As one of the world’s most revered practices, SOM doesn't do things by halves.
At last year’s COP26, the practice unveiled its Urban Sequoia project that proposes rethinking cities as carbon absorbing buildings and infrastructures.
Thinking big has always been part of its DNA but the impact of the pandemic has changed everything, admits Julia Skeete, Architect and Senior Associate Principal.
“We’ve had MeToo and Black Lives Matter but it all felt a bit singular. It wasn’t just gender and it wasn’t just one event, it was a number of issues - from health to racial injustice - and we needed to tackle things altogether.”
She runs through a dizzying number of committees and initiatives launched since March 2020, from the Robert L. Wesley Award, a bursary and mentoring programme for BIPOC students set up by the SOM Foundation in the wake of George Floyd’s death, to the Women’s Initiative, an employee advocacy group, and TEDD not of Talks fame, but SOM’s Talent, Equity, Diversity, and Development team of leaders, who focus on how to build equitable opportunities within the firm and beyond.
And clearly something is working.
Since 2020, SOM’s Executive Committee has been made up of three female partners. This is quite an achievement for a practice that, like many firms, has struggled with gender equity for decades. Yet, as she admits, the stats also reveal a high attrition rate among female staff.
When Skeete joined SOM in 1999 there were more female leaders than there are now, she says. But this is “an industry issue and not specific to SOM”, which the practice has tried to tackle by recruiting more women college students, and hosting mentorship and educational programs in schools.
“We need to be letting girls know that architecture is an option for them to advance through their careers in what’s perceived to be not only a very male dominated career but white male dominated”.
The number of Black women architects in the profession is still “shockingly low,” Skeete says, a problem she blames not just on discriminatory barriers but the “bullish culture” of practice where women have to be more assertive to progress up the ranks.
“In that first year or two of work, it’s very common for women in architecture to see the long hours culture, the way they have to present and the way they have to assert themselves, and to choose other options. When I first got to SOM I was told ‘Julia, we’re looking for someone who is going to lead’.
SOM got its wish.
Skeete is now heading up the Equity Lab, an internal initiative, she says, that is long overdue. “Equitable design is five years at least behind sustainability and hasn't got the same certifications programs as climate issues.”
“It’s about everything from how we use the assets we have to how you have to tell a developer that an amenity they are putting in is not just for the end user, it’s for the community. And it is also about understanding the community.
“What we’re trying to do is establish an approach and plan that’s scalable, so SOM is accountable to equity--just as it is to climate issues--and then make it work within the different scales of projects we do.
“And we want to lead on this. This not just a box for us to tick or a metric – this is us committing to making real changes to the way we approach designing with our communities”.
The pandemic may have prompted SOM’s leaders to think differently but it has not changed its mission to think big.
Julia Skeete (pictured left) is judging this year's Activism Award. SOM is supporting the Activism Award alongside Buro Happold.
The Activism Award is free to enter. The closing date is August 25th.