Building Community: The Women of Sasaki Designing More Sustainable and Inclusive Futures

Celebrating community, three interdisciplinary leaders of design firm Sasaki are building space for change. Defining the future through collective, contextual, and values-driven projects, they are showing how working together produces greater impact. Following the belief that better design comes through open exchange and deep engagement, each of these women are creating more sustainable and inclusive futures.

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Courtesy of Sasaki

Building on ArchDaily's series celebrating the extraordinary women that shape our world, the following interview features three leaders at Sasaki. As Director of Sustainability and Resilience, Tamar Warburg, AIA, is advancing practices in sustainable and resilient design across disciplines. Mary Anne Ocampo, Principal at Sasaki and Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Hideo Sasaki Foundation, is an architectural and urban designer exploring the complex interrelationships of institutions, communities, and cities. Elizabeth von Goeler, NCIDQ, is a Principal and Chair of External Relations, as well as an interior designer with over 25 years of experience across sectors. Together, they discuss their design inspirations and challenges, as well as what it's like to practice today.

Why did you each choose to study design?

Tamar: In college I took a year to travel and study abroad, and was struck by the distinct architectural expressions of different communities, and how design influences lifestyle and civic engagement. It was a powerful and unforgettable awakening to the transformative impact of architecture. As Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

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Tamar Warburg, AIA. Image Courtesy of Sasaki

Mary Anne: I chose to study architectural design because I loved the creative process and the spirit of making and spatializing ideas that could contribute to people’s lives and experiences. What I realized along the way (with my architectural design education), was that I also wanted to understand the forces that shaped the design of cities. I chose to pursue urban design because it integrates the built environment as plural architectures, landscapes, mobility, and infrastructure. It is deeply tied to rigorous planning and meaningful community engagement, and responsive to cultural, economic, and environmental systems. Traveling throughout the world, I was drawn to the cultural uniqueness of each city and how it was reflected in the urban morphology and daily rituals of its residents. Urban design, for me, can have great societal impact.

Liz: As a kid I loved art and math, and studying design seemed like a great way to combine both. My mother subscribed to a bunch of magazines like Architectural Digest, W, and Vogue, and took us to a lot of museums and historical house sites, so I was exposed to the power of design early and took those lessons to heart. My father worked in an AIA award winning office building built halfway underground and going to visit him there was super cool.

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Courtesy of Sasaki

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

Tamar: I am fortunate to be working on several Sasaki projects where sustainability is a major driver in design decision-making.

  • Amherst College Student Center is an amazing design for a carbon-free, all-electric building, including a commercial kitchen for 1800 students.
  • Microsoft Azure offices aim for Fitwell certification, focusing on interiors that nurture health and wellness for all building users.
  • Pierce School in Brookline, MA is considering all aspects of sustainability in the review of design options: potential for net-zero energy, reduced embodied carbon, and maximum outdoor thermal comfort.

For all three projects, our design process integrates in-house expertise and modeling of total project energy use, water demand and reuse, and carbon emissions.

Mary Anne: Some projects that show the spectrum of urban design work that I have been doing at Sasaki in the last three years, include: campus planning for Syracuse University, Bryn Mawr College, and Albany State University; urban design for the Texas State Capitol Complex; and building an inclusive city for women in the Kabul City Urban Design Framework planning effort.

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Mary Anne Ocampo. Image Courtesy of Sasaki

Liz: As a workplace designer, I have been working on spaces for a variety of clients who want to rethink how they work—examining what brings people together, why people will want to come to the office, what they will do there, and how we can create an engaging and exciting place that attracts people?

My clients vary in size, from Fortune 100 companies to start ups, but the one thing they all have in common is wanting to think differently about their space. That is true for our office too, as we design our new home for occupancy in 2022. We will begin looking at these issues for our own office as well and create a space that addresses the changes technology and the pandemic have brought to workplace.

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

Tamar: I believe that we can incentivize gender equality in our industry by recognizing and valuing the unique strengths that women often bring to the design profession:

  • Communication skills, listening and negotiation
  • Collaboration and team leadership, inspiring others to do their best work
  • Sustainability, taking responsibility for future generations.

