Kate Conley is a Principal at Architects FORA. She is a licensed architect in California, Colorado, and Washington State. Kate started her career on affordable housing projects in Southern California after graduating Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Architecture and minor in Sustainable Environments from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. She brings strong technical and design expertise gained working at world class firms and from her mentors in architecture and construction.
Her passion for sustainable design led her to become a LEED AP and drew her to the Bay Area, where she has gained well-rounded technical expertise in a broad spectrum of project types. Focusing first on higher education residential projects, she then pursued flagship retail design opportunities in Chicago and Seattle and commercial office developments in the South Bay.
Improving equity and justice in the design and engineering professions is an expanding area of emphasis for Kate, leading her to participate in the AIA Silicon Valley Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Task Force and serve as 2022 Chair for the WIA Committee.
What sparked your interest in becoming an architect?
When I was about 13, I visited my aunt in Atlanta. There are two office towers there that are referred to as the King and Queen buildings because they have two different crown-like structures on the roofs. It was the first time I realized buildings could be representative of something else. I was just enchanted by the idea that I could be the person creating these landmarks that are an enduring point of reference for a city or community. I already knew I liked building small projects in the garage with my dad, or with K’nex or Legos, and watching home decorating shows with my mom. Architecture seemed to be the natural blend of all of those interests.
What skills have you developed in your architectural journey that you have been able to apply into other aspects of your life?
So many! I’m so often reminded that design education completely rewires your brain. I’ll be talking through an issue with someone and say, what’s the problem we’re trying to solve? What are we trying to communicate? How does your solution reinforce those goals? And they look at me like I’m from Mars.
What are the kind of projects that you currently work on?
Our practice focuses on tackling the housing crisis from every angle. We partner with nonprofit (and a few market rate) housing developer clients to design or renovate large multifamily affordable housing developments. We’re also actively exploring opportunities to provide a greater flexibility of housing options on single family sites as well, providing much needed Missing Middle housing in our area.
What is the most interesting aspect of your job?
Every day is different from the last. I never get a chance to get bored. Learning to be people’s “boss” and create space for them to grow and thrive is the latest challenge.
Why do you think initiatives like the upcoming Women in Leadership Summit hosted by AIA Silicon Valley are important to the profession?
The Women’s Leadership Summit was absolutely pivotal for my career. I realized while I was there that most of my beliefs about the limitations for women leaders in architecture were myths, or if not myths at least obstacles that had been overcome by dozens and dozens of women who stood in that ballroom with me. To say the experience was transformational is an understatement. I don’t think I would have been open to the opportunity to own our firm in 2020 if I hadn’t attended that conference in 2019.
How do you think the architecture profession can improve equity and diversity?
Not enough emphasis is placed on how much the structure of our practice restricts who can participate. Our firm is fully remote and has flexible work hours, which supports our team wherever they live and whatever schedule they need to work and live healthy lives.
We also have a scholarship/internship program to help architecture students from underrepresented groups pay for school and have a job in architecture while they study. We have our first recipient on our team right now and she’s doing incredible work producing a research report on our latest post-occupancy evaluation.
What ways do you think women leadership can be better supported by AIA other than WIA?
I think women are so strongly represented in our chapter! We’re now looking at 3 women presidents 3 years in a row. The WIA is a very strong committee, and a lot of the other committees have female leaders and members as well.
What is your advice for emerging professionals especially for women in architecture?
Be patient with yourself. The first 10 years of your career are for you to be someone else’s soldier and learn and absorb every piece of information you can. Don’t stress about how far you have or haven’t gotten in your career. If you focus on honing your craft and volunteer for opportunities as they come, you will be noticed and leadership opportunities will come your way.
Every time you’re invited to a meeting, GO! Even if there’s work sitting on your desk. You can do the work later, you can’t replicate the face time and knowledge you gain sitting in meeting with your clients, consultants, and contractors.
How does having an AIA networking set you apart from other design professionals?
The AIA provides a great way to gain leadership experience before it’s available to you at your firm. If you have an idea for an initiative or want to take on a leadership role, you’ll find nothing but encouragement from our chapter. In turn, you can use your leadership experience in the AIA as evidence that you’re ready for leadership at your firm.
You have been practicing for about 10+ years. What are your thoughts for professionals looking to start their own architectural firm?
