We sat down with longtime AWA+D Member Wena Dows. We were inspired by Wena's career and determination to be an architect in a time where there were very few women. Here's a little more about her:Tell us about your background.I grew up outside Taft, a small town in the southern San Joaquin Valley. We lived in one of 8 houses provided by the oil company my dad worked for, 3 miles from Taft . Three of us kids became architects, which has always seemed curious to me. On completing high school, I enrolled at UC Berkeley.
Why did you want to become an architect?The last thing I wanted to do was become an architect! My sister was 10 years older than me and people remember families in a small town. She wanted to be an architect from the time she was 10 years old. She graduated from UC Berkeley in architecture in 1939 and had a long and satisfying career. When I was in school people asked me if I was going to be an architect, like my sister. A resounding NO was my answer. I wasn't going to be like my sister, I was going to be ME! However, after a year or so of majoring in Math at Cal, I considered my employment options and decided to change my major. I took an architecture course and discovered it was fun. stimulating, exciting. I changed to architecture and graduated in 1950.
Who have been your greatest influencers? Why?I also got married in 1950 and I was to be the bread winner for the next 4 years while my husband earned a PhD. We lived in Berkeley. I knocked on many doors in San Francisco without success. One firm said "we don't hire women". I'm sure others didn't either, but they weren't so blatant. Finally I offered to work 2 weeks free for a medium size firm. If the boss liked me, I would then get hired. It worked! I got a job! After I'd been there about a year, the boss came into the drafting room one day and asked "can anyone type?" Silence. Finally I said I can type, but I am not a "typist". I typed a specification for him. The next week he asked me to do another spec. I said I would do that one, but no more. The 3rd time he asked me, I said "I quit" and walked out. Oops! I needed a job. Fortunately it wasn't that hard to find another one since I now had "experience". After the 4 years, my husband got his degree and a position teaching at Cornell University. We moved to Ithaca, NY for 2 years. I had a baby.On returning to California, I opened my own practice and did primarily residential architecture for the next 60+ years. Architecture was such a great career for me. My office was at home. I could set my own hours and appointments. I could be home when my kids got home from school. I never had to advertise - clients, friends, neighbors recommended me and I had a full schedule. At one point, clients were waiting up to 6 months for me to do their jobs.My clients have probably been my biggest influencers. I listen carefully to their dreams and ideas and needs. I do my best to fulfill their desires with the best possible solutions, hopefully within their budgets. I admire Frank Lloyd Wright's many innovations. I am a fan of Harwell Hamilton Harris's designs.
What do you feel are some of your most important achievements?Though not what I envisioned as a career in residential design, the bulk of my practice has been additions, second stories, remodels. I designed only 20 to 25 new houses. I'm not a fan of tearing down a perfectly adequate house to build a different one. I have a string of happy, satisfied clients. I still get compliments on projects I did 20 or 30 years ago. Making a client's life easier, happier is a satisfying reward.
What are some of your insights on being a female architect?Thank goodness there's much more gender equality in our profession now, compared with when I started. Many of the women clients I've had are grateful to have a woman designing their space. We agree that I do a lot more living in a house and understand more about function than many male architects. I strived for high accuracy of my plans. Contractors appreciated that and I gathered a stable of great contractors with whom I worked over many years. Mostly I enjoyed being a woman in our profession, telling framers to correct their errors, dealing with contractors, most of whom came to respect me. I think I got better service and results from the building departments when my hair turned silver! I thought they figured that if I'd been in business long enough to have silver hair, maybe I actually did know what I was doing!
What excites you creatively? How do you think our occupation will look in 10 years?New materials, new ways to make zero energy buildings, new technology interests me. Since I retired in 2014, at age 86, I will be only an observer of changes to come. The computer has surely revolutionized architecture, from "drawing" plans to the ability of the computer to cut various shapes, tell us about the efficiency of our proposed building and much more. A new dawn!
What role has AWA+D played in your life?For many years, I chaired or co-chaired the Scholarship Committee and have continued to participate on it. Though AWAF scholarships are modest in amount, receiving an award from a professional organization enhances one's resume and hopefully brings further opportunities for the winners. I also serve on the Board of AWAF and have been in charge of a number of our holiday party fundraisers over the years. AWA has been a big asset to me since I mostly work alone. I appreciate knowing other women with whom I can discuss ideas and materials and references. I consider many members dear friends.
Any final words of wisdom?I would encourage new grads to pursue their passion. If it isn't architecture, change!! We spend such a big percentage of lives working, it's important to have work you enjoy. I certainly have!