Gail Sullivan FAIA and Marylee Mercy of Studio G Architects
In celebration of Pride Month, the BSA is featuring Profiles on LGBTQ+ architects in the profession.
Managing Principal Gail Sullivan FAIA builds sustainable communities through architecture and planning. Establishing Studio G Architects in 1991, she leads by example to demonstrate the power of public interest architecture. Gail proactively brings together a diverse team, now 64% women, 29% people of color, and 33% LGBTQIA+, delivering distinct perspectives to each project and shaping our communities into the richly diverse, equitable and inclusive places where people want to live.
With 15 years of experience in design and project management, Architect Marylee Mercy specializes in innovative design solutions, client relations, and team management. Bringing thoughtful attention to client needs, user-centric functionality, and cohesive design intent, she is committed to listening to all voices and delivering equitable and inclusive design.
Do you have any suggestions for how architecture and design professionals can be better allies for LGBTQ+ individuals in the industry?
GS: Visibility is important. I don’t remember ever seeing a BSA contingent at Pride Parade, for example, and the BSA can engage with LGBTQ+ organizations to build alliances.
Architects and designers can work on projects that address serious issues in the LGBTQ+ community. First, you need to learn about the issues and obstacles. For example, among youth facing homelessness, an extraordinary number are LGBTQ+, many kicked out of their homes. We were thrilled a few years ago to work with Y2Y Harvard Square to create the first shelter and service program in the Boston area specifically focused on the needs of LGBTQ+ young adults. To address some of the many design concerns, we engaged youth in design workshops, and they vetted the design. It was an incredible learning experience for all of us and there is much more to do!
MM: Hiring LGBTQ+ people at all levels, as well as women, minorities, and people with disabilities, and providing them with appropriate pay, ample time off, health insurance and retirement plans. Without actions to back them up, policies of inclusion are only words. The “About Us” page of a firm’s website should have a diverse set of faces, and upper management should be just as diverse as junior staff. This visibility is not only a way to attract a wider set of talented applicants but is something in which all employees can take great pride.
You have been a strong advocate for LGBTQ+ designers, what steps can firms make to create a more inclusive environment?
GS: Step One is to create a welcoming environment. It’s not enough to be an equal opportunity employer. Firm leadership needs to affirmatively reach into LGBTQ+ and other historically disadvantaged communities to seek employees, who must be greeted by truly welcoming environments: gender-neutral lavs are a no-brainer; employee handbooks need to be inclusive and welcoming; staff may need to be acculturated to language and behavior that is welcoming to non-binary individuals.
Early in my career I saw plenty of white gay men in leadership positions, but not lesbians, LGBTQ+ people of color, trans folks. We need a culture that welcomes all. And it needs to continue to support and welcome—so asking people what makes them feel supported is important, as is creating an internal community of support.
MM: A firm’s project types will always be secondary to cultivating a caring, conscientious, and kind group of colleagues. The people we work with daily have such an impact on our quality of life, especially our mental health. Diversity among staff members goes a long way toward making everyone feel comfortable, but ultimately it is the atmosphere created by warm, inclusive personalities which leads people to consider a firm their forever home.
When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
GS: I took over my brother’s building blocks when I was about 5 and built all kinds of structures, including a ski resort, which is odd because nobody in my family skied and I’d never seen one. I pored over women’s magazines showing modern houses with my best friend’s mother. I went to UMass Amherst which had no architecture program then and decided to transfer to the BAC, but my activism in the movement to end the Vietnam War and in the feminist movement led me to decide architecture would not advance social justice and peace, so I worked in non-profit activist groups. When Ronald Reagan became President and committed to withdrawing funds from the community organizations I was part of, I needed a way to survive. I walked into the BAC to pick up a catalog; before the door closed behind me I decided to go to architecture school.
MM: In college, I had nearly completed a degree in International Relations when I realized it was not right for me. I then experienced a bit of an identity crisis before deciding to transfer to an architecture program. It was one of those decisions that instantly felt right for me. Looking back on a childhood spent obsessed with building forts and sketching on graph paper (swiped from my engineer father’s desk), it should have been obvious all along where I truly belonged.
If you could give the you of 10 years ago advice, what would it be?
GS: I’ll say 20 years—Be yourself; be your full, unadulterated self. The people you care about and want to work with, the clients you want to collaborate with will come.
MM: If something isn’t working out despite your best efforts, don’t feel obligated to stick with it. The fallacy of sunken costs applies also to time, effort, and headspace. Life is too short to sacrifice joy for complacency.
Has your career taken you anywhere you didn’t expect?
GS: I was the person in studio who wasn’t interested in starting my own firm. I’d started several organizations and knew it was an enormous lift. I just wanted to design wonderful people-centered places. After a few years in a firm, I realized the only way I could design the ecological, social justice-oriented projects I envisioned, for the groups I wanted to work with was to start my own firm.
