Connections: Women Architects Build Community In Tampa Bay

Like other architects, Susan KlausSmith has spent years constructing her career, built on a foundation of education and hands-on experience. But the economic downturn has taken a toll on her field, one she and her peers could not have fully anticipated and one that she says the general public often underestimates.

"When we hear anyone speak of the economy, it tends to be from the blue-collar perspective, but I don't think people realize that for professionals like architects, or any other profession where you go to school for six, eight or 12 years, there is still a majority of us who don't fit a leadership role or make six figures a year," says the associate with Gould Evans of Tampa.

As a member of Women in Architecture (WIA) Tampa Bay and part of its steering committee, KlausSmith networks with fellow architects and professionals in other industry-related roles to support one another through both successes and struggles. Now the group takes another step to connect with future members of its profession through a new portfolio review program to support architectural students.

"If I'm out here working and not passing on my knowledge, what good is it?" says KlausSmith, a member of the committee driving the program and a participant in USF's professor pool for the School of Architecture. "For the profession to grow, we who are out here actively engaged on a day-to-day basis need to bring it back to the classroom."

Establishing A Voice

The concept for WIA emerged after leaders of Tampa Bay's regional chapter of the American Institute for Architects asked members for ideas to strengthen its organization and profession. Members shared ideas, including the suggestion to develop one specific voice in the profession: women’s.

When member Catherine Svercl first learned of the group, she admits she did not initially see the need for it, but after getting involved, the architect and owner of Design Freedom of Clearwater soon made a discovery.

"Women network very differently than men do. For women, networking extends into the personal life. We like to know that the person we're working with has kids or a husband," Svercle says. "To me, it was always strange that I never knew if the man I was working with was married. While that doesn’t have anything to do with job performance, it is all about getting to know people."

Lessons For A New Generation

This year, WIA Tampa Bay expands its focus to the future of the profession, providing professional networking opportunities to local college students enrolled in the program at the University of South Florida's School of Architecture and Community Design. Early in the year, the group hosted a seminar that shed light on the subjects of interviewing and securing internships. This summer, WIA members will conduct online portfolio critiques for USF architectural students, offering professional feedback and suggestions.

"Students have to realize that through their energy and innovation they can give back to the profession, and we need to continue to have this conversation between schools and the profession to talk about what is relevant and how the profession can join in that conversation," says KlausSmith.

Christina Wilson, an associate with the Tampa office of Gresham, Smith and Partners, currently serves as chair for WIA Tampa Bay's Steering Committee and liaison to AIA Tampa Bay, and has joined KlausSmith along with Kelly Alio, also a part-time professor at USF, to head up the new portfolio review program. They aim to recruit at least eight to 10 members to participate and plan to offer other networking opportunities between students and professionals in the future. For now, any avenue to share women's unique perspective in the industry is an opportunity to collaborate that Wilson welcomes.

"Women in this profession have made great strides in the last 20 years. We've come a long way," says Wilson. "We bring something different to the conversation – not better, just different."

Member Support

Today, WIA Tampa Bay consists of more than 100 members and offers interactive opportunities to connect, educational events and other supportive resources to those in the field. There is no membership fee for WIA Tampa Bay, and the group is open to women and men, both AIA members and non-members participating in the profession, as well as in other fields that support architecture, including landscape architects, engineers, interior designers and other industry professionals.

"The big challenge in any large community is finding your niche and being able to develop that," says Wilson.

She notes that the steering committee for WIA Tampa Bay has always focused the group's efforts based on the needs its members communicate and what issues are most relevant, from work-life balance and professional development to weathering the economy. WIA members who also choose to be AIA members gain access to additional career development resources including résumé support and listings, helpful for those hiring or looking to be hired.

Svercle, a former steering committee member, says many of the speakers chosen to present to WIA members help fill a void in industry knowledge. "We'd bring in lawyers to talk about defense issues for architects and engineers and contracts, because that's all part of being in business but not exactly what you're taught in architecture school," she says.

Wilson says that her peers often express having difficulty in finding their way throughout such an interwoven and expansive metropolitan area.

"AIA Tampa Bay offers a lot of programs so there are plenty of ways to get involved, but it is a large organization,'' she says. "Another reason our group was started, to create a core of women that could support each other."

Chris Kuhn is a freelance writer living in the 'burbs of Tampa with her husband and her assistant, a 14-year-old dachshund-Chihuahua. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Chris Kuhn.

Chris Kuhn is a freelance writer, editor and blogger who resides in the northern ‘burbs of Tampa with her husband and a rambunctious Shih Tzu. She is a frequent contributor to area print and online publications and previously served as editor for a local women’s publication. A graduate of Florida State University, Chris has been published nationally and written two books, her most recent, an anthology celebrating public art as a central focal point for storytelling across various Florida communities, including Tampa. When she is not writing, Chris loves checking out art, movies and museums, and discovering new Thai restaurants.