Small Firm Architect Spotlight: Elizabeth Camargo, AIA


An interview with Elizabeth Camargo, AIA

By Jason Tapia, AIA
Elizabeth_Camargo head shot
We need to support each other and share experiences so we can grow

Elizabeth Camargo, AIA, has been practicing architecture in the United States for 34 years. Twelve years ago she started EC Architecture and Design as a sole practitioner in Miami Beach.

What made you want to become an architect?

It dates back to when I was a little kid. My dad had a beautiful sketchbook and I loved looking at his drawings. One day I was talking to my mom about some of his drawings—they were homes with people inside them—and I explained to her, that's what I wanted to do when I grew up. She told me, "Well, you can go to architectural school or to art school. But if you go to architectural school you will probably have a better living." So that’s the decision I made. I think I was not even 10 years old and I’ve never questioned that decision.

What type of architecture do you practice?

I have done different things. Before I started my own firm I worked for various large companies, in New York, in Los Angeles, and [in Miami]. I've done office complexes, high rise residential, shopping malls, single family homes.

When I started my own firm I thought I was the youngest firm around. I was small and I anticipated getting mainly residential renovations, but for the first five years of my practice, 100% of my projects were commercial. That was until 2008 when we had the economic meltdown and banks stopped providing money for commercial projects and all my clients put their projects on hold. On the other hand, a lot of people who were planning to move into their next bigger home got scared and decided to renovate their old homes. Residential renovation projects start coming in.

After doing that for so long I have a nice portfolio of renovations, so I'm still getting a lot of residential and residential renovations. But fortunately now the economic situation is stable and money is more available, my commercial clients are starting—little by little—to come back.

What do you think is unique about being an architect in South Florida?

Well, I think one of the things that's somewhat unique to our profession, and maybe not necessarily to South Florida but, I think we are prepared in school and throughout life to work with different groups of people, that come from different backgrounds, and have different expectations, and work in different ways. We've been trained by doing projects and collaborating with engineers, developers, clients, we develop skills that allow us to work well with all those people and make things jibe together and progress. I think that skill is intrinsic to being an architect. Teamwork is the nature of the work we do. One architect cannot complete a project alone. You can maybe do the drawings by yourself but you still depend on the constructors, the general contractor, and whoever is providing the money to make it happen. So it needs to be a team effort.    

The special challenge that South Florida adds is the way big developers from other states, who may have more exposure to large developments, with a large portfolio, are more educated in the construction process and the development process. But we also have smaller developers that are old fashioned, maybe not so savvy in the best way of doing things. It takes a little bit of education and understanding where the developer is coming from. You have to be able to adjust the process to make sure you can work well with that particular developer. And that has an impact on the way you do the work and in the kind of designs you can propose to clients. More conservative clients won't let you experiment, it must make money and be done the way we know already works. Sometimes they’re very averse to innovation, which can create conflicts between architects with great ideas and great designs. When you have a very conservative person that you have to convince, it’s different.

What do you feel are the advantages of being a small design firm?

I pride myself in being a boutique firm, it's a very hands-on, personal service. I'm very service-oriented. I have the first call with my clients, and I follow up throughout the development of the project, even if I'm collaborating or I have an intern working with me. I still have the time and the capability to be involved with the process from the beginning to the end. I can ensure my client is fully satisfied with the service being provided. That's my goal as an architect to make sure my client is fully satisfied with the services provided. And if I were a large company I wouldn't be able to be so personally connected to each client and each project.

If you could be something other than an architect, what would you be?

An architect! I have asked that question to myself many times, every time there is an economic downturn. I have been laid off a few times due to economic conditions, and I could never pick a different profession. I am sticking to it … being a woman and being an architect, I think that is be a point I cannot ignore, ours is still a male-dominated profession. It's getting better every day, but it's not there yet. Like society in general, the parity between men and women is not there yet. I think women need to understand their role in society, and as architects, we need to be out there. We must go to meetings, participate in events, and in organizations, so we can learn from each other, and be stronger from each other's presence. We need to support each other and share experiences so we can grow, as a group.

Do you think women architects practicing in South Florida have done an effective job at coming together and working towards shared goals?

It's getting better. Our Women in Architecture committee has been very active, and the number of women I see participating in events is growing. I think that's a good sign. And the younger generation, I've been seeing a lot of younger women participating, and fighting for jobs, so there's a trend. It's lagging behind, but there is hope.

What do you like most about being an architect? And what would you want your legacy to be, as an architect and as a citizen?

Well, there are different aspects. One is the physical aspect, or the three-dimensional aspect of the spaces you are creating, and seeing the satisfaction on your clients that their dreams come true. Because a lot of times they have dreams that they do not necessarily understand the dream and it takes a process to make that dream something that's visible, it's viable, and they can pay for. And when the end results are there and they feel like they got where they wanted to get, that's very rewarding for me as the professional providing the services.

But I feel like doing that it's somewhat very constrained because I am helping one person or maybe one family at a time with my work. That's why I decided to get more involved with the AIA. I also have been teaching at FIU because I think that way my efforts can reach out to a larger group of people and therefore I can have a bigger impact on my contributions to society.

What advice would you give to the next generation of architects?

I think they have to think outside the box. Architecture, even though there is a lot of technology, we still produce architecture in an archaic way. It's still labor-intensive…I think the next generation needs to be creative, but not in the sense of designing architecture in a creative way, not in terms of design itself. We should focus on the way architecture is being produced. Even though there is a lot of technology, 3D programs and 3D modeling, I still have the feeling that it hasn't helped us produce architecture more efficiently. It's still a very labor-intensive process. You still need to sit for hours in front of a computer to produce designs. Given the competitiveness of our work—budgets getting smaller and smaller, technologies being more expensive to construct—we have always been squeezed in the process, stretching the money to accomplish the project. We need to be more creative in the ways we produce architecture, to be more time efficient, and not be so labor-intensive.

As the AIA President of the Miami Chapter do you think you have new opportunities to make those types of contributions?

I hope so. Well, that's how I see it at least. I had a few goals when I started my presidency. One of them was to reach out to small firms. Because I feel smaller firms are less engaged with the AIA and they could profit a lot. We offer resources that as a small practitioner one does not have the opportunity to. When we engage small firms were reaching a considerable group of architects at the fringes of our profession.

I also have been working very hard to get the committees that were kind of dormant back into action. For instance, I've been involved with women in architecture, they were active for a long time but I've been reinvigorating them. I engaged a new chair for the committee, helping the founders relieve their load of work. I also put a lot of effort into bringing the urban design committee back. Urban design was an area that was lagging behind in our initiatives. Our city's going through a lot of investment in infrastructure and urban landscape, so I felt like we—as architects, as the AIA—we should have a larger presence in the conversation about the projects in our municipalities. I felt it was important to bring this discussion to the AIA and hopefully through that, we can reach out and have a dialogue with the municipalities and the public officials. Maybe we can help them improve the decisions, the solutions, and the designs being implemented in our cities.