The Women of HKS: Architects and Researchers Designing Resilient Cities

Designing resilient cities combines practical solutions with innovative ideas. Interdisciplinary global firm HKS is working to bring these ambitions to life with researchers, urban designers, nurses, anthropologists, graphic designers and more. Viewing design as a process of discovery, three directors at HKS are leading how cities explore research, equity and integration to create more resilient futures.

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Building on ArchDaily's series celebrating the extraordinary women that shape our world, the following interview features the work of architects at HKS. Upali Nanda, PhD, AIA is the HKS Director of Research focusing on the impact of design on human health and perception. Yiselle Santos Rivera, AIA is a medical planner and Director of Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion who is empowering the next generation of leaders while creating inclusive platforms for engagement. Finally, Julie Hiromoto, AIA is a Principal and Director of Integration, delivering large-scale projects, including One World Trade Center. The three architects discuss their design inspirations and challenges, as well as what it's like to practice today.

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UCSD North Torrey Pines. Image © Kehaulani Crooks

Why did you each choose to study architecture?

Julie Hiromoto: As a child of immigrants, we still had family scattered all over the world when I was young.  Growing up, I had the good fortune to travel and visit with family in South America, Asia and across the United States.  I remember the awe at arriving in a new place and understanding the stark differences in the built environment. How California, Michigan, Lima, and Cusco Peru, as well as Taipei and the countryside of Taiwan were so different from my small hometown of Valdosta, GA.  The homes of my relatives were different, the public spaces were different, and how people lived were prompted by differences in culture, climate, and economics.  This was fascinating, and I couldn’t stop asking questions. This curiosity was formalized when I took my first technical drawing course in junior high school with Mr. Pitchford.  He instilled in me a love of drafting instruments, the crisp and purposeful lines, and an understanding of material representation.  I was so proud of those perfectly spaced, uniformly parallel straight lines from my first assignment!

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Julie Hiromoto. Image Courtesy of HKS

Yiselle Santos Rivera: Growing up in Puerto Rico, I was enamored by creating spaces and using all household objects (couches, pillows, sheets, and boxes) to build new and unique magical places I could share with my younger brother. Still, I chose genetics as my first academic pursuit. Similarly, to architectural concepts, I loved learning about the building blocks of humanity and how slight variations created different species. Yet it was not until my second year of college experiencing laboratory spaces that felt disconnected from the environment, designed by people that did not understand the tropical environment, that I recognized the power of space in how we experience the world. I wanted to be part of an industry that could help others thrive and belong in ways that facilitated their success. I had to exchange the feeling of being confined to isolated, enclosed, dark, and gloomy lab spaces for the opportunity to design and build bright, engaging, and welcoming spaces that could help heal and empower my community.  After deciding to then pursue environmental design at the University of Puerto Rico, I fell in love with design and I learned to view architecture as a way of building community.

Upali Nanda: I didn’t. I believe architecture chose me. In India, for most professional degrees you must take a competitive exam. I was preparing for a degree in engineering, while pursuing Indian classical dance. On a whim I joined two of my best friends who wanted to study architecture in the competitive exam. Ironically, I made it through while they didn’t. I took a week of classes in architecture just to test the waters. I realized quickly that architecture was the calling I hadn’t thought to seek- it was the intersection of art & science, engineering & aesthetics, the subjective & the objective. In pursuing a career in research within the practice, I continue to explore the dichotomy, and the synergy, of the opposing forces that makes architecture.

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TWU 20 Year Vision. Image Courtesy of HKS

What are some recent projects you’ve each been working on at HKS?

Julie Hiromoto: One of my early HKS projects was the Texas Woman’s University Denton campus masterplan update. Version 1.0 of this living document added an adjacent 100-acre municipal golf course to the historic campus. The expansion space allowed for more comprehensive growth over the next 20 years to support a +30% increase enrollment, transition from a commuter to residential campus, expansion of academic programs, and key student life amenities. The plan highlighted the importance of personal and community health and wellbeing, environmental stewardship, civic engagement, and academic excellence. Upali’s 2017 Point of Decision Design work was a key part was a key part of our advocacy. Today, we are working on a garden and outdoor classroom, the newest addition to the campus and a site for remembrance, reflection, and commitment. The Quakertown amphitheater will recognize TWU’s role in displacing an African American community when the campus was formed in the 1920s. Yiselle has been an important part of wrapping our heads around these complicated issues.

Yiselle Santos Rivera: The last two projects I had the opportunity to work on were a wonderful intersection of medical planning and justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. At Nemours Children’s Hospital in Delaware, we designed the Christiana Care Advanced Delivery Care Suite, a new partnership between both healthcare systems that provides babies with congenital abnormalities immediate care after birth. In this new space, both babies and mothers are treated neither compromising the care of the other regardless of where the mother receives her care prioritizing equity for all. This model also removes the risk of transporting babies from one system to the other. The most recent project was a collaboration with Mount Sinai to develop a 500,000 sf, 240-bed greenfield tertiary hospital envisioned to be the new role model for health services in South America. Through a private health provider this project seeks to strategically support state sponsored healthcare for all in Paraguay.

