The Gibbs Spotlight: Erica Williams

GCA Communications intern Kristi Saliba (K) recently checked in with Erica Williams (E), a Gibbs College alumna! She received her bachelor’s degree in Architecture from Gibbs and her master’s degree in Architecture from Rice. Today, she works for award-winning, Seattle-based firm Olson Kundig. Check out the full interview on Spotify, SoundCloud, or Apple Podcasts!

K: Hi everyone, welcome to the Gibbs spotlight. My name is Kristi Saliba, and I’m a communications intern here at the Gibbs College of Architecture. Today we have a really special guest, Erica Williams, an alumnus of Gibbs college back from when it wasn’t even called Gibbs College. Thank you, Erica, for joining us. Would you like to say a couple of words about yourself? 

E:  Sure! As Kristi just said, my name is Erica Williams. I’m calling in today from Seattle, Washington. I am an associate right now at Olson Kundig Architects, a job that I absolutely love and I’m excited to talk about, but back at my University of Oklahoma days, I got my Bachelor of Architecture and graduated in 2009, went on to get a master at Rice right after that, and then have been really loving practicing since then. The other part of my life is I’m a mom with a kid, but we’ll focus on the architecture today.  

K: Thank you so much for joining us! I’d love to hear more about how you ended up at Olson Kundig.

E: Sure, so it was a long path for sure. I’ve been at Olson Kundig for seven years now. It’s been a really great experience and my career in general, I will say it’s been almost kind of unfair, it’s been so great. I had never worked anywhere, and I’m really excited about I think that partially speaks to the profession and how many amazing opportunities are out there, and it partially speaks to just really great luck with timing and circumstance, and I think the timing and circumstances are the part that is probably interesting to talk about because that started at the University of Oklahoma. So I was an undergrad student there. When I started architecture school, I had no idea what to do when I grew up. I chose architecture at complete random. I mean, it was like a pin the tail on the donkey decision. Everybody around me knew what they wanted to be. All my friends were doctors and lawyers and I was like, I kinda like to draw, and I’m good at math. 

So I just chose architecture and never really met an architect, but once I got in there, I loved it and it took one week of studio to just know that this is right, and it felt good and this is going to be really hard work, but hard isn’t bad, hard can be fun. And I just lived in that, you know, since I was 18, and made that funny choice. And then a funny thing happened while I was at OU and I don’t know if we still have the series, but there was the Bruce Goff lecture series and it was fantastic. They brought in the most incredible lineup of famous architects, people that we were really inspired by. The school did a great job of kind of finding these nugget architects. They gave us an array of different kinds of people to model after or learn from or say, that’s not who I want to be when I grow up or not that job. 

So anyway, it was just this really fun thing and part of the deal was, though, if you were going to come lecture at OU, you’re also going to spend time with students and so there was a workshop surrounding the lecture series, where anyone who came in spent a few days with a group of students, you know, on just a mini project and one of the architects who came through is a very famous architect at the time. He’s 85 now, so things are, you know, his practice is different, but at that time, he had his practice full-on and was doing big, super exciting things. I still am a huge fan of his work. He comes through, he gives this killer lecture everybody’s in awe and inspired by the possibilities, and I got to be part of the workshop. So we jump into the workshop and he fills the tables with cheap crap from Hobby Lobby and everything from twigs he found on the ground, little foam rollers, just stuff and then he puts up this huge sheet of paper that covers the wall and he just starts drawing this scene in New Mexico, and it’s just a heartbreaking beautiful drawing because he’s just doing it and he’s got a lot of gusto. So he made it fun and he does just all this color, and he’s telling us about this site, and he’s like, uh, you need to design something that works with it. 

Image credit: Erica Williams, OU workshop with Antoine Predock

So and then we’re terrified because we’re just a group of students and he’s this famous architect and he just did this beautiful drawing and we’re supposed to just like etch our thing on there, but probably one of the best things I’ve got going for me is I can be extremely naïve, and with that comes a confidence that probably wouldn’t be there if I was more aware, and so I still didn’t quite understand how famous he was or what a big deal he was. So I just stepped up and started drawing, and it probably appeared gutsy, but it was more naïve and we hit it off. And we started this kind of relationship this design dialogue that lasted four days and that’s kind of my favorite little bit, I did at OU was just being able to step up and have a dialogue with this person and OU gave me that gateway. And that that connection. And, you know, it was like a week later, I got a call from Antoine saying let’s keep this going, come intern for me. You know, so at that time, I had been interning for Bockus Payne in Oklahoma City, and that was great. And they taught me so much just about really just the basic skills of getting in there and being in a work environment and what it is to be an architect, and I’m grateful to them for that. And then when Antoine called I was like, I got to try this. So I’m someone who never even thought I’d leave Oklahoma. I have a wonderful family there that I love being close to. And then I was off to New Mexico. So I spent over about four years, over summer breaks, winter breaks. At one point, he flew me a computer and I did a rendering while I was at school at OU so anytime I wasn’t in school, I was with Antoine being an intern and so that was kind of the beginning of a path but with a totally different direction than anything I would have imagined. 