It is not a coincidence that many of the finest Sustainability Directors in major architecture firms are women. These skills are critical to supporting client and team efforts to integrate environmental values, building science, and social justice into the design and construction process.

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Courtesy of Sasaki

Mary Anne: To achieve gender equality, I believe that we have to understand that gender equity is a process that means being fair. To ensure fairness, it means contextualizing and compensating for women’s historical and social disadvantages that have prevented them from operating on a level playing field. We also have to be aware of other forms of oppression, like racial discrimination, that intersect with gender and create multiple disadvantages for people.

Three changes that can help us achieve greater gender equality as an industry and society are: First, assessing and acknowledging the inherent biases within systems and implementing new policies and actions that can be measured to track improvements. For me, to really change a culture of bias, means acknowledging the bias and reexamining the decision-making process and policies to start changing old habits. Second, ensuring there are professional opportunities for women, and that they have proper sponsorship and role models. Third, making sure there is pay equity for women.

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Elizabeth von Goeler, NCIDQ. Image Courtesy of Sasaki

Liz: What a big question! I think we must start connecting with young people earlier and sharing with them that women are able to pursue careers in construction, whether that be design, engineering, or in the field. We do not set that expectation early enough, or they assume that the amount of math would be overwhelming.

As a society, we must reach a point where construction jobs are not seen as second class. We are steering people away from good paying, stable jobs, where lots of people are retiring because they are not valued. Yet these jobs are a great opportunity for people to be able to support themselves and their families.

Childcare can be a barrier to women remaining in the workforce because many times it makes sense for a mom to stay home financially, not just culturally. For many women, we will need to have reliable, high-quality childcare to keep more women in the workforce. Once you leave it, it is hard to return to work, especially due to the speed of technological changes.

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Courtesy of Sasaki

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

Tamar: Sasaki is already adapting to our changing planet. We do not design for today’s environment, because our climate is changing. We use future weather data projections to plan for rising sea levels, warming temperatures, and stronger storms. For the athletic facilities at Princeton University, we are basing systems design on projected data for 2050 and 2080, rather than the current climate. Our buildings will still stand in 2080 and are designed for use for generations of students to come.

Mary Anne: I believe that designers must maintain relevancy by adapting their practices to accommodate larger societal needs and environmental issues. There is great urgency in planning and designing for climate change and social justice within our cities and communities. How will the design of our cities, buildings, and landscapes reflect our values? Who are we designing for?

I believe that many practices will center on strategies that create more sustainable and resilient built environments. Designing for changing climate will focus on decarbonization and strategies that address hazards like flooding. Technology will play a crucial role in how we utilize data to inform design research, processes, and solutions. I believe that civic technology and increased awareness of community engagement as a means for better design will also help designers focus on how we contribute to social justice through our processes.

Liz: Working during COVID restrictions, we have been learning how to effectively collaborate, present, and express ourselves through technology. I think we will continue to evolve these technologies even after we return to work given that we will travel less and continue to work in a distributed manner.

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Courtesy of Sasaki

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?

Tamar: What does it take to advance in this profession? Not just long working hours, but access to resources: networks for clients and investors. Until women have this access, it will be challenging for women to win commissions and earn positions as principals and stockholders. Fortunately, an increasing number of client networks include women in leadership positions. And firms can foster inclusion by mentoring rising women architects and helping them cultivate business development skills, speaking opportunities, and professional networks.

Mary Anne: I think the disparity comes from a variety of complex factors. First, I think that it is wonderful that nearly half of architecture students are women, but architecture schools are still confronting cultures of discrimination and bias. Some of the biases are the absence women in design programs. Many curricula are not exposing students to historic roles women have played as designers, planners, clients, or critics and lack proper representation of women faculty and administrators. We are seeing great progress in this last decade with many great women leading architecture schools: Dean J. Meejin Yoon at Cornell, Dean Sarah Whiting at Harvard, Dean Deborah Berke at Yale, Dean Mónica Ponce de León at Princeton, and Dean Amale Andraos at Columbia, among others. There has been tremendous advocacy for women by faculty like Lori Brown at Syracuse University and students across the country, who are focusing their research and activism for gender equity.

