kimberly Dowdell architect AIA NOMA

This is a must-listen episode for all the architects and business owners who want to learn how to improve the quality of life for people living in cities and learn ways they can use policy to change the built environment.  We are joined by Kim Dowdell, the 2020 AIA Young Architects Award winner who discuses how to deal with the situation as a business and turn it to profits.

“The duty of an architect is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public.”


Kimberly is the 2019-2020 National President of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA). She won the 2020 AIA Young Architects Award honoring individuals who have demonstrated exceptional leadership and made significant contributions to the architecture profession early in their careers.

Kimberly is a member of the Detroit Developer Roundtable and the Urban Land Institute. She initiated the concept behind Social Economic Environmental Design, an organization that she cofounded in 2005, and was a Crain’s Detroit Business “40 Under 40” honoree. In 2019, Kimberly delivered the 19TH Annual Dunlop Lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.



  • Do you go giving and contributing as a person or as an architect as well?


I need to credit my grandmother for a lot of the sensibilities that I have relative to kind of giving. She was alive for the first 31 years of my life. And I was just very deeply impacted by the example that she said. When I was born, she had already retired, but she was a part of the retired senior volunteer program. She volunteered for 37 years at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan.


  • What has changed in architecture since post-COVID that you can share with us?


Unfortunately, we are not necessarily post; we are kind of in the eye of the storm right now. One of the things that I do hope that we’ll see change as we become more accustomed to this new way of life and hopefully some parts of what used to be our normal comeback, but certainly I think new things need to evolve, but I think that the emphasis on addressing health disparities has become very clear. Looking at the disparities, and particularly communities of color, I think, has been really sobering. Just the notion that whatever zip code you live in might have a drastic impact on your chances of contracting the virus unfortunately, passing away. So earlier on in the virus, we learned that states like Illinois where I live now or Michigan where I am from have similar percentages of African American, which is around 14% of the population of those states. But 40% of the COVID’s deaths were in the African American. That is a huge disparity. A lot has happened in the last 100 days, and we are all trying to navigate it together.


  • How has your training as an architect helped improve a lot of COVID situations?


One of the amazing things about the training of an architect is we are natural problem solvers. When we’re given a design brief by our professors when we’re in school, we spend several weeks or the whole semester solving the problem that’s given to us by our professors and one of the things that you learn very early on in architecture school is that design is an iterative process. So you try something and then see if it works, you test it out, you try it again, you keep designing until you get to the right solution. I think that in terms of what we’re doing on the HOK side relative to the virus is working closely with our corporate interiors clients to help them think through, how to modify their workspace so that when people do come back to the office, the proper social or I like to call it physical distancing is put in place and that there are clear markers for where people can and should be standing and thinking about hand sanitizing stations and things of that nature to really promote the kinds of spacing that’s going to be required to make people feel comfortable going back into the workplace. NOMA launched the new initiative before this virus even kicked off. NOMA decided that we are going to take a stronger stance on getting our young people once they graduate into internship opportunities with firms so that essentially would not lose them in the profession.


  • How important do you feel that the business development is within architecture?


Business development and marketing are critical to building and maintaining a strong business. One of the things I think said, HOK early on when it was founded in 1955, is that it really embraced the four-legged stool of business, particularly business and architecture. Marketing and business development, that is one of the key components. And then the other three are, of course, design, management, and technical expertise.

You want to make sure that you are bringing in business and building relationships and making sure that the clients that you build relationships with will continue to call you back. That is why it is so important that the design level is very strong. And the level of quality of design is where it needs to be that the technical expertise is there so that the drawings and in the way that things are built are of a high quality. And of course, to coordinate all those things, you need strong management.


  • How does HOK reach out to the community?


One of the things that attracted me to join HOK back in 2008 was just how connected the firm seemed to be, one with NOMA. In fact, I was recruited to join HOK at a NOMA conference. So that was one thing. As soon as I joined, I established the annual NOMA community service project. And HOK was the first sponsor for that, in fact, I think they were the only sponsor that first year. Around that time a little bit after the first NOMA service project, people who actually came together for the NOMA service project decided that HOK supports these things and there are other examples of that throughout the firm so, we actually founded HOK impact which is the firm’s Corporate Social Responsibility platform. Also, things like the East Mentor Program to help middle school and high school kids get exposure to architecture construction and engineering.


  • What are the current crisis and its impact on design and the modern built environment from your perspective?


Given what is happening, I think people are going to need to be more creative around resource allocation, certainly need to be more resilient. And I think that as we consider how we are spending money, how we are investing in communities; I think it is clear that more has to happen, and under-resourced communities. I think that we are going to as a society, and certainly, as a profession look more closely at design opportunities and development opportunities in places that just are not typically seen as ideal for investment.


  • What programs or initiatives or actions are you taking to help the under-resourced communities become resourced?


In the Chicago office of HOK, I worked on a project with my colleague Dominic Salpietra, who heads up our planning practice, and we tagged him on an effort to lead the commercial corridor revitalization study in the little village neighborhood of Chicago. As a neighborhood that’s predominantly Latin x and it’s one of the most, like vibrant communities in Chicago and a place where many Mexican American residents live. It’s very much a place that reflects a very strong cultural heritage, but the resources along the commercial corridor are not quite what they should be. And so the corridor study that we did included, actually sitting down with the little village Chamber of Commerce and we actually lean on them to bring together the various stakeholders who are business owners, community members, youth, older residents to talk about what are some of the things that are missing from their community? So I think the first thing is actually engaging community. We then brought back a lot of the challenges that we understood from those discussions and came back with a set of strategies that we hoped that they’ll deploy to actually help the businesses along the corridor and strengthen the economic conditions throughout the neighborhood.