Member Spotlight: Mary Morris, AIA, REFP, LEED AP, AIASCV Secretary

Mary is a summa cum laude graduate of UC Berkeley’s School of Architecture and has more than 30 years’ experience in the planning and design of public education facilities. Volunteer activities include:

  • Advancing the role of women architects and the profession of architecture via participation in the AIA Silicon Valley’s Women in Architecture Committee;
  • Supporting first-generation students in their pursuit of college education as a member of the Downtown College Preparatory College Scholarship Committee;
  • Advocating for social and racial justice through service on the Board of Directors for the YWCA Silicon Valley;
  • Mentoring future education facilities leaders in the Coalition for Adequate School Housing (CASH) Facilities Leadership Academy; and
  • Promoting improved educational facility designs as Immediate Past President of the Northern California / Northern.

What sparked your interest in becoming an architect?

I have known since I was pretty young, maybe 10 years old or so–pretty much as soon as I knew there was such a thing–that I wanted to be an architect. As far back as I can remember, I enjoyed drawing floor plans, figuring out what buildings must look like inside based on what they look like from the outside, and expressing opinions on which buildings were beautiful and which were…not.

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

I am an introvert by nature, and I was a very shy, very conflict-averse kid. School did not, in those days, focus on having students prepare and deliver presentations or on how to be persuasive in a discussion. The work was very focused on individual, pencil and paper work. I was a nervous wreck on the rare occasions I had to deliver a presentation or argue a point in a group setting. But now I am fine with speaking in front of people and also with facilitating group discussions. I’ve gained the ability to listen, synthesize, and repeat back in real time–as a way of assuring people I’ve heard them–as well as to draw out from people what about what they’ve said is important to them and highlighting it for others as a means of gaining consensus in planning and design committee meetings. It’s also a good way to get my interpretation corrected when I’ve misunderstood. This comes in handy in “regular” life too.

What are the kind of projects that you currently work on?

I have spent most of my architectural career working on TK – 14 educational projects. I found I enjoy this kind of work for two main reasons: 1.) most people I’ve come across on the client side of educational projects are driven by their education mission, and I really appreciate that, and 2.) I’m the beneficiary of a California public school education –from Kindergarten through my architecture education at UC Berkeley–and I feel like using my skills to help create better educational environments for others is a kind of giving back. It’s so much more meaningful to me than the types of projects I worked on the first few years after graduation.

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

Oh, in so many ways–and many, though not all of them–for the better.

I think meetings conducted on Zoom or other, similar programs, while not necessarily ideal for large groups or all activities, can really level the playing field for participants in groups of say, 10 – 12 people; it’s much harder for just a few people to dominate the discussion, assuming the moderator is paying attention.

I’ve spent a lot of my career working in remote or “satellite” offices. Though connected electronically for meetings, I was often in a room alone while there were many people in the same room in the headquarters office. I’ve come to realize I did a lot of self-censoring because I had to shout down the people who were in the room together to be heard over their side conversations when I had something to say, so I often didn’t bother because I wasn’t always sure what I had to say was worth the shouting required to be heard. Had I been in the room with everyone else, it would have seemed like part of a normal conversation. But now that everyone is remote, conversation feels more balanced, and those in the headquarters office now have a much greater understanding of what it means to foster real participation.

And in one-to-one meetings with difficult content, the bit of remove that is created has, I think, often allowed discussions to be more candid.

The use of this kind of technology has meant I spend a lot less time driving, which has been good for the environment, and, in some ways, made for better use of my time. Though I confess I do sometimes miss the time spent alone with my own thoughts while driving to and from meetings and the amping up / decompressing time that that time alone in the car provided.

I also think it’s not great for the young members of our profession to be constantly alone. I absorbed quite a bit of knowledge from being in the room, overhearing–and sometimes joining in and sometimes not–the discussions of people around me who had more knowledge / experience than I did. And so I try to provide that experience for the younger staff around me now. But I realize my preferred work environment is a bit noisy–with a hum of white noise, like in a coffee shop–and that’s not true for everyone. Some people (like my husband) are easily distracted and find it hard to work in those circumstances.

