Donna Kacmar Fellow of the American Institute of Architects  / 
Some of my experiences so far…

story / Interview / August 1, 2016

When I was in college I did not realize that there were any differences between me and my male classmates. We worked equally hard on projects and I felt we were treated fairly.

Once I graduated and got my first job I was surprised when clients or consultants addressed their questions to the younger less experienced male colleagues standing next to me – who would then have to ask me to answer the question. A few “little lady” comments here and there and I soon realized some people felt women and men should be treated differently. However, my years as an architectural intern and later as a young architect were generally positive and I felt I was treated equally as a practicing architect, even though I had very few female professional colleagues of my age. Most had left to pursue family life or more lucrative careers.

I “hung in there” and worked for smaller firms, and, for most of my early professional years, worked for a female run office. At the female led office the blueprint room was used as the pumping or nursing room, her older child would stop by after school and in our collaborative office we each kept each other aware of our changing schedules, needs, and preferences. We worked together to do high quality work for great clients. Everyone was supportive as I began teaching part time and was able to combine full time practice and part time teaching.

My experiences in the academic world were shocking. About half of my students were female yet they had very few female instructors. Fewer female faculty meant that I had limited options for academic role models for me and some male faculty were downright hostile. I was told – in front of students – that it was easier for a female to become tenured than a male faculty member. When my college voted not to tenure me I compared my productivity (in terms of peer reviewed papers, design awards, lecture requests, etc.) listed on my resume to the CVs of the most recently tenured faculty.  In measurable numbers my productivity was higher and I was well known in the region. Unfortunately, the only possible explanation was my gender. I was floored. A fellow faculty explained that is was just the general milieu of the college. After more research – and hiring an attorney who specializes in employment law – I did become tenured. Our college has hired and tenured more female faculty since – without a fight on their part. I am hopeful.

Recently a group of women (and a few men) researched and designed an exhibit on Women in Architecture for the Architecture Center Houston. The exhibit was supported financially by many of the largest firms in Houston yet the work to produce the exhibit was done by a team of about 50 young designers – most were young recent graduates from the University of Houston. Each participant gained a better understanding of the generations of female designers and architects who had paved the way for them. Some were surprised to learn the difficulties and we often discussed how we did not want to the exhibit to be “negative”. Yet some of the stories needed to be told.

As we worked on fabricating the exhibit I would overhear conversations about what was happening in the work life of the young women. It was frustrating to hear some of their stories that still echoed a few of my experiences. We shared different ideas on how they might respond. Unfortunately, one has recently resigned from her firm when her new boss told her he doesn’t know how to work with a “confident” woman! I cannot believe that is still happening in 2016!  How we can better support all young architects?

Since the exhibit the group has remained in contact and I continue to be amazed at the clear and strong boundaries this new generation of female architects are setting in their professional lives. They have studied for and passed the licensing exam. They have asked their employers to not refer to them differently than their male co-workers. We have recently started an “official” Women in Architecture committee to continue the discussions. The intent of the committee is to offer support and promote equal opportunity. The website states: “Women in Architecture aspire to be defined, not by gender, but rather by our talent, competency, and extraordinary perspective as design professionals.”

More female architects are becoming principals of larger firms or striking out to start their own firm. I am encouraged that my female (and male) students will have equal opportunities based on their work and skills. Firms are finding ways to provide more work/life balance. For two pregnancies one of my colleagues has had her husband, also an architect, substitute in her office while she in on maternity leave. I realize that will not work for everyone but it shows how we can solve some of the issues with a little creativity! The American Institute of Architects has formed a commission on Equity in Architecture. They are looking at the future of the profession when we will be more diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, backgrounds, and skills and how that great range of perspectives will bring about a better built environment for all. Here’s to a more equal future!


Danielle’s mother actually met Donna by chance in Palm Springs whilst visiting the Frey House. As mothers do, they got to talking, in particular about Gazella and Voila! There you have it! Donna agreed to write a piece on her insight into her experiences throughout her career. She is one hell of a women. Very accomplished in her own right. An extraordinary CV. It gives us great pleasure to post such a real life experience like Donna’s. Everyone has their own stories to tell, with their own struggles and successes, all over the world. The sea is no boundary. Thank you Donna for agreeing to participate. It’s been an honour to have you. Please write again! 


The author:

Donna Kacmar, FAIA, was educated at Texas A+M University and graduated with a Bachelor of Environmental Design in 1988 and a Master of Architecture in 1992. Donna is a National American Institute of Architects 2004 Young Architects Award recipient and was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 2009. Donna has served on the board of the Houston AIA, the Avenue CDC, the Rice Design Alliance, the Architecture Center Houston Foundation, and the Texas Society of Architects. Donna has taught at Rice University and Texas A&M University. She is currently an Associate Professor at the University of Houston where she teaches architecture design studio and directs the Materials Research Collaborative (MRC). The MRC is engaged with research projects while providing instruction and education on sustainable building materials for new generations of architects and designers.

From 2000 until 2011 she was the principal of architect works, inc. The work of the firm received several awards and has been nationally published. In 2003 the firm received a Texas Society of Architects Design Award for the Round Valley Texas Office Building + Garage in Bellaire, Texas. This project also won an AIA Houston Design Award in 2002. The Kacmar House (a.k.a. a very long skinny house) won an AIA Houston Design Award in 1999 and was published in the book A House for My Mother by Beth Dunlop (Princeton Architectural Press). In 2011 the firm received an AIA Houston Design Award for the Oak Forest Neighborhood Library Renovation, a collaboration with Natalye Appel + Associates Architects and James Ray Architects. That library renovation and addition was also honored in 2012 with a Greater Houston Preservation Alliance Good Brick Award and in 2013 it received an AIA/ALA International Design Award. That same team is currently working on a renovation to the Jungman Neighborhood Library in Houston. Her Fisher Street House, a small 544 square foot dwelling, received a 2013 AIA Houston Design Award. Her recently completed booked titled BIG little house, published by Routledge, was released in March of 2015. She currently practices with Natalye Appel + Associates Architects and is working on a book about the work of Victor Lundy.

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