Susan Blomquist, Associate Principal, joined Payette in 2004 and has been instrumental in many of the firm’s notable healthcare projects. She is a Vice President for the BSA/AIA Board of Directors, and currently serves on the firm’s Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Task Force.
WiD is spotlighting Susan in recognition of her important leadership and in celebration of Black History Month. She is one of fewer than 40 black architects licensed to practice in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and one of only 500 living black female architects in the nation.
What is the importance of architecture and design to you?
Architecture and design influences everything we do every day. In particular, the typology that I work on, healthcare design, can transform the way a person experiences the healing process and the often-scary environment of the hospital. We are positioned to truly influence peoples’ daily lives. Contributing to the beauty of the ordinary is what I really enjoy about architecture. We can transform spaces and make people appreciate light, color, and space. This is a powerful profession to be involved in.
What was the timeline of your development as a designer?
My timeline was mostly linear. From the time I was in late junior high school I knew I wanted to be an architect. Everything I did up until college was in preparation for that. I did not diverge too far off the path after I went to undergraduate and graduate school. The only thing that delayed my professional career slightly was teaching a studio at the University of Virginia for three years. It was a full-time studio, and I was working half of my time in academia and half of my time in a small Charlottesville residential architectural practice. When I arrived in Boston and at Payette, I felt that I was almost starting from zero. The scale, the pace of work and the building typologies were so different from what I had experienced. Those three years set me back from a professional and technical standpoint.
Were there any specific people or buildings that shaped your design thinking?
At the beginning of architecture school, I was a little bit too cerebral about design. One of my professors, W.G. Clark, had a huge impact on my understanding of design, and specifically designing buildings with a sense of place and purpose, rather than just designing a project because I was told to. I experienced that breakthrough moment in architecture school when you are not just fulfilling the studio brief, but you want to design a place for that site, to approach it in a meaningful way.
Professionally, Sho-Ping Chin had a huge impact on my career. I would not be in Boston or at Payette if it were not for her influence. She was so passionate about creating good, beautiful healthcare design. There are people who think that designing for healthcare is only for corporate firms, that there is no inspiration in it, or that it is not real design. She was instrumental in helping me become a believer in healthcare design as a meaningful practice. How she navigated being a woman in architecture was also tremendously impactful on me.
What are some highlights of your project experience?
I have worked on a lot of projects of varying scales over the past 17 years, but Wing Memorial Hospital in Palmer, MA was instrumental for me and I am very proud of that project. I was inexperienced and I remember that when I first started putting the drawings together, people told me that I did not know what I was doing. Eventually I was assigned to administer the construction. It was a sink-or-swim moment, but I learned so much in that one project. It had many different facets of design, as well as technical detailing. I learned a lot of hard lessons, but I was able to overcome that. It was not perfect, but it was one of the first projects that I contributed to in a significant way.
Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for the profession?
Hang in there. Stay through the times it is not as interesting to you. I think many people walk away too quickly, or they become discouraged. Particularly for women, it is easy to get intimidated out of the profession, whether from feeling like you do not have an equal voice at the table, or perhaps because you are starting a family. Find what you feel passionate about and pursue it. Stand up for yourself and ask for what you want. You may not always get it immediately but hang in there. The more you push and push, you can eventually carve a successful path for yourself.
Lastly, everyone should be finding someone they want to mentor and ‘pull-up.’ Make sure you are bringing someone with you as you move forward. I have personally been passionate about increasing the pipeline for people of color, particularly black women, and have involved myself in activities outside of the office to help in that effort.