What is your advice for emerging professionals who are looking to transition to leadership roles?

“Read books on leadership, communication skills, personal effectiveness, etc.” is a classic answer. So is “Learn about the business aspect of what you’re working on and help take responsibility for financial success”. But I would add:

Be curious. Take an active interest in what’s going on around you; listen up to learn.

Read your firm’s contract with the project Owner to understand what your deliverables are–and what they aren’t. Ask questions if there’s something you don’t understand.

Learn about–and keep up with the changes to–review agency requirements.

Strive to understand your clients’ business issues; learn about their goals, their constraints, and the politics that affect their work so you can provide designs that better meet all of their needs.

Participate in activities beyond those required for “your job”; join internal committees and book clubs; read your firm’s marketing proposals; seek the advice and expertise of your specifications and interiors departments; view your accounting, IT, and HR departments as valuable members of your team rather than servants.

Volunteer for outside organizations that serve your community in some way that you really care about for additional opportunities to learn leadership skills, increase the size and reach of your network, and provide recognition for you and / or your firm.

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

The profession has come a long way during the course of my career. I was the only girl in my high school drafting classes. Early in my career I was often the only woman in the room. That is rarely the case now. But there is still a long way to go to achieving full equity and diversity.

There are a lot of ways to attack this challenge, starting with filling the career pipeline earlier by sharing the career possibilities with young school children–of all socio-economic status and backgrounds. But that’s just a start. Providing scholarships to high school graduates and college students interested in the profession. There were a lot of women in my university architecture program. Where did they all go? Recognizing people need some degree of flexibility in their work schedules to accommodate family life, personal chronotypes, and working styles might have kept more of them around.

And the architecture profession requires architects to provide a broad spectrum of activities. So there is a need for a broad variety of skill sets. Firms need to learn to truly value all of them–not just the “rainmaker’s”–and persuade people there is more than one path for advancement. I think that would go a long way to broadening participation–and retention.

How does having an AIA network set you apart from other design professionals?

Having a network is incredibly valuable. No one person can know or do it all. Having people you can call on when you need information–or some other kind of personal support, like being able to vent with someone who understands the issue you’re facing and can help you work your way to a solution–opens up the world. Different perspectives lead to a wider array of possibilities.

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

I understand what a gift my public education has been and how important it has been to my ability to achieve the career, the friends, and the life I enjoy today. So I see working in the public education field as a way of giving back, of using my education and my talents to help others have access to the same kinds of opportunities my education afforded me. I hope to persuade the architects I work with that a career in the education field can be a true calling and not “just” a job.

What are your other interests beyond architecture? And how do you manage time to pursue those interests in a demanding profession like ours?

I sew. I garden. I cook. I read. I hike and camp. I run. I cross country ski. And I volunteer for entities that have social and racial justice as part of their core mission, including the YWCA Golden Gate Silicon Valley, Downtown College Prep, and, of course, the AIA. I don’t get to participate in any of those things as fully as I would like to, but I’m better now at compartmentalizing than I used to be. I try, to the extent possible, to maintain reasonable office hours. Having family commitments helps with that though my husband will tell you I still need to get better at this. I do still find it difficult to “turn off” thinking about work even when I’m not in the office. It occupies a significant portion of my waking hours (including many in the middle of the night). But all that thinking time makes me more efficient when I am actually officially “at work”.

You have been practicing for about 35+ years. What is that one important lesson that you learned and would you like to share with young professionals?

Waiting for the promotion fairy to wave their magic wand over you doesn’t work. But doing things because you want to earn more money or earn accolades is ultimately not particularly satisfying. Not that money and accolades are unimportant, but finding your intrinsic motivation makes for a happier life. I don’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t be ambitious. But be ambitious for reasons that are beyond the material. Be ambitious when it comes to things where you can make a real difference in your life–or someone else’s. And then speak up for yourself. The promotions and accolades should be the result, not the goal.

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

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