Women in Construction Week: Interview with Suzanne Musho, AIA, NCARB

Suzanne Musho, AIA, NCARB, is is a licensed architect in three states: New York, New Jersey and Florida. She has a Master’s Degree in Architecture from The University of Buffalo and has experienced a wide variety of roles in her 25-year career.

She started at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, then caught the entrepreneurial bug and ran her own architecture firm for many years, where she completed over 200 design projects of all different sizes. Afterward, she worked as Director of Facilities and Operations and Chief Architect at The School at Columbia University and then as Vice President at Zubatkin Owner Representation, where she led pivotal capital projects for both the American Museum of Natural History and the Jackie Robinson Museum.

She is now serving as the Chief Architect and the Vice President of Real Estate Development and Sustainable Capital Planning at New York Institute of Technology, developing a new master visioning plan for all the university’s campuses with her colleagues.

What is one characteristic that you believe every woman in construction should possess?
The virtue of women in business is that we don’t need any one trait. We have so many gifts to give. Relationship building is the key to successfully built projects. Being able to reach out to a lot of different people, learn from them, and make sure their thinking is involved in a project is important. Women are uniquely talented at outreach and networking. The qualities of women in the workplace are just so evident, we should let our differences flourish.

Being able to function in that gray area is also so important. The awareness that one solution isn’t the only route to take, the iterative process of design, knowing that it is okay that things change after you make decisions, that there’s a flexibility to your viewpoint, are all hallmarks of resilience, and are important in building today. Being flexible and still getting things done does work! It does happen! Architects should know they are hired for their expertise and knowledge and for their viewpoint, and they need to share it!

What project are you most proud of?
I have been fortunate to work on so many amazing projects. On my first building; the Buck Center for Research and Aging, I worked directly with IM. Pei and designed the laboratory buildings. It was such a great experience! The principles behind that project were really wonderful; the idea that people need to collaborate and that you can’t have a successful research building unless you are having accidental encounters with your colleagues. The public spaces, interior and exterior, are designed for that kind of encounter and that inevitably leads to collaboration. I loved that building!

The Westchester County Courthouse, with family and criminal courts, used a lot of the same principles; understanding the importance of nature, collaboration, and creating moments for people to be together. We knew that being in a courthouse can be a very emotional, and sometimes difficult, experience. People need to have spaces for contemplation.

While at my own firm, I did projects with associations for the developmentally disabled. It was an honor to work with kids and young adults and their families. Traditionally, the residents were just given a place to live. We instituted a new process. We talked to the future residents and collaborated on the design of actual homes, and how they would look, feel and function. When we opened the first residence using this new collaborative process, I received a beautiful letter from a mother saying “My son never had an opportunity to be part of the design of where he was living. It has changed his life!”

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career thus far and how did you learn it?
Even though I’m somebody who believes in relationships, and sharing and being an agent of change, I’m also aware of the fact that people don’t always view things the way I do. Helping people come along with the process of change is something I work on every day.

Another lesson I have learned is the real importance of collaboration among architects, engineers, and those who build our work in the contracting fields. When I had my own firm, it was my responsibility to teach my team how to draw effectively, so the amazing people who build our work know the intent and will be able to build it properly. The incredible importance of the drawing and specification process is something I learned and continue to teach. That vehicle of communication cannot be overstated. It’s almost like a pact we have with construction firms. It is our responsibility to keep up a constant communication, making sure that everyone knows what we are talking about and what we are trying to achieve. The only way to do it, especially with complex geometry buildings, is through drawings. That is THE lesson of my career and the best lesson I can continue to impart.

Why do you enjoy what you do? What would make it better?
There is no other profession in the world like architecture. Architecture allows you to explore being creative, analytical, relational, and to drench yourself in history while imagining the future. Architecture is a great profession to see the world, too. It is such a gift! I am always grateful for the profession.

Do you have a mentor? Are you a mentor to someone else?
Yes! I am part of the ACE program at New York Tech, and I am a Jackie Robinson mentor to an architecture student at CalPoly. I have had really terrific conversations with my mentees. We are also starting an internship program within the Real Estate department, at New York Tech, in exhibition and curation, and in sustainability as well.

I’ve had so many mentors throughout the years. My mother, Sally Musho, was a watercolorist and designer, and my father, Ted Musho, is an architect. My father continues to give me fantastic advice about how to navigate my career within the architecture profession. Bob Shibley, the Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Buffalo was on my thesis committee, and I now serve on his Dean’s Council. I also have been fortunate to work with great women architects, and I learn from them everyday; Maddy Burke-Vigeland, and Jeanne Gang are two architects I truly admire.

I believe and learn from so many people: Rick Zottola, Partner at LERA, is a great colleague and someone I can always count on. Vince Marazita, a stone consultant who owns Stone Trends International, is a great colleague. Regina Vitorio owns her own stone fabrication business in Portugal; LSI Stone. Regina has never looked at anything as an obstacle.

What message do you have for other young women interested in following in your footsteps?
Know what you want to do, and be willing to discover your path in different forms. If you’re working in an architecture firm, stay a half hour late, walk around the office and introduce yourself, or ask for a zoom meeting with colleagues! In an architecture firm, you will stay in your own “zone” unless you expand your circle. When I was a young architect, I would walk into other studio bays to learn what everyone else was working on. I also would volunteer to help on competitions and deadlines. That is how I learned what project I wanted to work on next. You won’t even know about the other projects in the office unless you walk around and ask questions.

I also recommend staying as open-minded as possible, and keep your friends, and those you’ve really enjoyed working with, close to you, throughout your career. Architecture is about picking up the phone, or texting, and you need to have somebody on the other end you can trust.

And believe in yourself. Don’t let anyone deter you!

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