According to the 2021 “NCARB by the Numbers” report, the number of licensed architects in the United States has risen five percent since 2020 to just under 122,000. But over the last decade, more than half of Black and African American licensure candidates, 42 percent of candidates identifying as Hispanic or Latino, and 42 percent of Asian candidates have stopped pursuing licensure. During the same time frame, only 34 percent of white candidates have stopped pursuing licensure. Further underscoring disparities within the profession, Black and African Americans — who make up approximately 12 percent of the U.S. population according to the U.S. Census data but only two percent of the candidate pool — are consistently the least represented group among those pursuing architectural licensure. Addressing these pervasive disparities fueled the development of the National Organization of Minority Architects’ Project Pipeline.
With a mission to advocate for increased diversity, fellowship, equity, and excellence in design, the Project Pipeline initiative was born at the 2002 NOMA conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with the primary goal of creating more licensed black architects. NOMA’s then-president, Paul Taylor, asked members Drake Dillard and David Kirk to form a committee to develop a camp that would introduce young minorities to architecture, with a focus on black students. The first camp was launched in 2006 by the Southwest Ohio NOMA chapter in Cincinnati. Since then, camps have been held annually in more than 20 cities with a focus on introducing students to the essentials of architecture and connecting them with mentors. The program has since expanded to include students from all backgrounds that are underrepresented in the profession.
The first Project Pipeline camp was conceived as a week-long, in-person endeavor aimed at generating excitement about architecture among students in sixth through 12th grade. Mentors focused activities around technical essentials like drawing, model building, and space planning in a fun and judgment-free zone. By 2012, a formalized curriculum was implemented nationally, and it continues to evolve each year. Over the past decade, the program has reached more than 10,000 students, and NOMA National notes the following about its success: “Our program better prepares students for college and life beyond. Through Project Pipeline, young people grasp the significance of architecture in their daily lives, as well as the broader cultural, social, and historical implications. They develop skills and tools to contribute to their community critically and constructively.”
The pandemic-driven shutdown of in-person events served as an unexpected but significant catalyst for Project Pipeline, which was reimagined in a virtual form with regional chapters working together. Previously, even with NOMA National’s support of the camps and the efficiencies gained by sharing a formalized curriculum between chapters, it was difficult for newer or smaller NOMA chapters to get Project Pipeline initiatives off the ground. Many developing chapters were short on resources, both in terms of the financial resources required to host in-person events and in terms of the volunteers needed to execute the program.
Shifting the camp to a virtual platform with a regional approach offered several benefits. It provided a lower barrier of entry for emerging NOMA chapters across the country by sharing baseline research and development efforts across the region while allowing for customization to make the curriculum more contextual. It also provided a broader student base from which to draw. For example, a student in Mississippi, where there is no professional NOMA chapter or Project Pipeline camp, could now join any camp across the country virtually. In addition, the new online format allowed all NOMA chapters to increase student participation in their camps, furthering the initiative’s goals of reaching students who would otherwise likely not have been introduced to the practice of architecture as a career option.
Perhaps most importantly, the pandemic and the subsequent social unrest catalyzed further refinement in the Project Pipeline curriculum, taking it beyond the fundamentals of architecture into a space of broader social awareness. Project Pipeline’s rebranding as an architecture and design justice camp has generated renewed energy toward inspiring young people to effect change in their communities through design. By using the city as the classroom and connecting the role that placemaking and architecture play in supporting systemic injustices, students are empowered to understand design issues within their communities and present design solutions that address these specific challenges.
There are currently three professional NOMA chapters in Texas operating Project Pipeline camps: Houston, Central Texas, and Dallas. Established in 2005, the Houston NOMA launched its first camp in the summer of 2019 under the leadership of Justin Taplet, the chapter’s current president. In 2021, their camp was a single-day event with 37 student participants. NOMA of Central Texas, the newest chapter, was formally chartered in late 2020. The regional approach and a partnership with The University of Texas at Austin enabled them to host a Project Pipeline camp in their very first year. Over two consecutive days, they brought together professional architects, designers, educators, architecture student volunteers from UT Austin and the University of Texas at San Antonio, and more than 35 middle and high school student participants from the region. Similarly, the oldest NOMA chapter in Texas, the Dallas-Fort Worth NOMA, was also able to launch its first Project Pipeline in 2020 thanks to the efficiency of the regional approach. Through its virtual camps in the past two years, DFW NOMA has served more than 50 students, most from the Dallas area but several from as far away as North Carolina.
Although many students have participated in the program, the true measure of its impact is evident in individual success stories. DFW NOMA student member Immanuel Brinson first approached the chapter in 2020 in search of a mentor for the NAACP ACT-SO Architecture Competition. Through several meetings over a few months, DFW NOMA board members helped Brinson solidify his idea for the museum project identified in the competition brief. He produced floor plans, elevations, a model, and a presentation to convey his design intent to the judges and ultimately won first place in the regional competition and third place nationally. Because of this success, he later participated in the 2021 DFW NOMA Project Pipeline camp, which further solidified his interest in architecture and the profession. “My most rewarding experience during Project Pipeline was most definitely working with different people my age and discovering that we all had similar future aspirations,” says Brinson. “Project Pipeline also opened my mind and expanded my creativity through architecture and how it is integrated into STEM. It assisted me in discovering my talents in the field of architecture, and it solidified that architecture is a field of study that I am going to pursue in college and beyond.”
Brinson is now working on his entry for the 2022 NAACP ACT-SO competition with the help of DFW NOMA board members. He is expected to be an experienced mentor during DFW NOMA’S 2022 Project Pipeline camp, helping younger students and first-time campers develop an understanding of architecture. Further illustrating the success of the program, Brinson was admitted to his first-choice college and will begin studying architecture in the fall of 2022.
The Texas NOMA chapters believe in the significance of Project Pipeline and the ability of the initiative to positively impact the lives of everyone it touches. Underpinning the program are the notions that the future of the architectural profession depends on inviting people who are closest to the problems into the process, and that relegating architecture to a role for and by the top one percent will not address the world’s most pressing needs. By fostering creativity and critical thinking in young people through mentorship with architects and designers whose lived experiences mirror their own, Project Pipeline and similar enrichment opportunities across the country help foster both a sense of belonging in architecture and placemaking that supports the creation of more just, equitable, and diverse communities.
Gregory Street, RA, NOMA, is the founding president of NOMA of Central Texas and an architect at Overland Partners in San Antonio, where he works on a wide range of project types, from small-scale nonprofit headquarters to large commercial office and higher education projects. Brien Graham, AIA, NOMA, is president of DFW NOMA and an architect at LPA Design Studios in Dallas, primarily focusing on K-12 and sports and recreation projects. Justin Taplet, AIA, NOMA, is president of the Houston NOMA chapter and an architect in Houston, working with a multifamily development firm on projects in Texas and Colorado. For more information on volunteering for Project Pipeline or donating to your local camp, visit nomacentraltx.org , dfwnoma.org, or houstonnoma.org.