Meet Farah Ahmad, a Pakistani-American architect and LEED professional born and raised in New York. Farah specializes in building sustainability and works for the New York City government to review upcoming projects and assess energy code compliance. Her architecture journey started with a family home her father built in Lancaster Pennsylvania. Familiarizing herself with construction sites from the age of 12, Farah went on to various decathlons and internships that helped build her skills in both sustainable architecture and journalism. We talk about her growing social media page @renewablefarah, her recently published article with NCARB discussing the representation of South Asian architects, and her wonderful journey building an identity for herself and learning from her closeknit "architecture" family.
Disclaimer: The following is the output of transcribing from an audio recording.
DS: Let’s start from the origin story, tell us about your upbringing in New York
FA : I am a first generation Pakistani American, born in New York City and raised in Staten Island by two Pakistani immigrants.
I grew up in the 90s with a pretty happy childhood. Lots of family trips, lots of family gatherings, and fond memories of international trips to visit relatives overseas. I grew up in a really great neighborhood on the South Shore of Staten Island with a tight-knit sense of community that revolved around school and school related programs.
I looked up to my father a lot growing up. He’s an engineer and construction project manager. His projects were mostly based in New York City, though he started his career overseas in Africa. So, a lot of my personal and professional link to architecture came straight through him. Our family had built a vacation home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and many of my early childhood memories from the age of 12 and on revolved around going out to that construction site in Pennsylvania and seeing the house progressing in various stages of construction.
"Our family had built a vacation home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and many of my early childhood memories from the age of 12 and on revolved around going out to that construction site in Pennsylvania"
Though we had hired a developer to build the house, my father exercised his experience as a construction project manager to oversee what they were doing. And I remember he'd be like, “No, actually you guys should be doing this, the drawing says this.” These are the little memories that I have, which are pretty neat. It created a nostalgic and unique impression upon me and it's probably my first tangible experience of architecture.
DS : Wow, that’s such a rare experience to have. Would you say that it influenced your education?
FA : While my father was the initial bridge for me to transition into architecture, I feel like I didn't know a lot about architecture growing up. I don’t recall seeing any references to this career path in any media I absorbed as a kid in the 90s. It was a mysterious profession. My father kind of guided me towards this career path and would take me out to job sites. That's when I started taking it seriously. I had gone to a high school that specializes in STEM careers, and I had taken some classes in AutoCAD and drafting. So that propelled me forward, as well as my participation in the ACE Mentor Program- it’s a program for high school students who are considering professions in architecture, construction management or engineering. The mentor for that program is usually someone in the profession, who is guiding a team of students to design a project for a semester. In fact, my first working experience was an internship with that mentor at a local architecture firm.
I attended The City College of New York, Spitzer School of Architecture, and lived in Manhattan while I was going to school. That really shaped my perspective on the profession. I not only gained technical skills in school but living in New York City influenced my awareness on the social urban issues of architecture and made me realize the impact of my profession. Architecture becomes a part of everyone's daily lives because it impacts communities in so many different ways.
Another experience that shaped me was undoubtedly the US Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, a competition for college students to design, build and operate a solar powered home. We were able to get onto a construction site to work with contractors, and literally assist in constructing a 1,0000 square foot structure! Along with being part of that design and construction team I became the communications lead. I have always been an avid journalist and so it was really interesting leading the communications effort for the Decathlon team in New York. I was involved in a lot of journalism and speaking engagements- and I was super shy growing up, but this really broke me out of my shell. I just knew I loved writing, and that role entailed going out and speaking to sponsors and manufacturers, getting the word out about the project, and educating people about sustainability. These are the sort of educational experiences from youth to college that enhanced my confidence when I graduated and shaped me as a young Architect.
DS: Did you feel like you had an edge in architecture by already having some CA experience under your belt?
