Kimberly Dowdell, Principal

HOK - Chicago, Illinois

Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, NOMA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C

Why and how did you become an architect?

I decided to enter the profession because of my interest in playing a key role in urban redevelopment in my hometown, Detroit. I made this decision when I was 11-years old and I have been working towards that goal ever since.  I enrolled in a high school with an emphasis on the arts and I went to one of the highest ranked architecture programs in the nation – Cornell University.  After my architecture degree, I worked for the federal government and then gained experience in the private sector to complete my internship (IDP) requirements.

Why and how did you decide on which school to attend for your architecture degree?  What degree(s) do you possess?

I earned a Bachelor of Architecture from Cornell University in 2006.  I selected Cornell because of its outstanding reputation as well as the opportunity to be exposed to a world away from home (but not too far) to gain a new perspective.  Another key component of my decision to select Cornell was the breadth of course offerings in virtually every subject matter.  The College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP) is one of seven academically diverse colleges within the university.  I appreciated the opportunity to take classes in all of the colleges to benefit from a well-rounded educational experience at a world-class institution.

What has been your greatest challenge as an architect?

My greatest challenge has been finding my way back to do the work that prompted my interest in architecture initially – revitalizing Detroit.  The issues facing Detroit currently are vast and far beyond the scope of design.  While design can play a pivotal role in revitalizing the city, there is much to be done from a political, social and economic standpoint in order to provide a platform for physical improvements.  One of the benefits of my secondary career training in marketing and business development is the opportunity to better understand relationship building and the power of creating a strong network.  The most important asset of a change agent is having the ability to connect people, ideas and resources to create positive results.  While it is incredibly challenging to improve complex urban problems as an architect without a client to pay the bills, it is my hope that some of my other skills and resources will enable me to have a vital impact on Detroit and other places that struggle with similar issues.

For you, how has it been being a minority female in a predominately male white profession?

I have found the profession to be more welcoming than not.  I realize that has not always been the case for women of color in architecture, but I have to be honest and say that I have had an exceptional experience.  Those who have come before me, such as the legendary Norma Merrick Sklarek have blazed a phenomenal trail that was not particularly easy at times.  I deeply appreciate the barriers that she and so many others have overcome to allow me to have better opportunities in this profession.

I owe part of my positive professional experiences to my involvement with the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA).  From the beginning of my engagement with NOMA as a third year student, I have had access to the best mentors and advocates a young architect could ask for.  Most of my employment opportunities have been a direct result of my NOMA network.  Another important aspect of my positive experience in the profession has been the Cornell network and reputation, which is incredibly beneficial.

In addition to Cornell and NOMA, I have been fortunate to have great mentors and advocates in the workplace – representing both genders and a variety of backgrounds.  In general, I believe that the key to minimizing feelings of disadvantage is building a strong support system that can help shield you from some of the unfortunate things that happen in such a challenging profession.  This statement applies to any person of any ethnic background or social status.  Further, as the beneficiary of so many great mentors, I feel that it is my duty to mentor younger architects who are entering the profession, helping them to build their networks and have positive experiences as well.

In 2005, you co-founded the SEED (Social, Economic, Environmental Design) Network -; what is it and why was it important to create?

SEED (Social, Economic, Environmental Design) is a network, a tool and a certification system created to address “Triple Bottom Line” issues during the development process. SEED’s mission is to “Advance the right of every person to live in a socially, economically and environmentally healthy community.” SEED was important to create because it provides designers, developers and community leaders a framework with which to think critically about the holistic well-being of a place and it provides resources that allow good work to be measured, recognized, celebrated and incentivized.

Here is the SEED background story: I was interning at the General Services Administration (GSA), in the Office of the Chief Architect during the summer of 2005, just before my final year of architecture school. My supervisor was Steve Lewis, AIA, a dear friend and mentor. Steve handed me a copy of Metropolis and suggested that I take a look. Immediately, I was drawn into the article written by Lance Hosey entitled, “The Ethics of Brick. It addressed the triple bottom line, with a particular focus on social equity. As I read Hosey’s article and reminisced on my experience of growing up in Detroit, I had an epiphany, and I saw a solution. The U.S. Green Building Council had created a new rating system called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED.