Upali Nanda: This past year has been one where evidence and empathy have become core needs of our profession. We have seen confusion, uncertainty, divisiveness, and found many gaps in our knowledge and biases in our beliefs. To counter this over the past year our team has worked on research around risk & recovery, leveraging community to build resilience, and create coalitions to improve health, wellbeing and equity. Additionally we worked on integrating research into the fabric of projects such as treating the new campus at University of San Diego as a live-learn lab- making capital projects the vehicle for research and learning. Most importantly we have committed to being a living lab ourselves and understanding the changing eco-system of work- through research.

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Upali Nanda. Image Courtesy of HKS

What are three concrete changes we can make, as an industry and as a society, to achieve gender equality?

Julie Hiromoto: A first step would be to recognize inherent and systematically engrained inequities, not only for gender, but also age, race, class, and culture.  The first step is acknowledgment and recognition that bias and social inequities create an uneven playing field.  Only from this point can we begin to comprehensively address justice, privilege, double standards, really listen to learn, be more empathetic, and act for sustained positive change.

Yiselle Santos Rivera: 1. Clarity in what constitutes leadership: what are the qualities and qualifiers of an effective leader.  2. Transparency in our metrics: what system is chosen to create gender and demographic benchmarks at all levels, then to whom and how is that information shared. 3. Accountability in achieving our goals: how are goals established firmwide and who is responsible for meeting those goals. We all need to be held accountable to increase women’s representation in senior leadership roles. Recognizing also that gender is a social construct, inclusive representation of all gender expressions is important.

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Promoting safe active lifestyles. Image Courtesy of HKS

Upali Nanda: First, change our thinking from a human-centered approach to a living-centered approach and embrace interdependencies in how our built-environment solutions effect (and are affected by) social and ecological systems. Second, make a commitment to measuring meaningful impact so we can course correct when our design solutions do not achieve the intended impact. Finally, learn how to pursue goals of economic prosperity guided by the trifecta of equity, ecology, and the human experience. We are learning that the health of our planet, and the health of our people are intrinsically linked. If we can make the business case for balancing growth and purpose, we will be able to not just craft, but to Julie’s point above, “sustain” positive change.

With changes to climate, technology, and construction, how do you think architects and designers will adapt ways of practicing to advance the profession?

Julie Hiromoto: There are many fundamental design principles that need to happen before diving into the big signature moves. As we’ve seen with COVID-19, there are small things that we can do every day – wear a mask, physically distance – that can sustain us while we allow for breakthrough (often the result of innovations and new tools and processes in technology and construction), moments to be more impactful. This same thinking should be applied to high performance design. As noted last February in my congressional testimony, “Saving Energy: Legislation to Improve Energy Efficiency and Storage,” there are fundamental ways to save energy and limit our carbon and greenhouse gas emissions before leap frogging to onsite generation of renewable energy or a heavy reliance on advanced technology to solve our climate challenge: Reduce, Absorb, Conserve, then Generate. Simple tools like the AIA’s Framework for Design Excellence help us evaluate a comprehensive, systematic, and integrated approach to design and explore the many opportunities we have to make a difference on each and every project, not just the signature ones. This due diligence will be required if we truly want to transform practice, normalize high performance design, and reach our project impact goals.

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Yiselle Santos Rivera. Image Courtesy of HKS

Yiselle Santos Rivera:  Architects must find ways to advocate for a seat at the table not only within the industry but in other spaces and industries like government, regulatory environments, as we have seen in healthcare policy. The practice of architecture should leverage design thinking and systems thinking. In these COVID times, where we are all experiencing things together, seemingly super connected through technology, yet apart, we have come to see how integrated our systems can be and yet how fragile our connections. Proving people with agency, not only in our workplaces, but in our designs, can increase opportunities for meaningful connections and interactions. Allowing for flexibility and self-determination through the design of spaces that are resilience and adaptable at all scales will build community. Our designs must be accountable for the communities it serves and will serve for its lifetime. Architects are responsible for the impact they have in our communities’ ability to thrive.

Nearly half of all architecture students are women, but they make up about 20 percent of licensed architects and 17 percent of partners or principals in architecture firms. What accounts for the disparity?

Julie Hiromoto: When the norms of value are based on history, any change is challenging.  When those currently in power seek out familiar traits or the same strengths that they have, we replicate the cultures and values of the past and today.  Only when we truly value and celebrate our differences, and recognize how a different world view, life experiences, or way of thinking and working will enrich and take our conversations and decision making (even if uncomfortable and slower) to the next level will we seek out these different voices. That proactive action and trust in something that you may not already be an expert in will help us transcend the current state. 

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HKS Nemours Children's Hospital. Image Courtesy of HKS

Yiselle Santos Rivera: Inequity in access to resources, homogeneity in the measures of how we define success, lack of intentionality in valuing representation, lack of tools that increase empathy and inclusionary leadership skills. It is easier to define success when we know what it looks like. When we don’t see ourselves a path of success in the industry or people like us to emulate, we will seek other avenues. Unfortunately, in architecture, historically the exodus of women and minorities seeking better opportunities has kept senior level roles disproportionately male. Also, elitism in academia continually translate into the profession. Perception that longer hours mean dedication and productivity without regard to performance do not favor caregivers, which tend to be predominately women. Many leaders still feel that giving oneself solely to the job equates to better outcomes. Balance, team engagement, and well-being have been better predictors of success in business. Studies also show that gender diverse boards and teams outperform homogenous teams.

