Member Spotlight: Katia McClain, AIA, NOMA, DBIA, LEED AP BD+C, LFA

As a Steinberg Hart Partner, Katia fuses her expertise leading complex, innovative, and highly sustainable projects with her passion for championing an inclusive, people-focused culture across the firm. Over the last three decades, Katia has worked to create powerful environments that have a positive impact on the diverse communities they serve. Her work expands from private clients and large mixed-use developments to affordable housing and educational spaces in higher education institutions that embrace a culture of inclusivity and diversity.

She serves on the board of the San Jose Downtown Association, the board of the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley, and is a founding member of AIA Silicon Valley’s Women in Architecture Committee.

Did you always want to become an architect? Where did it all start?

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a marine biologist and go on the Calypso with Jacques Cousteau, dive with whales and be the first woman to narrate underwater documentaries. In Mexico in the late 80’s, the opportunities for marine research were very limited. Influenced by family and a family friend who is an architect, I applied to architecture school. It was not until my second year and a class with a great professor that I fell in love with architecture, creating space, and the ability to impact the built environment in positive ways.

What are the kind of projects that you currently work on? How is it different from the traditional architectural practice?

I am working on several attainable/affordable housing projects, several of them with public non-housing institutions that have underutilized land. While historically, many large firms look at each market sector as a silo from a marketing and operations standpoint, this practice is no longer applicable with most of these projects. There is a greater diversity of stakeholders and architects must bring knowledge of a variety of funding mechanisms and organizational leadership, the excellence in design remains the same and transcending typical practice lanes.

What is the most interesting aspect of your job?

Working with such a diverse group of clients and team members. Different design solutions are always explored, and the constant evolution of design is invigorating and inspiring.

What skills have you developed in your architectural journey that you have been able to apply into other aspects of your life?

I am not sure I can separate the skills learned in my architectural journey from the day-to-day learning. I don’t stop being an architect after 6pm or once Friday is over. Over the years, an area of growth and interest has been in appreciating the value of working with others to achieve great results.

How did multicultural experiences help you evolve as a professional?

Similar to the answer above, those experiences have helped me to evolve as a person, not just as a professional – I do not see these two being separate. Multicultural experiences enhance creativity and innovation, but only if you are open to different cultures and experiences. A very trendy term is global learning, which has been embraced by those that have had these multicultural experiences for centuries.

You are one of the founding members of the WIA Committee. Can you talk about the evolution of the committee and how has it changed over the years?

At the inception of the group, it created a fast platform for a small number of women in architecture to spread our wings, support one another, explore different opportunities, and seek diverse challenges. From there, the group’s growth was exponential and contagious. I think the growth of the members of the group has taken a different cadence, and I anticipate that this growth will be more sustainable in the long term.

Why do you think initiatives like the Women in Leadership Summit hosted by AIA Silicon Valley are important to the profession?

Silicon Valley is the center of innovation for tech and entrepreneurial research + development however, we are not seen (yet) as the center for innovation for architecture, new housing models, or new pedagogies. The Women in Leadership Summit was not an initiative, but a confluence of women seeking to change the profession. This type of events put Silicon Valley in the eyes of the profession as centers of influence and hopefully areas where more investment and research can be done.

How do you think the architecture profession can improve equity and diversity?

The architectural profession is just a small part of the ecosystem where we live. I think it is more important to ask ourselves how architecture (not just the profession) can improve equity and diversity – is in that area, the built environment, where we have most of the power and the capacity to affect a greater number of people and the society as a whole. Buildings need to be more equitable; they need to be designed for all and we have the ability to do that through design.

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?

There should be no gaps when it comes to pay equity. Mind the gap, don’t ignore it. Closing the pay gap means that we need a better methodology to determine pay increases, based on actions and professional growth, not on people. It also means that we need more transparency in pay, and we need to conduct pay equity audits to hold firms accountable and ensure that we are all on the right track.

What ways do you think women leadership can be better supported by AIA other than WIA?

The AIA has been a male-dominated organization for a long time. Systemic change will take time and first, the organization needs to recognize that there is a general lack of support for women leaders by the AIA. There are some key specific actions that AIA can take to support women in leadership:

  • Help create a methodology for pay equity analysis and require firms to demonstrate compliance
  • Invest in female leadership potential by creating leadership programs for women and women of color
  • Require JEDI learning credits for license renewal, just like HSW units are required

You have been in the industry for about 25+ years. What are your two cents for professionals looking to transition to leadership roles?

You are short a few years but thank you for saying 25+! My advice to professionals transitioning to leadership roles is to fight for those positions by finding how their unique expertise is helpful to those around them, and how their diverse superpowers make them valuable to the organization where they want to be. Find yourself in order to pursue your own path.

What was your most challenging project so far in your career? Can you elaborate on the experience?

My most challenging project was an aquatic center designed and built for a client that was simply not interested in design collaboration. I remember requesting meetings to meet with them, to show them the design, to explore functional requirements, and they just wanted an architect to execute, not collaborate. In working with a good mentor of mine, the project was successfully completed, it won some awards, but the process was far from what I typically enjoy the most about architecture: the collaboration with your client to make the project the best it can be.

What does it take to be a successful architect apart from being a good designer. What advice would you give that is not typically taught in architecture school?

You need to be able to tell a story, via drawings, in writing or verbally. Without a story, the design is only a form without reason.

How has the pandemic changed the way you work as a team?

We have developed new skills and explored different ways of collaborating. These tools were available before, but not leveraged to their full potential. Overall, I think this has made us more versatile and nimbler. It also allows us to be more engaged and offer different, more flexible work opportunities to those that otherwise may have found it difficult to maintain a career in our industry.

Can you elaborate on your experience as a board member with Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley and give us some insights on the things that you do as an organization?

The Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley empowers the Latinx community in Silicon Valley to seek opportunities in leadership and supporting access to educational excellence. There is nothing more important than access to quality education in BIPOC communities – Latinx communities are often left underserved, lacking representation and visibility to the many careers available to them, which makes opportunities for work even more distant.

Do you think volunteering with various organizations helped you become a better leader? If yes, what is your perspective regarding community involvement for professionals in the industry?

Community engagement enriches my life, it allows me to stay connected, lifts my voice and my own diverse experiences, and it complements my growth as a professional. It doesn’t matter which industry you are in, connecting back to your community through volunteering is a good way to inspire empathy, positively impact your perspective about life, and give back to others around you.

What would you say your mission is? What’s the impact you’d like to have on the world, and on the profession?

My mission is to inspire others to do their best. This mission is constantly reinforced through my work in different organizations and through my work at Steinberg Hart as a Partner and Chief People Officer. Through design, I can be part of finding the right solution where people learn, live, work or play, I am fulfilling that mission by creating an environment where residents, students, and people can be their best.

Interviewed by Madhubala Ayyamperumal, Assoc. AIA, WELL AP, LEED AP BD+C

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