sep 11  | Young Architects Forum

Woman in Architecture

by Sara Beardsley, AIA

I have learnt that a career in architecture is not always a linear path. Architecture is a profession that is ever changing, and success is not defined by any single moment but through the collection and variety of experiences that makes for an interesting career. That being said, I share a few of those experiences here.

As I began my career, my most important internship as an emerging professional was at Holabird and Root, which is among the oldest firms in Chicago. One of my first impressions of walking around the Chicago Loop was looking at the many plaques on landmark high-rises adorned with Holabird’s name. It is a firm with a great history and tradition, and a friendly work environment. I was fortunate to draft for one of the company’s best detailers who taught me about millwork, reflected ceiling plans, and door schedules. After working at a relatively large firm, I continued with several other internships at smaller firms, which offered me exposure to all sides of the profession. From tenant fit-outs to historic home restorations, answering phones, stamping drawings, and organizing materials libraries - to even engineering diagrams and structural framing plans, I continued to gain a variety of experiences. One of the aspects I enjoyed the most was field work – to draw something and then see it built in reality.

By the time I arrived at Skidmore Owings and Merrill in Chicago as a young graduate, my past experiences had equipped me for the challenging new environment. The primary project I worked on at Skidmore was the 95-story Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago – the tallest building constructed in the city in many years. What impressed me about working at Skidmore was the order and rigor with which projects were executed, and the level of experience and expertise of the senior staff. Through my SOM projects I fell in love with high-rise design, and decided that this was the most interesting area of practice for me to pursue. High-rise design is fascinating not just for the amazing design possibilities, but the complexities of putting a high-rise building together and the opportunities to be a part of a multi-disciplinary team.

In 2007 I began at Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture [AS+GG] as a Senior Architect. This was a new journey not only for me, but for the firm, which was just starting out as a new practice. At AS+GG there is a unique level of collaborative design that keeps sustainability always at the forefront. There is an underlying goal to think beyond just architecture – but to research ways to improve the world through our designs. The proposed modernization and hotel design for Willis Tower has been a key project during my time at AS+GG. The design includes a comprehensive plan of how Willis Tower can save over 68 Million kwh/year of energy – creating an example of what is possible in the area of green renovations of modern buildings. Through this project our firm has been able to raise awareness of energy issues in high-rise buildings. The firm’s research on existing tall buildings, which has been done in collaboration with the City of Chicago, culminated this year with the publication of “Towards Zero Carbon” – a book that highlights strategies for the future De-Carbonization of the entire Chicago Loop. In addition to the work and research in my home city of Chicago, I have collaborated on many of our international projects in countries around the world.

Mentorship has been of great value to me thus far in my career. Through events within the office, participation in AIA, Chicago Women in Architecture, and the Chicago Committee on High-rise Buildings I have had many chances not only to be mentored but to share ideas with others. I think it is very important for architects to pass along their experiences – whether through everyday design discussions or formal programs. Careers are shaped not only by projects but by people – and as young architects I think it is important to give back, in appreciation for all the mentors who have taken the time to teach us. 

I recently spoke at an event for the Chicago Architecture Foundation called “A Girl is a Fellow Here: 100 Women Architects in the Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright.” During the panel discussion following the film about these remarkable women who overcame so many barriers, I was asked about my early career, and whether I noticed any challenges in finding opportunities in the profession today. Over the years I have been fortunate to have several women among my teachers – firm owners, senior architects, professors, and even an engineer who spends her days on the sides of old high-rise buildings. It is wonderful to have the opportunity to know women architects and engineers who have been successful in designing large projects, taking leadership roles and even working overseas in places like the Middle East. These mentors have shown me, through their work,  that any limitations or stereotypes which still do exist for women in building profession can be overcome. And so my answer to the panel’s question was that I have always approached my job fully expecting to be thought of not as a woman, but first as an architect.