Leah Alissa Bayer, AIA, NOMA, NCARB, is President of Architects FORA, a 100% women-owned, 100% virtual mid-sized architecture firm specializing in affordable housing. Skilled in creative business management and storytelling, Leah designs systems and teams at FORA that are transparent, equitable, and healthy, which then carries into the work that FORA creates. Prior to FORA, Leah founded a virtual firm with an award-winning business plan, EVIA Studio, which specialized in high-quality sustainable housing along the Pacific Coast.
An alumni of Cal Poly, SLO, Leah first studied engineering then graduated with a B.Arch and Fine Arts Minor. Passionate about equity, progressive business practices, and improving the future of the profession, Leah regularly advocates to improve the profession. Serving in leadership focused on EDI and Practice for nearly a decade, she currently serves on the following: AIA Strategic Council, AIA Finance & Audit Committee, AIA Silicon Valley (Past President) and AIA California Boards, AIA CA Practice Committee, and NCARB’s Futures Collaborative.
What sparked your interest in becoming an architect?
I was always encouraged to explore art and science, and I think because I had so many interests as a child I hadn’t seriously considered that I’d be one single thing “when I grew up”. While I was obsessed with building forts as a kid, architecture wasn’t on my radar until high school, when my physics teacher recommended I read The Fountainhead and a careers test put architect at the top of my list. So I thought sure, I’ll try it, and applied to B.Arch programs.
Honestly, I struggled fitting in for a long time. It took exploring diverse professions outside of architectural studies for me to really understand my place in the industry.
What skills have you developed in your architectural journey that you have been able to apply into other aspects of your life?
So many! Practicing residential architecture early in my career helped break me away from the ego-driven version of practice we experience in design school. The weight and honor I felt when I realized I was responsible for a family’s life experiences in their home was really touching and transformative.
The longer I’ve practiced architecture, the more I’ve honed balancing my expertise with someone else’s wants and needs. You learn so much about communication and collaboration in this profession and it’s definitely helped me with all relationships in my life.
What are the kind of projects that you currently work on?
My firm, Architects FORA, specializes in housing, particularly affordable housing. But my day-to-day role as president is focused on building and supporting my team and our resources. By working in other roles and industries before architecture, I learned how much I love business, strategy, and people. I’m fortunate to have met and partnered with two extraordinary women who lead our architecture projects, while I’ve stepped back to lead the practice overall – how we operate, who we are, where we’re headed.
With a background in both architecture and structural engineering, how did this multidisciplinary background help you define your niche as a professional?
I rarely draw upon my engineering background directly, but I do still love math and data and apply that to the work I do all the time. More importantly, I recognized that we each have our own unique perspectives to carry forward, and by making space for our team members to lean into that, it could have a profound impact on our work. So something really special we do at FORA is give each of our employees 8 hours a week to spend on their own specialty focus and find ways to marry that with our work.
For example, our designer Teddie has a background in kinesiology, so she’s decided to study the human experience in architecture, how a body affects and is affected by space. We do a lot of work for the unhoused, so enabling her to study and apply the principles of trauma informed design, for instance, is transformative to our work.
By empowering each person to pursue a passion, we’ve cultivated an incredibly diverse team of subject matter experts who love what they do, educate and lead one another, and provide tremendous value to the communities we serve.
How do you think the architecture profession can improve equity and diversity?
Design architectural practices so they support more diverse lives.
When asked this question, many architects talk about the pipeline, getting into schools and encouraging more diverse students to pursue architecture. But the data tells us we have a bigger issue in practice; we need to look at ourselves as professionals and make changes within our firms.
We know when we’re losing diverse staff and we know why. We have the resources and knowledge to do things differently. We also know diverse teams are the most successful. It’s time to change.
Pay people better, and equally.
Allow flexible schedules and part-time work options for caretakers.
Enable work from anywhere options so people can reduce expenses and take care of their other responsibilities in life.
Provide support and resources for education and licensure.