MM: When I began my study of architecture, I was primarily interested in housing, and specifically how our living spaces are transformed from empty rooms into a home. Over time, I have turned my interests more toward education, and the importance of the early experiences of childhood and youth, and how that translates, positively or negatively, into every aspect of our adult lives. In my work with schools, as well as personal friendships, I have seen how teachers are able to do so much with so little. Providing teachers and students with high-quality spaces built to last has been extremely rewarding.
Do you believe that architecture/design can save the world?
GS: Design alone—absolutely not! That notion harkens to the arrogance of Ayn Rand’s hero-architect. Values-based design that centers the needs of those least-served: communities of color, LGBTQ+ people, low income people, children and seniors—YES!
Design absolutely can contribute to a just, equitable and sustainable world. Collaborative design, in which we listen to those who are expert in what they need, and in which we consider how each project/each building can contribute positively to the community around it, can be transformative.
MM: Architecture is an interdisciplinary collaboration between technology, sustainability, art, and science. It is the ultimate STEAM profession. Through the sharing of resources and advancements people can become capable of undoing harm caused by previous generations. As an interdisciplinary field, architecture is in a key position to demonstrate how to accomplish this broad sharing of knowledge and ideas, and become a tool to ensure our future.
What does equity mean to you?
GS: Equity means parity not sameness; equal access to opportunities and resources; equal recognition and appreciation. For me justice is inherent in equity; they fit hand in hand.
MM: To me, equity goes far beyond fairness. It means not needing to ask for accommodations because accommodations are already integrated. It is widely acknowledged that asking for help is difficult, but rarely is this understanding applied to accessibility, social justice, or economic justice. Some people still have to ask for special accommodations to attend an event, take an exam, afford housing. We will have equity when everyone can experience life with the same degree of ease and privilege.
What do you see as the largest barrier to a zero-waste building, city, and world?
GS: The will. It is within the reach of our imaginations, reasonably close to within reach technically, and there are plenty of financial resources. What do we lack? The depth of commitment from political leaders, large corporations and the super-wealthy to commit the resources – intellectual, political, financial – to make it happen.
MM: As long as manufacturers continue to incorporate unnecessary materials into their products (including packaging and shipping), unnecessary waste will continue to be a problem. Waste reduction has been marketed toward consumers as something individuals need to do to reduce their carbon footprints. In reality, waste created by individuals is infinitesimal compared to the waste created by manufacturing and power grids. Corporations and lobbies must be held primarily accountable for getting us to the goal of zero-waste.
Whom do you most enjoy partnering with on a project?
GS: I’ve been lucky to have some wonderful collaborators on projects—clients, consultants and staff. I most appreciate clients with a big vision for us to respond to, who clearly articulate their programmatic needs and are open to varied design solutions. I love working closely with our landscape architects because the integration of interior and exterior places is fundamental in my design approach.
My favorite projects have been those that integrated multiple goals—programmatic, urban, social, environmental. It gives us so much to work with in shaping a design.
MM: I really enjoy working with people who are early on in their career path, people who are passionate and driven but may yet lack experience. I remember starting out in the field of architecture and feeling like every entry-level position required prior experience. Many people who lack decades of experience aren’t so constrained by traditional ways of thinking and are able to come up with creative interdisciplinary solutions that others may not see. I try to incorporate this into as many aspects of my life as I can, not just professionally but also in my personal life.
Where do you find inspiration?
GS: From the client’s vision and program, from nature, from great design projects around the world, from history, from geography. I think great design draws it all in.
MM: I enjoy looking for potential improvements. Daily life is full of so many tiny inconveniences, each one barely a blip in your experience, but they add up and cause stress and frustration, leaving us feeling exhausted at the end of the day. How can architecture remove these annoyances? How can we increase the peace of our surroundings? I imagine myself as a person moving through my projects and visualize how small changes can make a big difference in comfort. The precise placement of a wall may make the difference between always jostling at a pinch point, versus smoothly passing by. Well-designed architecture should facilitate our lives, and never hinder.
If you could redesign anything, what would it be?
GS: The Seaport District. It could have been a model of regenerative design—resilient in responding to climate change, restorative to Boston Harbor, and a new model of a welcoming and inclusive neighborhood.
MM: Pockets in women’s clothing! It isn’t enough for them to just exist as miniature versions of men’s pockets or flimsy little pouches sewn into a side seam as an afterthought. They need to be functional. I should be able to fit a wallet, car keys and a large smartphone in my pocket without the fabric sagging, without anything breaking or hurting me when I sit, and without creating strange bulges. I want the freedom to leave my house without carrying a bag.