This Architecture Firm Boasts 5 Licensed Latina Architects and Numerous Latinx Staff
Before catchphrases like “Boss Babe” or “Lady Boss” were trendy, an architecture firm in San Antonio, Texas was busy breaking barriers for women in a traditionally male-dominated industry. Overland Partners was founded in 1987 and offers architectural design, urban design, and master planning services throughout the world. Its projects span everything from Fortune 500 headquarters and art museums to homeless shelters and universities. The company is regarded as a top 50 design firm and top 50 sustainable design firm by Architect magazine and has received more than 200 awards. It has built a reputation for keeping environmental and aesthetic contexts of projects in mind while integrating technology, art, and craft to uncover sustainable solutions to complex projects.
These accomplishments are in great part due to the work of the firm’s female staff, several of whom are Latina.
“The Latina women at Overland are from diverse countries, universities, and cultures. Each of them inspires us with their talents and captivates us with their individual, tailored perspectives,” said Rick Archer, CEO, Founding Principal, and LEED AP. “At Overland, diversity is an integral part of who we are, and by extension, our design process. Latina architects and designers, as well as those from around the world, make us better. They elevate our understanding of equity and inclusion and empower us to have deeper and more meaningful connections to the communities we serve.”
The firm has ten licensed Latinx architects total, including five Latina women. They include Rebecca Sibley, Siboney Díaz-Sánchez, Helena Zambrano Macias, Aiza Paulson, and Barbara Warren. These talented architects are joined by designer Sandra Montalbo, intern Anagisel Toscano Ramos, Crystal Sosa in accounting and Colleen Baker in client development.
Warren is working on the renovation of San Antonio’s Hemisfair Park and is a soon-to-be first-time mother. Toscano Ramos hails from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and is a studio design intern who was recently featured in The University of Texas at San Antonio’s Future Roadrunner’s ‘Rowdy’ Magazine. Díaz-Sánchez is a Cornell University graduate who is passionately involved in the San Antonio community’s politics and advocacy. She serves as a board member of SAY Sí and was a featured speaker at DreamWeek 2019 and 2019 South by Southwest Conference and Festivals. Paulson has over 20 years of design work experience and lived in Alaska before moving back to Texas. She is busy working on the new headquarters for Texas Public Radio.
Zambrano Macias is a University of Pennsylvania graduate and a leader in sustainability design. She serves on the National Committee On The Environment Board. The American Institute of Architects (AIA)- San Antonio recently recognized her for her passion and commitment to sustainability and honored her with a sustainable flower bed at the San Antonio Botanical Garden. Montalbo was born and raised in San Antonio, serves on the board of U.S. Green Building Council and is a member of San Antonio’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan Committee Technical Working Group. She is a 2018 recipient of the AIA-San Antonio Rising Star Award.
“I am a Latina architect working in a profession where less than 5 percent of licensed architects are Latinos, and less than 18 percent are women,” Sibley said. “Reflecting on my role through this lens is humbling; however, it does not define me or my goals as an architect, woman, and mother.”
It’s a sentiment a few of the other Latinas on the team expressed. They said the firm encourages them to be innovative and creative problem-solvers regardless of ethnicity, gender, or any other differences that they may all share. The leadership team has inspired them to use their identity and unique experiences to fuel their work.
“I have been empowered in my career to learn as much as possible about design and architecture as quickly as possible, and have had the incredible opportunity to work on projects that I am passionate about – higher education, child abuse support spaces, public radio headquarters, botanical garden centers – with a talented group of people surrounding and supporting me,” Sibley said.
“It is critical for that support to extend outward, and I mentor a number of the younger female staff, speak at career days, and recruit talent to our office,” she added. “I advocate for women in the profession and for the diversity of thought and people in design and our design teams.”
Overland Partners’ progressiveness extends into every team, including urban design and sustainability, which boast teams entirely made up of women. The sustainability team includes Zambrano Macias, who is Sustainability Coordinator and Leader, and, Montalbo, who is the Sustainability Designer.
Both said neither their Latinidad nor their gender has hindered their professional progress but rather has resulted in inspiration and curiosity.
“Maybe at first it’s easy to dismiss what you have to offer in architecture but when you open your mouth that changes; that’s the power of education,” Montalbo said. “What’s exciting and what brought me to Overland was seeing this powerful woman (Zambrano Macias) at the helm within the sustainability team leading the team. To be able to grow and learn underneath someone as passionate and talented as her is huge.”
Zambrano Macias helped establish the sustainability team at Overland Partners, and it’s a feat that she considers to be among her most significant accomplishments.
“I have been leading the vision and mission of this firm regarding sustainability, and I have a wonderful team (to help accomplish those goals),” she said.
Her involvement with the National Committee On The Environment had led to setting high-performance metrics that U.S. architecture firms use to design buildings.
“Through that work, I created a tool with health architects that don’t have the type of background that I have to be able to calculate the metrics that will give you a clue on how your building is performing,” she said. “It not only helps you with technical calculations but also helps you understand the metrics of energy, water, materials, communities, resources, etc. It puts your results from your building in perspective; it’s an educational tool to give you [an] understanding [of] the project’s environmental design.”
Zambrano Macia’s team helps projects achieve high building performances while using resources mindfully. For example, sustainability professionals proactively find ways to lower energy consumption to maintain and even create a healthier planet. The team’s job is to show their designers and developers how and why buildings should be created this way by focusing heavily on environmental impact.
“It’s not enough to have a super high performing building that uses less energy and water than a typical building. It’s not about solar panels; it’s how we operate to be sustainable,” Montalbo said. “We really focus on operations and how we use the building itself. We look at the energy, we consume the water, and we consume the waste that we create.”
Zambrano Macia’s unique perspective and ability to speak multiple languages have proven to be assets instead of challenges in breaking the glass ceiling.
“We have about 57 design professionals, anywhere from a principal to designer level and within that, we have 11 people here in the office who are Latino/Latina,” Montalbo said. “Within that, we have six of the 11 who are women, and five of the six are licensed. It’s exciting to see that.”
However, Overland Partners may be somewhat of an outlier as 2017 data from The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards shows that 1 in 5 new architects identify as a racial or ethnic minority. The good news is that nearly 2 in 5 new architects are women. Women earn their initial license, on average, ten months sooner than their male counterparts. All of this hints at progress in diversity and inclusion across the industry.
Zambrano Macia says her Latinitad has instilled in her the strong family values that she has carried over to the workplace. It has also helped her enrich professional conversations. Montalbo was raised by strong-willed, hard-working and powerful Latinas who inspired her to chase after her dreams. The women of Overland Partners never questioned whether they could do anything; they went ahead and did it. This has empowered their careers as well as one another’s and consequentially made the firm a success.
“We’re like in the magic bubble here at Overland. We’re probably one of the most diverse firms that I can think of. We have people from all over the world here,” Montalbo said. “The representation of Latinos and Latinas I would say is well above the national average and right on par with what I think is a representation of San Antonio being probably one of the largest Hispanic cities in the country. I feel very at home here, and I don’t feel like my work is devalued by my being Latina or Latino.”