Q&A with Megan Feenstra Wall, new president of American Institute of Architects Grand Rapids

Rapid Growth: Your new role as president of the American Institute of Architects Grand Rapids (AIA GR) begins Jan. 1, 2021. What experience and background do you bring to this position?

Megan Feenstra Wall: I am honored to step into this role. I am a lakeshore native now in Grand Rapids at Mathison | Mathison Architects who has also lived and worked in New York City, England, and Asia. My undergraduate degree from Calvin College here in Grand Rapids was followed by a master's degree at Columbia University in New York City. 

I’ve been back in Michigan for a decade, working on a variety of commercial, institutional, and residential projects, from Saint Cecilia Music Center to the ArtPrize hub, to a distillery and a number of private and public schools. When I was newly back in Grand Rapids, unsure that this was the place for me, I found myself on the AIA GR board as associate director. As I planned hard-hat tours for our members and studied for my registration exams, I met many industry leaders and started to realize what a small community this was. Instead of returning to a big city that had already become, I could be part of something special here, part of a city that was in a constant state of becoming.

RG: You have the honor and privilege to be the first female president of the organization. How does that make you feel?
MFW: I do feel honored to serve in this role. The Grand Rapids chapter of the American Institute of Architects has been serving our local community of architects and designers in West Michigan for nearly 100 years, and I’m proud to join that legacy. Along with this honor, I admit I am frustrated to be the first woman in this position. That it’s happening in 2021 is a sign that we’re behind many other professions where women have been making more significant inroads. We are losing that talent, all that potential, not to mention the increased profitability diverse teams have proven to bring. So while I’m honored to be a first, I wish I were a third, or fourth, or 17th. I’d much prefer my gender to be unremarkable and see more women ahead of me on this path!

RG: In your speech at the AIA GR Honor Awards, you included some interesting statistics on the architectural profession. Which populations are underrepresented in leadership positions?

MFW: Our profession is quite homogeneous. We are almost entirely white and mostly male. Women and men graduate with architecture degrees at nearly the same rate. Yet in the seven years, on average, it takes post-education to earn a license, women leave the profession, making up less than 20% of licensed architects. Far fewer are in leadership roles. When I was starting the women in architecture group, my brief research indicated that we are perhaps even lower here in West Michigan.
For architects who are minorities, the numbers are more stark. Blacks make up about 13% of the American population. They are about 2% of architects. Latinx are about 15% of our country, but less than 1% of our profession.

RG: Do you foresee the field becoming increasingly outdated or less relevant if these patterns continue?

MFW: Architects are certainly missing out on vast pools of talent, diversity-driven profitability, and simply better, more interesting teammates, employees, and workplaces. It is also increasingly difficult to argue our relevancy [and] that we can fundamentally understand our clients, their environments, or their needs when we are, as a profession, so homogeneous. In reality, very few Americans have access to an architect and our design work, yet architects’ designs directly affect our communities and our climate. We can’t ignore that anymore, and I think if we were more diverse as a profession, we’d probably have a better idea of where to start.

RG: You also mentioned that the architecture profession is at a crossroads. What will you do in your new role to encourage, inspire, and amplify new voices in the field?

MFW: Earlier this year, I was talking with the first Black woman licensed as an architect in the state of Michigan in 1983. As we were chatting about her work experience, I asked her why she often found herself in the public sphere rather than private practice. “They couldn’t see me where I saw myself,” she said of firm management. I think about that phrase quite a bit. I was surprised when vice president-elect Kamala Harris said nearly the exact same phrase at her acceptance speech in November. It’s so hard to be something that you can’t see, so it’s unlikely that change will happen on its own. I’d like to make women and minority architects more visible, not to call attention to their gender or race, but so that those outside of the profession and those just starting out see themselves in architecture. As a side note, 38 years later, there are still fewer than 15 Black women who have been licensed in Michigan.

The male-dominated construction industry and the long path to licensure create certain biases and pinch points that women feel more acutely, enough to call it quits before they can even legally be called architects. Right now, American mothers are dropping out of the workforce at a rate three times that of fathers due to pandemic-related caregiving issues at home. I’m trying to stay optimistic that some of the flexibility the pandemic has forced upon the American workplace will filter through to a more open-ended view of work and leadership that could bring about positive change for women in the profession.

RG: Some people might not think of including architecture in the larger discussion of climate change, but it’s proving to be a necessary component. How can building designs and features particularly impact our West Michigan ecosystems and environments?

MFW: The built environment contributes nearly 40% of carbon emissions. Construction is resource-intensive and building operations require continued energy and water. Through our early role in the construction process, architects can directly influence climate action through better design. Along with energy and water use, architects think about things like the embodied carbon of the building materials we specify. We consider how our projects support the health and well-being for all people, regardless of race, age, ability. Resilient design allows a building to keep people safe but also to recover quickly after a disaster like the midwestern derecho of last summer or our polar vortex a year ago. Architects can also think about a project’s greater reach. The pandemic has shown us how unequal our health outcomes are based on our race and our ZIP code. As we’re shut inside and isolated, we’re realizing how our homes, schools, and workplaces can contribute [to] or detract from our overall wellness and well-being. Good design has to go beyond how a project looks and functions. It should be inclusive, resilient, healthy, integrated, equitable, sustainable, and beautiful.

RG: Looking forward, what do you hope to accomplish in your new role?

MFW: In the ‘00s, West Michigan had more LEED green building certified square footage per capita than anywhere else in the country. We’re not even on the top ten list anymore. I plan to support the work of our local AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) and strengthen our relationships with the City of Grand Rapids and other local organizations to continue to build momentum towards a more sustainable West Michigan. I’ve been sharing a document called the Framework for Design Excellence that uses a series of 10 principles and [accompanying] questions to challenge architects and communities to reenvision their construction projects and neighborhoods. I was part of the national AIA task-force that rewrote the Framework earlier this year, and it’s a free, accessible, relevant, and practical tool that I’d encourage anyone to check out.

Another area of focus is simply to re-connect and reengage. This year, our volunteers and members are overstretched and overburdened. At the same time, we are all weary of isolation and virtual connection and ready for normalcy. Yet the pandemic changed us. This is an opportunity not to return to what we were but instead to rethink what we’ve been doing as an organization and refocus our services and programming through the lens of our mission and vision. We need to stay safe, healthy, and relevant.

And, obviously, I care a lot about diversity in the profession! We need to keep working on this one because it’s just that important.