Develop equitable leadership and promotion criteria so the same types of people aren’t being chosen over and over again for the best projects and the best roles.
Choose to work with diverse clients and consultants who value and respect JEDI policies.
We can solve this problem today.
What ways do you think women leadership can be better supported by AIA other than WIA?
In the time I’ve been volunteering with AIA I’ve seen a big shift. At local, state, and national levels we’re breaking records for the number of women and people of color in leadership positions. That’s really encouraging, and I hope leads to implementing better resources and promotional opportunities for a broader range of people.
How does having AIA networking set you apart from other design professionals?
The AIA has had a huge impact on my career trajectory.
I’ve learned how to lift up and empower others to lead by being lifted and empowered by others.
I’ve been exposed to a wide range of professionals, roles in architecture, and types of firms that I’d never have experienced on my own to help me understand how the bigger picture of our industry works, or doesn’t work, and how I can help.
Very early in my career I was fortunate to learn valuable skills through my volunteering with the AIA that have propelled me above and beyond when it comes to firm leadership skills, such as: fiscal responsibility, board governance, creating and overseeing committees, long range strategic planning, hosting large national events, on and on.
And the network of professional contacts, mentors, and friends I’ve made has gifted me with an incredible community of support, knowledge, and understanding.
I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without all of the incredible people that make up the AIA.
You have been practicing for about 10 years. What are your thoughts for professionals looking to start their own architectural firm?
Go for it! It’s wonderful, terrifying, exciting, anxiety-inducing, freeing, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
But really, entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone and you need to know why you want to start your own business before you do. It’ll tell you whether or not being a firm owner is the right role for you, and also if your business has a reason to exist at all (ie, why do you exist, why should clients hire you?).
If you’re not interested in operations, finances, strategy, business development, managing people, innovation in practice… then starting a firm probably isn’t for you. If you want more control over what and how you work or design, I’d say be patient or try another firm.
If entrepreneurship IS for you, I suggest
connecting with other like-minded people (find a mastermind),
reading a ton (books, AIA trust, AIA Handbook to Professional Practice),
listening to podcasts (EntreArchitect was super helpful to me),
taking some courses (fundamentals in business if you’ve never studied it)
studying and interviewing your role models (research and reach out, people are more open to sharing about them and their work more than you’d expect),
and writing a business plan (this will help you create a well-rounded plan!).
Start slow and let revenue drive your growth; there’s no reason to go into debt in a service-based business.
Finally: people. Hiring my first employee made everything real and bringing on partners changed my life. Your firm is nothing without healthy, happy people, if even that’s just you. Take good care of yourself and others, and make good decisions about which clients you decide to work with. Loving what you do and who you work with will keep you going when things are tough – running a business is hard work.
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?
Pay gaps shouldn’t exist, period. It’s a symptom of discrimination. So while it’s important to close the gap, it’s more important to address the systems that caused them in the first place.
Transparency. Clearly defined criteria for promotion and salary increases. EDI training. More frequent opportunities for giving and receiving feedback. A diverse leadership team. Regular auditing and corrections of pay. All of these should be standard in practice.
I’m on the extreme end of this because I believe everyone has equal value and potential to be great. I wanted to cultivate a collaborative culture that encourages exploration and growth over competitiveness and winning a game.
We pay a flat salary to everyone based on that concept of equal value, and then award bonuses for loyalty, excelling as a leader, and meeting performance criteria that the team defined themselves. We only change salaries for cost of living adjustments and don’t do traditional promotions.
If we are well supported with pay, benefits, flexibility, mission alignment, and autonomy, we feel valued and do our best work, and everyone wins.
If you had one message you wanted to share with the community, what would it be?
There’s nothing more rewarding than serving others, making the world a better place, in your own authentic way. Know yourself and take care of yourself so that you can take care of others.
Life is short, I want to spend it having fun and knowing I made a positive impact on as many lives as I could.
Interviewed by Madhubala Ayyamperumal, Assoc. AIA, WELL AP, LEED AP BD+C