K: Wow, that is amazing! It’s so inspiring. Just one moment changed your whole career.

E: Yeah, yeah, it was just, it was a genuine connection. It wasn’t planned. You know, it was just there was a spark of the design dialogue. And you know, I’m super thankful to OU for creating a moment that I could step into there. Then Antoine took a chance on me, he had a small studio of 12. So I was able to be really in there and get to know the staff. And then that made getting into grad school pretty easy because I had my undergrad from architecture that I also had, you know, a famous architect vouching for me which doesn’t hurt. He recommended Rice because he had some people working there who had a really good experience at that school and he liked kind of what they taught. So that was a natural progression and it was the 2008-2009 era. So obviously, you’re trying to graduate, but it didn’t really hurt for me. It hurt a lot in general. But I was kind of able to ride through school with that. And then, you know, kind of the next funny thing that happened is while I was at Rice, I did this design-build workshop, and it’s called the Ghost, Brian Mackay Lyons workshop, and I don’t think they have them right now. But they had about 11 or 12. And it’s this amazing opportunity where a pretty famous architect in Canada has a huge swath of land in Nova Scotia right on the water, it’s gorgeous and he had student groups come in from all over the world. Then he cultivated a group of architects, friends, structural engineers, builders, people who do some really great stuff, and he kind of put together this group, curated this group, and every year has them design and build something in two weeks and the catch is that Brian, this is his land. He lives on this property, so he better like what is built there. He’s got to live with it, so no pressure. And I was, I’d been tracking this workshop since OU because one of my professors showed me pictures of it one day when I was doing a charrette. He was referencing one of these little shacks that a group had done. And so since then, I just kind of always watched it and thought oh that’s cool, and then I saw a call for applications one day. 

So I put mine in, but the problem was, it’s incredibly expensive. And I had no money and so I just did it anyway, because I wanted to see if could I even get in and I did. This was, again me being naive and unexpected, so then suddenly I had this opportunity, but I didn’t have any means to actually make it happen. So I went to the dean at Rice with a roster of everybody who got in and what school they represented. And they represented you know, Yale, Harvard, UC Boulder really, really nice. So I said do you want our school to be on the list because I need some money and all of a sudden a grant fell from the sky and I got to go. The significant thing about this workshop, the reason I’m telling this story is that the people I met in that workshop, set up my career from that point. I met a builder in Seattle, who I worked for, and he’s dear friends with Tom Kundig, who I work for now. I met a couple of architects here in Seattle that I connect with regularly who are way more important than I’ll ever be. I met some craftsmen and tradespeople who I email on a daily basis asking how to detail some really fun r&d steel or a new exercise, and I met friends. And the funny thing is that group of students I seem to work with on and off my entire career we just recycled together.

Before I know it, one of them is interviewing at Olson Kundig next week, and I can’t wait to see if they join the office. So you know, what’s funny is that if you as a student, you look around and you think these people are just this phase of my life, you don’t look around and realize, these are the people I’m going to need over and over and over again throughout my career. And that workshop kind of introduced me to a group that I’ve been re-meeting and circulating with for over a decade. So that kind of dovetails into a got a job in Texas at Lake Flato right after that workshop. Part of it was that the workshop helped with the connections. It was a big deal getting a job because at that time it was really hard. Then later, when I was ready to make a life change, I moved to Seattle based on a connection from that workshop then essentially, it just worked its way until Kundig. 

K: I love that! It sounds like you have wonderful luck with workshops.

E: Yeah, it’s about people. It’s about connecting with people.

K: Yeah, I love that you focus on that. Do you have any advice for students now who, because of the pandemic are kind of stuck inside and are not really able to meet people as often as usual? 

