The Hord Coplan Macht Cool Box is a place to get to know some of the people and personalities who are delivering great ideas and leading work for our clients. In the Cool Box today: Melanie Ray, an Architect in our Housing/Mixed-Use Studio.

When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Funny enough, I wanted to be an aerospace engineer for a long time. It’s not the typical dream job for a young black girl, but I was taught from an early age to aim high! Then I realized I had a love of problem solving and finding creative solutions, and went with architecture at the last minute. Of course now, I’m wondering how awesome it would’ve been to be featured on the movie Hidden Figures.

What parts of your personal life have influenced your work as an architect? Vice versa?

When I was younger, my mom would take my sister and I out to Open Houses every Sunday after church. We already had a house, but we would walk through homes and take notes on how different people designed and laid out their own spaces. When I’m designing buildings, I try to put myself in the shoes of those who will one day be in the environments that I design and connect with how they might feel. I’m not happy until I can see myself being comfortable.

Describe your “dream” project. (It could be a project you worked on that you really enjoyed or one you make up)

My dream project would be to design an equitable, sustainable, diverse community for my hometown of Jersey City, NJ. Every time I go home to visit family, I’m amazed at how much the waterfront communities have improved, but concerned by how the neighborhoods that I grew up in have remained stagnant. I would love to take the knowledge I have learned about multi-family housing and urban design in Baltimore and apply it to my hometown.

When you describe where you work to friends and family, what do you say?

When we were in the old office, the easiest thing to say was “I work in the building with the Miss Shirley’s restaurant on the ground floor.” Now that we’ve moved, I just describe our office as the brick building on Pratt St with amazing views of the Inner Harbor.

What’s the #1 myth out there about being an architect?

“Wait, so you design buildings?” I meet people who often think that architects are just engineers with a different name, but we do SO much more! Getting people to realize that we take a holistic approach to building design and really hold the team together can be a challenge.

What’s the most important quality in the client-architect relationship and what do you do personally to ensure you have that with your clients?

In my short time in the architecture industry, the number one quality that I have noticed is key to a healthy client-architect relationship is mutual respect. Without the ability to respect the experience of the architect or the needs of the client, the project gets stuck. I always bring that the table when meeting with clients.

What’s the first question clients usually ask you when starting a project?

I often get asked “So what did you design on this project?” perhaps looking for a small task like dimensioning the stairs or aligning titleblocks. In reality, I have been able to jump on so many different types of projects at different stages, I do a lot of everything! So my response can be surprising when I say, “I actually designed all of the units on this project.”

What is one thing you hope to change in the industry?

Through my work outside of the office with The American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), I am looking forward to seeing more women of color in the architecture community. More specifically, I hope to see more African American women represented in the number of licensed architects in the US. We have made tremendous strides over the past 25 years, but we still have a long way to go before we start seeing more women in leadership roles in design and construction.

Name a trend you don’t think is going away anytime soon and why.

The importance of wellness in architecture is a component of building design that has taken other sectors by storm, but is only just breaking the surface in housing. I see this becoming a bigger factor for homeowners and rental tenants in the choice to move to one home over the other. As humans, we spend at least 8 hours a day at home sleeping (ideally), so why would we not want to live in healthy environments that contribute to our well-being?

What’s something you don’t feel you can learn in school and that you have to be in the field to understand?

In school, it did not occur to me how much the decisions of the architecture team impact the entire project. Working on your own designs in school, it was easy to prioritize what you wanted and put other items on the back burner. In practice, EVERYTHING is a priorty, and the architect has to be on top of it all.

If you had a personal motto, what would it be?

“You can’t get the dents out of a can from the outside”. I heard this at a Women in Architecture Summit last year, but I have been following it for years. To me, it means you can’t solve an issue or address a problem by standing on the outskirts and complaining. You have to dive in and make an impact at the root of the problem, whether it is a project, an organization, or a small task.

Who or what is your “spirit animal”?

I have been a dedicated follower of Janelle Monae since she hit the scene! I channel my inner R&B star for her style, music, and advocacy. She’s such a creative person on stage and in the studio, but what really draws me to her is her ability to speak out in a way that is loud, but effective.