February 15, 2008
Susan Maxman, FAIA

by Heather Livingston
Contributing Editor

Summary: Susan Maxman, FAIA, is founder and design principal of SMP Architects, a pioneer firm in green design. Coming late to the profession, Maxman earned her MArch and became an architect only after her six children were in school. In 1993, Maxman became the AIA’s first female president. During her administration, she made environmentally sensitive design a priority at a time when few recognized the need for sustainability in architecture or otherwise. Under her leadership, the AIA and the International Union of Architects jointly sponsored a convention focused on architecture, the environment, and sustainable design.

Education: I went to Smith College and transferred to the University of Pennsylvania after two years. Then I got married, had children, and stopped my education for a period of time. I later went back to the Penn graduate School of Architecture. I never got a bachelor’s degree, only a master’s. I had a little bit of experience and for some reason Peter Shepherd, the dean at the time, decided to admit me. But he made me take calculus and physics first with the pre-med students to make sure I was serious. I walked in the first day of physics, and the professor turned to me and said: “You’ll never pass because women can’t do physics.” And I said, “You wait and see.”

Back to school after having children: I always felt like it was unfinished business. I always wanted to become an architect, but I didn’t know any architects at the time. When I went to college—I was in the class of ‘60 at Smith—and none of my friends became doctors or lawyers. Women just weren’t doing that at the time. When I transferred to Penn, I wanted to go into the architecture school but everyone talked me out of it, saying that it’s no place for women, so I became an art history major. Then I got married, which is what a lot of young people did, and started a family. That was the end of college. I had to put it on hold, but I always had this great craving to be an architect.

When I decided to go back to school, I realized I had to decide whether I wanted to become a fine artist or an architect. I decided I really wanted to solve problems for people with my design ability. I guess what really motivated me to do it was the article in Time on Lou Kahn. I thought, “That’s it. I’m going back to Penn and I’m going to study with him.” He died the year that I entered the program, so I never got to study with him, but I knew him. I’d heard him speak, and I knew him through friends, but I greatly admired him and his work. That was my motivation to do it that minute.

Professional background: When I graduated and went to work, the economy was in a big downturn. I worked for about three years for a firm that was starting out. I had a bunch of children I was raising at the time, so I decided to open my own practice in my house with another woman. We did residential stuff and things like that for a couple of years and then started getting other projects. We moved into town and opened an office. She then decided that it was too much pressure for her, so she left and I continued the firm. I always planned to have a firm of my own for a short time, then go back and work for a bigger firm, but I began to really like it a lot. I started getting interesting work, and the firm kept growing in size. We did very little commercial work because we really liked working with institutional clients who cared a lot about their projects and not designing for the profit mode. We enjoyed working with people who had limited budgets but were passionate about their projects. Then, we started doing new construction and it just kind of grew. It’s been a fun mix of work, with very interesting projects all the way through.

Role with SMP Architects now: I’ve cut back. I’m an old lady now. We recently transitioned the firm to my partners so I just do certain projects, which is great. I love it. It gets me back to why I became an architect.

Interest in sustainability: When I went to Penn in the ’70s, Don Prowler was a teaching assistant at the time. He talked about energy efficiency, and I was interested in that. I was interested in design with a capital D, but I was interested as well in how people perceived spaces and the architectural relationship to people in terms of scale and solving problems. That was really my thing. Then the energy problem started to interest me. I wanted to renovate buildings as opposed to building new, because I thought it was a waste to throw away these buildings in America, whereas in Europe people use buildings for centuries.

At the AIA convention in Washington, D.C., in 1991, I heard Amory Lovins [Hon. AIA] give a talk about using compact fluorescent bulbs and saving all this energy in the power plant down the road. I thought, “For gosh sakes, I’m an architect. I switched my light bulbs. Why can’t I start to do energy-efficient buildings?” I also was asked by Greg Franta [FAIA] to be at the dedication of their building, The Way Station Club House in Frederick, Md., which was the first building I ever saw that was designed holistically. It left such an impression on me that I went back to my office—we were working on the Women’s Humane Society at the time—and told the client: “We really should do this energy-efficient building. With your mission of saving animals, let’s think about saving the environment in which animals exist.” They got very excited about it and decided that yes, their building should be energy efficient, so I had a friend help us to do computer modeling of the building. That was our first building that we designed in a holistic way. We did a model and it did perform tremendously.

