Women in Architecture: Interview with SOM Partner Laura Ettelman

A version of this interview appeared in FORUM, a new publication produced by the SOM Women's Initiative, a group that works to advance women in the design profession. The story spotlights Laura Ettelman, an SOM Partner who is renowned for leading multidisciplinary teams and managing large projects such Terminal 1 at Toronto Pearson International Airport. Ettelman has deep experience in a variety of markets, including aviation, healthcare, and education. Ettelman was interviewed by Julie Hiromoto, an Associate in SOM's New York office. The two chatted about Ettelman’s career path, her most memorable projects, and what keeps her inspired.

JH: Laura, thanks so much for taking the time to sit together. I know you’ve been incredibly busy.

LE: Of course.

JH: You’ve been with SOM for quite awhile now. Are there projects you have especially fond memories of?

LE: I have good memories of most projects, but my fondest memories are of my time working at the Toronto Airport. During the process, it was very challenging and the client was very demanding. But now I can look back and see the value the client provided to me and to the project, and it was a great team to work with. It was many, many years of diligent work as a team. We had a joint venture with two other architecture firms.

JH: And when you say many, many years, how long did it take?

LE: We finally closed our contract on December 30, 2013. We started in 1997 and by the early part of 2007 the terminal was complete. It took nine years to go from master plan review through building all of the phases. When I hear very young people say, “Oh, I’ve been on a project for a year,” I think, you have a long career ahead of you. You have to slow down and be patient.

JH: Yes, that’s a generation’s worth of work. It is a seminal and defining project, and it’s beautiful.

LE: Yes it was great for me — and I think for many other people — in terms of learning how to work with a very big team. At one point, we had a site office with almost 100 people between architects, consultants, and engineers. Running that office was part of the experience as well.

JH: Most people at SOM know you for your transportation work: Toronto Airport, Mumbai, your work on LaGuardia and for the Port Authority. Have you always been a part of SOM’s Transportation group?

LE: Before Toronto began, I worked on a number of projects. I did a project for Stamford Gateway, an intermodal station that was built outside of the big Stamford Gateway project that SOM had finished around that time. That was 1996. I did a number of projects down in Brazil, as well. Once I got through all of Toronto, between the Terminal Building, the People Mover Stations, and the Garage, I had embedded myself in the Transportation group. Before I came to SOM, I did many other kinds of projects, but I find the transportation projects to be very challenging and exciting.

JH: Would you like to talk about your pre-SOM days?

LE: Sure. I worked in a number of offices before I came here. I was at Ellerbe Becket, and I was at Welton Becket at the beginning of my career. In between I worked at a few other places as well. I did a variety of projects: hospitals, schools, university dormitories, some housing, and some commercial work. I gained diverse experiences, but now I’m more focused.

JH: You’re a Cornell grad. Has your connection with the alumni at Cornell helped you? We have such a large Cornell population here in the office.

LE: I’m still in touch with many classmates. When I first considered coming to SOM, I luckily was able to call one of those classmates [Christopher McCready] to ask for his advice.

JH: Did you always know architecture was the right profession for you?

LE: In high school, I decided it’s what I wanted to do. Like many people, I was very involved in art, as well as in theater. I did theater set work, lighting design, and other things. I also took a mechanical drafting class, which started to bring me toward thinking about art in a different way. Both my father and grandfather were engineers. There was always some sort of attachment to architecture. Somewhere along the line, it just seemed like the thing to do. When I think back, I have one or two experiences that shaped my thinking about architecture, but I didn’t realize it at the time. When I was young, we lived in New Jersey and my grandmother lived in Queens. As I noted, my father was an engineer, and he used to take me to certain buildings that he thought were notable. One of the things he took me to see — it’s hard to explain because the buildings are no longer there — was to the Chapels at JFK Airport. They were these beautiful, individual, small buildings. He also, ironically, took me to see Saarinen’s TWA Building, as well as to Dulles. Back then, before security, you could ride on the People Mover bus even if you weren’t a passenger. When I started to plan my career, I think those experiences were at the back of my mind.

JH: Do you think those early experiences steered you toward a transportation specialty?

LE: No [laughing], I think they just steered me into considering architecture. Like many people who are considering fine art as a career, my parents said, “You’ll be a starving artist. Find something more productive to do” [laughter]. In high school, as I said, I was doing art and theater. Those sorts of things didn’t seem like a career that would be easy to manage. Architecture seemed like a good idea.

JH: While you were in school, did you ever dream that you would be a project manager and not a designer?

LE: No, we all think that we want to be designers. My evolution to becoming a project manager is like many other people. I began as a designer, the first couple of years. Ultimately, I ended up being the equivalent of a technical coordinator. In the last couple of years at Ellerbe, I had taken on project management. To this day, I still sketch and draw, and I sit with the technical and design teams to work though issues. I’m very interested in the planning, design, and technical success of projects, as well as the little details.

JH: Within SOM, peoples’ management styles are very different. What is your philosophy on leading our teams?

LE: From my perspective, the most important thing is empowering people to do as much as they can and to take on as much as they can. Also, I’m very interested in being part of the design and technical development of jobs. Fortunately, with these massive projects, you have enough time to get involved at all levels. I also find that with these large international projects, being the single point of contact for the client, you really need to know what’s going on. But at the same time, you really need to trust the people on your team. My goal has been to learn to work with the senior designers and the senior technical people, and also to engage the members on our team as much as possible — to fully understand what we are doing, why, and what the client’s goals are. I am a very hands-on, detailed person, but my goal is to optimize my trust in the team and to create strong collaborative relationships — with our team, our consultants, and most importantly, with our clients.

JH: Your team members very much appreciate your management style and working with you.

LE: That’s really nice to hear. I’m seeing many people whom I’ve worked with in the past 15 years growing and learning, and taking on responsibilities. In my mind, that shows they are doing exactly what we think they should do — and what, I hope, I’ve helped them to do.

JH: Do you feel you are still growing? What inspires you?

LE: Yes, I absolutely feel like I am still growing. I’m the kind of person who is very lucky to wake up every morning feeling positive, even if the prior day was not great. I’m definitely an eternal optimist. Enjoying your job is really important. It’s great for you and great for the people around you. In the end, even our clients and consultants are happier if they enjoy what they are doing. We’re all more successful.