By Christina Sturdivant Sani
Katherine Williams, AIA, NOMA, is a senior project manager at Georgetown University. She’s also the owner of real estate investment firm Fifth Generation Holdings. A graduate of Howard University, the University of Southern California, and American University, Williams started her career working at commercial architecture firms before shifting to affordable housing projects and academic institutions. She is also a member of Riding the Vortex, winners of AIA's 2022 Whitney M. Young Jr. Award.
Williams spoke to us about how she’s building community and camaraderie in the industry by merging her personal experiences and professional training.
Can you take us back to when you first became interested in architecture?
As a kid, I attended a career fair through the Girl Scouts and met an architect there. And after that, my mother put me into various camps and programs related to architecture, design, and engineering. So, I started to get exposed to that as a profession through meeting other architects and doing various activities related to architecture.
Working with clients or stakeholders and crafting the space that they need for their work. Typically, what I'm doing a lot of now is managing the construction that becomes the built space for people to use.
You identify as an architect, but also a writer, educator, curator, and organizer. What are you most passionate about?
I don't know that there's particularly one because I rotate around and do different ones at different seasons or times of the year. I think they all help [me to be] a well-rounded person.
In 2007 you were invited to be on a panel of Black women in architecture called Riding the Vortex. How did it feel to be among other Black women architects, since there are so few in the industry? And why have you found it important to continue these discussions over the years?
As a young professional, it was pretty exciting to get that opportunity. I think it was the second time that I was on a panel at a national level. It was exciting to tell my story and how I got there and uplift the voices of Black women architects in the field. That's sort of why I continue with it. It should be a place where Black women architects can have a voice and get support from each other.
What is the most significant type of support that you rely on from other Black women architects?
At this point in my career, it's more about friendship and just being a safe place where we can talk about our careers, what we're doing — and also get away, too. It's not always that we have to talk about work. Sometimes it's just about being together and enjoying each other's company because in our workspaces, or at least specifically my workspace, I'm the only Black woman architect in my office. So [it’s about] having other people that are in a similar position be able to talk about what we're doing, issues we're dealing with, or even just giving advice on a career level or personally.
Why did you want to tell the stories of people's licensure experiences with archstories.com?
I started that when a group of us were getting licensed as a way to share stories of people who were already licensed as sort of inspiration and then also to show people that getting licensed is a variety of experiences. We're all seeking this goal but the experiences that you're going through help you grow, and I wanted to provide a way for people to see they're not alone in it.
What did your path to licensure look like?
I was working for a traditional firm when I started. I left and went on a non-traditional path working for an affordable housing developer. I was being a parent. I was in a new location. So that sort of interrupted my exam testing because I was trying to get that under my feet as far as being in a new job, juggling work, and trying to study.
How many years after you graduated did you get your license?
What have been some of your biggest challenges in your career?
Probably time management because I do a lot of things. Having a schedule that I'm managing well is probably one of the biggest challenges right now. And realizing as I get older, I need more sleep. I can't work all through the night as I did when I was younger.
What have been some of your favorite projects?
That's a hard one; I have a variety. When I was in a traditional firm, I worked on an adaptive reuse of a building where the office of my firm was going to be. It was cool to see the transformation of that building into the office. When I was in California, I worked on an affordable housing homeownership project that had a really interesting commercial space. That was cool because it was sort of a catalyst project in a location that was at the time just starting to get new development. And it really helped bring some vitality and vibrancy to a corner in the neighborhood.
What advice do you have for young Black architecture students?
Find mentors who can help you figure out where you want to be in your career and be a sounding board when you're ready to make changes or grow in your career. Make sure that wherever you are working, you're growing there. Recognize your style of work and what you want to work on, then seek that out so you’re not stuck in a job or a position where you're not comfortable or where you're not feeling like this is what you really want to do.