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Leading by Design: Six Women Innovating in AEC and Beyond

In 1876, Louise Blanchard Bethune began practicing as the first female architect in the US, helping design more than 150 buildings throughout her career.​​ In 1927, Elsie Eaves was the first female member of the American Society of Civil Engineers; during her notable career, she worked for the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, the Rio Grande Railroad and the Colorado State Highway.​​ In 1979, Barbara Res was put in charge of the construction of Manhattan high rise, making her the first female hard-hat boss to oversee an American skyscraper from start to finish.​

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Women in AEC
How We Measure Up

While statistics are trending upward, female representation in AEC industries remains an opportunity for growth:

Percentage of women represented in AEC:

  • Construction — 10%

  • Engineering — 13%

  • Registered architects — 17%

Standing on the metaphorical shoulders of pioneers like Louise, Elise and Barbara, women today are making notable strides in the AEC industry through an increasing number of female-owned firms, proactive pay gap analysis, and expanded diversity programs. In recognition of International Women’s Day, Think Wood pays tribute to the women of AEC, past, present and future. Here are six leaders who are innovating through their influential careers, philanthropic endeavors and a personal commitment to developing the next generation of female AEC professionals.

Susan Jones

Principal Architect + Founder, atelierjones

Susan Jones’ personal curiosity and professional devotion to renewable forestry and design blossomed in childhood as she stood in awe of the newly-replanted Puget Sound forestland curated by her grandfather. This unique kinship paved the way for a lifelong pursuit of sustainable research and design, including one of the first all-CLT residences in the U.S. (her own personal home). Jones literally wrote the book on mass timber, Mass Timber | Design and Research, bringing to light transformative research and architectural solutions to what she calls “the most urgent ethical challenge facing my generation: climate change.”

Jones holds licenses in multiple states and founded her own firm, atelierjones, in 2003. In addition to an award-winning portfolio, Jones and her staff engage in sustainable research exploring the feasibility of urban farms, biodiesel stations, hydroponic agriculture and upcycling. Notable projects include a live/work residential loft urban infill project, Pike Station, an acclaimed renovation of the mid-century glulam structure, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and multiple acclaimed spiritual spaces across the Pacific Northwest. Jones has been a visiting design critic at numerous universities, and is Affiliate Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Washington.

Innovating in AEC

Jones’ CLTHouse was developed as a research prototype that required extra municipal approvals to account for building codes that had not yet incorporated prefabricated mass timber structural systems. In addition to building the CLT House with CSFI-certified CLT panels from Struclurlam, Jones planned 800 trees with her family to act as an additional carbon sink.

CLT House
Photo credit: Lara Swimmer Photography
For an architect, a combination of beauty, strength, innovation and environmental responsibility in a single material is incredibly inspiring.
Susan Jones
Principal Architect / Founder
atelierjones

Claudia Munk-von Flotow

COO, Key Development

Key Development’s chief operations officer, Claudia Munk-von Flotow, strives for a workable paradox: fit into the surroundings while also standing out. Her career has been inspired by childhood time spent with her father who taught her to appreciate old, quality buildings. Examining antique packing house structures was a normal weekend activity. With more than 300,000 square feet of new and redeveloped space on her CV, Munk-von Flotow aims to balance environmental and economic demands through unique site selection and the use of renewable building materials.

Notable projects include a creative rehabilitation of an 1896 church in downtown Hood River, Oregon and Outpost, a first-of-its-kind project that prompted a new waterfront zoning code to emphasize industrial uses and limit retail and commercial uses. Rather than follow design trends, Munk von-Flotow believes that buildings should feel good to the end user and accommodate a range of uses over their lifecycle.

Innovating in AEC

Munk-von Flotow’s first mass timber project, Sideyard, transformed an abandoned berm space into an innovative office space. CLT was customized to this unconventional trapezoidal footprint with a regularized grid. By investing time in the project to challenge building codes with new technology standards, the team was able to deliver a higher quality integrated wood structure inclusive of concealed fasteners and fireproofing sealants.The project received more than six regional and national design awards.

Skylab Sideyard street view exterior
Sideyard
Photo credit: Stephen Miller
Construction is not typically an environmentally friendly industry. We recognize that, and try to consider the lifecycle of individual materials, as well as the buildings themselves.
Claudia Munk-von Flotow
COO
Key Development

Jennifer Cover

President + CEO, WoodWorks

Jennifer Cover found her professional passion in the design and construction process: taking a concept or idea in her head and using calculations and drawings to bring it to life on paper. She experienced this often as a young engineer, and even as a young child working with her dad on small wood projects around the house. Learning how to build with wood gave her an appreciation for the material’s strength, simplicity and beauty, and drew her toward timber design studies later in life.  

After starting her career as a professional engineer at KPFF Structural Engineers and Fluor Corporation, Cover’s professional contributions have spanned structural design and construction management, as well as academia. She taught Timber Design at the University of California, San Diego for eight years, and worked for the APA – The Engineered Wood Association. In 2007, Cover joined WoodWorks, a nonprofit program providing free wood design and engineering assistance across the U.S. Today, she is president and CEO of WoodWorks. In her role, Cover most enjoys flattening the learning curve for wood design to help AEC professionals be successful in their work. 