Changes due to COVID-19 have been swift. How do you think the pandemic will shape design?

Julie Hiromoto: We’ve learned so much in 2020 and suffered through the disruptive change too. The softening of ‘business as usual’ is a huge opportunity to try something different, realize meaningful change, realign our priorities and lead with our values. The radical transparency, and lack thereof, in 2020 brought to the surface issues we didn’t talk about before. One thing has been proven time and time again as we have persevered, learned, and grown: the impossible is possible if we are aligned in our goals and work together. We are seeing the value of coordinated and systemwide collaborative responses, parallel workflows replacing linear processes, and investment to incentivize experimentation and exploration.

Yiselle Santos Rivera: Increased awareness of how the build environment shapes how and why we interact with each other. There has never been a time where we have all been experiencing in real time the same circumstance yet so physically distant from each other. Recognition of connection and the spaces we use to connect/engage have become evident. Planning for the future must account for the need to provide for variability in the built environment to increase resiliency for the future. Question like how we consider future pandemic responses in our designs should/could become part of our vocabulary and design tool kit… awareness of the need for interconnectedness in the built environment and how that can either facilitate or hinder how we build community. 

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UCSD North Torrey Pines. Image © Kehaulani Crooks

Upali Nanda: Undoubtedly. I think about it in a simple ABCDE approach. A- Agility/ Adaptability will be a greater priority for design than ever- we will have to stop thinking about capital assets as “fixed” assets and really think of how they can shapeshift with the times and needs. B- Breathability. Our breath was held hostage in the pandemic and we all suffered. Fundamental human rights like light, fresh air, and access to nature became premiums. Going forward we will focus on breathable buildings, and breathable cities. C- Community & Citizenship. We all felt the loss of community and a realization that architecture/ urban planning played a key role in developing communities and potentially a stronger sense of citizenship and public health. This will impact how we design spaces. D- Digital Integration. Our designs will truly start addressing the hybrid nature of intertwined digital/physical, time/space assets. Footprints & cloudprints will have to be thought about together. And Finally, E- Equity- Social, Economic and Digital. As designers we will need to work across the design continuum to take ownership of creating equitable opportunities, by design.

In the short-term there will be a lot of focus on risk mitigation and infection control. It’s important to not be reactive in our approach. Healthy air, cleanable and non-toxic surfaces, access to outdoors, clear thresholds and separation help with all infectious diseases. The surge we will see in magic anti-microbials and snazzy decontamination technologies must be clearly reviewed in terms of their efficacy, and their cost to the environment. We have been down this path before, and it’s important that the reshaping of design is forward focused, not reactionary.

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HKS Hospital Asuncion Paraguay. Image Courtesy of HKS

As you look to the future, are there any ideas you think should be front and center in the minds of architects and designers?

Julie Hiromoto: Plan for the greater good, instead of everyone, one at a time. We will all get there faster and more effectively if we work together and help each other, instead of the exceptionalism of ‘me first’ or ‘I’m special.’ This doesn’t mean taking your foot off the gas and letting someone else do it for you; we all have a role to play. But each of us has different skills, talents, and superpowers to collectively bring about the change we want to see. Surround yourself and work with those complementary to you, instead of more of the same. We will all get where we want to be faster if we protect the common good and work towards shared collective goals. Architects have a duty to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Our design and impact go beyond our clients or building’s primary users to the greater community and our built and natural environment.

Yiselle Santos Rivera: How do you build for a resilient future within your practice, your firm, and your community. What practices and policies do you have in place that facilitate in creating equity not only for your colleagues but in your partnerships with all stakeholders in the design process. That the built environment is the backdrop for all human interactions and as designers of the built environment we can either be silent and complicit or an active and intentional leader in making a more just and inclusive world. We can either be mere participants or innovators increasing our agency by educating ourselves in what it means to be an advocate and accomplice for everyone. Asking ourselves who is missing at the table and elevating the voices of everyone that will be impacted, serviced, celebrated, and embraced by our designs.

Upali Nanda: I think I covered this in the previous point. In some ways the pandemic was like a giant band-aid getting ripped off- and making us aware of some of the issues that were always festering underneath. It’s possible to take a short-term knee-jerk reaction, but architects and designers should become trusted advisors to their clients and advice on forward thinking, evidence-based, scenario-based, resilient solutions.

Architects and designers must advocate clearly about the critical role design plays in reducing risk, increasing resilience, and fundamentally re-imagining an eco-system. To do so, we must invest in research & development, work with communities and a larger network of stakeholders and design partners and be seated on the tables that make policy decisions. We are entering an era of coalitions- where creating meaningful partnerships will be essential to growth.

About this author
Cite: Eric Baldwin. "The Women of HKS: Architects and Researchers Designing Resilient Cities" 19 Jan 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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Washington D.C.. Image Courtesy of HKS


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