Big Interview: Beth Chaney-Walker and Diana Braaksma, part one.

Beth and Diana

In the first part of this two-parter with twin sisters Beth Chaney-Walker, of Chaney & Norman Architects, and Diana Braaksma, of Studio Pacific Architecture, you’ll read about the way they broke into the world of architecture, their take on the state of the profession, and how DEI differs from one Accord signatory to another.

You’ve both pursued a career in architecture. How did this come about?

Diana Braaksma: We both ended up doing the same degree together, which wasn’t what either of us deliberately intended. Being twins, people often assume that we made those career decisions together, however in the end I think it came down to similar interests and skillsets. I think I was about 11 when I decided I was going to be an architect without probably knowing exactly what it was. I loved playing with Lego and making houses and loved drawing house plans, which always had a ridiculous number of rooms and for some reason always included horse stables and tack rooms – even though I knew absolutely nothing about horses!

I explored other options a little at high school, thinking maybe graphic design was for me, or advertising. But I always came back to wanting to study architecture. Beth’s journey was a little different though, right?

Beth Chaney-Walker: I bounced around a lot in finding what I wanted to do. I was really interested at school in sciences, particularly physics and the like. I’m quite the nerd. I really love science. But I also really love the fine arts side.  I loved painting and arts at high school. So for me, I realised last minute that architecture was the perfect blend of being both science and arts.

Deciding what to study, and throughout the uni years, did the male-dominated nature of architecture cross your mind?

DB: I don’t think it even made me hesitate. Beth and I went to an all-girls school in Christchurch, and we came out all ‘girl power!’ and empowered, believing we could (and should) do anything. So that’s the way we approached it, moving through uni and into the profession. And I think going through university there was a really even gender mix from memory.

BC-W: I think it was even more females, compared to males, in terms of gender split. That said, it was very much a case of a lot of the examples and historical precedents being male architects, and it was more a male story. Experience in the construction industry was also an obstacle as a female. We didn’t have that on-site experience that some of the males did, and getting it wasn’t easy. On holidays, lots of male counterparts would get hands-on experience where we didn’t feel welcome to just wandering onto a site to get a labouring job. There was a bit more to overcome, I’d say.

DB: We did have amazing female role models at university in our lecturers and tutors, which was fantastic to see. So from the uni side of things it didn’t feel like stepping into a male domain, but it was brought home as a young grad, particularly while being on site undertaking site observations. I’ve had instances where I arrive on site as the only female and there will be a male contractor halfway through a sentence literally stop – they don’t know what to do, because you’ve stepped into their realm. Is the joke too offensive? Too sexist? And then there’s this obligation I feel to have to prove myself, that I know what I’m doing. There’s not always an assumption that I’m there as a qualified Architect and that I know my stuff. Your first move is therefore critical! You have to do the background work to build their confidence and trust. I didn’t really expect that moving into architecture when I set out on the journey. Even after 15 or more years, the discomfort can still happen when you step onto site, or step into meetings with consultants as the only female in the room.  

BC-W: It’s the invisible work. My male business partner and I set up our practice intentionally to have those female and male voices balanced. Diversity and inclusion is part of our DNA. Having those voices and the different experience at the table is celebrated. Which is why I’m still amazed that – whether it’s consultants or trade reps coming in the door – because I’m younger and female, I’m assumed to be the office administrator, even though my name is on the door. There’s that invisible work, which is where my passion started for getting active with the Diversity Agenda, trying to make others aware of that extra work that some members of our industry are having to do, and how we can lessen this work to spend more time doing our primary job – being creative! The traditional inequity across the profession has been really eye-opening for me, and something that you don’t get taught at uni. We’re getting there though – there are a lot more female-led practices these days which is fantastic, but we do still have a way to go so that our industry more accurately reflects our wider communities.

Studio Pacific and Chaney & Norman are Accord signatories, but are drastically different sizes (by number of employees). What does DEI look like in your workplaces?

DB: There are over 100 staff now at SPA. We’re a big practice and we’re expanding too. I think diversity and inclusion is growing with us. Being a larger practice means there are some more formal structures around how we can explore and advocate for diversity and inclusion and new initiatives. We’ve got a Senior Principal – People, and Directors who are really consciously pushing for it. There’s also a diversity and inclusion working group, which I’m part of, and one of our tasks is to work out our strategic aims for the next few years – where do we want to go, what are the objectives and goals we’re seeking to achieve in terms of diversity? We’re also able to allocate resources in a more structured way to do this work.

The growing awareness and discussion around diversity is SPA-wide as well. We’ve had group discussions around what diversity means for each individual, undertaken anonymous surveys to gather data and areas for improvement, and set up an anonymous portal where people can write questions or comments so we get an idea of what’s important for each person. This gives us some key themes to focus on, because of course we can’t focus on everything at once.

The dominant themes we’ve seen coming through are supporting gender diversity, neurodiversity, ethnicity, Te Ao Māori, and exploring bias. We’re currently working through developing initiatives to support these themes. We recently had a speaker, Jo Cribb, come and lead a studio-wide discussion on unconscious bias, and we heard about how our brains are processing millions of ‘things’ every second, so it makes sense that a lot of this must be unconscious. We have to be aware of our unconscious bias before we can address it, so the interesting challenge is how we can make the unconscious, conscious.

