Sara Kudra AIA
Affordable Housing Director, DREAM Collaborative
B. Arch, RISD
Multi-family housing, Passive House, Zero Embodied Carbon
I’ve been interested in architecture from a very young age. I grew up in a passive solar house that my parents built from plans they modified from Home Magazine, using Ed Mazra’s Passive Solar Energy Book as their guide. We were always talking about buildings, and how they performed. Not only was our home sun-filled and draft-free, but we got a fraction of the oil deliveries compared to our neighbors. This combination of beauty and engineering drew me in; which other field allows you to make a work of art that you can inhabit?
You’ll get there. I remember taking courses for mid-career professionals about how to pare down workload to the highest and best use of your time, thinking that I wanted MORE work and responsibility. It takes time for colleagues to get to know what you are capable of. It is important to advocate for yourself along the way, but really, it just takes time.
I want to improve the quality of our built world for all people to ensure that design is equitable and accessible. I am searching for the right scale and density of human settlement so that we can live in symbiosis with all species and the planet and make the most of how we use finite natural resources like energy and water. To pursue this dream, I’m currently thinking about designing dense urban-infill projects with low embodied carbon and improving the green spaces we touch.
To me, equity in design is the availability and opportunity for every person to have access to high-quality healthy spaces and green spaces. Equity means that life and health outcomes are not limited or unduly influenced by the place that someone lives. Instead, the spaces where we live, learn, and work—and travel to—are all enriching, beautiful, and invigorating environments.
Barriers to equity in architecture are vast and it’s hard to pick one as the most significant as it is truly a complex challenge. The lack of professionals who are BIPOC, or who identify as women, is an omnipresent challenge. If you do not see professionals that reflect your identity within a field, you perceive there is no career path for you. In other words, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. Once representation is present, the next barriers are the cost and the culture of the education. Students with families or in other life situations are at a disadvantage.
Therefore an architect's salary is another significant barrier to equity. I believe architects need to redesign the profession away from an exploitative work environment and long hours. Until we start respecting the need for architectural professionals to balance family and personal needs with the demands of the job, we are going to have a very hard time convincing anyone without support and financial privilege to come into this industry.
Lastly, the biggest barrier to equity in architecture is the same barrier to equity globally. Systemic racism is prevalent in our institutions, in our politics, and built into the very structure of our society, and architecture is no exception. So when we talk about diversifying our workforce we really need to be talking about anti-racism steps that every white architect must reckon with, and take steps to dismantle.
What are some changes that you have implemented in your firm (or for yourself) to address issues of equity in your profession?
Our firm has switched to an hourly compensation model for all architectural and administrative staff. It was a move born out of creativity in the early days of the Covid pandemic as an opportunity to allow staff more flexibility to take care of family, educate children, or take care of themselves. What we saw after six months of working in this model was a greater awareness by ownership and project managers about the human impact of time management. We set up a structure where every hour spent over 40 in a work week is compensated at 1.5 times someone’s rate. While we had never been a firm to encourage extreme work hours, we were not immune to feeling deadline pressures that would have us requesting people to work overtime or weekends. I think this is a radical new model for architecture and is a very significant and meaningful step toward creating a sustainable workplace for people to thrive. When we discuss equity and bringing more diverse architects to the table we are opening opportunities for many more life circumstances. We have many individuals who have part-time roles or alternate hours that are not confined to 9 to 5 and this is enabled by a remote-first practice where all of our content and work is available for people to work flexible hours. This positive impact is evident in our overall staff satisfaction and retention.
What is the most effective step you’ve taken in your work toward a more sustainable built environment?
Moving towards Passive House. I am fortunate to be working on projects with clients who understand the value of highly energy efficient buildings. Passive House principles of investing in a building’s envelope in order to reduce energy consumption are foundational in shaping how we build a sustainable future. We cannot consume our way out of a crisis; passive, durable and intentional building is one of the most scalable solutions.
Mindset. We have the technology and manufacturing capacity to build using components that can be disassembled and materials that can be recaptured. It is only the consumption mentality of industry and a constant linear growth economy, as opposed to a circular economy, that prevents us from being able to see this as a viable solution. There are many practices in building today that would be very challenging to make zero-waste. In order to get to a future where everything we build can be disassembled or reconfigured, we need to make very significant changes in policy and building and fire codes.
Beauty. There are many components to neighborhoods that could be made more beautiful through design, like streetscape and scale, multi-modal road use and speeds, incorporation of nature, building frequency, massing, materials and textures. There is a psychological benefit to beauty in the built environment. Architects should strive to achieve positive outcomes for all people's health and avoid focusing on just one client’s needs, or, worse, intentionally excluding people or perpetuating oppression.
All of them. Language should be used to welcome people in, to communicate and include, not to divide or exclude. It is entirely possible to explain architecture in clear and inclusive language without obscuring meaning. Buzzwords and jargon create a veil around the profession, doing a disservice to us all.
Learning in Public by Courtney Martin is a first-hand account of a white woman attempting to align her self perception as an anti-racist with her external actions. The setting incorporates current-day public school de facto segregation that is alive and present when privileged white families opt out of enrolling in public or local schools to “do what's best for their children.” The candid writing has helped me reflect on my own personal actions and engagement with my neighborhood to make sure I’m living into my own values of human equity.
Environmental injustice. As weather begins to warm and plants come back to life, I’m very aware of all the vacant parcels in our city that are covered with turf grass, and the lack of established tree canopy in specific neighborhoods. I would love to see the City of Boston invest in native natural landscapes to encourage biodiversity and pollinators, as well as improve stormwater management, and use vegetation to mitigate the heat island effect. It could be such a simple change, started with just a few seeds and facilitated through collective action.