Published June 2, 2022
Crafting a Future With Purpose
Featuring: Gensler's Lisa Cholmondeley
By Jen Levisen
Designers and architects have the unique ability to apply their solution-based skills — and limitless creativity — to craft a future with purpose. And that future with purpose is beautifully illustrated by the teams at Gensler's Research Institute. Learn more about Gensler's Center for Research on Equity and the Built Environment in this conversation with co-director Lisa Cholmondeley.
In the summer of 2020, the Gensler Research Institute established the Center for Research on Equity and the Built Environment, focused on funding research dedicated to addressing systemic racism, unconscious bias, and social justice. The Center is co-directed by Lisa Cholmondeley, a principal and design manager based in Gensler's San Francisco office, and Roger Smith, an architectural Design Director in Gensler's Morristown, N.J., office.
"We have a large research institute, and we hadn't thought about black lives and design equity. So this has been an amazing opportunity to bring all of the pieces of me together and to move a conversation forward for our industry around a topic that we haven't paid attention to," says Cholmondeley.
In a blog article recapping the Center's first year, Cholmondeley said their challenge was to turn the firm's call-to-action, a five-part Strategies to Fight Racism, into a long-term commitment that energizes and dynamically informs our offices and regions. Fifteen projects were funded in the summer of 2020, as well as a new round of projects in April 2021.
Cholmondeley's favorite project so far?
"That's like asking who is your favorite child," she says. "There are quite a few. For example, a team was looking at climate and justice and they started the project by saying here is a problem we've identified in many communities, and we have a solution for it," she says. "And we said, 'That's super interesting, but wouldn't it be better if you identified a solution with those living there?' [The team's] work with the community has been beautiful to watch."
Another project was Education and the BIPOC Experience, which surveyed students from 18 predominantly public high schools in New York City to learn how to improve feelings of safety and belonging for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students. Gensler connected with these students through its long-standing partnership with ACE Mentor Program, a free, award-winning, afterschool program designed to attract high school students into pursuing careers in the architecture, construction, and engineering industries, including skilled trades.
"One key finding that the team found was that materials carry deep meaning to students, and the way architects design amplifies wealth disparity subconsciously ..."
"One key finding that the team found was that materials carry deep meaning to students, and the way architects design amplifies wealth disparity subconsciously," says Cholmondeley. "It's not surprising that people would make connections between buildings and materials. Students are looking at the quality of a building and deciding what could happen inside that space. But some are saying, 'That is a place I don't belong,' and that is a really complex assessment. That material has meaning, and I'm not worthy of it.
"If you as a school system invest in your buildings, your students see that and understand that. Students talked about comfort and safety and that some materials feel safer to them," she says. "If we are to address inequalities that exist inside and outside the classroom, then empathy, consideration, and understanding must underpin educational design."
As Cholmondeley, Smith, and their colleagues continue their efforts and select additional research projects to pursue, the results of previous projects are being published:
As an integrated architecture, design, planning, and consulting firm with 5,500+ professionals across over 50 global offices, Gensler is uniquely positioned to lead in areas impacting the built environment.
" ... as the world's largest design firm we need to move this conversation forward. We've focused on accessibility and sustainability and you've seen how we've been impactful in those areas."
"Everyone should be doing this type of work," says Cholmondeley, "and as the world's largest design firm we need to move this conversation forward. We've focused on accessibility and sustainability and you've seen how we've been impactful in those areas. Equity will be the same. We will also reach the point, in less than a lifetime, that in the same way we can't design without being accessible, we will also not be able to design without being equitable."