FA : I can't speak for every program, but schools in the US are mostly conceptual. I didn't even have a course on building codes. We had a couple of construction technology classes that were squeezed in, but the design studio courses spanned across five years. The Decathlon really boosted my resume as solid working experience for my first position out of college. I think it's a failure of architecture school programs. And that’s a bold statement, but I think that they have to evolve to include more real world skills. When I speak to architecture students now, they have it better than maybe we did. They have a lot more of the 3d rendering and software courses which were just starting to be offered when I was in college. But, I still think it needs to improve. A little bit less of the conceptual four or five years and more of the real world courses and building code is more ideal and practical for schools of Architecture.
I think it's a failure of architecture school programs. And that’s a bold statement, but I think that they have to evolve to include more real world skills.
DS: What are you currently pursuing and what kind of projects are you working on?
FA : I'm a sustainable design architect for NYC government and I work in the review and development of technical standards. So, that means understanding New York City's stringent green building local laws and also keeping up with industry trends because we help specify products. We speak with manufacturers all the time to see how we can get our standards to be more high performing. Not only do I review and develop technical standards but I sit in on project meetings, early on from pre-schematic through construction and help the projects develop their sustainable design compliance. I also respond to technical inquiries from design teams, architects and engineers on design questions for compliance.
DS: Noted! And how else are you contributing to the design community? Do you have any other conferences or volunteer work going on?
FA : During the pandemic, I've been heavily involved with speaking engagements to share my knowledge and experience in the profession. I participated in a young architect conference, a few panels (one being for women in design). And I had an engagement with the United States Green Building Council, New Jersey chapter for their Women in Green 2021 event, which I was really excited about. I recorded a couple of industry podcasts as well, to share my experience as a South Asian architect and what diversity brings to the table.
Also, I’ve picked up a lot of journalism. Most recently, I authored a piece on the energy crisis in Texas, the recent blackouts and how that's attributed to - pun intended - the power struggle between the utilities and federal government and what that means for sourcing energy. I also worked with our national licensing board, NCARB, to author a piece on diversity and inclusion in the profession and it's actually going to focus on being a South Asian woman in architecture.
"Whenever I travel I like to do a little bit of research and visit what I call Eco projects. I'll go and visit a project and then share a lot of the design features so that people who are not as technically proficient can understand how they work"
And more generally, I picked up a lot of social media content creation during the pandemic. I use my Instagram platform @renewablefarah to showcase eco travel and living a more sustainable lifestyle. Whenever I travel I like to do a little bit of research and visit what I call Eco projects. I'll go and visit a project and then share a lot of the design features so that people who are not as technically proficient can understand how they work. I like to educate people about sustainability practices that they can incorporate into their everyday lives. Some of my recent content includes heating and cooling residential tips. Also, washing your hands with cold water and what that means for energy and water conservation.
DS : It's interesting that you're writing an article for NCARB on diversity and inclusion, you don't usually get this granular study on how many South Asians or Southeast Asians there are.
FA : It's really true because there are studies about how many Black architects there are or how many Asian architects there are, but there are no studies on how many South Asian American architects there are. There's no group other than Design Stri now, that’s documenting our accomplishments and that's a lot of what I talked about in that article. I don't really identify with the Asian American community as much because I don't think South Asians are ever called out and we're such a huge community too. Something else I talked about is that the few pieces that I have read about online that focus on South Asians and architecture, are almost always about giving the credit to men, and there's very few women who are highlighted.
Actually, you know, I'll tell you about something interesting that I had mentioned. My first professor in Architecture was South Asian and she was discouraging. Instead of encouraging me, she was kind of putting me down and my place in the profession, indicating that I don't understand the mindset. At first I thought I would be able to relate with her, because here's my personal link into the profession. Here's a woman in architecture, and she's also South Asian. But, the opposite happened.
"There are studies about how many Black architects there are or how many Asian architects there are, but there are no studies on how many South Asian American architects there are... I don't really identify with the Asian American community as much because I don't think South Asians are ever called out and we're such a huge community too."