Innovating in AEC

In 2020, Cover and the WoodWorks team launched the WoodWorks Innovation Network, an online community for design and construction professionals to showcase successful projects and share information about cutting-edge timber design technologies that will decrease the carbon footprint of the built environment.

Platte 15
Photo credit: JC Buck
The passion I have for my work is inspired by the design community. It's gratifying to be part of an organization that helps people make their projects a reality.
Jennifer Cover
President + CEO
WoodWorks

Kimberley Dowdell

Director of Business Development, HOK Chicago

Kimberly Dowdell has been described as “a change agent disguised as an architect,” looking to her profession for solutions to some of society’s biggest problems. Dowdell’s career aspirations are rooted in her upbringing in Detroit where she was driven to utilize architecture as a tool for urban revitalization. Today she is realizing this vision as a Principal at HOK’s Chicago studio. She also recently completed a two-year term as the first Millennial President of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA).

Over the last two decades, Dowdell’s educational experiences at Cranbrook, Cornell and Harvard, coupled with her work as a young professional in Washington, D.C. and New York, shaped a broad career in architecture, government, teaching and real estate development. She is a LEED-accredited professional, a co-founder of the SEED Network and an AIA 2020 Young Architect of the Year awardee. She was recognized by Crain’s Detroit Business and Crain’s Chicago Business as a 40 Under 40 honoree in 2018 and 2020, respectively.

Innovating in AEC

In her role as national president of NOMA, Dowdell worked closely with her board of directors and staff to increase opportunities for women and people of color to gain more equitable access to the building profession. She also more than doubled the organization’s membership and significantly raised NOMA’s profile during her two-year presidency.

Kimberley Dowdell
Director of Business Development
HOK Chicago
What role can architects play in making places that facilitate more peace and harmony, versus the opposite?

Lisa Gray

Principal, Gray Organschi Architecture

Lisa Gray loves making buildings: combining custom details and components with building-scale fabrication processes that allow her to reinvent what architecture can be. She shares this passion with her husband and business partner, Alan Organschi. They founded their namesake firm, Gray Organschi Architecture, in 1997.

Gray Organschi’s work is recognized internationally for its innovative conception and careful crafting of architectural projects, ranging from adaptive reuse, with projects like Firehouse 12, to the development and implementation of low-impact component assembly systems. In addition to her architectural work, she is the founder of Gray Design, an interior design and furnishings firm. Gray serves on the Steering Committee of US Architects Declare and is a visiting assistant professor of Architectural Design at her alma mater, Yale University. An AIA fellow, Gray was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters with an Award in Architecture for work. Most recently, Gray was honored by Architectural Record’s 2020 Women in Architecture Awards. 

Innovating in AEC

In 2016, Gray Organschi launched Timber City, an ongoing research project that explores the environmental efficacy and the industrial, structural and architectural potential of urban mass timber construction. Timber City aims to transform dense urban centers into carbon sinks, decreasing the enormous greenhouse gas emissions caused by traditional construction techniques.

Common Ground High School exterior with open gymnasium
Common Ground
Photo: © David Sundberg/Esto
As architects we have the ability and responsibility, through the materials we use in our work, to mitigate the climate crisis. With advances in engineered timber technologies and forestry practices [bio-based materials] are the obvious choice for building the 21st century.
Lisa Gray
Principal
Gray Organschi Architecture

Erica Spiritos

Mass Timber Preconstruction Manager, Swinerton

Erica Spiritos grew up around construction and her academic path led to a degree in civil and environmental engineering. She has dedicated her professional career to the mass timber movement in the Pacific Northwest, advancing wood design solutions to deliver leading-edge projects, including both the tallest and the largest CLT projects in the U.S.

Spiritos is regarded not only for her accomplishments with Swinerton, but for advancing in the mainstream adoption of mass timber through knowledge-sharing with partners and colleagues. Her passion for social justice and inclusion shines through in projects like 14th and Union, a workforce housing project in Seattle, and the Beaverton Public Safety Center, a facility built to support safety for first responders. In her free time, Spiritos works to restore urban forests with Friends of Trees in Eugene, Oregon. She also teaches youth business development through her local Rotary chapter.

Innovating in AEC

Spiritos and the team at Swinerton provided timber consulting for Ascent, one of the most anticipated tall timber buildings currently under construction in Milwaukee, WI. Ascent will stand 25 stories tall, with a record-breaking 19 stories of mass timber housing above six stories of concrete parking. With funding from a federal wood innovation grant, project research will be made publicly accessible to inform future mass timber construction.

Ascent
Courtesy Korb & Associates Architects
It’s imperative that we build with renewable materials to reduce our carbon footprint, connect people with nature, and promote the long-term preservation of our forest ecosystems.
Erica Spiritos
Mass Timber Preconstruction Manager
Swinerton
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