As an architect, Racquel Davey of ICON Architecture is both an optimist and a student of cultural anthropology. She approaches every endeavor with sincere curiosity and the commitment to achieve the best possible outcome. She values the human experience within interior environments and advocates for the design thinking process as well as collaborative design strategies that encompass space planning, furniture systems and technology. This includes discovering new trends that can be pragmatically applied within academia. Her architectural studio experiences in Chile, China and Brazil have informed her sense of not just working for people, but working with people, which has been fundamental in building professional relations and achieving project successes. In 2015, she spearheaded the reactivation of the National Organization of Minority Architects for the Boston chapter, and is currently Chapter President, and volunteers with several organizations that expose grade level students to the design profession in efforts to encourage more minority participation in creative industries. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn about Racquel's unique approach and design philosophy.
On becoming an architect
In high school, I was inclined to the purity and exactness of mathematics, so I ended up studying the subject in undergraduate school at Tufts. I enjoyed it, but I knew I didn’t want to be a mathematician. Even though I respect math teachers, I didn’t want to go down that profession either. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until one summer when I was working at an insurance company in Connecticut that I discovered my career passion. I would drive by the new Hartford Civic Center each morning and evening, and it was over the course of that summer I was able to consciously witness my first structure go up during its construction phase; I was genuinely intrigued by it. That’s when I started investigating design and construction. As a backstory, my father was a carpenter by trade, so I was exposed to construction at an early age, but not to this scale or magnitude. I did some research and realized I could potentially design buildings and become an architect. The thought of being an architect truly fascinated me because at the time I didn’t know of any black female architects in my community. After a year studying abroad in London, I was able to take a design studio course my senior year at Tufts, and that opened my eyes to what design is, what it could be and its power. Thereafter, I ended up attending Career Discovery at the GSD. It’s a six-week intensive program for those who are interested in pursuing a profession in architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning and design. I did that for six weeks and was sold from there. Even though it was difficult, I enjoyed being able to apply my math processing skills, but also apply my creativity that I knew existed within me.
On discovering her voice as a designer
I will say I’ve been very keen on smaller interior projects. I feel as though working at this scale allows me to connect with the client because it’s so intimate. So, my voice is in tenant fit-outs within existing (historic) buildings. To give you a history of ICON Architecture, my firm is a women-owned business and is known within the practice for housing; we design numerous types: multi-family housing, whether it’s market-rate or affordable, as well as senior housing. We design both new structures and within the context of existing (adaptive reuse) buildings, which are typically transit-oriented. We have recently become specialists in passive house, which is very exciting. However, a few years ago after I earned my Master of Architecture degree, I ended up coming back to Boston at ICON--I worked here as an assistant marketing coordinator before going off to grad school. Nancy Ludwig, President, and Janis Mamayek, Director of Architecture at ICON, offered me a job after graduation, which was perfect. Right when I was transitioning back to ICON, Ned Collier, who’s the current Principal of the Education Studio, was brought on to grow the educational/institutional practice. It was destiny that we started around the same time, because we work very well together. Although Ned has over two decades of higher education experience, if you’re starting out in the higher education sector as a firm, you tend to land smaller projects, but with that said, it has enabled me to gain project management experience and move up professionally fairly quickly. At the onset of every project, I am able to engage with the client and work hand-in-hand with Ned through the design process. It was through this process of acquiring and completing smaller, but very thoughtful, higher ed projects that I realized I really enjoy working on this side of the practice and at this scale. It allows me to take ownership of a project and ensure project completeness, while staying in touch with academic trends. Exploring design intent with college and university clients and witnessing sketches on paper come to fruition is very satisfying for me and of course everyone involved in the project.
On starting at ICON and how her role has evolved
It was my senior year of undergrad and I knew two things: I was graduating soon and needed a job, and I wanted to go to architecture school. I decided to take a year off so I could figure out the requirements of applying to school and work on my portfolio. It worked out that I was able to use the projects I completed at the GSD and my senior year studio for my portfolio, but I still needed a source of income. It just so happened that I decided to attend a conference at MIT on one of the snowiest days that winter. The summit focused on the accomplishments of minority architects, so I had to attend, snow or shine. The sessions were quite fascinating, and as I was on my way to lunch that was provided, I met the Business Development and Marketing Director at ICON at the time--her name is Beatrice Bernier. We were casually talking about the day, and I mentioned to her my interest in architecture and that I was still in search of a job; she told me to come in for an interview for a marketing position. It ended up being a great opportunity for me because I was able to see the architecture profession from a macro-level—working directly with the principals and understanding their vision for a project, developing a response to Request for Proposals and Qualifications, and understanding the fee structure of projects was very beneficial for me; it allowed me to see the practical side of things. I worked at ICON for a year, and the firm was very supportive of my wanting to continue on to graduate school. Nancy Ludwig was very instrumental in my moving forward with school as well. I wanted to defer for a year, but she said ‘no, you’re not deferring!’ I’m grateful even until this day that she pushed me to just do it. I attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for 3 ½ years.
I’m now in the architecture department and I’m a registered architect! I received my license in November of 2014. I’m also a LEED accredited professional, which I received in 2014. I’m very grateful that ICON has supported me during my journey to licensure. I recently found out that I’m the fourth black female architect in the state of Massachusetts to obtain her license. It’s sometimes kind of an overwhelming feat to have under my belt, but I believe it’s something that is very necessary, even if it’s only to encourage those who look like me and are interested in pursuing licensure within architecture. I also believe it is important to become licensed if you want to grow professionally. My current roles at the firm are Project Manager, Project Architect and BIM Leader.
