Profile: Maria Gomez, AIA
Profile: Maria Gomez, AIA
Lisa Lamkin joins Maria Gomez, AIA, the 2020 AIA Dallas president and principal with GFF Architects, for a conversation reflecting on accomplishments, COVID-19, and what Gomez sees ahead for our chapter.
You had a great conversation with the young professionals last fall and you talked a bit about your journey to Dallas. Do you have family ties in Colombia? Do you ever get to go back and visit?
Yes, absolutely. I only have one sister. My parents have already passed away, both of them. And my sister lives in Atlanta. So from that side, we have extended family. But on my husband’s side, he’s one of seven siblings. We try to go see them once a year or maybe every other year.
What kind of lessons or perspectives from your childhood do you bring to your practice today?
When I started practicing here in the U.S., one of the things that was shocking was how sustainability was viewed 20 years ago. Back then it wasn’t even a concept. But it was very strange to me that we were not looking at how to place a building in a site. It was more about the visibility, where the signage goes, not about thinking about how the enormous amount of windows facing east and west with huge solar exposure. which, in my practice in Colombia, we would have done because air conditioning and the resources that we have here are, are a lot more expensive proportionally to the project. There's so much that you do there that has to do with natural ventilation.
When did you decide you were going to be an architect? What lit that spark?
I had an uncle who was an architect. But when I was young, I was thinking I was going to be a physician like my dad. He sat me down when I was probably 11 or 12, and he started telling me about his experiences, how difficult it can be when you’re dealing with somebody who’s sick and perhaps they pass away, then you’re having to tell the family. I started really thinking about it in a more realistic way and that that's probably not going to be for me.
When I was about 14 or 15, my family took 45 days and went to Japan, China, Thailand, Nepal, a lot of different places in Asia. It was fascinating to me to see that, from all these different cultures that have come and gone, what stays behind is the architecture and the art. And that’s where I started thinking, “This might be something interesting to consider as a profession.” The Taj Mahal was certainly very impactful for me. That’s when I started focusing on architecture, and I never looked back.
Now that you’ve been practicing for 20 years, what’s your favorite part of your job?
Some of the most exciting parts are when a client gets it, when we’re trying to do something that is the right thing from an architectural and design standpoint. With the type of work that we do at GFF, developers are very oriented toward the performance and the finance of how this is going to pan out. But every now and then, there’s one of those clients, even though they’re still developers, they get how much better a particular approach might be. And they understand it might cost more. You know, it’s been a great thing where I can come out of the meeting and know that the client understood it and that they’re willing to do the right thing.
From a professional standpoint, the collaborative part of our profession is so fun and interesting. Which is also part of what’s difficult right now, with us working from home. Even though we can see each other on a video meeting, it’s not the same as having that contact and a more collaborative discussion.
Are you guys still at home? Are you a hybrid team?
We’ve wanted to see how things were working and how the numbers were looking in terms of whether the infections were going up or coming down. One of the things that made everybody reconsider was I got COVID. We decided we were just going take a little easier. There’s no rush. We’re working fine the way we're working for now.
You mentioned collaboration, in contrast to the Howard Roark myth of the individual architect making a statement with a design response — is that generational? Do you think your generation, as the second generation of principals at GFF, approaches practice differently now, or do you see it as more of a technological advance?
No, I think our generation is certainly taking things a little bit differently. I think that’s kind of human nature. We were all shaped by different experiences as we went to school and as we practiced, and things have changed. The natural progression is for a new generation of principals to do things a little bit differently.
From a collaborative standpoint, it is more on a personal level; some people tend to be more collaborative than others in our firm. But for me, it’s really important; I enjoy working with people where it’s not about ‘This is my idea, and this is the way we’re going to do it.’ It’s more about which one is the best idea, and it doesn’t matter who came up with it, as long as it’s making a project better.
Your resume reflects an interesting duality. You engage directly in project design, collaboration, and firm leadership. But you’re also the director of technical resources. How did that combination come about, and how did you become the technical guru? What does that do for your design approach?
In Colombia, that's the way we would approach the practice of architecture. You can’t just do one thing. A well-rounded architect, a well-rounded designer needs the entire experience. A person can’t do successful design if they’ve never been out in the field and they’ve never done the entire process. I’ve always liked to be involved in everything. I try to be diligent and disciplined about the quality of the work, and I guess it started catching other people’s attention. When the director of technical resources was retiring, the leadership decided I needed to be the one replacing that person. It wasn’t something that I was particularly pursuing, but the person who used to do it in my office, Lawrence Cosby was my mentor, he influenced my approach.
As the 2020 chapter president, you certainly had your year quickly disrupted. How did that change or reinforce your original goals?
The original goals are still really strong, very applicable. There was certainly a huge shift to figuring out how we’re going to make sure that we take the chapter through this process in the right fiduciary way. We needed to react quickly because things were happening and changing on a daily basis, and there was no way anybody could have expected that. So we needed to make sure that the board was looking at everything that we needed to be looking at it and understanding what might be happening through the rest of the year so we could figure out how we’re going to approach it and make sure that the organization stays viable and financially afloat.
