“I never thought of being an architect,” 11-year-old Gio Cruz says as he works on his new design for downtown Kalamazoo’s Arcadia Festival Site. Gio is taking part in a three-day architecture camp at Western Michigan University for youth aged 11 to 18, run by the Kalamazoo Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) as part of their Project Pipeline initiative to introduce more minorities to the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry.

Campers took a bus from Western Michigan University to downtown Kalamazoo’s Arcadia Festival Site to walk the space of their new architectural design project.

Seven Generations A+E (7GAE) is proud to be one of several architecture firms coming together to give students a view into an industry that has historically had hurdles to entry for minorities. Hayward Babineaux of Byce & Associates and Director of Kalamazoo camp outlines the racial disparities, “There’s less than 2,000 licensed African American male architects in the whole country, and maybe like 500 African American women. And those numbers are even lower for Hispanics and Native Americans.” That’s around two percent of all licensed architects in the U.S., clear evidence of the racial disparity within the industry.

Campers got a feel for the current space’s use as the annual Ribfest was getting setup on the festival grounds.

Nadine Rios-Rivas, Project Coordinator at 7GAE, has been involved in NOMA since 2018 and these camps are an opportunity for her to help inspire youth about the profession. “If as a team we can encourage just one student to plan their future with a goal to look forward to, then it’s all worth it. If that student becomes an architect, then it’s even slightly sweeter. This camp is all about minority and youth empowerment.”

“It’s architecture on steroids,” exclaims Babineaux. Students learn about measuring the site to scale and then get to decide how they think the space would be best utilized. They’re also encouraged to think about the concept of community architecture, which includes consideration of areas like social justice, historical disparities, and environmental impact.

Students had no shortage of ideas for the re-imagined festival site.

Camper ideas ranged from a hammock village under shade trees to bike rental vendors for urban exploration to a splash pad for children to play and cool off, all sketched out to scale within the downtown surroundings. This crash course in urban planning opens a type of work that minority students often don’t consider as attainable for them without camps like Project Pipeline.

The camp included a tour of nearby Eckert Wordell, a chance for students to see what a real architecture firm looks like.

Before returning to the classroom, students got a chance to tour a nearby architecture firm, Eckert Wordell. Seeing a working studio, with the chance to ask questions to industry professionals of a variety of specialties, was invaluable inspiration to aspiring architects.

Following this tour, students returned to Kohrmann Hall on the campus of Western Michigan University, a new camp home Rios-Rivas appreciates, “WMU gave us a huge blessing by providing access to the creative space in the interior design studio.” Students are grouped into teams of four or five across the age range to bring their ideas into a collaborative design.

Joining 11-year-old Gio on his team was Maxwell Lloyd, a 16-year-old return camper interested in a career in engineering after developing some skills he’s learned from camp. “I like intentional design, like the design helps to serve the purpose. There’s a lot of that in architecture.”

On the last day, students got a chance to present their designs to a team of industry judges, complete with real-world review.

On the camp’s final day, teams presented their collaborative design solutions to a team of industry judges for review and feedback, an important real-world aspect to the project. Rios-Rivas describes the reaction, “The jury was impressed with the knowledge that the students were able to grasp in such a short period of time.”

In just three short days, students got a crash course on what it takes to be an architect, hopefully inspiring a few to continue their learning and enter the AEC industry!

Programs like this that empower minority youth to envision themselves in the AEC industry are near and dear to Rivas-Rios’s heart:

“It’s events like this where we find purpose and value in our lives. Being able to give my time to uplift minorities and the future of the profession is priceless. I am so thankful that Seven Generations gives me the time and resources to participate in this effort. The camp just turned five years old, and we plan to make it even better next year.”