On principles that the firm strives to adhere to across projects
We as a firm are believers in delivering a successful project. It’s important to engage with the client and end users at the beginning of the design process to truly understand their expectations. It’s always good to start with a mission statement that everyone agrees with. It’s even more important to circle back to the mission statement to ensure the project stays on track as it relates to its vision and goals. I would say that’s consistent with all of ICON’s projects. In terms of the education studio projects, we embrace the design thinking strategy. My team includes Ned Collier, Principal-in-Charge, Matt Zyrkowski, Project Manager and Mark McKevitz, Project Designer. It’s still client-focused, but we rigorously utilize the iterative human-centered approach to design: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test in order to effectively deliver a project that is functional, aesthetically pleasing and within the construction budget. We are also advocates of ensuring collaboration and open communication amongst the team. Successful design solutions can only surface when everyone is around the table with their expertise.
On her role at ICON
Again, I work primarily in the higher education sector, particularly on renovation projects. I’ve worked with Roxbury Community College on an interiors upgrade project, which included lighting, furniture and wall graphics redesign in several common areas. Although minor in scope, it’s rewarding to hear positive feedback from the client, various end users and even the President of the College of its transformative qualities. The UMASS Lowell Innovation Hub and M2D2 Labs is unique in the sense that the University is a tenant in an off-campus, developer-owned building and supports start-up businesses, not necessarily offshoots from the University. Particularly, it’s a place where entrepreneurs in the technology and biomedical industry can start their own businesses with research support from the University in Lowell. I’m currently working on classroom renovations at Boston University. I really enjoy working on this project, especially in the programming phase, because it forces you think about the importance being placed on measuring learning outcomes in higher education and how that translates into space redesign. Colleges and universities are now in the process of retrofitting existing 20th century classrooms to meet the demands for active learning and SCALE-UP classrooms. It’s not just about architecture either, but it’s about integrating technology and furniture systems. I’ve become the furniture specialist in the office. I’ve worked with several furniture manufacturers, including Haworth and Steelcase, to create tech/furniture system schemes that support the activities within each space of a project. I’m also currently working with Springfield College on their library renovation project. The library has also evolved from just stacks of books and quiet study areas to what is called the learning commons. It’s more so about providing student services and research tools within the library, as well as group study, tutoring, classroom and sometimes maker spaces. Being able to collaborate on various levels, and experiment and learn from your peers and faculty is critical in academia today.
On her design toolkit
In the programming phase, majority of our time is spent interfacing with the client; even though it seems very archaic, it’s about creating adjacency diagrams and preliminary floorplans through sketching; literally just trace and a marker, and sometimes Microsoft Excel to ensure we’re meeting the target square footages and, for housing, unit mixes. As we move forward into schematic design, we enter into presentation mode. We definitely use SketchUp as a way to communicate our 3D design ideas, for interior and exterior spaces; we produce quick 3D rendering vignettes to illustrate preliminary spatial design intent and materiality. In conjunction with SketchUp, we use Revit for 2D hardline floorplans and Adobe Suite to produce presentation packages; extracting raw imagery from SketchUp and Revit and using Adobe Suite to organize our thought process is essential for clearly communicating our design intent to the client. As we continue to move the project forward into design development and construction documentation, we rely almost solely on Revit. This BIM software allows us to create a comprehensive, coordinated design document that can be priced for cost estimation purposes or used during the bid and construction phases. Newforma is a great tool for managing the construction administration phase of a project as well.
On the state of design software today
I think the state of design software is at a good place; the fact that we now have an industry standard (Revit) makes it so much easier to coordinate with our consultants. The advancement of laser cutting and 3D modeling allows us to very rapidly communicate some of the ideas that we’re thinking to our clients. It’s possible to create renderings within a few hours and create an entire presentation within a half to a full day. I know a popular request, particularly in higher education, is to create fundraising imagery for donors. These clients are expecting high quality/high resolution renderings. The trick now is to get everyone in the office up to speed on all platforms, including 3D and design presentation software. It shouldn’t just be the millennials that are software savvy. I know in some firms, there is still some resistance in moving away from AutoCAD and transitioning to Revit, but it’s important that we are all at the same baseline. I will say the creation of easy to use animation software as a way to present design ideas is still a ways away.
On the future of architecture in the next 5-10 years
I’m going to speak specifically to the education practice because that’s the world I’m immersed in. It’s key to remain relevant on the trends that higher education is moving towards. Many colleges and universities are receiving pressure to show and improve on learning outcomes, so it’s important for designers to explore different ways of creating learning environments that enhance teaching, learning and collaboration. It’s similar to what I mentioned about classroom design and even library design. Trends are constantly changing and it’s only exponentially moving towards technology. It’s important for architects and designers to keep that in mind as we design for the future. Also, diversity within schools is becoming more prevalent; being able to cater to students of all backgrounds is important. If we keep these facts in the forefront, the education industry will be in good shape. I’d say for the most part, colleges and universities are responding to these trend changes and they’re seeking our design expertise in order to meet the demands.
On the future of ICON in the next 5-10 years
The key is keeping informed about the changes that are happening around us. I’d say the education studio is cognizant of these changes and we’re always looking for ways to keep ourselves informed and well as become experts. We’re constantly visiting other colleges and universities who are doing innovative things as well as sharing links about what’s new in the education world, like a new maker space at MIT’s campus. It’s about maintaining that level of information to be able to have constructive conversations with our team and our clients.
On her aspirations for the next 10 years
I’m really interested in the shifts that are happening in colleges and universities. I’d like to explore that a little deeper, but I’m not sure in what form or capacity yet, but possibly research. I think it’s important to critically understand and analyze pertinent user information in order to make the right design decisions, so I can see myself investing more time in human behavior and design strategies.