Founder and principal Sharon Davis is an award-winning practitioner whose work is driven by a deep belief in the transformative power of design. In 2007, after a successful career in finance and a Master’s of Architecture degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, where she received the Lucille Smyser Lowenfish Memorial Prize, Davis created her firm as a launching pad for collaborative design practice dedicated to human-centered environments around the globe.
Most recently, Davis was featured as one of the “19 Women Architects to watch in 2019” and in “From A to Zaha: 26 Women Who Changed Architecture” by Architizer. Curbed named her one of six “Groundbreakers” for “buildings that look good and do great.” Her firm recently won the 2019 healthcare category at the World Architecture Festival for the Bayalpata Hospital in rural Nepal. Davis is also an Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, where she has taught an advanced studio centered on women’s education in urban Rwanda.
In her conversation with Amy Stone from Madame Architect, Davis talks about starting her architectural career later in life and focusing on need and mission-based community projects, advising young architects to start their careers before starting a family, and to continue working while raising children.
This article was originally published on Madame Architect.
Amy Stone: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
Sharon Davis: I graduated in 1982 from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, with a degree in fine art. Not only did my college not have an undergraduate degree in architecture, it never would have occurred to me at that age to study architecture. I came to New York as an artist, but when I realized I wasn’t going to make a living, I went into finance. I got an MBA from NYU and worked in financial markets for over a decade while I had young kids. I had my last child when I was 39 and stopped working for a little while to care for her.
After a couple of years at home, I felt ready to go back to work, but I didn’t want to go back into finance! That industry moves so fast, and two years is almost too long to be out. I was really struggling with what I wanted to do next and so I went to see a career counselor, took various personality tests, and ended up with all indicators pointing toward architecture. I said, “But that’s a three-year degree! I’ll be 45 by the time I graduate!” The counselor looked at me and said, “I hate to tell you but you are going to be 45 no matter what you do.”
She convinced me to go to Columbia as a continuing-ed student and take a freshman undergrad class in architecture. I was with eighteen-year-olds, but I loved it. I took the next class as well as the summer program at Columbia that gives you a glance at what grad school is like. Then I applied to grad school and just kept going. It’s interesting to me that I ended up in architecture much later in my life because if I had been trained as a designer in 1982, I would have been a completely different designer than I am today.
This is amazing! And it is a great example that it’s never too late! What did you learn about yourself while you were studying architecture at Columbia?
I reconnected with the artistic side of myself, which I had been connected to throughout my entire childhood and through college. It’s what was missing in my life in finance, that artistic expression. What I really loved about Columbia was the teaching of research and critical thinking – that deep dive into research, not necessarily knowing where you are going, but having ideas coalesce in your brain as a part of the creative process.
How did you get your start in the field?
While I was working on a very small project for myself with an architect of record, I was approached about a project in Rwanda by a friend who was connected to the organization Women for Women International. I met with a donor and then a board member who really believed in me. She is very intuitive about her process. She is the one who wanted the women to learn how to make bricks. I said “Sure! I can teach women how to make bricks.” I had no idea how to do it, but I knew I’d figure it out.
So, I started building in foreign countries. In school, I didn’t know that would be my trajectory, but since my young adulthood, I focused on sustainability and humanitarian causes. I expected to bring the sustainability piece into my work, even though when I graduated in 2006, sustainability was just barely gaining traction at Columbia. Incorporating a humanitarian focus in architecture never occurred to me, but when it came together with the project in Rwanda, I was like, “Wow! This makes so much sense.”
Tell me more about the work that you do that has stemmed from this.
Our first project in Rwanda led to other opportunities in the country. I loved spending time there, and tangentially being a part of that community and culture. I was also approached by an NGO, Possible Health, to design a hospital in a very rural part of Nepal, a project we recently completed after five years of construction. My firm is currently working with Henry Red Cloud of the Oglala Lakota tribe in South Dakota to provide affordable housing for a group of about thirty families which is exciting.
What kind of practice have you established that has allowed you to carry out these projects?
I’ve really focused on having a very small practice, where I can be involved with the creative work. At one point, the firm started growing to more than ten employees. I realized I was just managing people and was not getting to design. I tried to take a measured approach to what I wanted by focusing on one project at a time. As a result, we are back to being a small firm.
I was very fortunate that so many people loved that first project in Rwanda and that I’ve received so much publicity for it. It has opened many doors for me and I am grateful to the people who recognized it early on and really supported my work over the years.
Where are you in your career today? What do you see as your trajectory forward?
