Profile: Zaida Basora, FAIA

Profile: Zaida Basora, FAIA

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Anita Delgado

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Profile: Zaida Basora, FAIA

She is a leader, influencer, and sustainability advocate who has been actively engaged in the sustainable evolution of the city through her work in design, planning, and public policy. Zaida Basora, FAIA is the assistant director of public works for the City of Dallas and the 2016 president of AIA Dallas. She has been instrumental in the implementation of Dallas’ Green Building Code resulting in over 40 sustainable and high-performing city facilities. She was elevated to the AIA College of Fellows in 2012. Just days before celebrating 20 years serving the City of Dallas, Zaida discussed her career, as well as her plans for AIA Dallas in 2016.

When did you realize that you wanted to be an architect?

My parents say I wanted to be an architect since I was four. I was always attracted to art and architecture. So, when I graduated from high school, I went straight to the School of Architecture at the University of Puerto Rico. I liked the colorful, historic, local architecture in Puerto Rico, but I also appreciated the art and architecture when I traveled. It has been the right decision.

What motivated you to move to Texas?

I came to Texas right after I graduated with my bachelor’s degree because it was a place of opportunity. At that time, Dallas was really booming and there was a lot of development going on in the city. Over 15 high-rise buildings were being built in downtown in the 1980s! I went to the University of Texas at Arlington to pursue my master’s degree and started working in downtown Dallas in February 1983 at Dahl, Braden, Chapman Architects.

Many people will relate to moving from other cities or countries, especially at a time when the economy in Texas is booming. What advice would you share with them during their transition? 

As a young architect with a lot of aspirations I came to this city thinking that this was a place where I could practice and have a good career. I had a stronger accent then than I do now. It was hard to communicate with people because I understood English but I could not speak it. It was an exciting time to learn a different language, adjust to a different culture, and get integrated. Now there is more globalization, more diversity, and a better understanding of different cultural backgrounds. But it’s still a challenge. You have to have a strong sense of who you are, know what you want, and then go for it. Set goals and find good mentors. A good place to start is AIA Dallas through our many different committees and groups. 

Who is your favorite architect and why? 

Le Corbusier. When you look at his body of work—the paintings and the architecture, and the way he related it to nature, light, and shapes—it seems so timeless. I especially remember visiting the chapel in Ronchamp in my early twenties. It was an amazing experience. 

What inspires you as an architect?

People and nature. I think that it’s all about the people: how to house people, make them feel comfortable, and provide spaces for people to gather. That’s what architecture is about. I always try to think about how I would feel when I walk into a space, including the connection to nature because it is an important part of our well-being and how we appreciate space.

Photo credit: Liane Swanson

What do you do in your spare time?  

Cooking and baking. They are my therapy. I see them as a collaborative and creative process. When my children were younger, I would cook before going to work so I could leave food ready for them so they would have dinner ready right after school. 

What are some accomplishments that bring you the most pride? 

Being successful in the development and adoption of the Dallas Green Code. Facilitating the task force was very challenging since we were trying to reach consensus among a very large group of stakeholders with diverse opinions and interests.  

You have worked on countless green projects. Any favorites? 

I like the City Performance Hall we did with Corgan. I’m really proud of that project. The building type is very specialized and we achieved LEED platinum certification. It’s beautiful, with durable and very simple materials. A building— built very conservatively with public dollars—accomplished the highest level of performance in sustainability.  

Often in our profession we are faced with clients who are more sensitive to the economic aspect of a project rather than the sustainability aspect. What advice do you have to help us educate our clients on their responsibility towards the built environment?  

It’s very important when talking to a client to speak the same language. We talk about green, smart, energy-efficient, and high performance, and we talk about climate and emissions, but we have to define these terms. As architects, we need to get better educated ourselves on what we can offer. There are different levels of sustainability and a client is probably going to want some level of it, if they understand exactly what they are getting. You have to set the goals for the project with a client and show them what the return on their investment is. The clients will generally choose what makes economic sense, but what if that could also mean less harm to the environment and happier tenants? Making the personal connection is very important. Sustainability has to start at the personal level. Finding the right solution is important. It’s all about making economic sense, implementing resource conservation, and reducing waste. 