We’re still doing a lot of the work to make progress on those original goals. But there was a quick, very quick shift to emergency mode. And how do we continue to make sure that our members are being served and that we’re putting together programs that are motivating and interesting while handling this from home and doing things remotely.
With tools such as Zoom, have we actually expanded the connections of members so that we get more participation from a broader group?
Yeah, there have been plenty of silver linings. And that’s one of them. There are a lot of people who are able to make the time because now they’re not commuting. There’s so many of our members who work north of Dallas and Plano or Frisco, and they make the commute, but it’s tough. Now it’s so much easier to just finish a meeting and immediately jump on an event or a committee meeting than it was before. I think that we’re going to be using some of these strategies so that we offer people the flexibility of either coming in person or being able to call in.
Everyone wants to talk about the new normal. What do you think is long lasting for the chapter and for architects in Dallas and for architecture in general?
I’ve been thinking about how people are going to work. Inevitably we’re going to have a big change. A lot of companies are getting a lot more comfortable with people working remotely, and that was already happening anyway. You’ve got people working all over the country. To move somewhere else and continue to be an important part of an organization is going to be happening more than it was before. We’ve realized, at least for our profession, it’s very feasible to work at home.
But at the same time, people are worried about — and in some instances I worry about — being too comfortable losing a little bit of that personal interaction and collaboration. So there’s got to be a balance.
From my perspective, I do a lot of workplace and office projects. And we keep talking about: “Does this mean we’re going to be seeing a reduction in the number of employees working at the office? Does that mean we’re going to have fewer developers leasing less square footage?” We’ve been living in a trend where physical office space is reducing and reducing and reducing, and now, with social distancing and other health concerns, are those spaces going to be growing back so that people feel more comfortable?
And there’s that kind of a wash that you have fewer people working and more space per person, so we stay where we currently are in the number of square feet for a certain population. I’m still curious to see how that is going to pan out. I don’t have a good sense of what that will be.
The kind of compact desking solutions that are about a quiet person sitting at a computer producing drawings, that’s what is really easily done at home as long as the internet supports it and space is available.
Yeah. We were talking in our panel discussion with firm leaders that there’s a lot of production that can be done at home in a more isolated way. But at the same time, how many times have you walked up to a young or a less experienced person at their workspace, and you’ve looked at something they were working on and you’re like, “Hey, you need to think about this because you’re sort of heading into this other direction.”
Any other big surprises about these last few months other than getting COVID?
Both my husband and I had it. We didn’t have to go to the ER, so that was a good thing. But it was still not easy. And it was very stressful because you don’t know what to expect. You hear in the news so many cases of people without underlying conditions, and you’re constantly worrying. I was worried about my husband because he had it a little bit harder than I did, and at night I would wake up every 15 minutes to make sure he was breathing.
In terms of other surprises, I really enjoy in-person collaboration. But not having to deal with traffic is wonderful. When I first moved to Dallas, I was living in Plano. So my commute was about an hour each way, which was way too much. My commute now is about 25 to 30 minutes each way. But not having to deal with that traffic every day makes it so much better when I have other things that are stressful occurring during the day. That has really made me feel a lot more relaxed. I wish I could live and work very close together. It just makes me realize how important it is to think about all those urban concepts we always talk about, which is live close to where you work.
What will define success for the chapter in your presidency as we look back in December?
I think about that every month at our board meeting. I’ve got a little reminder on the agenda of what the main goals are every month. I’m happy to say that we’re on track. There were a few things that I thought were particularly important to achieve. And we’ve made so much progress in some of those areas, particularly the one where I had seen a very big disconnect between the foundation and the chapter.
Until last year, I didn’t really understand much about the foundation because I wasn’t involved in it. And it’s such a different organization than our chapter is. But what was clear to me is that they were intentionally separated, that we have gone too far. Now we’re trying to bring them back together so that there’s more collaboration between the two organizations so that we can leverage efforts that both are making. I think the measure is going to be looking back and saying, OK, these were the goals. What were we able to accomplish? And that in addition to maintaining the financial stability of the organization, because on a regular year that wouldn’t be as big as our concern as it is this year, and I'm sure it’ll be next year's challenge as well.
You’ve been here for 20 years, all with one firm. And that firm has more than doubled to 120. So what’s success is the next 20 years for your business? For Dallas?
One of the things that GFF has been striving to do, and the new leadership has taken it on, but we really want to move in the direction to be more design oriented, if you will. Then service oriented. We were talking earlier about one of those things that is motivating for me is when there’s a client who is usually not interested in architecture, they’re more interested in their financial perspective. And you’re able to educate that client on why good design is so important. That’s what it’s all about. As a practice, if we’re moving GFF from a more business-oriented practice to a practice-oriented practice, I think that’s going be a great push forward. We’ve been making, in my view, quite a bit of progress there.