I’d really love to keep doing this kind of work, but specifically in our part of the world especially because international travel is getting harder for me and because there are so many places closer to home that are in need. For example, the community I mentioned in South Dakota is one of the poorest counties in the United States, where only about 40% of the population obtains a high school education. We are now focusing on important need-based, mission-specific work in the US while also having one small project at a time overseas.
How has being a mother and raising a family played into your practice?
Oh my God, it’s impossible [laughs]. I had three kids who were starting high school when I was going back to school. I was so lucky Columbia was fifteen minutes from where I lived. At night when I was in school, I would go home at 6, have dinner with my youngest and put her to bed, and then go back and stay until 11 or whenever I finished my work.
One of the reasons my practice has stayed small is because I have other priorities. My family is still a priority, plus I’ve just become a grandmother.
Congratulations! How unique and exciting to be a grandmother while still raising your children. I love your frankness, ‘It’s impossible!’ People ask me how I’m doing school and work and raising a family at the same time. Honestly, I drop balls all the time but I just pick them up, reset, and keep going.
Looking back at it all, what have been the biggest challenges for you?
The biggest challenges have been managing the business of it. I was very cavalier having had an MBA and having worked in finance. I thought this would be easy, but architecture is a really challenging business. We are providing a service, similar to a law firm or a consulting firm, like McKinsey, but we don’t get paid equivalently. In the legal profession a mid-level lawyer could charge $500 for an hour – that would not happen in an architecture firm.
As an industry we have to advocate for our value and explain our practice to the outside world. For example, if you are going through a divorce, you are willing to pay for a really good lawyer. If you are building a home that you want to stand the test of time and want to sell as an asset, you should want the same value for your money. There isn’t that kind of acknowledgment of standards and what we do in the outside world. Another challenging aspect, and I don’t say this in a negative way, is managing people. Especially if you are a creative type, that can be challenging.
What have been your biggest highlights?
Definitely finishing and opening the Women’s Opportunity Center, for sure. The kind of recognition that I have gotten through that and other work since then is something I never expected in my career. We just finished the Bayalpata Hospital in Nepal which won the healthcare category at the World Architecture Festival this year. I was trying to explain to a friend that entering awards can seem narcissistic, but I find it’s a way for us to share these meaningful humanitarian projects with other people. I have really appreciated both the recognition and the opportunity to inspire others.
Yes! It’s a great cause. That’s how I came across your work – through the Design for Good exhibition that included the Women’s Opportunity Center. It was so exciting to hear the good news of what you are doing.
And it feels exciting. When you are working on a project where you are working hard and flying overseas for seven years, it’s nice to have a moment of celebration around it.
Who are you admiring right now and why?
Two people come to mind. The first is Shigeru Ban. He is also working in this humanitarian area and using recycled materials. He does it with grace and elegance. I really appreciate his values and his moral stance.
I would say the same with Francis Kéré. I have seen him speak a number of times and I love his enthusiasm for his homeland and for bringing his community together through collaboration. I find his ability to rally people together, either locally or internationally really inspiring.
What impact are you looking to have in the world? What is it you hope to see achieved?
On a global level outside of my own practice, sustainability is the most important issue that we are facing. I would say the most ambitious thing I imagine designing would be a zero-energy building. If I think of a grand goal, that would be it. I’m so hopeful that many architectural organizations are now focusing on those ambitions. It’s certainly a big change from 2006.
Very true. What advice do you have for those who are starting their career?
Start your career before you have children so you can get the first two or three really tough beginner years behind you. Also, don’t stop working when you have kids. It’s really hard to get back into the profession if you say you are going to take two years off. Even if it costs you as much to pay a babysitter and healthcare, keeping your foot in the door with a firm that knows you and gives you the opportunity to come back is very important. It’s really hard to go back.
Had you not taken that break from finance earlier on, do you think you would have switched careers or would you have stayed in the finance market?
I probably would have stayed in finance. In my case, it was a good idea to take time off, but I’m pretty unique example in that field.
Really? Is there anything you wish you knew when you were starting out that you know now?
My answer is very contradictory because I wish I had known then how difficult a profession it is – hence probably staying in finance – but if I had known what a difficult a profession it is, I might not have done it, and I’m so glad that I did. There’s the contradiction.
I’ve said the same. When I meet others who want to get into the architecture, I don’t know whether to hug them and walk with them down the road or shove them away as hard and fast as I can. It’s so funny to have that dichotomy – I absolutely understand that. But you’ve said that you would have kept going anyway.
At the point where I had taken all those classes, I don’t feel like there was another direction for me. I was hooked. That is sort of the essence of architecture, right? You get hooked and there is no other goal that you want.