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BRIC architects talk about their work designing Sherwood High School, the future outlook for education projects and raising women to C-level seats in the architecture industry

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Karina Ruiz, left, a principal with BRIC Architecture, and Tonie Esteban, an associate principal with the firm, led design efforts for a new high school currently under construction in Sherwood. When the new Sherwood High School opens this fall, it reportedly will be the largest high school building in Oregon.

Karina Ruiz, a principal and co-founder of BRIC Architecture, and Tonie Esteban, and associate principal with the firm, recently sat down to talk with the Business Tribune about their experience leading the design team for the high school work and what the industry needs to do to move more women into C-suite positions. The conversation has been edited for clarity and space.

Business Tribune: First of all, would you please tell us a bit about BRIC Architecture

Karina Ruiz: BRIC Architecture is a relatively new venture. We're entering into our third year. We're the largest majority woman-owned architecture firm in the state. …The name actually stands for "building relationships and inspiring communities," and that really is who we are as people and who we are as a firm. We focus our work primarily on the design of learning environments. We believe strongly in design as a vehicle to empower learners to change the world. And that is kind of what we try to, to model every day.

Tonie Esteban: I've never been in a place where we've been rowing together in the same direction quite like I have (at BRIC). We've been fortunate in our short time as a firm, even though many of us have worked together in the past, to be in a place where we are contributing to the design of many of the largest projects that are currently going on in the K-12 sphere in Oregon. And that has been a great sense of both pride and also (a) confirmation that our mission is one that is resonating with the educational marketplace.

BT: Let's talk about the new high school that's being built in Sherwood.

Esteban: It's a massive project, just physically, (and) it's a huge change for the community. Our firm feels very fortunate to be a part of it. It opens up this coming fall, and we're starting to see video of it come together. … For me, it was by far the biggest project I'd ever been a part of. (It was) overwhelming at times for our entire team, but I'm extremely proud of the fact that … we were able to assemble a team of others to really power through. It's a 720-acre site. It's on the edge of town. It's four stories — or really four-and-a-half stories. There's a brand new football stadium. There are two multipurpose fields. Some people mentioned to me this earlier that it feels like a college campus because it's really such a comprehensive site for the community.

COURTESY: BRIC ARCHITECTURE - In addition to serving as a principal at BRIC Architecture, Karina Ruiz, right, has dedicated herself to providing mentorship for the future generations of women architects.

BT: What was it like to be working on a project that large?

Ruiz: I think it allowed us to, I don't want to use the word "play" loosely here, but play at a scale that we haven't before and to really think about kind of what that scale allows you to do in terms of impact. We were fortunate in the sense that as leaders of the project, we were able to build a team around us of engineers. We have great partners in our contractor at Skanska and our program manager at Cornerstone. Equally important, if not more important, … is the superintendent of the school district, a woman, Dr. Heather Cordie, who worked really in concert with us to imagine what a high school could be and what we wanted specifically this high school to be.

BT: So, you got to work with the superintendent, who was a woman. When you have a woman owner associated with the project in the lead, does it change the tone or the way that you approach a project?

Esteban: I'm not sure that it changes it, but I will say this, the team out there, the owner's rep and the contractor and our team, I never felt like they were treating us differently because we were women. I felt respected. I'm not sure if having a woman as the ultimate owner influenced that. But with Karina and myself and Heather Cordie in the room, we were certainly pretty dominant and respected. So maybe it did change the dynamic, but I don't think it was a problem. (Skanska) … has a lot of diversity and inclusion programs that they're working on. That's a big thing for them.

Ruiz: While I agree with Tonie that I certainly had never felt that I was being singled out or treated differently as a woman. I will say that having been in this career now for over 20 years, it was one of the few times where being a woman in the room didn't feel strange. That's kind of a subtle difference in the sense that as this project grew and as there were more women in leadership roles across all of the firms, it became the first time, one of the first times in my career where it didn't feel strange to me to walk in and see many women at the table. I think that's probably the biggest difference that I noticed.

