Women in Construction : Interview with Andrea Steele, AIA

Andrea Steele, AIA, is founder and principal of Andrea Steele Architecture (ASA), an architectural firm based in New York City. Her studio has a diverse portfolio of projects, from large-scale residential developments, innovative research labs, education and community centers, and cultural projects, including visual and performing arts venues.

With over 25 years of experience, 23 of which have been spent in New York City, Andrea capitalizes on her early background in biology and neuroscience to design places that improve people’s experiences of the built environment, and consequently, their lives as well.

After managing the NY office of TEN Arquitectos for eight years, Andrea took it over in 2019 and changed the name to ASA. She has continued the business with the same wonderful staff, clients, and projects, and currently has seven buildings under construction. The ASA studio is currently 18 people and is growing rapidly as they take on new work, including international projects.

The daughter of an artist and Peace Corps volunteers, Andrea has a Master of Architecture degree from Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

What is one characteristic that you believe every woman in construction should possess?
Most professionals are reliant upon a similar set of skills — with arguably the most important being the ability to communicate effectively. However, given the diversity of people an architect engages with throughout the course of a project — to develop the design, to build consensus and ultimately execute the project — we must communicate with hundreds, if not thousands, of people. The only way to effectively communicate and align all individuals towards one vision is to try to understand those individuals, understand their perspectives — to be empathetic. Therefore, I think empathy is the characteristic that makes you a better communicator, a better architect, and ultimately, a better person, regardless of your profession or gender.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career thus far and how did you learn it?
That being ‘right’ gets you nowhere. It is not a path forward. It’s a condition that’s applicable to only one side. Being aligned is what matters, what moves both sides forward. Through the alignment, you always end up with something better than what you yourself could come up with by yourself.

Finding common ground is critical. The industry is moving away from the singular starchitect vision to a more collaborative space. We’re moving away from architecture as image-driven and brand-driven, to more democratic service and engagement focused on social impact. There is now a groundswell to do so and to provide fair, just and equitable environments to all communities. The process of architecture has become more engaging. Meanwhile, the workforce has become more diverse, but maybe it’s also because the whole world and those who have a voice have become more diverse.

What have your biggest challenges been as a woman in the business?
Not only is the architecture profession white male-dominant, typically most projects end on the construction side, which is also historically male-dominated. The environment on construction sites can be challenging. One of my first projects was for a private girls’ school. On the first day, the construction crew asked me what grade I was in. They knew very well that I didn’t go there, but it was a tactic used, I guess, to instill a bit of doubt. I didn’t think too much about it, it didn’t rattle me.

However, at the same time, I walked into the construction trailer and everyone was incredible. I didn’t recognize it at the time what an unique experience it was. When you graduate, the class is about 50/50, which gives you a very false sense of what you will encounter in the real world. But I was fortunate to be working for a firm where two of the three partners were women, the project manager of my design team was a woman, and the lead contractor was a woman, previously trained as an architect. It’s taken me about 20 years to see those kinds of ratios again!

Overall, it was an incredible growing experience. The woman contractor took me under her wing and spent so much time with me explaining to me how the lines on the paper that I spent months drawing impacted the construction. She was so generous with her time, making me think it was a wonderfully nurturing environment.

Do you have a mentor? Are you a mentor to someone else?
There is no single person that acts as my mentor, but I find myself learning from many sources. Often, mentors are people more experienced than yourself and usually in your same field. But I find that my learning is really 360 degrees — and across many disciplines. I definitely learn from my staff, clients and peers, both in and outside of our profession.

I find unexpected guidance from many spheres. One example is the letters I received from the late Dr. Oliver Sacks, who became an unexpected pen pal for me while running my first small studio in 2008. Those interactions did a lot to forming how I understand the individual and the collective engagement. Sometimes mentorship isn’t just about guiding you through with advice but opening your eyes up to see the world in a different way, or inspiring you. Inspiration is one of the greatest things a mentor can do. Igniting your passion gives you your own ability to propel yourself forward.

