For the Love of People February 27, 2023

Inclusive design should never be a program. It’s a mindset.

Here’s how diverse and integrated teams are better serving clients and their communities.

“The power of co-creation is real. It’s serving our community better. By co-creating, we’re doing something right, and clients recognize it.”
Joel Jassu, Perkins&Will

Teams of diverse architects and designers are essential for creating inclusionary places across the world. After all, diversity and inclusion are where creativity thrives. But we all know they can’t do their job alone; they depend on any number of partners and subconsultants.

Now imagine what inclusive design could look like if architects and designers prioritized partnering with diverse collaborators to help bring their vision to life: From design concepts to lighting and acoustics to exhibits and landscape, every element of placemaking would be informed by a potpourri of creative input. Clients would get more innovative design solutions from a team that aligns with their values: According to the Urban Land Institute, 92% of real estate companies prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion. Meanwhile, as investors continue to make ESG (environmental, social and governance) a priority, having teams with varied perspectives behind one’s projects can create a compelling story for the social aspect of their work to attract more investor attention. Clients would also enjoy cost savings—potentially up to 8.5% year-over-year, according to research published by McKinsey. Clients may even be more competitive in attracting and retaining talent, since recent data suggest that 80% of workers prefer to work at companies that are committed to equity and inclusion.  

At one of the world’s largest and most established architecture firms, intentional co-creation with myriad partners and subconsultants is a matter of course. Designers from Perkins&Will collaborate closely with women- and minority-owned business enterprises (WMBEs), building enduring relationships, creating opportunity, and enriching the collective human experience. Here are the stories of two recent projects that are raising the bar on inclusive design through co-creation: 

Holmes-Hunter Academic Building, University of Georgia
Athens, Georgia

“I never met Hamilton or Charlayne, but I know them. I know how they felt all by themselves,” says architect Darrell Fitzgerald, founding principal of Atlanta-based architecture firm Fitzgerald Collaborative, a Black-owned small business. 

Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter-Gault were the first Black students to enroll at the University of Georgia (UGA) at the height of desegregation in 1961. They endured two years of litigation before they were permitted to register for classes, and even after winning their legal cases, they were victimized by violent crowds who protested their admission.  

Holmes and Hunter-Gault graduated from UGA in 1964, paving the way for generations of Black students pursuing higher education. Today, the historic Holmes-Hunter Academic Building commemorates their courage and their lasting impact on the university. But the structure needs significant upgrades and modernization.  

Fitzgerald, who in the 1960s was one of the first two Black students admitted into an East Coast college prep school of 641, is co-leading its renovation. “For me, this project is not about the building. It’s about Hamilton’s and Charlene’s story. It’s about celebrating them,” he says.  

“For me, this project is not about the building. It’s about Hamilton’s and Charlene’s story. It’s about celebrating them.”
Darrell Fitzgerald, Fitzgerald Collaborative
Darrell Fitzegerald, founding principal of Fitzgerald Collaborative, in Perkins&Will’s Atlanta studio, where a floor is dedicated for co-creators to work and engage with the team.

Fitzgerald’s partner on the project, Floyd Cline, an architect at Perkins&Will, had a similar educational experience. In 1995, when Cline was a student at the University of Kansas, just 2% of the entire student body was Black, and Cline found himself advocating for equity on campus. “Hamilton and Charlayne were trailblazers in the pursuit of equal opportunity. When this project with UGA came about, I felt an immediate connection to them and to all they represent,” he says. “Now, we have a great opportunity to recognize their legacy while ensuring students can continue to thrive in a modernized learning environment.”  

Together, Fitzgerald, Cline, and their team will deliver a restoration of the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building that’s centered on the concept of embracing integration. “This building, located beside our iconic Arch, honors two individuals who changed our institution for the better and left monumental legacies at UGA,” said UGA President Jere W. Morehead. The project includes adding a classroom, restoring an interior courtyard, and incorporating a new staircase and elevator.  

“The co-creation approach challenges us to think differently in how we go after and deliver our work. It’s very grassroots,” Cline says. “We’re championing having a collective team that brings a whole lot of different perspectives. For our clients, and for the whole population, really, this is how we need to be thinking about every project across our entire platform.”  

Adds Fitzgerald: “It’s competency first and ethnicity second. We have the requisite skills to do these big jobs together. Plus, we really like each other.”  

Under the same roof

On the third floor of Perkins&Will’s Atlanta studio, there’s a special kind of creative energy in the air—a tireless collaborative spirit that builds at the intersection of shared and divergent life experiences. Here, co-creators like Syntony Design thrive in a space dedicated entirely to their joint work.

“I’ve been able to make connections that weren’t available before.” 
Garfield Peart, Syntony Design
Dawes Road Library
Toronto, Canada

“There’s a phrase you hear often in Canada while working with the indigenous community: ‘Nothing about us without us,’” says Susan Martin, Divisional Support Manager at Toronto Public Library. The library system has vowed to create safe and meaningful spaces and engage and consult with the diverse urban indigenous population as part of the Canadian government’s strong stance on integration. “After centuries, those of us who come from a settler background are realizing who we should have been consulting with the entire time,” she continues. 

That became central to the library’s approach in conceiving their latest, soon-to-be-built branch on Dawes Road in eastern Toronto. The area hasn’t evolved much architecturally since the 1950s and ‘60s, when it was developed atop a former hunting ground and migratory route for local indigenous cultures, and the neighborhood is still home to a significant indigenous population. “We wanted a great, stunning building to lift the community up,” Martin explains. “And we knew we needed indigenous representation on the design team in order to be able to incorporate indigenous perspectives into the building design, someone who could guide and teach us.”  

Perkins&Will’s Toronto studio, which had worked with Toronto Public Library on a prior branch, partnered with indigenous designer Eladia Smoke of Smoke Architecture on the brief for Dawes Road. “We didn’t bring Eladia and her team on as a side consultant, but as a fundamental collaborator. We couldn’t have done it without them,” says Perkins&Will design director Andrew Frontini. And it showed in the pitch meeting. “It was extremely clear that both Eladia and Andrew would have major contributions to the project, but in a completely integrated way,” says Martin. “I couldn’t tell where one firm stopped and the other began.” 

“We will definitely look for diverse creators working together again because we want people to be able to recognize their culture when they walk around their city, and community buy-in is crucial for how we serve our visitors.”
Susan Martin, Toronto Public Library
The Smoke Architecture and Perkins&Will teams worked together in the latter's Toronto studio to create the concept.

 The collaboration resulted in a design that reflects and honors local indigenous culture inside and out. The exterior represents a star blanket, a traditional gift in some indigenous communities, as a facade that hugs the building and opens at the entrance to welcome visitors. Smoke first brought the idea to the Martin and her team, who, along with Smoke architecture, engaged the urban indigenous community to validate the concept. “They were really excited that this building would have such a strong and visible connection to their culture,” Martin says. A roundhouse, or circular gathering room, forms the heart of the interior, and the rooftop garden is designed to reflect the local landscape and includes indigenous cultivation practices and a vessel for ceremonial fires. “The garden on the roof will serve as a gathering space and provide a beautiful respite for the community,” she adds. Solar panels and other sustainability strategies will help the completed building achieve net zero operational carbon. 

This experience of working with design partners who bring an array of perspectives and resources has set a new standard for Toronto Public Library and their projects going forward. “[Dawes Road Library] isn’t a one and done experience. This is a forever conversation,” Martin says. “We will definitely look for diverse creators working together again because we want people to be able to recognize their culture when they walk around their city, and community buy-in is crucial for how we serve our visitors.”