Esteban: I will also mention this: the contractor team at Skanska, we were very familiar with each other. I had worked with them at Franklin High School for Portland Public Schools three or four years prior. So, we were just coming off of that. I had sort of established a certain amount of respect, and they knew my style, and they knew that I had the kudos to back up what I was saying. I walked into the room, and they knew where I was coming from, and I knew where they were coming from. But that was built over time. So I will say, I never felt like I was being treated differently, more that contractors and subcontractors would be surprised to see what I look like and how my role, but it was never really in a good, in a, sorry, in a bad way. It was just surprise. And once I kind of got familiar with people and, and established common ground, it was never a problem.

COURTESY: BRIC ARCHITECTURE - Tonie Esteban, an associate principal at BRIC Architecture, in action on a project site.

BT: Does it bother you that the media, such as architecture and design magazines, feel the need to point that an architect is a woman, as opposed to just saying, "Karina is an architect" or "Tonie is an architect"?

Ruiz: Despite the kind of successes that Tonie and I are talking about, there is still a lot of work to be done. I think we were talking earlier that the American Institute of Architects' Equity By Design survey has found that still, even in their latest survey of, I think it's close to over 14,000 respondents, 90% of firms that they are familiar with are run by either all white or mostly white folks. And over 70% are run by all male or mostly male in their firms. So, there's still a lot of work to be done certainly at that C-suite level. I think we're seeing certainly more women enter architectural schools and careers, but there does seem to be a bit of a breakdown in terms of their escalation to positions of power on projects and also in firms. I think

Esteban: I have a lot of theories. I'm approaching my mid-40s and in architecture school, there were a lot of women. And then, in grad school, there were a few less women. In our 20s, we were all working. And then once we started our families, a lot of women decided to stay home for good reasons. Not judging those choices, but I think there are some things with the architecture career in general, systematic things (regarding) leadership opportunities and all that.

There are also some cultural things. There were people in my family who assumed that I would stop working once I had kids and really judged me for that. It was hard for me to speak up and say, "No, that's not how I'm going to raise my family." And quite frankly, I have to do that a lot still — and my kids are pretty old.

I'm Mexican-American, and (older) Mexican women, their version of motherhood is a lot different than I think modern day is. So that limits you in terms of (thinking), "I'll let down my family if I pursue this career." I think that still exists. But … what I'm saying is it's not just up to the architecture profession to fix this. You can create all the opportunities in the world, but there are just certain perceptions that people have that probably need to be challenged more. And that's a very personal thing.

I was very, very, very fortunate. Karina and I are not only work partners, but I've also known her for more than 20 years. She is one of the biggest influences in my professional career. We're also very good friends. I also have a very supportive husband and a lot of role models and friends who are also working moms. So that allowed me to say "no" (to pressure from my family), that allowed me to say there is another way and I am supported. And if more women maybe had that, maybe things would change.

PMG FILE PHOTO - BRIC Architecture served as project architect for the new Sherwood High School, which wil be ready for students this fall.

BT: There has been a ton of school construction work going on for the past several years, but we aren't done yet, are we?

Ruiz: There is a lot more. It seems as though schools are always in need of repair or growth, so I don't think we're seeing a slowdown. I will say, this year (BRIC) will open probably more high schools than I've ever seen opened, let alone in one firm. Right. I think BRIC will open six high schools this fall or K-12. We're also working on a K-12 campus in Seaside, which has a high school component, Milwaukie High School.

What we are seeing, I think, are always ebbs and flows. … Since the beginning of BRIC, we've been running a marathon at a sprinter's pace. At one point, we had all of our projects and construction documents at the same time, which is overwhelming. (Now) we're starting to see at an ability to kind of step down into a more sustainable pace. … We've got projects in design and in construction and in planning.


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