In a growing market like Atlanta, it might come as a surprise to hear the commercial construction industry at large is struggling to attract workers—especially young workers—to the fields of architecture, interior design, and project management, among other segments.
And the amount of women in those fields is even smaller.
That’s why the industry took notice when tvsdesign, a longstanding Atlanta architectural firm, named Janet Simpson its president in 2017. Not only was she just the third person to assume the role since the company started in 1968, she also set a benchmark for women in an industry long known for male dominance.
Simpson prides herself on having helped steer the company—along with her team—toward health, future growth, and leadership in the industry over the past two years.
For this architect Q&A, Simpson discussed with Curbed Atlanta the changes she’s seen for women in the architectural and design industry. She also lends her thoughts on development around Atlanta, providing a glimpse at what she thinks is on the horizon for the city.
Curbed Atlanta: What changes have you seen for female architects since becoming president of tvsdesign in 2017?
Janet Simpson: I think that part of the industry expectations of what leaders are has changed. The flexibility we have within the work environments and also the understanding of the dynamics of leadership we have right now really are creating a non-hierarchical type of environment where you connect with people.
In those connections with people, I think people of various leadership skills really start to become more visible maybe than in the past where there was just an expectation of leadership within and leaders had limited visibility to people that were emerging leaders.
Now with our less hierarchical structure, you interact with everyone in a team-based environment, and I think it allows for leadership skills to be identified from senior leaders making decisions. They know their people; they see what’s going on.
That environment is very much needed for anybody to have the best diverse ability to be recognized for their skill set and be encouraged to take on leadership positions. So I think it’s that breakdown of that hierarchical environment.
CA: Where do you feel Atlanta is going architecturally right now?
JS: Atlanta is headed in a great direction, and certainly the amount of cranes in the skyline says it’s a booming economy. The expectations of the built environment from the experience economy are very evident in Atlanta.
What you’re seeing is a city that has multiple types of developments, all creating community. They’re all looking to connect how we live, work, and play into more of a seamless and enjoyable environment. Yes, we have a lot of traffic.
Yes, we have a lot of congestion, but all of these new developments you see are really starting to focus on what is your pedestrian experience. What is the experience between the buildings? How are you creating walkability and community and health and your connection to nature?
I do believe it’s a more holistic look at what it takes to make communities thrive rather than just individual buildings going up just for one single use or to fulfill one developer’s ROI on it. I’m really happy to see the type of connection to community and the type of value that we place on human experience in all of these developments.
CA: With that in mind, what do you see as the biggest challenge to development in Atlanta?
JS: The traffic and congestion are definitely always one because you’re really trying to create the best pedestrian experiences and some of the connections that you make. But you always have to have a way of dealing with the cars. That does start to play into it, in how wide does the street have to get before you lose that neighborhood feel you’re trying to create.
You have to get that balance of moving an awful lot of people through the roads and through the developments once they take off and become busy. You can see it even in the traffic on the Beltline on a busy day. Even the pedestrian traffic can get to be intense.
So I think it’s that balance and understanding the volume of people you’re trying to not only attract but to also move through the space and trying to balance that with this really relaxed human experience in the middle of this densely populated, chaotic city. It’s a tension, but it’s one that the design usually gets better when you accept those tensions are the things you have to solve.
CA: Are you seeing more of a change toward that factor, that the pedestrian experience has to be a key component of your project?
JS: Some of those are solved in different ways. I think it’s not really a key thing I could draw back and say it’s one trend of development. It’s more that we always have to pay attention to [the fact that] the parking and the way you move traffic through the site, especially if it’s a mixed-use site, does not interrupt the pedestrian experience of the space. How they solve it is many different things.
CA: What type of projects do you prefer to work on?
JS: My expertise area is workplace design, workplace interiors specifically and doing workplace strategy that aligns a workplace with the company strategy. That’s where my heart and soul is, where my background is. I absolutely love mixed-used environments and talking about creating community and scalability of place.
CA: What are some examples of projects in Atlanta you have enjoyed working on?
JS: I worked on Fiserv in Alpharetta. They combined a lot of different locations into one large facility a couple of years ago. Also, we recently completed a project for United Way that I was actually part of at the beginning, just as I became president of tvsdesign. The team continued and finished that project to completion.
I think that’s made a huge impact on United Way and their being able to really have a space that supports the people that works for them in a way that matches their culture. So I’m very proud of that.
CA: What’s on the horizon for you?
JS: We’ve got some really good projects looking ahead. Waldo’s in the Old Fourth Ward on Edgewood is our project, and we’re very proud of that. That’s going to be a really cool project coming out. The fact that it is timber construction is really cool. For a firm that likes to be on the trailblazing end of things, we’re very excited to be involved in the timber construction project.
The area itself and being a part of enhancing the community that’s already there and coming into that with an opportunity to create a remarkable experience at that location, we’re really excited about that.
CA: Where do you see Atlanta going in the next five years or so?
JS: I think as an industry in the built environment the things you’re going to see involve emerging technologies and smart buildings, and how intuitive the environment can be responsive to the occupants that are there. And some of those things are so emerging, they’re just not there yet.
But I think you’re also going to continue to see just a very good responsive built environment to what the basic human needs are: our need to connect with nature, the need to both concentrate and connect with each other, human connection, and creating community.
And I think how that starts to interact with the digital work is going to be pretty phenomenal. That’s where we as a firm are really dedicated, looking at how these things intersect and what’s possible in the built environment.
So many things are possible, and we know so much. We’re so aware of how our minds work and why different environments can help you feel better, how they’re healthy, and how your connection to nature really makes you feel.
Sometimes all of those things haven’t always been in a good perfect combination, and now, because experience is driving it, we are aware of how much you need a combination of things out of the built environment to enhance experience, which enhances the ROI of anything the built environment’s about, whether it’s hospitality, or retail, or an office experience.
I think everyone believes now that you truly have to pay attention to the occupants, to pay attention to the human condition and not ignore it just to get something built cheaper or more efficient.
CA: What about Atlanta inspires you when it comes to architectural design?
JS: I think probably everyone who has been to Atlanta and lives in Atlanta describes it as an experience of neighborhoods. It doesn’t have a signature style or signature city center. It is diverse, and I think the fact we’ve embraced the diversity, we celebrate it, and that we continue to make unique neighborhood experiences is pretty remarkable. I think we need to be able to get to and from the different neighborhoods a little bit easier (laughing).
I do think that’s going to continue to be Atlanta as it’s growing in all different areas. It’s not just one part of Atlanta that’s thriving; it’s all of it. I think it’s really wonderful that we’re paying attention to areas of the city that haven’t seen revitalization in a really long time. And we’re finding ways to try to help make the entire community thrive and not just a part of it. It’s really unique, and I think that’s Atlanta.