So, I mean, these things do happen, and it's a shame, but I think it's really taught me to find mentors in the profession who believe in you. I changed professors after trying to survive that first semester. I didn't speak up, I didn't tell anyone about it. I think it's important for people to recognize that it's okay to speak up on the sort of bullying that happens in the workforce, there are so many good opportunities for architects now that the profession is diversified. There are so many different career paths within architecture, you should never sell yourself short and you can definitely find a place for yourself in the profession because there's just so many opportunities.
DS: We couldn’t agree more. Okay. Getting a little more personal now, What role does your family play in your career?
FA : They're a really big support system. We have the best conversations about the profession: my dad's an engineer and construction project manager, my brother's a civil engineer working on transportation infrastructure, and then my sister is an environmental engineer. So, we have hit different aspects of the industry, and we're all actually working for city government. In that sense, because we can have these conversations and discussions about the industry, there's an inherent support system.
For me personally, I feel like I'm continuing my dad's legacy, but I've also carved my own niche and made my path my own. It’s an interesting dynamic. Having a link in the profession also makes it a little bit less intimidating because you have someone you can go to.
DS : Do you have any interests or hobbies outside of architecture?
FA : Yeah, that's a really important question, especially for architects! I very much enjoy traveling. I love photography and I love content creation which is also like journalism, and something I've recently picked up is running. My husband does marathons, and although I am pretty active, I’ve always hated running. I started running during the pandemic, and it's something that I've really enjoyed. I'm challenging myself to keep up a pace and keep up my endurance, but it's also a really good stress reliever. I feel like running really clears my head and it's an interesting sport where you're in competition with yourself. There's no external pressure to do really well. I genuinely like pushing myself and feeling a little bit of a sense of accomplishment if I've surpassed the previous milestone.
DS : Very cool! Now we're gonna move on to your future. What is something that you'd like to see more of in the industry?
FA : Really good question. I think during COVID we've had such a buildup of digital communities that have risen up because of remote circumstances, and I'm hoping that we can continue to see these special interest communities continue to grow. I think it helps personalize the profession and bring a lot of joy and passion into it. Even a platform like Clubhouse for instance really took off this year. I made quite a few connections there and people were just venting about different issues in the profession and you realize how relatable it is.
In South Asian culture we're very big on gatherings and socializing and so I think this community aspect helps humanize the profession, personalize it, and not make us view it as a nine to five, but as something that we can bring our own diverse perspectives into.
DS : Describe your ideal life in five years, personally or professionally.
FA: I would like to maintain a very healthy work life balance which working in government has given me. I am able to pursue my hobbies and other extracurricular activities that are related to the profession.
Also, I would like to author a book. I very much enjoy journalism, and I've been writing for the last 10 years about sustainable architecture and I want to formalize that into a book. I want to be able to use my diverse voice in the profession and lend it as an educational platform because I think writing is a very effective way to communicate and educate a lot of people who may or may not have a technical background about certain issues within the profession.
DS: Name another woman who inspires you
FA: As I'm getting older, I'm realizing it's the people who can balance their personal and professional lives, like parents who can juggle children and work. I think as architects we take on multiple projects and we're so used to juggling a million different things. So my mentors are females, many from my alma mater, who I have seen take on so much in their own lives and in the workforce.
DS: What would you recommend to our readers to read, watch or listen to?
FA: As far as podcasts I love EntreArchitect, its founder Mark spotlights architects from all different walks of life, whether they are small business owners or working as part of a large corporation. That podcast really humanizes the architecture voice in the profession. And I like that they spotlight different career trajectories and personal paths while sharing neat business savvy advice.
And then on Instagram, I really love @buildingsciencefightclub. Just because the posts are so thoughtful. It's so educational on construction detailing and Christine has really developed such an interactive educational tool for architects. I think those are my two favorite content creators at the moment.