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Weekend Interview: AIA Houston President Melvalean McLemore On The Lack Of Black Women In Architecture And How To Change That

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When Melvalean McLemore earned her license to practice architecture in 2016, she was only the 16th Black woman in Texas to do so.

Melvalean McLemore

McLemore became the first Black woman president of the American Institute of Architects Houston chapter late last year, earning a proclamation from Houston City Council for her achievements. While being first is exciting, McLemore said it was a bittersweet feeling.

“It’s a little bit sad to hear that someone is the first of anything in 2023, 2024,” McLemore said. 

McLemore is Texas studio design leader and project manager at Moody Nolan, the largest Black-owned architectural firm in the U.S. with 12 offices nationally. She has worked on numerous education projects, including the Texas Southern University Library Learning Center and the new Texas Southern University Transformation Complex, as well as commercial projects such as the Greentown Lab in Houston’s Ion District. 

Greentown Lab is the largest climate tech startup incubator in North America, allowing startups, corporates, investors and policymakers to come together. McLemore served as the owner’s representative on the project. 

McLemore sat down with Bisnow to chat about how she fell into architecture, the projects she is passionate about and her intentions to get more Black women into the industry. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bisnow: How did you get into architecture?

McLemore: I had no intent of being an architect. I was actually in an engineering program when I was in high school. But the big twist of how I became an architect: I just checked the wrong box on my application.

I did the Texas Common Application. The intent was to save money and mass apply to a bunch of schools here in Texas. There was a category of interest question, and I checked architecture, not knowing that I was declaring a major. So I ended up getting a bunch of “Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to the college of architecture” letters. I was like “I’m 18, if I don’t like it, I’ll try something else.” 

I came from an engineering background. Knowing why things work the way they do is very important to me. That was how I used to approach problem-solving, but when I got into architecture, it was more creative. I saw that everyone could be given the same problem, but they would approach the solving of the problem differently. They would use their backgrounds and how they saw the world, and no two people would ever have the same solution to the problem they were given.

That really grew my passion for architecture because I found it interesting that I could solve problems based on who I am as a person and my own perspective.

Melvalean McLemore at a planning event for the Third Ward-Cuney Homes Choice Neighborhood

Bisnow: When did you realize architecture was your ideal career? 

McLemore: It was part of that realization that I could plug myself into the solutions, and [that] how I saw the world mattered. Eventually, I started seeing how my perspective enabled me to approach problem-solving or work for communities I saw myself reflected in. I could easily see I could add value based on who I was as an individual, and that really resonated with me. It felt like a great way to give back through what I was doing. 

Bisnow: What has been your favorite project to work on in the past year? 

McLemore: One I really enjoyed working on was the Choice Neighborhood project for Cuney Homes in Third Ward Houston. That project required a lot of community engagement. It allowed me to leverage not only my skill set as an architect, but also connect with people, listen and think of how to use their feedback to inform solutions.

We were engaged for the planning portion of that effort. It was really meaningful and really important because Third Ward is a community I’ve been volunteering in since I graduated from college in 2009. To continue to be able to give back to that community in different ways now that I’m on the professional side of things has been really important to me. 

Bisnow: Can you tell us about the steps along the way to becoming president of the American Institute of Architects Houston chapter?

McLemore: I am in this position today from efforts I made early in my career of dedicating myself to the industry through volunteerism. I love giving back as much as I can. Some of my early efforts included co-founding Women in Architecture, Houston Chapter, and that started from me volunteering to help put on an exhibit.

That early involvement with AIA Houston is how I started out my volunteerism with this organization. It led to me co-chairing the women in architecture committee for Houston, and then ultimately led me to volunteering at the regional level of AIA, which is the Texas Society of Architects. 

Over those years, I've given back and with a lot of focus on equity and promotion of inclusion of different groups that are historically underrepresented in our profession. And that consistent contribution on my part led to me being invited to be on our executive board about five years ago. Eventually, the board felt that I was prepared and appropriate for leading the organization. It had historic significance, but it was not intentional.

Melvalean McLemore holds her proclamation from Houston City Council that recognizes her for being the first Black woman to serve as president of AIA Houston.

Bisnow: How did it feel knowing you are the first Black woman to hold that position and being recognized by Houston City Council? 

