May 9, 2008
  Kathryn Prigmore, FAIA, NOMA, LEED-AP

by Heather Livingston
Contributing Editor

Summary: Kathryn Prigmore is a vice president with HDR, Inc. in Alexandria, Va. A former associate dean at Howard University, she recently was awarded the National Women of Color Lifetime Achievement Award. Prigmore has been active in the AIA and NCARB for many years and currently serves on the National Ethics Council. She will be speaking at the AIA National Convention in Boston in a seminar entitled Riding the Vortex: African-American Women Architects in Practice.

I have three degrees. I have a bachelor of science in building science from Rensselaer, a bachelor of architecture from Rensselaer, and a master of science in engineering from Catholic University.

Drawn to design
I’ve always had an interest in architecture. When I was really young we lived in New York, so my mom would take my brother and me to the museums and walk around Manhattan, and I remember watching the buildings being built. Then, later on when I was in Alexandria, Va., I read a lot about architecture. The Alexandria Library had a huge collection on architecture, so I read a lot about architecture when I was in high school. I spent time at the AIA back when the museum was downstairs and the library was open.

Important influences
Originally it was Frank Lloyd Wright. Kenzo Tange was one of my favorite architects when I was young, and Corbu as well. I think my interest in form and structure actually came from Kenzo Tange’s work. He did the designs for the Tokyo Olympics, and I studied his buildings. That’s how I got interested in him, studying his life and how he practiced.

I happen to be lucky. I’ve had a very special career as an architect. I graduated in a recession, but my first boss was [former AIA President] Randy Vosbeck. His daughter and I were classmates in middle school, and so he was my first boss. I got involved with the AIA and professional service through my first employment experience. Also, Harry Robinson and Robert Coles have been very influential in my career development as well. I’ve known all of them for a very long time.

Involvement with the AIA National Ethics Committee
When I was associate dean at Howard University, there was an opening on the state registration board of Virginia. I served NCARB for 10 or 12 years, ending up as chair of the examination committee. The types of responsibilities you have on the registration board are very similar to the ethics council. You hear cases and work on making sure the laws that govern are fair and up to date. It’s very, very similar to the responsibilities of registration board member, just a different entity. When I went off of the board and the bulk of my service to NCARB ended, I got a call from Phil Gerou, who was chair or past chair at the time, and I ended up on the Ethics Council.

I’ve always believed that everyone should do the right thing, even though it’s hard. It’s just a fundamental belief that I have in my life, so the council and the things that I was doing on the registration board all fall into line with that.

With the rapidly evolving technologies now, how are professional ethics impacted?
That’s a good question. There’s always been the problem with people taking credit for other people’s work, and with the whole digital evolution with the ability to copy just about anything within seconds makes it so much easier. People do it without really thinking about it. There are copyright law that you could be infringing, and other professional laws or rules of ethics. People don’t understand how important it is to give proper credit for someone’s work. They don’t understand the seriousness of it. I think what we’re seeing more and more is a lack of awareness because it’s so easy. Younger people know the Xerox machines and computers and so forth. They started using computers in kindergarten or even before, so they’re using these tools without the ethical foundation to understand that when they copy off of a Web site, they’re really infringing on a copyright. As time goes by, this is probably going to be more and more of a serious problem. Probably our heaviest caseload on the NEC is people taking credit for other people’s work.

On teaching
I practiced for a number of years, then went to Howard. I was there as associate dean for 8 years, but taught a total of 13 years. I’ve always wanted to teach, but I wanted to teach when I was older than I was when I got into it. It got to the point where I knew if I didn’t get out of teaching, I would never be able to go back to practice. It’s been almost 5 years since I stopped teaching. It was a really hard decision because I love teaching. I loved being able to help other people understand what it is that they want to do with architecture, what they can do with architecture.

It really was a very hard decision, but I don’t regret it because I love practice as well, and there were things I wanted to do as a practitioner. There were some goals I had not achieved.

One of the things I do in practice and what my AIA fellowship is really founded on is helping other people get exposure to academics or helping them develop career mentorship. That’s what I continue to do as a practitioner and through the AIA, because I chair the D.C. chapter’s fellowship committee, so I continue this mentor/teacher role even though I’m not full time at the university.

Mentoring in the firm
At the firm I was with when I first left academia, I started an intern development program, which was really successful. I was also involved in helping them develop their internal university. When I came to HDR, which is a much larger firm, it had some aspects of that already in place. What I’ve been doing in the Alexandria office is finding those opportunities for our office. We have an intern development program. We do recruiting. One of the things that I’ve been a proponent of is getting the young people involved in the leadership of these activities. One thing I do is train the younger people to do the work, so we have young people in the office who are in charge of the intern recruiting. We have someone who’s running the IDP program and we also have a program to help young architects study and get ready for the exam. It’s really a mentoring and training program.

There’s also a team of senior professionals in the office, four or five of us, who have taken on the role of mentoring people through these processes: the IDP, the licensing, and making sure their careers are developing the way they want to and the way we need them to. One of the things about HDR is they’re really committed to trying to retain people. In my experience, it’s unique for an architecture firm, but we try to develop ways to keep people on the staff. This is the only place I’ve worked where we have a lot of people who have been there 15 years, 25 years. There’s not a lot of attrition in our company.

Most rewarding work?
Raising my children. I have two girls. The last is graduating from high school this year. The other is a junior in college. They grew up in the practice. They spent a lot of time around architects and architecture when I was at Howard. They also spent a lot of time at the firm I worked with when they were really young. Watching them mature and then just recently hearing both of them say for various reasons that they want to go to architecture school has been the highlight of my career.

Architecture really is my gift. When a student or former employee comes back and says, “Kathy, I’m so glad you taught me this or showed me that,” that’s when I feel the best. It’s not the buildings. I love the process of designing and watching things get built, but what makes architecture great for me is knowing that people have learned either through my example or by helping them understand or learn something, and then they’re able to share it with somebody else.

Best practice tip
Know the rules under which you’re doing your work, whether it’s a contract or state law or the AIA ethics code. You really need to know the rules that govern what you do.

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