E: The pandemic is hard, right? It’s a funky problem and it’s like a really long, short-term problem. So I guess one piece of advice is that this isn’t forever and you don’t have to be in such a hurry, in a sense. I know, as a student, I was always trying to get things through things quickly, if anyone mentioned that, like, my graduation date was flipped, because I wanted to take an opportunity or anything like that, like never. Whereas now I look back and like, why did that matter? In the big picture, being in such a hurry really doesn’t matter; things will play out and it takes time to figure out where you want to be and what you want to do. Coming back to your question about pandemic communication: I think what I’m trying to say, as some of it is, is this problem is seeming to recede, and people are going back to work and people are starting to see each other and so maybe a little bit of patience. Because in you know, an online dialogue, it’s good and we discovered really creative substitutes, but there is something about in-person that, to me, cannot be replaced and there’s something about going and touring an office and shaking hands. Or not or just waving, because of hygiene right now, but there’s something about seeing people and connecting in person and so I guess my advice would just be patient. You’ll get a lot of that face time. This is temporary. 

K: That’s wonderful. Thank you. So I’d love to shift over to projects you’re working on now. You are at Olson Kundig and what is that like for you? 

E: I love it! So Olsen Kundig is large. It’s a 200 person office in Seattle. Now out of that, you know, it’s about 60% or so is actually architects because we have an interior design department. We have an r&d department, we have, you know, all the support that makes our projects happen, but it’s got six principals and a large group of leadership. We get an amazing range of work. We have everything from residential to commercial, and then there’s a range within that work. Residential could be a tiny super cool cabin in the woods or it could be somebody’s large forever home. And then in commercial…wow, that range is even more extreme. So part of what I love about being there is just the potential impossibility feels alive. I jumped from one project to the next and they could be completely different experiences with a different set of people, a different client perspective, different design criteria. So I do kind of love that and never feel stagnant. I’m never stuck. I’m never doing the same thing twice, and hopefully learning and building from projects, but it’s always in a new project when it hits the desk. So I love that.  

And here, we have recently started going back to work and we love the studio. Our studio is really kind of an incubator of ideas and if anyone has the opportunity to get out to Seattle and visit it post-pandemic, I think it’s really lovely. It’s full of big gizmos and moving window walls, and we try to make it kind of a showroom for our ideas. There’s a workshop in the back where they’re trying, you know, different kinds of things and different kinds of methods that will actually end up challenging the contractor to match and put on a project. So we have real working construction kind of in our studio and that helps, you know, keep us out of our heads. We’re not just doodling. We’re building and we’re crafting, and we’re collaborating with the people who are going to put it together. I think that’s something that sets us apart, that it’s a collaborative effort all the way through construction, and that part of our success is that we’re in a location that has with the shipbuilding, history. It has unbelievable metalworkers, woodworkers with fitting to the craft people is part of our practice, bringing that in. Did I answer your question? I kind of start off just Olson Kundig In general, I’m sorry. 

K: No, yeah, that was great. Um, are there any, like, particular projects that you enjoy more, or anything you’re working on now that you’re just really loving?  

E: I love them all, I have four right now that I’m working. Yeah, I, it’s hard not to fall in love with exciting work and I’m kind of a loyalist, so the one that’s been around the longest, I just have a little bit more maybe love for, just because I’m so excited about watching it grow and where it’s at now. But generally, I love them all, they’re just so, they’re each their own animal and I get to work with different teams and different people, you know, influenced the project and shape it to be a little bit different. So it’s fun seeing how people’s particular personalities, you know, take one project that, you know, Tom is heading up, and it goes one way and then Tom heading up another one, but it goes a totally different way just because of the design dialogue within the team and the mix of people.

And that’s I think something that’s important for students to know is that, you know, oftentimes in school, you usually get to be the master of the entire design and then you shift to change in the professional work where if you’re at an office like mine, and there’s an owner or partner principal on board, you know, they might take the first whack at the overall gesture, but you’re still part of the design, because you’re helping guide the conversation with them. You’re helping manage what is focused on. You’re taking, you know, a doodle and putting it in front of them, and then they’re riffing off of it. So I think it’s important to know, as a student, it’s not like you design in design school, and then in practice, you’re kind of stuck with this smaller job. No, you’re integral. I feel like everyone on my team gets a voice and a way to affect the project. So I love them all. I think they’re all exciting.

K: Amazing. You totally read my mind, I was going to ask you about what similarities or differences to the design process you’ve noticed between being in school and now at this firm? If there’s anything more you want to say about that, I’d love to hear.

E: I think, I think one is that I’m a forever student. One of the reasons I enjoy Olson Kundig specifically is because of the number of experts that I can learn from. So just like at school, you take your crack at something and then you sit down with the person who’s done it a lot longer and you learn from that, and for every project you have a whole new understanding of what to consider for the next. That never goes away. That’s not just the school thing. I can’t imagine that ever going away. 

K: Amazing. What do you think is the most important lesson you’ve learned over your career so far? 