McLemore: I wasn’t aware of that statistic for a long time, until I volunteered with the Texas Society of Architects. We started doing analysis of the boards across our region, and we saw that there wasn't much representation. In the major cities, they didn’t have diverse representation on the boards that ultimately would lead to someone serving in the presidential capacity for these different chapters.

[Former Councilman David] Robinson approached me at the inauguration event. He’s from the architecture industry and he’s been a huge advocate for the AIA in general. He said, “The mayor needs to know about this.”

I kind of laughed it off, but I understand it’s important to not only our organization, but to our city. The AIA focuses on the built environment and we have an impact beyond the projects we complete and the jobs we’re paid to do. Our city being able to see diversity and representation in leadership of these organizations that have such influence on their environment is really important. It was shocking, but it was exciting. 

Bisnow: As of 2022, there were only 566 Black female licensed architects working in the U.S. Why do you think it is still rare for Black women to be licensed architects in Texas and in general?

McLemore: There are still less than three dozen Black female architects in Texas, and Texas is a huge state. We produce a lot of architects, so you have to really think about how rare it is. There are a number of reasons why the representation is low.

The AIA has done a number of studies, and they found that different demographics have particular pinch points. For women in general, there's a drop in representation transitioning from school to the profession, then there’s a reduction in representation as they grow in their profession and get licensed. 

For Black architects, there are three pinch points, and it starts before they ever enter school. From the general population to the schools, there’s a pinch point for the African-American community. Then you have a drop in representation transitioning from school to the profession. 

There’s another significant drop in advancement. A lot just don’t get to the point where they’re able to acquire licensure. You need not only to pass all the exams, you need to acquire a certain amount of experience. So if you're not getting recruited into firms from school, you're probably not going to have the experience. And if you're not advancing in the firms you're at, you're also not going to be able to get that license, because you need a certain type of experience. Exams just add another barrier because there are cost barriers that different groups experience. 

So just the intersectionality of being Black and a woman factors into that low representation, but I’m positive there's a multitude of other reasons. From school [on], there aren’t that many, then it just dwindles from there.

Melvalean McLemore speaks inside the Houston City Council chambers on Nov. 28, 2023, which a proclamation declared “Melvalean McLemore Day” in honor of her being the first Black woman president of AIA Houston.

Bisnow: What is being done to get more Black women into the architecture industry?

McLemore: There are a lot of fantastic groups that are focusing on this issue. Tiffany Brown is doing 400 Forward, which focuses on getting young women interested in architecture. There are also efforts by the National Organization of Minority Architects, NOMA, such as Project Pipeline and the HBCU Professional Development Program, which encourages large firms to recruit directly from [historically Black colleges and universities]. 

Bisnow: How do you feel that working at Moody Nolan, a Black-owned firm, has supported your career path?

McLemore: There’s a multitude of ways. One, being one of the few in my industry, it's really hard to see yourself in leadership. At a lot of firms, there's only one or two people who look like you. So the uniqueness of being at Moody Nolan is I saw the representation, particularly if we're speaking about Black women in architecture, at every level from the intern to the partner or the principal. 

It was really important to be able to see a variety of experiences, and see the quantity of black women and leadership and being able to plug themselves in in different ways at Moody Nolan. When firms have diversity and representation of all kinds of groups, it’s an ultimate value-add for our clients. We can address problems differently, we can support them differently. And it's very meaningful.

Bisnow: Are there any architectural trends currently emerging in Houston? 

McLemore: There is a mixed-use component emerging that I find really interesting. There are projects out there that don’t have just a single purpose or dedicated project type. 

Another notable trend is the increasing interest in mass timber construction. Although not entirely new, this sustainable building method is gaining in popularity as more firms and clients prioritize environmentally friendly designs. 

Bisnow: Give a bold prediction for the commercial architecture market for the rest of the year.

McLemore: I think there will be a lot more of these [public-private partnership] projects coming out. They solve a funding need for a lot of clients, and they help the scale of the project be something more substantial. 

Bisnow: This is a weekend interview, so what is your favorite weekend routine or activity?

McLemore: I have two small kids, a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old. I’m also in leadership positions, so I have a lot of responsibilities on the weekends. But my ideal activities are just hanging out with my family, discovering the city and seeing something new. I call myself a foodie, so I love finding new restaurants in the city. 

I love exploring Houston as someone who's lived here her entire life. I can so frequently find things I didn't know about Houston. There's always something to discover about our city.