In professional practice, I think the disparity of women in leadership or missing in practice is because of several challenges that have been researched and documented from interviews, survey data, and policy research. Despina Stratigakos states in her book Where are the Women Architects? that the pervasive inequality of professional opportunities and treatment as well as male-dominated culture lie at the heart of most women’s exodus from architecture. I believe that pay gaps, stalled promotions, work-life balance, lack of sponsorship and lack of role models contribute to women leaving. These moments of attrition accumulate over time. Zhanina Boyadzhieva and Juliet Chun’s Girl UNinterrupted work is a wonderful research initiative that engages professionals from across the country to understand some of these challenges, highlight anecdotal narratives that underscore these experiences, and recommends some ideas for how to improve the culture of architecture for women.

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Courtesy of Sasaki

Liz: There are many factors affecting who remains in architecture and making it to the level of principal. I see a lot of people that study architecture as a first step to working in other parts of the profession. Many of my industry peers, regardless of gender, have moved to development, working as a product representative, or even into the legal field.

Moving into a principal position is complicated because it requires building a network of people that will be your clients or connect you to clients. You also have to be interested in aspects of running a business and finances, which isn’t what brings people into architecture in the first place. My friends who haven’t stayed in the field or didn’t look to move to leadership positions were largely uninterested in that type of work.

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

Tamar: COVID-19 has been a difficult challenge for our economy, but it has also taught us a great deal about the value of excellent design. It has granted us renewed appreciation of the importance of public open spaces that are beautiful, inclusive, and flexible for a range of activities in all seasons. We have reconsidered how we use our streets, parking areas, and sidewalks—adapting them for a range of new uses. We have also learned to stretch our thermal comfort envelope, and how to dress to be comfortable outdoors in a far wider range of temperatures than we once thought possible. Who knew that my dance group would enjoy dancing in a parking lot in 30-degree weather?

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Courtesy of Sasaki

Mary Anne: I think the pandemic highlights two major areas of focus for designers: First, focusing on people and seeing the populations that were disproportionately affected by the pandemic should be a concern that architects and designers focus on in the future. How is your work contributing to communities where there is greatest need? Second, I believe that the design of the built environment will center on improving building systems (HVAC), focusing on building typologies that promote health and wellness, designing more open spaces, and planning for mobility systems that promote a variety of modes of movement. With a new paradigm of online interaction, the built environment will also need to accommodate new infrastructure that can provide wireless access and technology to more people.

Liz: I think the pandemic will change our priorities. As someone who designs a lot of workplaces, we are rethinking not just how we work, but why we will go back to the workplace at all. I think the pandemic will cause us to rethink our assumptions in many areas of design because our priorities as people will have changed. We can reimagine so many more aspects of work than we would have been in the iterative process that workplace design used to be. We are designing richer environments and embracing spaces that are designed for flexibility of use and a workforce that changes by the day.

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

Tamar: Architects generate value and help create wealth. However, true value for the long-term derives from sustainability, from creating value for future generations. As our population grows and global resources shrink, we must design for environmental and social justice, using finite energy and water resources sparingly and equitably. By reducing our carbon emissions from the built environment, future generations can survive and thrive long after we, ourselves, are ‘recycled’.

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Courtesy of Sasaki

Mary Anne: I believe that some of the most important ideas for architects and designers will be centered on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and figuring out ways to contribute to more equitable processes and practices. I think firms will reflect on their own organization’s practice and how this relates to different scales of community, from their office to the industry, to the clients and communities that are impacted by their work.

As an industry, we must reflect on the social justice conflicts that have been thrust into our collective consciousness and consider the role of the designer in promoting equity through how we work and the work we choose. The urgency of designing a more sustainable and resilient built environment will require us, as designers and planners, to really tackle climate change and how cities, buildings, landscapes, mobility, and infrastructure can be planned and reimagined to solve multiple problems at once.

Liz: We should be thinking about the impact that the built environment has on our bodies—how we can create spaces that will allow us to be our best wherever we are. This means designing spaces that contribute to physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing as well as beauty. Many of these principles are outlined in the WELL certification process, which I fully believe will become more important as we reconsider the space around us post-pandemic and place a greater emphasis on wellness.

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Cite: Eric Baldwin. "Building Community: The Women of Sasaki Designing More Sustainable and Inclusive Futures" 26 Jan 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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