Beth, you said DEI is part of your DNA at Chaney & Norman – how so?

BC-W: We intentionally set up our practice to have different genders and generations as company directors. It’s about making our workplace as inclusive as possible. We’re the first to admit that we’re on a journey and there’s still a ways to go. We’re a small practice, so any new recruitment can heavily skew our data one way or another. Despite that, we always try to understand where we sit and what we can do better. Our pay equity gap is a key KPI that we track closely. We have strong female representation (currently 4:1 female to male ratio), but very limited cultural diversity. We want to ensure that, when we’re ready to recruit due to growth or staff changes, we’re ready to accept, support and be allies for more diverse staff. We recently signed up to do more training to better support the rainbow community as part of this wider work too.

We are a small practice of five, so we don’t have a huge bank of resources to throw at policies and decision making and have too formal a process, but we’re looking at what we can change and trying to target an area or two each year. Last year we went through a recruitment stage so we made sure to look at maximising inclusivity in our policies. We asked things like ‘how do we write inclusive ads if we want to attract a diverse applicant mix?’ Just being aware and consciously asking questions like that are the first step towards action.

I’ve been having a few discussions with Di as well, which is one of the brilliant things about our relationship. It means that we can tap into some of that big-practice thinking and see what they’ve done, and see how we might tailor it to our much smaller practice. There’s no competition in that space either, especially not for our practices, so it’s really collaborative – we all want improvement here, and we’re happy to help each other to achieve this. Di recommended a workshop for Te Tiriti that SPA recently undertook, and how it can inform practice and design thinking, so we’re keen to do a similar workshop ourselves, because we acknowledge it as an area in which improvement could benefit us all.

Is it extra work to be including these initiatives in your working day?

DB: It has to be, doesn’t it? Obviously we try to do the best we can. If we acknowledge that what we’re doing isn’t perfect, and we want to make it better, we have to put in the work to change it. We have to plan for how we want to get there. It has to be intentional, you can’t assume it will just happen and fall into place if you continue doing your regular work. Awareness outside the norm is key, followed by being intentional, and accountable. That’s what we’ve seen as quite useful in being part of the [Diversity Agenda] Accord. It spells out the good, the bad and the ugly, in our data – it heightens awareness. Then, we get to compare what we’re doing with other practices, and we all get to see where and how we can improve.

You mentioned Te Ao Māori was one of the themes coming through in the team feedback received. Can you tell us about what you’re doing in that space?

DB: Te Ao Māori and Te Tiriti have become real focal points at SPA in recent years, and it’s been interesting to see how this starts to flow through into our processes. We’ve done educational programmes that have been really well received, and filtered into our daily work. Even small things that actually aren’t directly related to design or architecture, but are more reflected in the way we work as a practice. Things like having a karakia kai before eating, whakataukī to provide mindfulness and set the intention for meetings and presentations, mihi whakatau and waiata to welcome new SPA team members – it all adds to the immersion into our SPA culture.

Having this in our minds, consciously or subconsciously, means we start to engage with elements of Te Ao Māori earlier and more meaningfully in our mahi and projects. 

In our project work, there is also a strong increase in understanding and honouring Te Tiriti, acknowledging how the past continues to shape the present. For me as Pākehā with limited exposure through my education, this has required upskilling which has been extremely valuable. I’d recommend the Groundworks workshops to anyone! There is also an embedding of engagement with mana whenua and co-design processes, which require time and generosity on both sides for relationships to build. Co-design requires supporting multiple voices at the table, and being open and prepared to be challenged, leaving ego behind. I believe our landscape and public-interfacing projects are leading the way in this regard, which is exciting to see.

It’s pretty simple – the more diverse we can be, the greater the range of voices and opinions we have at the table. We can test and challenge ourselves and grow to be better.

How about at Chaney & Norman?

BC-W: I’m really excited moving forward to do more research into Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and understanding how we can apply some of those learnings into our practice. At Chaney & Norman we emphasise sustainability and ask ourselves how we can do well by the land and be better guardians of it. There’s a really nice alignment there with some of the Māori principles in terms of understanding the history of the site, the story of the site and the people in the community that are linked with it. I’m very aware currently when we do our site and context analysis and when we advocate for sustainability, that it is from a Pākehā perspective and I’m really excited to understand more from a Te Ao Māori view, to better educate ourselves, and to apply some more thinking in that area – the impacts on our work will be really positive.

Are clients asking for this?

BC-W: Not explicitly, no. But that doesn’t mean the work doesn’t have value. One of our challenges is working in the residential sector. Education becomes a factor, how can we encourage clients to want to apply these principles and bring them across, compared to say public partnerships or urban landscape works? By including it in our work, we’ve got more that we can bring to the table when a client approaches us for work.

DB: With our range of work types at this stage it’s a mix of clients asking for engagement as well as us now offering suggestions to clients of different ways of thinking. We need to be advocates around this though, that it can lead to better design outcomes, particularly with private clients. This might include educating the responsibility we all have to honour Te Tiriti. SPA has identified Te Ao Māori as one of our Ngā Toki – one of six key areas which we are using to measure success of all projects, so we need to back ourselves to do it well and build our skill sets and relationships. This requires us all to upskill to have that conversation.

If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.

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