How and when did you decide you wanted to work for the City of Dallas? What was your experience when transitioning from a private firm to a government entity?

I was working in the private sector, had my four girls, and decided to stay home for a few years with them and do freelance work. Around 1995, I was ready to return to work and the City of Dallas happened to be hiring. I thought it would be good to work locally since I was travelling too much when I was in the private sector. It was a big transition because when you work in the private sector you work for clients; when you work in the public sector you work as an owner’s representative, setting and implementing policy for public work.

What inspired you to focus on the sustainability aspect of our built environment?

In early 2000, the city was looking to be more energy-efficient and the LEED rating system had just been launched. A task force was formed and I was asked to participate because I was the program manager of design and construction for the city’s existing buildings. So I got involved and have been involved since then.

As a designer with extensive experience in the private sector and local government, how do you reconcile the different goals and principles that guide a public interest project? 

If you are an architect in private practice, once you’re done with the project, you’re done. For the city, we build and maintain facilities and continue to make decisions that impact the lives of people, the economy, and the community for the next 50 or more years.  

In your opinion, what attributes provide a space with a “sense of place”?  

It depends on the place, but the first attribute that comes to mind is scale. A space has to be the right scale for the right use. It makes a space successful and adds to its quality. Also, having open spaces connected to nature provides excitement. 

What is your favorite place in Dallas? How does this space embody a “sense of place”?

Trinity Groves, because of its variety of spaces. It’s a gathering place, it’s open. There’s a lower terrace where people can sit and chat, and there’s an upper terrace where people can dine. It reminds me of home in a way. It’s a great outdoors place connected to the river and downtown in an area that used to be the backside of the city and has been successfully revitalized. 

According to the AIA, women represent 17% of its members, but studies show women make up 50% of architecture students. This shows a great gap between the number of graduates and the number of professional women in the field. In your opinion, what is the likely cause of this discrepancy? What are some of the obstacles you have experienced during your career? And what advice would you give women as they move through the career path?  

I believe women have to make different choices than men about how they develop professionally. Women who stay in architecture typically have to make a decision of whether they want to have a family or have a career. It is not easy. Without support to do both, sometimes women leave the profession.  

Distinct from some other professionals, architects also work collaboratively, and the expectation is you will devote work time to the office. Balancing family and work appears to still be more critical for women than men. 

If we want diversity in architecture—whether it’s cultural or gender-based—and the richness that comes with it, we need to accept that there are going to be differences. We need to equate the time one spends with family to time one spends building business relationships. One promotes personal growth and well-being while the other promotes professional growth and development. It is all about a healthier workforce and improved performance, and cultivating both personal and professional relationships is essential. It’s a challenge but we need to look at it as an opportunity.  

Networking with other women with whom you can share experiences with is important. My advice to women is be strong, network, and look for a mentor.  

How can leaders encourage diversity in the design field? 

Leaders are the first ones who need to promote diversity in the design field. As we integrate more professionals from diverse backgrounds into leadership roles, there will be a ripple effect. However, diversity is a broad subject: We are not talking just about women or Latinos; we are talking about all types of diversity. 

What will be some of your priorities as the 2016 president of the AIA Dallas?

My priorities will include continuing to establish AIA Dallas as the resource for architecture matters for Dallas. If there are public policy issues, the AIA should be consulted and we should issue a position statement. Continuing what we have done this year is going to be really important: making sure we have a seat at the table for those conversations. Number two, making sure that AIA Dallas remains a relevant organization: continuing to grow the membership; giving the membership value from education, networking, and professional practice issues; and making a difference in the community through advocacy.

What would you like for your biggest impact to be during your year as president?  

At the end of the year the biggest impact may be a surprise. There might be an issue that is waiting to be addressed that we don’t know about yet. 


Interview by Anita Delgado, AIA, project architect with Corgan