A lot of clients then came to us because we were green architects, but other clients would come because they liked our design. We would try to talk them into doing green buildings, and many of them would. There are a lot of things you can do that aren’t more expensive so you just do them anyhow. It’s just good design and it’s just the appropriate response. We were doing sustainable building way before LEED® ever was in existence.

The first “green” convention
As president-elect of the AIA in 1992, I had an incredible opportunity to talk about green architecture. I became very committed to it. I think what really got me going was when I was moderating a discussion on the future of architecture with panelists from all different walks of life. There was with a guy named Don Hammer from the Tennessee Valley Authority, and he stood up and looked at every architect in the room and said, “You’re responsible for reducing the human footprint on our global ecosystem.” And I thought, gee, we really are. Buildings use so much energy and destroy so much of the ecological well being of the country. We have the chance to be restorative or to destroy, so I changed all my speeches and started talking about that. Then, I went back to the AIA—each president of the AIA gets to pick the theme for their convention—and said, “Listen, we’re going to have to do our convention on sustainability.” The staff looked at me and said you’re crazy, no one will come.

“Architecture at a Crossroads” was our title. It was a UIA convention as well, so we had architects from all over the world. There were green architects scattered all over the world who we met at the convention and got them involved. It was terrific. It was really fun, and a lot of people still come up to me today and say that was the best convention. They say they loved it because all these people got inspired. That was in 1993, so it took a while for this to become mainstream, but everything takes time.

As first woman president of the AIA: I never planned to do this, but a lot of men kept pushing me and saying you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to run. It was never in my game plan at all to be president of the AIA. I just was not interested, though I was interested in promoting my ideas and trying to get the profession to look at things differently. I became interested when I talked to women architects around the country. I had been involved in the Women in Architecture group at the AIA and when I saw how women felt about the profession at that time, how hostile it was for them, and how downtrodden they were, I thought the best way to show them that you can do whatever you want if you want to do it hard enough is by example. You get beyond the barriers and go forward and not think about being a woman, just about being the best you can be at something.

I went to a girls’ high school and a girls’ college. Most of the women I knew at Smith had more confidence in their abilities because they went to a college where women could do anything and the professors made you feel like you could do anything. Of course we could do physics. Why not? I never looked at how I was being discriminated against or anything like that. I just got beyond it, because what’s the point of thinking about those things? You just do it. You do what you can do and try to break down the barriers by example. My real motivation for running for AIA president was to show other women that we can do anything, so let’s just do it and get on with it.

During that year, I spent a lot of time going around the country and visiting chapters rather than spending a lot of time abroad as other presidents do. I thought it was important for me to go see other women throughout the country and try to be an inspiration to them and say, “We can do anything in this profession. There are no limits.”

Current read: With the elections, I’ve been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s two books, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. It’s fascinating to see what good leadership is about and then to understand what these two presidents did. It’s just phenomenal. She pulls everything together so that you have a brilliant understanding of that history and the time. The Lincoln book is fascinating because he’s so far back in time. I never had any understanding of him at all, but now I feel like I know so much about him personally—how brilliant and what a skilled politician he was. He knew exactly how to motivate people. It was amazing.

Advice for newly licensed architects: I always felt that in every project I could find something really exciting about it. It could be the dumbest project in the world and I’d find something that was just absolutely fabulous, so I never turned my nose up at any kind of work. I think we also must remember that we are about people, solving their problems, and meeting their needs and not necessarily our own design aesthetic, per se. It’s important that you really think about your clients and their needs and that you listen to them carefully. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that I was the first architect who ever listened, and that’s a very sad statement about where our profession used to be. Hopefully, it’s not there anymore. I haven’t heard it lately, but I used to hear it a lot.

Also, be upbeat and think that anything is possible. Be a dreamer and you’ll get there. And work hard. You might have to struggle a little bit in the beginning, but you’ll get there. It’s just a terrific profession—it really is—and I’ve felt very fortunate to have been part of it. There are always problems along the way, but it’s been a very fulfilling and wonderful profession for me.

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