Designs For Success

African American architectural firms snag major projects

Urban areas are undergoing dramatic changes and providing key opportunities for African American architects as local municipalities rediscover the potential of urban renewal.

One survey found that the number of African American licensed architects has jumped nearly 25% since 1991. Still, African Americans represent only about 1% of U.S. licensed architects.

Deryl McKissack Greene had only $1,000 when she opened her Washington, D.C., architectural firm, McKissack & McKissack, in 1990. But she was able to cash in on her family’s four generations in the business. Greene grew up in her family’s firm (also called McKissack & McKissack) in Nashville, Tennessee, and studied civil engineering at Howard University.

She recommends that anyone starting their own firm prepare a business plan and cost projections. She’s also quick to say that $1,000 isn’t enough to open shop, even though she now has 40 employees and manages over $1 billion in construction projects.

Her client roster includes the National Institutes of Health and Fannie Mae. Her firm also has a $10 million contract to renovate the U.S. Treasury Department and approve all construction plans and renovations for U.S. Job Corps sites.

Of the estimated 1,158 African American architects in the U.S., 55% own their own firms–compared to 33% of all licensed architects–reveals a 1996 study, The Professional Status of African American Architects. According to the research, “the higher percentage of ownership among African American architects might hint at the existence of a glass ceiling in majority-owned firms, where the route to ownership or partnership might be less possible for the African American architect.”

But ownership has its own challenges. African American firms often have to forge ahead without mentors or role models. In addition, they sometimes struggle to connect with potential clients and win large projects.

When Curtis Moody, a licensed architect and owner of Moody/Nolan Ltd. (a firm with offices in Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio; Nashville, Tennessee; and Orlando, Florida) opened his business in 1982, he didn’t have African American role models in the field. But Moody’s clients now include the state of Ohio; Ford Motor Co., Orange County, Florida; and Universal Studios, Florida. Moody/Nolan has 116 employees and more than $200 million in projects with $10 million in annual revenues.

As a graduate architect preparing for his licensing exam, Moody worked for a firm in Columbus. Once he became a licensed architect, he opened Moody & Associates with the help of two investors and later joined forces with Howard E. Nolan & Associates.

Moody advises architectural entrepreneurs to invest time in developing a client base once they’re licensed to gain access to key contracts.

Cash flow is a key issue for start-up firms, says Ronald E. Garner, president of the National Organization of Minority Architects in Washington, D.C., and co-owner of Chicago-based Group Design Associates Inc.: Architects, Engineers and Planners. Garner estimates start-up costs range from $60,000 to $500,000, including the necessary technology for computer-aided design, or CAD. A computer with design software is the norm in most firms and can cost $2,000$3,000 per employee, says Pradeep Dalai, associate director of

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