I never saw firm ownership as desirable until the opportunity to purchase OJK with my partners came up. In my mind, starting my own firm meant starting from scratch and stopping all the good work I was already doing to take on much smaller projects. There is, however, a large population of firm owners who will be retiring in the next 0-10 years and will need to transfer their firm ownership to their employees. I have loved taking on a strong, ongoing practice with my partners, and would encourage other architects to find out more about the leadership transition plan at their firms. Chances are, there’s not a great one in place, and you can become part of that conversation!
What does it take to run a successful practice apart from being a good designer. what advice would you give that is not typically taught in architecture school?
To make yourself ready for firm leadership, it’s important that you understand the business side of architecture. Architecture school does a not-great job of imparting these skills to architecture students. I think we had one quarter of practice management in 5 years of school. I’m very lucky to have an incredibly savvy business partner who manages operations, finances, and team health at our firm while my other partner and I focus on architecture project work. If you don’t have your own magical business unicorn, you’ll need to educate yourself. Find a business mentor, a course, a book, a podcast, all of the above. The AIA is a great place to find other firm owners who can help guide you toward business practice resources.
I’d also say I wish architecture school had focused a bit more on the social justice aspect of architecture, and architecture’s capacity to help or harm a community. When I was in school the focus was very much on sustainability and “greenness”. LEED was brand new. But there was little discussion of people and communities. Architectural history was presented as a hit parade of great buildings, with little exploration of the destruction that came before and/or resulted from those great projects. I will say the senior thesis shows where I’ve been a guest reviewer recently have included a much deeper analysis of the local population and their needs than we ever considered. I hope this upward trend continues!
What was your most challenging project so far in your practice? Can you elaborate on the experience?
When we took over ownership of the firm, the founder Jerry King had been doing construction administration on 3 ongoing projects. I took over all 3 projects under construction from him on Day 1. It was daunting, but I love being on site and so adapted quickly. Jerry and our GC partners were so gracious in bringing me up to speed.
How has the pandemic changed the way you work as a team?
Not at all! Many members of our firm come from EVIA, my business partner Leah’s former firm. EVIA was an all-remote practice 2 years before the pandemic. They connected with OJK once the pandemic hit to help them go remote, which helped launch our entire firm leadership transition journey.
I’d say the biggest change is that now that architects and designers have gotten a taste of remote work, a lot more people want to work for us! In our last round of hiring we received over 300 applications from all over the world in the first 24 hours we had the job posting up.
What would you say your mission is? What’s the impact you’d like to have on the world, and on the profession?
Our mission as a firm is to tackle the housing crisis from every angle. It is the biggest issue facing our generation and has led us down the path toward gross economic disparity with the generations before us. I’d like to live to see a world where the term “affordable housing” becomes obsolete, because all housing is affordable.
Why do you think it is important to correct pay equity gaps? What does it mean to close the pay gap and how can such conversations help the professionals?
The key to closing pay equity gaps is transparency. At our firm we have 3 flat salary bands based on your role at the firm. Everyone on our team knows how much everyone else makes, and when someone feels ready to rise to the next band, we work on a plan with them to get them there.
We reward above-and-beyond rock star performance with an annual bonus. We had a design charrette where our team identified the 25 criteria, they’d like their bonus to be evaluated against together as a group. We give them a preview of how they’re doing on their bonus “score” every quarter so there are no surprises at the end of the year and our team can identify what areas they’d like to tackle next to give themselves a bump.
Can you talk about the role of architects as a social facilitator between the city and the residents?
We’re lucky that the developments we design provide homes for our areas’ most vulnerable residents. We view resident and community feedback as vital data in our design process. We’ve built out robust community engagement and post-occupancy evaluation procedures to close the feedback loop from our completed developments to make our next, new projects even stronger.
If you had one message you wanted to share with the community, what would it be?
To paraphrase my partner Sarah, architecture is a highly skilled and challenging profession. You as an architect get to choose where and how you apply all your experience, brain power, and learning. If you feel your projects aren’t in the best service of your community, find a firm that’s doing the type of work you feel is worthy of your time and expertise.
Interviewed by Madhubala Ayyamperumal, Assoc. AIA, WELL AP, LEED AP BD+C