Breaking boundaries: An interview with national conference keynote speaker Curtis Moody

Curtis Moody

Curtis Moody, the founder of Moody Nolan, the largest African American-owned architecture firm in the U.S., will be presenting the keynote speech, “Perspective on Design, Firm Ownership, and Breaking Boundaries in the AECO (Architecture, Engineering, Construction, and Owner) Industry” at the CSI National Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, on September 23, 2021. CSI sat down with him to hear about his unique journey, and what he sees as our industry’s challenges and opportunities.

You’re celebrating almost 50 years as an award-winning architectural designer, and 40 years as the founder of a top-level firm with a focus on diversity. What are some of the highlights of your journey?

The Schottenstein Center project at The Ohio State University was a breakthrough project for the firm and for me personally. It is a significant milestone in the history of our company and there are several reasons why. One, it is currently one of the largest arenas in the big 10. The other is, I could never have imagined when I was a student at Ohio State and on the varsity basketball team, that one day I would be in the position to compete, interview, and be selected for a new arena at my university.

What helped us so much was this wasn’t against other minority firms. This was against the cream of the crop firms, and we were awarded the project. This institution gave me an education, then turned around and said, “The education we gave you is so good that we’re going to hire you,” and I think that’s great confidence.

What’s it like to go back to the university?

We’re doing many projects at the university today and continue to have teams working on different aspects. We don’t win every project we pursue at Ohio State, but we’ve completed some of the largest projects they’ve ever done.

We are in a different category now than when I started as a minority firm, when it was hard to even get an interview, and then normally to be in partnership with somebody else that I would be working under. This helped put us in the lead as we are today.

In regard to diversity, when you look around this industry, where are the key places where you still see work to do?

The truth is all over. Two years ago was the 50th anniversary of the Whitney Young speech (to the AIA).1 (Moody is a Whitney Young recipient award winner). At that time only two percent of the registered architects in the nation were African American. Today, it’s still not three percent. There are a number of graduate architects of some minority group who have not proceeded to take their exam to become licensed. Our firm really encourages our staff to get registered, to be counted in that number.

There are 60 firms in the nation that represent 85 percent of the gross revenues in the architectural practice. So, it’s a very powerful group because of the economy. All of them have diversity initiatives they’re promoting hard, and we take their percentage. The higher percentages are seven-to-eight percent in their firms. By percentage, we are the most diverse firm in the nation, as 30 percent of our staff is diverse.

Speaking to your keynote address at the CSI National Conference, why is “Breaking Boundaries” such an important topic for this industry?

Everyone in our profession designs buildings to hopefully break some boundaries, doing something eye-catching and different than the next architect. However, breaking boundaries is not just about buildings, it’s about people. It’s about perception. I’m a proponent of seeing people of all kinds of ethnic groups in this profession. For the African American community, I used to think it would be such a good thing to see someone who looked like them that succeeds. It would be an example somebody could emulate. What I didn’t consider is it wasn’t just for my community. It’s for all communities.

When I walk into an interview, if that group has not seen a firm like mine achieve the things they need achieved, they’re not necessarily gung-ho to take that risk. They don’t see that we can do a great job on this project that is so special to them, because it’s just not something they are used to. So, breaking boundaries has to do with exposure. Exposing women, exposing people of color, exposing everyone to the talent in people you can’t see by looking at them on the outside.

To your point about firms that are adopting a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative, what are the strategies that have worked for your firm?

Equity, diversity, and inclusion has to do with trying to move forward from when there was a federally funded project and most firms would say, “Oh, we need a mixture of people” because the public is paying tax dollars to fund this. On the private sector side, that was not the case. The developers were going to the bank to borrow money. Why do they need to worry about diversity? That started to change as businesses realized their service may be in diverse communities and wanted to have a diverse team to speak to that community.

Going back to the public sector, the federal government normally set some percentages for disadvantaged business enterprise participation, and I have a problem with that term. They had some terms of what you need to do to qualify to be a minority-owned business, and I have some problems with that, too. Under diversity and inclusion, it should be at all levels. It shouldn’t be at the bottom. If you are a large business, you can’t be certified as minority, and we’ve passed that. I kind of joke, “So the color of my skin changed when I got a little bit more money.”

Looking ahead, what are the key challenges and opportunities you see in this industry?

We’re very fortunate. We’ve gotten a lot of exposure. That is a positive to other firms and their communities that have a similar makeup to us, because all of a sudden, we’re being recognized as a peer. That is absolutely a positive for us, and for anybody that would get recognized that way.

The challenge is consistency. We don’t have a nation that is closely all together. That shows up when we go to different cities where there is fear of selecting a firm like us. We can’t be just as good as the competitor. We have to be so much better because the committee that hired us has to justify, we were just better than everybody else. I would like to see us arrive at a point where the consideration of all of us has nothing to do with what we look like but has everything to do with our resume. That’s what I’m hoping for in the future.

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