After reading the article, the concept of augmenting LEED with a social focus in the development realm emerged. I simply suggested to Steve there should be something like LEED for social issues, and we could call it “SEED.” At that moment, SEED was born and has received the support of countless individuals and organizations since 2005. Design Corps, led by Bryan Bell, has been the primary steward of SEED’s development over the past several years. Due to the dedicated work of many, SEED is now poised to become the common standard to guide, evaluate and measure the social, economic and environmental impact of design projects.

What led you to enter real estate development?  And how is what you do different than an architect?

I was recruited to join Levien & Company by the firm’s president and founder, Kenneth Levien, FAIA.  He and I had a brief introductory discussion at a networking event and he was impressed by the fact that while I was trained as an architect, I had taken on a marketing, communications and business development role at HOK New York.  Mr. Levien invited me to consider leaving HOK to pursue a leadership role in marketing at his real estate project management firm.  Being an architect himself, he understood my request to have a dual role that encompassed both marketing and project management.  Mr. Levien offered me the dual position and I am now gratefully learning about the practice of project management and owner representation in addition to bringing in new business.

The primary difference between project management and architecture is perspective (no pun intended).  Having sat on both sides of the table, I understand that architects are looking out for the client’s best interests chiefly from a programming, functionality and aesthetic perspective.  Project managers are looking out for the client’s best interests from an overall project budget, schedule and quality of work point of view.  As project managers (who also happen to be architects), we respect the role and expertise of the architects on our projects.  Our job is to ensure that the architects, contractors and all of the consultants on a building project collaborate successfully as a team to meet the client’s objectives.

What are your primary responsibilities and duties?

At Levien & Company, I am primarily responsible for marketing, business development, public relations and ensuring that our 20-person staff is fully engaged in great projects in and around New York City.  Our practice manages building projects for a lot of major independent schools, religious institutions, museums, workplaces, service organizations, residential buildings, theaters and urban landscapes.  I gather intelligence about new opportunities and pursuing the work that our talented staff members enjoy managing.

My other role is to serve as a project manager for two projects where I work closely with a senior project manager at Levien.  Together, we are working on a small renovation project for a historic church in Manhattan and a 6-acre park revitalization project in the heart of Downtown Newark. I am learning about the development process from the owner’s perspective, which has been incredibly enlightening.  We organize, manage and document all aspects of the assignment on behalf of our clients to ensure that the project remains on target from a budget, schedule and quality standpoint.

What is the most / least satisfying part of career as an architect?

The path towards licensure has been the most disappointing and challenging aspect of the profession.  I hope the process will improve for future generations of architects because as it stands today, many of my colleagues and I feel that the IDP and ARE are designed to be deterrents to the profession.

The path towards licensure has been the most disappointing and challenging aspect of the profession....

To date, the most satisfying work that I’ve been able to do as an architect has actually been my volunteer work on behalf of NOMA.  In 2008, I initiated the 1st Annual NOMA Service Learning Project in Washington, D.C., one day prior to the NOMA Conference.

Since then, NOMA has conducted four additional service projects in the cities where the conferences have been held, including St. Louis, Boston, Atlanta and Detroit.  I have really enjoyed leading the project each year and working closely with the local NOMA chapters to provide a day of service to a community organization in need of design and/or modest constructions services.  It has been great to work with local students to provide them with exposure to the projects each year as well.

Also satisfying is my playing a role in the growing movement of Public Interest Design.  I have been involved in this movement since I co-founded SEED in 2005 and the experience has been incredibly rewarding.  When I was employed at HOK, I had a unique opportunity to co-found HOK Impact with another employee Sarah (Weissman) Dirsa, which sought to promote the pro-bono work done by the firm and to more formally connect all of the employees who were engaged in Public Interest Design work, both on behalf of HOK and privately

Who or what experience has been a major influence on your career?

My overall positive experience in architecture can be attributed to the school that I attended (Cornell), the organizations that I have been involved with (NOMA, AIA, ACE, AREW, etc.), the organizations that I have co-founded (SEED and HOK Impact) and my incredible mentors (Kathy Dixon, Steve Lewis, Alick Dearie, Herman Howard, Barbara Laurie, John Cary, Chris Laul, Ken Levien and Pamela Holzapfel, among so many others).

In this profession - like with many other aspects of life - the more you put into it, the more you are able to get out of it.  Since beginning architecture school in the fall 2001, I have invested my all into this work and I have seen tremendous returns thus far.  It is my hope that the best of my experience working in the built environment remains to be seen.