can only help you,” she said. “Also get experience working construction, even if it is through a volunteer organization such as Habitat for Humanity. Until you really work with the materials that you will be designing with and see what it takes to put them together, you don’t have the fullest appreciation for what you design and detail.”

Navigating a male-dominated field can be tricky at times, Lambert said.    

“There are definitely effects, and it depends on your personality as to how they may affect you,” she said. “You may be the only female architectural staff member in your office. You may be a company owner but are mistaken for an administrative assistant. … You are often forced to navigate other people’s biases and tendencies while still performing your professional role.”

Heather Mitchell is president of The Boudreaux Group. Among other projects, the firm transformed three vacant buildings at the corner of Sumter and Taylor streets into Hotel Trundle, winning the inaugural People’s Choice award in the annual Columbia American Institute of Architects design awards.

Mitchell (Photo/Provided)Mitchell credited her husband for bringing her to Columbia in 1995 as he began doctorate work at USC, and for supporting and sacrificing for her career since. “I also thank John Boudreaux, who founded our firm, hired me right out of graduate school, gave me tremendous opportunity and ultimately entrusted me to lead our firm into its next generation,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell, who loved art classes in high school as much as math and science, visited architecture offices with her dad and learned about what the job entails.

“Architecture is both creative design and functional problem solving,” she said. “It is team-oriented, collaborative and highly rewarding.”

Mitchell advises young architects to ask lots of questions and to build their public speaking skills and encourages community involvement to broaden perspectives and understanding.

The best thing about her job, Mitchell said, is “the variety and ongoing creative challenge that comes from exploring the unique aspects of each client and project. I am always fascinated to learn a company’s mission and processes, to walk a new site, to research a historic building, to visit a new city or campus, or to experience a church’s style of worship.”

Mitchell said she is grateful women who blazed trails in her field so that she has experienced “virtually none” of the discrimination they may have faced.

“I have always thought of myself as just an architect rather than as a woman architect,” she said. “I believe in working as hard as possible and in being prepared and confident.”

Adriane McGillis, a project architect at Stevens & Wilkinson since 2001, became a senior associate at the firm in February. Recently named president of the American Institute of Architects’ Columbia chapter, McGillis has worked on projects including the University of South Carolina’s Center for Innovation.

McGillis (Photo/Provided)McGillis said one of the most fulfilling moments of her career was achieving licensure, a process that requires time and commitment.

“Licensure means a college degree from an accredited university — five years minimum, three years’ worth of qualified work experience under the direction of a licensed architect and then passing a series of licensure exams,” she said. “Obtaining your architectural license opens many doors for you in this field, especially for women and persons of color.”

The problem-solving involved in architecture appealed to McGillis, who enjoys making spaces efficient yet beautiful at the same time. She also takes pride in walking a construction site and “watching the steel and concrete rise from the earth to create a space that wasn’t there before,” she said.

McGillis said that while both men and women are equally qualified for the creative and technical work of being an architect, she brings to her work a perspective that is “colored by my viewpoint as a woman. And studies show that design teams and businesses which are more diverse are more innovative.”

Young architects should involve themselves in their communities and “take in everything,” McGillis said. “Architects are the great generalists. Study archaeology, history, art, music, read — you never know where inspiration will come from.”

This article first appeared in the April 8 print edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report. 

Contact Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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