Julie Hiromoto, FAIA

Photography by Conleigh Bauer

Julie Hiromoto, FAIA (LEED AP BD+C, WELL AP, and Living Future accredited) is not one to sit on the sidelines of the design industry. As a leader and advocate, Hiromoto has made it her passion to represent the overlooked within the design industry, envision a sustainable future through attainable means and intentional efforts, and encourage the future generation of designers. As director of integration at HKS, Hiromoto has worked toward breaking down  silos that many face within the design industry and chaired the AIA COTE advisory group in 2020. Her portfolio  spans interiors, architecture, and urban design, including high-profile projects like the One World Trade Center in Manhattan. In recent years, she’s received multiple accolades including the 2019 AIA National Young Architect Award, elevation to the AIA College of Fellows in 2021, and recognition as one of the Dallas Business Journal’s 2020 Women in Business, a testament to her hard work and dedication within the design industry. We sat down with her to get her insight on the industry.

Q: What are some things you enjoy outside of your work?

JH: I love to eat; food brings me joy. I love different types of food and understanding where they come from and the stories behind those recipes or combinations of food. I also like to travel and have had the great fortune to see so many different places. Growing up in the US and living in the communities that we do, which are often quite homogenized, to go to a different country and just live there, be there, and understand the people and the customs, you learn so much as opposed to visiting as a tourist, seeing the sights and checking off boxes. It really pushes you to question things that we take for granted, either to appreciate them or wonder, why do I do that? Maybe I should change that habit.

Q: In your interview with the Dallas Business Journal for the Women in Business Awards, you talk about the importance of community, especially how it was impacted during COVID. How do you think this plays into the idea of balance?

JH: I think our communities, and society in general, are a system. That system is made up of a lot of different parts: individuals, individual policies, individual neighborhoods, and personal needs. It all has to work together as an integrated system. When there is imbalance, when there’s inequity, when our environmental and natural resources are stressed, that’s when there’s trouble. It’s about finding that sweet spot so the system can autocorrect and self-adjust instead of pushing things to the extremes where it’s hard to rebalance.

Q: You mention three concepts that play a large part in societal good: climate, health, and equity. How have these concepts impacted the way that you work as a leader within the industry?

JH: I’m driven by a desire to influence everything I touch to some betterment. It could be a small incremental change. It could be a positive change built on the work of others, where I just pick up the baton and carry it a few steps forward. It could be the repositioning or reframing of a perspective that unlocks all kinds of things and brings other people to the party, allowing us to take that next big leap of faith. That’s what I’m constantly looking for. Where is my opportunity to contribute something unique to the conversation? How does that align with my passions, personal commitments, and opportunities for our industry? I think architects don’t often realize the power we have to influence. Our work is not just about creating buildings or beautiful spaces within and among them, but on the scale of cities, regions, and even public health. 

Q: How can architects encourage balance in our design? Do you think there are areas in the design industry that are overlooked?

JH: I think most of us are just getting started on understanding equity. It’s not just antiracism, ADA turning radii and ramp slopes. It’s a mindset. Instead of following a prescriptive, formulaic approach, what are we doing as a part of our process to really understand the needs and which persons or groups might be marginalized or harmed because we didn’t think about it as designers? It’s a matter of asking the questions and convening conversations to understand what the needs are and positioning those needs in a way that allows you to make an argument or to advocate for your design solutions in a more inclusive and universal way. I’m inspired by the level of thought that James Garrett Jr. and his firm 4rmula put into his multifamily housing project for formerly incarcerated residents.

Q: You were recently spotlighted in Girl Uninterrupted when you discussed your own personal and professional leadership journey. How did you become involved in Girl Uninterrupted?

JH: I met Zhanina Boyadzhieva and Juliet Chun at a 2017 event in Washington, D.C. that some of my HKS colleagues hosted. Several women in the HKS Washington office wanted to create a platform for emerging professionals at the AIA Women’s Leadership Summit, WIELD (Women Inspire Emerging Leaders in Design). Their idea was to share lessons learned and build a community around personal storytelling. Girl Uninterrupted was there to capture some of those messages at the inaugural event, share their story, and talk about their project. I was one of the panelists.

Q: In reflecting on your own professional journey, you talk about the importance of finding your own leadership style. How would you say balance plays a role in leadership?

JH: One of the most important things we can do is lead by example. We should be modeling the behaviors that we want our entire team to take on and how we want them to engage with others, prioritize their work, and take care of themselves. This was probably one of the hardest lessons I had to learn myself. If you don’t take care of yourself, who else will? What that means to each of us is different. I love my work so much, and I get so excited by it sometimes it’s hard to turn it off. While on vacation, I know the world will still be there and the project will still be on track when I get back, but I’m interested. I care, and I’m curious, so sometimes it is hard to let go. As I mature in my career, it becomes easier to draw a line. So now when I go on vacation, I may check emails and take care of fires that need to be put out first thing in the morning or at the end of the day, but then the rest of the day I try not to think about the office and really be present. This also gives an opportunity for others to shine in your absence. If you’ve prepared your team and given them the tools they need to succeed, the time away could be a good opportunity to stretch and grow.

Q: In your interview with Girl Uninterrupted, you talk about the importance of listening to learn. How does that principle play a role in being both an advocate and a leader?

JH: The community engagement process is exactly what “listening to learn” is. It is not a premeditated agenda with the goal of convincing the community to approve “X” so that we continue on our way. Instead, share what we want to do, how we are thinking about doing that, and ask the community what they think; what do they need. This opens a platform for dialogue, and we will hear and learn things that weren’t even on our radar.  You may uncover blind spots and be able to address them before a problem materializes.

Q: What are some things that inspire you about the rising young professionals in the industry?

JH: They’re so much smarter than I was. I think that our education system has done a really great job of pulling in all these different influences and perspectives, and there’s just so much to learn. The young professionals that are graduating right now have software skills and a digital mindset that can really push us to think and approach our work in a radically different way. This is a huge opportunity, not only for those individuals but also for the entire project team. There’s something called the novice perspective that Harvard professor Francesca Gino wrote about in her book Rebel Talent. She talks about the value and beauty of a fresh and unencumbered perspective. Instead of naturally approaching a project the same way you did the last 20, a fresh set of eyes questions everything, trying to understand why we do things the way that we do. Design is an experiment. If it becomes formulaic and rote, then we can just leave it up to the computers and artificial intelligence to design it for us.

Interview conducted by Kathryn Moore, architectural design professional at Freese and Nichols. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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