E: Oh, I don’t know. I learn a lesson every day. I have learned not to take myself too seriously. Have fun with it. I watch people who get so intense with what’s in front of them. And yeah, we should all dive into the project and get lost in it. I am a big fan of that, but there is a level of knowing when to step back, take a breath, enjoy yourself and appreciate things because you don’t want to get burned out. And you know, a career is a marathon. It’s not about one project. No, I have four. So I have a deadline at all times. Right? I always have a client meeting and I always have a drawing stack going out. So the second one’s done, it’s just gone to the next. So you know, how do you keep that comfortable, and how do you keep rigor and passion. And I think that’s knowing when to step back and that’s probably an impossible task for students.

I know, I absolutely couldn’t do it. At that time, I gave every project it’s all like it was the only thing and I think that comes with kind of frying, and you’ll probably fail the first few times, but kind of learning your rhythm of when each person personally needs to take a breath and when are you helping the project and when are you exhausted. You know, trying to be fresh. I remember a mistake made a lot that you can, Kristi, I don’t know if this is still prevalent, but you work and work and work and you work to a deadline. You know, all through the night and then it’s time to present and you are tired and it is hard to be polished. It is hard to be present and you forget that all of that work was to get to the presentation and to be polished and to be present and take in what people are saying. And you never want to get to that point and not care anymore, or just be just too darn tired to pay attention. So I think a lot, you know, one of my big lessons learned is, you know, not only taking a pause, for being fresh with design, but also taking a pause before the end and finishing things with enough time to get a good night’s sleep and come to it with my whole head around me, and maybe I didn’t get to that extra perspective I wanted to do. But I would rather trade that extra drawing that no one actually knew about, for having a good delivery.  

K: Yeah, that’s a really important message to hear. I think a lot of students would relate to that a lot. Something that’s really special about hearing from you is that you are a woman and you have made it so far, and you’re someone a lot of students look up to. What is it like being a woman in the construction industry?  

E: It’s so not perfect. I feel like it’s a topic that’s not talked about enough. I love that we’re able to touch on it, I can give a million examples of times that I’m reminded that I’m a woman or I think to myself, that wouldn’t have happened if I was a man. There’s a job site that I visited regularly, I flew out and was there 12 hours a day and there was no bathroom for me to use. That’s gross. I was at a job, not the one I’m at now, where a new hire started and they were introduced to the team and they didn’t realize that I was the boss. They just assumed I was the intern and they left a bunch of scans on my desk for me to scan and I had to let them know that that wasn’t my job. And there’s kind of an age that goes with it. I’m a girly girl and I have a high voice when I get excited and I’ve been asked by a client before how are you old enough? What’s your age? And I’m sitting there next to a teammate who’s two years younger than me, who’s male. Nobody’s asking him that question.

I’ve been asked before by a client if I’m going to have more babies and if that’s going to be a problem with their project. Men are part of families that have babies too and they don’t get asked that question. So you know, all those things still happen. You know, something that we’re really proud of at Olson Kundig is we do look at the data for hiring. We look at how many women we have, how many men we have, we look at race and gender and all the things, and we’re sometimes we’re over 50% women. So the women are present. We’re showing up we’re joining offices. I’m seeing more women on construction sites now than I ever did. We are in the industry, but we’re still new. It was not 50% 30 years ago. I guarantee that and because of that we’re still working our way up the ladder and we’re still working our way to be in those positions of higher influence and we’re still learning how to lead teams as women genuine to ourselves, but also just with all the social norms that come with it. So it’s a work in progress.

K:  Absolutely. Yeah. Thanks for saying all that. I think, now is a wonderful time to wrap it up. Is there any, advice you could give to prospective students or anything they should know about architecture that would help them succeed? 

E: You know, it’s a beautiful practice, I feel so honored to be able to be part of, you know, creating our environment. That’s crazy! And, you know, we get to be part of really important conversations, like sustainability conversations that kind of change the world, actually. So it’s a funny balance of being an artist but also being a scientist. I think you’ve just got to go in and give it a try and see if it fits you, you know, try it on, get through a studio. Was that like a wild fun ride? Or was that misery because then there’s, there are other ways to be a part of the construction industry if that didn’t fit, but you know, I look at my peer group at work and we were all people that were fired up at school. So I think although there is a big difference in design school and design practice, you know if you fit in pretty early on, and you still know if you have that passion to really push it into a serious career.

K: I love that. Thank you so so much for hopping on the Zoom call. I know you’re super busy. Just personally, as an architecture student, everything you’ve done and your whole story is really inspiring and motivating. So thank you for sharing that with us. 

E: Thank you so much for thinking that!

K: Thanks for listening to the Gibbs spotlight. Tune in next time to hear more stories from the Gibbs College of Architecture. 

Editor’s note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.