We need to continue to grow the firm, obviously. Growth doesn’t necessarily mean more people. There are other components about growth that we’re looking at that are not necessarily additional revenue and additional people.
In terms of the city, we got here 21 years ago, 1991, and I look back and see the big shift from everything being about the car to now the cities are talking about urban design. Of course we’ve been talking about it forever, but it fell on deaf ears. I think a lot of the shift has to do with the millennial generation because they’re the ones driving the markets. And they said, “We’re not interested in having a long commute from home to the office.” They're the ones who’ve made the developers realize you’re going to have to change your mindset to stay relevant.
I've seen that transformation, and Klyde Warren Park is a great example of how important it is to use resources from the city and from the private sector to bridge neighborhoods that were broken up because of all the highways. Everything, everything was done around transportation and how many cars can we get from point A to point B as quickly as possible? So I think Dallas is going through a great transformation. It’s been doing that for the last 15 years, and I think it’s going to continue because there’s so much momentum. The developers have realized that if they don’t get on that bus, they’ve missed the mark. I can’t wait to see in 10 years when we can have another discussion about this, what else has evolved.
You’ve touched on many themes that AIA supports practices with, in terms of how design matters and why architects are critical to public health and well-being. Do you imagine yourself continuing in AIA service? Or community service? What’s next on your radar?
I’ll be continued to be involved in AIA. I love the organization, and it’s done so much for me that I'm very grateful. It's very important for all of us to be backers as much as we can. I’ve always been involved in different types of organizations. I served about 10 years on the zoning ordinance advisory committee for the city of Dallas and the special sign district advisory committee as well. We’ve talked about it a lot with our public policy groups. With Norm in particular, as the director of advocacy, it’s so important to have people engaged in those committees. Some committees require architects to be on them so the ordinance is actually correctly set up, and we just need to make sure that we have the right people there to represent what we think are the right issues.
But there are other committees where an architect is not required. And one of the things that Norm and the public policy committee this year have been working really hard at is making sure that we do have architects who are AIA architects, who are engaged and keeping tabs on what’s going on in each of these areas. We’ve made some progress on that. And it’s not just about the city of Dallas. Our metroplex has members all over, Plano, Frisco, so we are considering everybody in those conversations and not just Dallas.
The Dallas Morning News recently had an editorial about why do we want to tear down it 345? Yet three years ago, they got it and they understood why it made sense. It’s like it's a boomerang keeps coming back.
People leave, and then the person who was going to push for that in that particular area leaves, and then you’ve got to almost start over.
You have talked about the joy of travel. What's left on your bucket list. Where are you going next?
One of the things we were planning to do this year was September in Greece. And I hadn’t bought the tickets when this [COVID-19] whole thing started. We have a couple of friends who live in Florida — she’s my best friend from when we were little and we like to travel together. In previous years we’ve been to Peru and Australia, we’ve done these phenomenal trips. But we do have a very, very long list, and it's just hard to pick one. There are so many wonderful places in South America where we want to go. Chile, Argentina — we haven't been to Argentina — Galapagos.
You mentioned countries and environments more than you mentioned cities. A lot of architects will list all the big cities they need to see and which great buildings
Yeah, I mean it’s hard to pin down just one city though because like, for example, Peru, you know, Lima is a great city. That’s some of the best restaurants in the world. But how do you not go to Machu Picchu or Cusco? I mean, there are so many other fascinating places around it. There are some instances where we say, OK, we want to go to this city, and we’re going to stay there for a week and get to know everything about it. But in other instances, we like to explore a little bit beyond the particular cities.
What else should our readers know about you?
It’s always been hard for me getting in front of a big crowd and talking. That was something that was giving me a little bit of stress at the beginning of this whole process [of chapter president]. In December when the hat was passed on, it kind of, for some reason, went away. I guess I've been preparing for it enough. I know a lot of people who struggle with a lot of those kinds of issues. And I want them to know you shouldn’t worry about it, you shouldn’t let that hold you back or make a decision to not do something because it makes you uncomfortable. One of the things that I’ve really learned about myself is there are so many instances where I’ve put myself outside of my comfort zone, and it’s those areas where I really have grown in my career.
Any parting comments for our young professionals who will be president in 20 years or in 15 years or 10 years?
I’m so looking forward to that generation because they are so confident and have so many great ideas. We have a few young professionals serving on the board, and I love how many creative solutions they’re coming up with, and they’re not fearful of saying something that people are going to be frowning upon. The AIA, as an organization, has evolved quite a bit.
We have been very purposeful on including diverse people on our board and very purposeful on making sure that it feels comfortable expressing ideas and thoughts and feelings about different topics.
The young people bring a lot of energy, they keep the organization going, and it’s our pipeline. In fact, right now, one of the things we’re trying to focus on is not just the young generation in our profession, but the young generation that isn’t in our profession yet. We need to build up a pipeline if we want to continue to grow.
This interview, conducted by Lisa Lamkin, FAIA, principal at BRW Architects, has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Photo Credit: Luis M Escobar