Norman Hamann never intentionally set out to build a team at his company that would reflect the reality of what was happening in architecture schools in the United States.
Yet, that is exactly what has been happening at Diekema Hamann Architecture, where he holds the titles of owner and partner. Of the firm’s licensed architects, 60 percent are women and 40 percent are men.
“It wasn’t like we had a strategic objective. We’re small enough that we knew we had to be open to the best candidates and so when we hire people we allow our staff to also interview job candidates to give them a sense of what’s going on at different levels of the firm,” Hamann said. “There may have been a greater comfort level because of how we interview people and bring them on. Maybe we resonated better.”
A recent survey found that 50 percent of graduates from architectural schools in the United States are women, but they only represent 20 percent of the nation’s licensed architects and 17 percent of the principals in architecture firms.
Diekema Hamann was well ahead of this curve when they made Vicki Nelson a principal in 1999 after hiring her in 1993. Nelson came to the firm after spending 10 years in Dallas, where she said she didn’t see another women architect “for a long time.” This was something she was used to, having been among the 10 percent of women studying Architecture at the University of Texas when she graduated in 1979.
After becoming a mother, she began looking for part-time work options.
“At the time, I understood that firms had ups and downs with their workloads. I was proposing a part-time position, but also expressing my willingness to work through times when there would be heavy workloads,” Nelson said. “Diekema Hamann was the only firm that responded.”
Hamann said his father, now retired from the firm, made the decision to hire Nelson.
“He said she brought a good portfolio, was talented and had done some interesting work and that the part-time arrangement sounded like something that could work,” Hamann said.
For many years, Nelson was the only female architect with Diekema Hamann.
“We worked together as partners to develop a specific culture for the firm that, though not targeting, encouraged women to seek us out,” she said.
Many of the women architects now on staff at Diekema Hamann were interns with the firm, some who took jobs elsewhere but did not require much persuading to come back because of the atmosphere Hamann has fostered.
After interning for three summers with the firm, Dieneke Kniffin, who grew up in Mattawan, took a job at a national firm in Portland, where she worked for seven years. That firm had 20 principals, only one of whom was a woman.
Throughout her time in Portland, she kept in touch with Nelson and Hamann. While visiting family in Michigan, Hamann contacted her, not knowing she was so close by, and shared a strategic plan the firm had developed.
It did not take much convincing to bring her back into the Diekema Hamann fold.
“It mattered to me that we had a female partner. I felt like opportunities were available to everybody there,” Kniffin said. “I recognized there would be little opportunity at the Portland firm for this type of advancement.”
She also cites a culture of collaboration that encourages each staff member to share their talents and ideas with each other.
Though reluctant to take credit, when pressed Hamann said the culture has always been one of collaboration supported through the clear communication of expectations, roles and responsibilities.
“We are always assuming the best first of everyone here and we work with them and support them,” he said.
This is the atmosphere Katie Potts was seeking out when she was looking for a job. A project crchitect with Diekema Hamann, she said a strong culture of mentoring, feedback and engagement were among the elements that were foremost in her mind after graduating from Montana State University with a Master’s degree in Architecture.
“When I was interviewing after moving back, that’s what I was looking for,” said Potts, a Grand Rapids native who did her undergraduate work at Calvin College. “The economy was doing well, so I was able to be very picky about where I applied to.”
Hamann said the fact that Kniffin and Potts sought out his firm gives him confidence in the direction it’s heading.
“People have always marveled at how self-motivated the people are at our firm,” he said. “What we have found is most people want to be self-motivated, and we let them control how they want to do their work and trust that they will get it done.
“The intentional aspect of our culture comes first.”