Women in Architecture Series


Shelley Harris was first introduced to the field of architecture through her father. She remembers watching him every weekend as he worked from his drafting table in their basement. Even back then, he was arming her with advice just in case she were to become an architect herself. In school, however, Shelley didn’t consider architecture as a possible career at first, in part because it was so uncommon for a woman to pursue architecture at the time.

Instead Shelley's first professional path was in health and physical education. She loved working with kids, but she felt frustrated with the profession as a whole. The bureaucratic difficulties and obstacles for tenure were simply too overwhelming. Ironically, after she paid a visit to a career counselor and took several interest-oriented tests, she found herself being advised back to her father’s profession. Architecture, it seemed, would be the right fit.

Shelley enrolled in pre-professional courses first, in order to build up her portfolio. Then she attended the Arizona State University, where she earned her Bachelor in Architecture degree. Even though there were no female professors at Arizona, almost half of her graduating classmates were women. “That was the beginning of the swing,” she recalls, “and I could see that more women were finally moving towards the field of architecture.”

Shelley’s first internship led her to an architecture firm that specialized in healthcare design and planning. On her first day, she was handed a tape measure and told to measure an x-ray room. From this point forward, her career pointed towards healthcare. With her background in health and education, this was a natural jump. “I’ve always been fascinated with anatomy and health,” she says.

During her career, Shelley has noticed significant changes in how women have become engaged in the practice of architecture. It’s most important to her, however, that any issues or obstacles be framed not as challenges: “We don’t want to allow gender to get in the way of ideas. I think some women may feel intimidated by some men, and that does happen, but it can’t make us walk away from a job we love. We all have to respect one another on an equal level, and our intellectual capabilities as architects and designers will become the thing that matters.”

For Shelley, the best work happens when everyone at the table is equal, whether they’re a newcomer or a veteran to the industry. “I might have many years worth of experience, but that doesn’t mean that someone just starting out couldn’t have a better idea than me.” What is her advice to young women entering the field today? “Stay focused on your abilities and your talents – not as a female with talents, but as a team member with talents."

The emphasis on collaboration and equality is something Shelley has found in her work at Steffian Bradley Architects. “I work as a team member,” she happily reports, “and I have a lot of design input. But it’s never just my vision, which I find to be really wonderful. More heads are better than one!” SBA, she says, provides a great collaborative environment where “design is not dictated from the top.” Sharing ideas is what drives innovation, and for Shelley this is the best part of any profession.

In August, Shelley will celebrate her twelfth year at SBA. Currently, she is working on multiple projects for Kent Hospital in Rhode Island and renovation projects for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Aside from her design work, Shelley engages her specialized knowledge as a consultant to help medical facilities with assembling the necessary documentation to obtain licensure from the Department of Health. “These challenges keep me busy,” Shelley remarks, “and I love the element of problem solving on so many different levels.”

Interview with Shelley Harris, AIA, LEED AP

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