Firms Collaborating on the Science Center

Tim and the Crew

The Wellesley College Science Center has been a collaborative process from the beginning. The individual firms and their respective teams have been invaluable in furthering Wellelsey's diversity and inclusion goals for design and construction. Before this stage of the project began, Wellesley partnered with Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill(SOM) on architectural design. Within the field of architecture there has consistently been a pipeline for white men to progress to the top of the industry. However, in recent years, Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill has begun adapting their work environment to chip away at issues of inequity that have always existed in the industry.

Lulu Li, an architect who also worked on the Science Center project, describes the effort to change; "SOM is an old firm. We've been around a very long time and the changes that happen in it sometimes I've heard it described like the Titanic... more like it's a big ship and when you turn the wheel it can't make a 180 all at once.

Initiatives at SOM take many forms, both top down from management like an actionable plan that includes workforce education, and guided by the community like minority support groups. Although SOM partnered with Wellesley on the design of the Science Center before the diversity initiative for construction was in place, they have adapted it as part of their practice on site.

When working on the Science Center SOM's team was of course collaborating on the design for a historically women's college. Noticeably, in meeting the client lead and Director of the Science Center Cathy Summa made inclusion a priority.

Lulu Li, an architect for SOM described the environment of these design meetings, "Wellesley['s] environment was very eye opening to me as well. Going to some of my first faculty meetings where Cathy would be like "Lulu how did you let all the male faculty sit at one table and all the female faculty sit at another table?," It opened my eyes about how we navigate these issues, not just on paper, our values that we really want to advance.

"Our team is very diverse, not just in terms of gender... I'm an immigrant and there are other immigrant workers in our team too. It's really magical, like Lulu said, magical chemistry for this whole team to be such a bonded team. I've heard other people in the office ask us, why is the Wellesley team so different, like we're all hanging out too like after work"-- Boer Deng
"It was an extremely collaborative team, more so than other projects I've been on. With a lot more support, a lot more listening to each other, and a kind of detail orientedness that makes a really complex project with existing conditions and so many specific, bespoke details to be something that we could all manage together, and I think that was probably the strength of the diversity that we have." -- Lulu Li

Day to day construction of the Science Center project is overseen by a team of assistant superintendents from Turner Construction. Aside from the technical abilities needed for the job, the superintendents manage a diverse workforce. One assistant super, Yolanda Maurrisant, described the difficulties of working with foremen who were often older than her and had worked in the industry longer at times when there may not have been women on site. But her confidence and the feedback from superiors that it was a role and industry that she belonged in was reassuring.

One aspect of the job meant going around the construction site and collecting information on the progress from every foreman there. As the project progressed Maurrisant noticed one foreman was slow to give the information that was required and wouldn't comply with the same procedures as everyone else. It was clear that she was being treated differently. In the end Maurrisant directly confronted the issue on site and their working relationship improved.

Although there is still a long way to go until diversity in construction in any way mirrors the country at large, shifts in the industry are taking steps to be more inclusive. Speaking about the working environment when there aren't only men on site Maurrisant says, "I think the way construction's moving is actually improving work life even for men too. We had guys have an argument on site. Nowadays, what would have been allowed back then isn't allowed now, how guys would fight on site or speak to each other inappropriately. But the way things are changing in construction, that's not happening anymore and that's not acceptable."

Construction sites are slowly becoming more inclusive places, and with that requires more awareness of the behaviors that are acceptable. Although some of the change may be based in outdated ideas about what you can and can't do in front of women. No one should hold back on self reflection when they could be creating a safer, more professional work environment for everyone.

Other areas within the AEC industry face similar challenges with representation for younger workers that aren't white men. Emily Mueller De Celis, a landscape architect and a partner at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the firm working on the Science Center project, has been working on landscape design at the college for over 20 years. Part of her decision to pursue a career in the field of landscape architecture came from issues of representation in traditional architecture. "Landscape architecture was male dominated at the top, but there were a lot more women coming through landscape architecture...I have degrees in both but, I felt like I had more potential growth... and [would be] able to be more in a decision making position within the field." Since there were more women higher up in the field it was an encouraging start to pursue that career further where she might be able to progress to a position like a partner of a major firm as she is today.

Partners in the Wellesley college Science Center project represent companies that share their same ideals of diversity and inclusion in design and construction. Even before the college set their intentions to numbered goals, many of the partnered firms took steps to address inequality in their respective fields. Firms like Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Turner, and Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill who make addressing diversity and inclusion a priority are examples of the change that is necessary in their fields. The changes that they make in their own companies has a larger effect on the industry as a whole so long as the change doesn't stop with them.