Our industry is shifting and evolving in ways that I didn’t entirely see coming. Maybe years of seeing the same faces represent the same approaches made me a bit numb to the reality of change that I was always advocating for regardless. Although I have built my career in interior design, I’m all too aware of the gender inequities that exist within the architecture profession. So, when I was approached to take on the role of managing principal for B+H Architects Vancouver studio, I saw this as an opportunity to impact change.
My appointment came as somewhat of a surprise to me. Not because I didn’t think I wasn’t right for the role, but because of my age, gender and experience as an interior designer — the feeling that I wasn’t exactly the obvious choice was something I had been unconsciously conditioned to believe. But if we are to see real moves towards structural change in the industry, it’s time we look beyond the obvious choice and be bold.
I’ve worked in B+H for over 10 years and in the industry for over 20 years. Until my recent appointment, I was principal at CHIL Interior Design, the firm’s hospitality and residential design studio. I still lead the CHIL team, whose portfolio includes both boutique hoteliers and blue-chip operators such as Fairmont and Marriott. Our work ranges from large-scale residential developments like Telford on the Walk to heritage hotel restorations such as Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, resort properties such as Primus Hotel Sanya Pleasant Bay and Canada’s first ever Indigenous Arts hotel, Skwachàys Lodge. Our global experience demands that we understand the unique needs and challenges of different cultures.
In 2016, I helped to officially launch our Hong Kong CHIL studio, which has since grown into a fully integrated architectural practice. While it has been a steep learning curve of many late nights, one guiding principle rang true all along: the importance of representation in the design process and the design team. Only then can we produce thoughtful design that is more than just an interpretation of culture but an understanding of it.
Clients, too, are understanding the benefits and value to diverse design teams, whether it be gender, race or any other form of self-affirmation. In the architectural profession, which shapes the ways in which people use and interact with physical space, having greater representation and diversity at the table informing these decisions leads to better outcomes — better design — for the societies we live in and the spaces we inhabit. Architectural practices can play a key role in educating the benefits of diversity, fostering a variety of perspectives is where innovation is born. How are we meant to find the answers if we don’t even know the right questions to ask?
The Vancouver studio of B+H currently has 35 staff with 26 women and 16 people of colour, and across the organization, B+H has a 50/50 split of female and male staff. While I’m encouraged to see that we have fostered a culture that attracts and elevates diverse talent, I’m well aware this is often the exception rather than the rule. Women and racialized minorities remain underrepresented in architectural practice across North America — especially in senior leadership roles — despite making up a much more significant proportion of architecture students. The profession still has a lot of work to do. And so do we.
B+H has made strides in fostering a culture that attracts and elevates diverse talent, and while I can see these efforts reflected in the incredible people who work for the firm, we have much more work to do together as does the profession at large. We are continuing to evaluate our processes and practices, examining them through new lenses to ensure that we are maintaining an equitable and inclusive firm culture – we need to keep the pressure on. The work cannot stop.
For me, it’s important to encourage an inclusive work culture by leading by example. There is a lot I still don’t know, and I am comfortable to admit my blind spots and seek help. I encourage my team to do the same. My approach is collaborative, honed from years working in an industry where I had to speak twice as loudly just to be heard. This experience has given me a unique set of skills in communication and relationship-building. Today’s talents have different value systems and expectations of the places they work. To remain competitive, leaders need to continue to advocate for a culture of transparency and accessibility if they want to attract next-generation talent. Designers today must prioritize workplaces that are inclusive. It’s a powerful recruitment tool and the onus is on leadership to encourage work-styles that support this paradigm shift.
My hope is that my recent appointment signals another step toward structural change in the industry. It’s critical to have more women, people of colour, and other underrepresented or marginalized groups in positions of leadership if we want to encourage younger architects to pursue similar career trajectories. If we don’t, we’re losing out on talent because of a culture of exclusivity. Not only is it a loss for the profession, it’s a loss to society if we let only a limited perspective decide the future of our cities.
Adele is Managing Principal of the Vancouver studio of B+H Architects. She is also a member of CHIL Interior Design, the hospitality studio of B+H.
On International Women’s Day, designer Adele Rankin reflects on progress made and the path ahead.