National Building Museum Online (NBM Online): Please tell our readers a little about the history of Sharon Davis Design. Give us a snapshot of what the culture of your practice is like. How does it differ from other firms?
Sharon Davis (SD): I founded Sharon Davis Design in 2007, after earning a master of architecture degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. My vision for the firm has always been focused on collaborative design, sustainability, and public–interest projects.
The firm’s design for the Women’s Opportunity Center in Kayonza, Rwanda is one prime example of our practice, since it required a holistic perspective for meeting long-term social and economic demands, particularly as they related to local Rwandan culture and available natural resources. To meet these demands, we began working in collaboration with an environmental engineer, structural engineer, and landscape designer. This practice of interdisciplinary collaboration still defines the firm’s culture; we now also work under the umbrella of Big Future Group, a 501c3 focusing on international humanitarian architecture.
NBM Online: What would you say is the driving philosophy behind your design process?
SD: Sharon Davis Design’s process is dedicated to engineering sustainable design solutions that improve the way people live and work and preserve the health and integrity of natural environments. This philosophy drives us to engage with the needs of local communities from the outset; rather than prioritize external ambitions in drafting a design, we discuss the social and economic issues at the heart of the problem we are trying to solve. We believe that by closely engaging with local communities at every stage of the project, we are honoring the voices of individuals. By giving communities a sense of ownership over the process, they are also more prepared to make maximum use of the building upon completion. In short: our designs work from inside to outside to ensure an organic structure closely aligned with the needs and values of the people we are serving.
NBM Online: Do you think architects have a responsibility to design socially responsible projects?
SD: I do believe that architects have an obligation to address individual client needs through every aspect of the design; we have a moral responsibility to use our knowledge and skills to enhance the existing environments of communities. It would be too easy for design to singularly function around the ambitions of the architect; as builders we have to remain oriented around the people we seek to benefit. In this way, no one project is ever the same. The demands of each project varies depending on the client or user and the kinds of societies, economies, and cultures in which they participate.
NBM Online: What role does environmental sustainability play in the design, materials, and execution of your firm’s projects?
SD: When executing projects, my firm prioritizes finding the local materials, processes, and workforce needed to ensure an environmentally sustainable structure. We are meticulous about formulating designs that are economically conscious; we base our designs out of available natural resources and existing social infrastructures.
NBM Online: Describe a project that you found especially challenging, either from a logistical or conceptual perspective, and tell us a bit about how you overcame that.
SD: Sourcing building material of reliable quality and economic feasibility was one of the major issues in Rwanda. The 450,000 clay bricks needed for the construction of WOC were made at the center by local women, using a durable manual press method which we adapted from local building techniques. We had to rigorously study traditional brickmaking processes, adapt the water-to-soil ratio to produce a more durable mixture, and engineer a firing method that would not only ensure a high-quality final product, but could also be easily implemented by women working at the center. As a result, local women are learning new marketable, income-generating skills.
NBM Online: Who are/were some of the women who have had the greatest influence on your work?
SD: Louise Braverman and Leslie Gill, two esteemed women who have their own architectural firms. Both of them have advised me and encouraged me over the last ten years.
NBM Online: Where would you like to see Sharon Davis Design go in the future? What types of projects or issues are you interested in that you haven’t yet gotten the chance to address?
SD: At Sharon Davis Design, we define ourselves by the impact that our work has on communities as much as the aesthetic or functional value it possesses. In the future, I hope to have an opportunity to work with my own local community on designing public spaces and responding to the issues of affordable housing.
NBM Online: This panel discussion takes place during, and in celebration of, Women’s History Month. Some historians and critics distinguish between architectural history and social history, placing women’s designs into social history. Do you agree?
SD: The most important buildings through the ages have been ones that meet “social needs.” I don’t think it’s possible to separate architectural history from social history.
NBM Online: How would you characterize the fields of architecture and design in terms of the current climate for women practicing in the field?
SD: It is encouraging to see more women entering the architecture and design fields, but discouraging to see the wage gap between male and female architects of comparable abilities.
NBM Online: What is one bit of advice you would give young women studying architecture right now?
SD: I have a small object on my desk engraved with this quote: “what would you attempt to do, if you knew you could not fail?” to remind me that if I don’t follow my dreams I certainly won’t end up fulfilling them.