Why do you enjoy what you do? What would make it better?
I truly enjoy learning and creating with others – and knowing that both through the process and with the final product, we are making positive change. There are so many things that can influence how we design and how we see the world. It’s not so much about finding what’s relevant, but about editing what’s most important, what’s most critical. You can glean so much from so many different disciplines and influences. It keeps the learning curve nearly vertical!

The only thing that would really make it better is to keep making sure that we reach communities that might not have access to our professional services, to ensure that good design — positive built environments — are not a luxury, but a necessity and a right to all.

On value vs. compensation
At the end of the day, we love what we do. It’s a double-edged sword. Yes, you want to be paid for what you do, but you love what you do! What I’m realizing after 20+ years, is that yes, I find value in what I do, and that value isn’t necessarily one-to-one with our financial compensation. At the same time, I also realize the value we bring to others, and that can be translated to compensation. More importantly, that value we bring gets translated into a positive social, economic, cultural impact on our clients and the public.

Architects have historically done a bad job of describing what services we bring to clients. Most people believe architecture is the necessary documentation to get from what they need to what the contractor can build. But there’s so much more to it than that. If you’re able to work with a client, to truly understand what their goals are, sometimes what they’re asking you to do isn’t really what they need!

The worst mistake you can make as an architect is doing exactly what the client asks. Because the design process is a learning process. We learn about a client – what their needs are, what supports their community, their cultural influences, and their aspirations for the future. Architecture helps you see the world in a new way. It’s a bridge to the future you. To do exactly what that client asks at that moment in time means that you’re designing off only what you know now, not through the design process. The design process is for the client to get to understand what design can do for them. That’s when there’s the alignment, and the design is born.

The greatest value an architect can bring is to make sure the client really understands and is at the table for the design process. So they can learn from and share everything they know, so they can evolve at a state of mind in perfect alignment with the building. The building is supposed to be the thing propelling them and their community 10, 20, 50 years into the future. The design process is a way to get out of your day-to-day condition, so you can actually be forward-thinking. You find alignment with the community first, you design for the community, while keeping the interests of the individuals in mind. The only way any single structure can foster community is if it connects them at that common ground, the core of why they are a school, a corporation, a community center to begin with. The building has to embody their universal truth.

What books, blogs, podcasts, or other media resources would you recommend to other women in the industry?
Now there are so many great resources available to everyone in and outside the industry! Although I think a great one that may be particularly inspiring to a woman in architecture or construction would be Madame Architect, an online magazine that celebrates and tells the real stories of successful women in the industry, which was created by Julia Gamolina. Reading the profiles of other women in such an open and honest exchange provides an immediate connection to that person, and a sense of camaraderie, as well as some very useful information.

What message do you have for other young women interested in following in your footsteps?
Architecture is not a means to an end. Don’t think of the built building as your deferred fulfillment, or the recognition that may follow as your validation. Architecture is the process – the long days, weeks and years developing the design, building the relationships, and learning about new approaches, technologies, and most importantly — learning about the communities. The building is typically the goal for which we are hired, but the value we bring is the collective learning process. To find fulfillment and reward in that process will not only result in better design but in better personal and professional development.

We’re constantly told to defer our fulfillment in life, kicking the can from kindergarten to retirement. The reality is, what’s defining you as a person, as an architect, is what’s happening day-to-day in that learning process.

What project are you most proud of?
Such an impossible question! Our work is inextricably linked with the process, the clients, and every person involved in developing and executing the project. So to select a project is to select the process and people that made that project possible. I am most proud of the people in my studio — our incredible community of talented, inspired, and inspiring individuals.

Our clients are investing in something that doesn’t exist. So really, they’re investing in us, to see that project through, and more importantly, trusting in us to make it happen. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves of the responsibilities we have to the people we’re working with.

So many external factors influence what we do! So many things that can and will happen throughout the course of a project. It really is stars aligning when you get a vision built! You have to have a secure core, and I lean heavily on my studio, and rightly, I want them to lean on me, to create that stability.

I don’t know who better than an architect is equipped to start a company and have that entrepreneurial spirit. Every time you start a project, you have a new team, a new site, new program, new client, consultants, and a new set of parameters – a new budget, schedule, new influences, new communities. Everything is new, and you want to create something new! You’re really creating a start-up every time.

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