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York native maps course to enhance affordable-housing design

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Darius Hopkins, a graduate architect at Chris Dawson Architect in downtown Harrisburg
Darius Hopkins, a graduate architect at Chris Dawson Architect in downtown Harrisburg - (Photo / )

Darius Hopkins was raised in what he described as low-income communities on the south and east sides of York city.

When he was thinking about his career goals, he considered the best ways he could give back to where he grew up.

"I came to the conclusion that the issues that plague low-income communities are the way they live, and I thought to myself that I could fix the way people live to make it a better place," he said.

Hopkins noted a “cookie-cutter” approach to affordable housing projects. The buildings often lack individuality and are designed without consideration for the needs of their residents.

So Hopkins decided he would pursue architecture.

In May, fresh out of Penn State’s architectural school with a bachelor’s degree, Hopkins, 23, accepted a job with Harrisburg firm Chris Dawson Architect.

As a graduate architect working at a firm, Hopkins will gain the necessary hours required for anyone pursuing an architectural license, which he hopes to obtain. He also plans to go back to school in the next few years for a master’s degree.

Ultimately, Hopkins hopes to open his own firm to focus on building affordable housing that supports and uplifts underprivileged communities, a demographic that is not readily prioritized in private development and architectural plans.

"Social housing is very hard to do because it’s kind of paid for by the city; it’s basically if the city feels that it’s needed. It’s not a specific client saying it’s needed … So to focus on just that is going to be difficult, and I understand that," Hopkins said.

Hopkins understands the need for buildings that allow families to take ownership in their homes.

His first-hand experience has motivated him to challenge the one-size-fits-all, de-personalized approach to affordable housing.

 "The client that I want to relate to … I am them, I guess," Hopkins said.

Representation in architecture

Those aspirations distinguished Hopkins from other applicants at Chris Dawson Architect, said Chris Dawson, a licensed architect and owner of the firm where Hopkins now works on Second Street in downtown Harrisburg.

"We intentionally are trying to be progressive and contemporary, so we’re making sure our staff are fresh and full of new ideas," said Dawson.

One layer of the nuanced discussion in the workplace involves diversity and inclusion, principles that Dawson’s firm and industry groups like the American Institute of Architects, or AIA, are working to address.

Hopkins is one of two out of 264 self-reported Central Pennsylvania members of AIA, that self-identified as "black or African-American," according to AIA records as of Aug. 13. In other words, self-identified black or African-American architects account for 0.75 percent of AIA’s Central Pennsylvania membership and none of the licensed architects in the region. Furthermore, out of AIA’s entire Pennsylvania membership, 34 of 2,805 self-identified as "black or African-American," or roughly 1 percent.

In May, AIA Pennsylvania worked with state representatives to draft a resolution outlining the architecture industry’s ongoing commitment to promoting gender and racial equity through an advisory council and grant for those taking the architecture licensing test, said Olivia Perry, manager of communications for AIA Pennsylvania, in an email. Introduced as House Resolution 836, it also acknowledged that pathways for minorities and women to pursue the profession have been historically less accessible than for other populations. The resolution did not go into detail on the specific challenges that have minorities and women face in architecture.

For Hopkins, lack of exposure to engineering in high school was one of the roadblocks he faced early in his college career at Penn State’s main campus. Hopkins graduated from William Penn Senior High School in York. His architecture degree required a mix of engineering and art classes.

"Early on, it was difficult for me because I felt like I didn’t really have too many people to relate to, but after I got more into the art, I felt like we all relate to art," Hopkins said. "We had a few African-American students. A few dropped the program because of various reasons. That was difficult for me, but it is growing in the field of architects, but very slowly. Even at Penn State before I graduated, there was a lot more diversity than in the early years."

Hopkins observations are confirmed by AIA data, which also tracks demographics among students. As of Aug. 13, 11 of 382 self-reported AIA Student members, or about 3 percent, identified as "black or African-American."

Dawson also mentioned the ACE mentoring program as another piece in the accessibility puzzle. The program aims to introduce architecture, construction and engineering - or ACE - to high schoolers who wouldn’t otherwise consider those fields as options. Dawson’s firm finds some of its interns through the local ACE chapter, based in York County.

Functional design

Darius Hopkins
Darius Hopkins - ()

Now that Hopkins has a degree under his belt, he’s cutting his teeth in the field and honing his expertise and style.

"I’ve learned so much in this past month … I’m very fortunate to have this position straight out of college without any experience. Chris [Dawson] kind of gave me that chance and that opportunity," Hopkins said.

Hopkins described his design style as modern with an appreciation for defying conventions. "I love to see the diversity. Some people are almost radically at war with what’s going on in architecture. I love to see the kind of polarity between people who are accepting and people who are full-blown screw-it-all," Hopkins said.

His design philosophy is informed by a personal understanding of housing issues and inspired by pioneering architects who have come before him.

One of his architectural role models is David Adjaye, the lead designer of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., who also designed a social housing building in Harlem.

Hopkins’ thesis in college examined another Harlem social housing high-rise, rethinking its ground floor to include more amenities for residents, who are otherwise surrounded by highways. Although he admires bold, statement-making building design, Hopkins opted for a more toned-down approach to his thesis project, acknowledging the realities of it being a government-funded building and aiming to preserve some of its existing character.

He was drawn to the culture at Dawson’s firm, which employs seven people in its Harrisburg office, with Dawson being the only one over 30. "A lot of the other architecture firms [where I was looking for jobs] weren’t very contemporary. They were very historical, and my brain doesn’t work that way," Hopkins said.

Dawson described his practice as having a somewhat "social bent … the type of work we go after," which fits in which Hopkins’s goal of building affordable housing.

The firm’s projects include renovations and additions at Harrisburg’s Whitaker Center, medical marijuana dispensary design and site selection for Cure Pennsylvania. Cure’s Manheim Township location, its first to open, was designed by Dawson’s company, according to its website.

Before he owned his own firm, Dawson in 2010, then employed by LSC Design Inc., designed the Early Learning Center for the Crispus Attucks Association in the South Duke Street neighborhood of York. Hopkins said he walked by the building, which houses the nonprofit’s childcare program, almost daily on his way to and from school while it was under construction, never realizing Dawson, his future employer, was leading the project.

Hopkins is realistic about the challenges he might face as he works toward his goals. "That’s an uphill battle for certain places for governments … to dedicate money from taxpayers to fix the issue," he said.

As Hopkins moves forward in his career, he hopes to see more diversity in his field through promoting engineering careers in public school systems like he attended.

He also plans to counter the gentrification in which architects play a part. Instead of designing spaces that fail to consider the needs, desires and stories of the communities in which they are built, Hopkins plans to include local residents in his design processes.

"Before I draw any line, I would just spend time in that environment [with disenfranchised minorities], because I am part of that," Hopkins said.

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Becca Oken-Tatum

Becca Oken-Tatum

Becca Oken-Tatum is the web editor for the Central Penn Business Journal. She also coordinates and writes for CPBJ's monthly Young Professionals e-newsletter. Email her questions, comments and tips at btatum@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter at @becca0t.

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