Less is More: Samantha Josaphat on Focus, Determination, and Relationship Building
By Julia Gamolina
Samantha Josaphat is an architect and the founder of STUDIO 397 ArchitecturePLLC. Part of the mere 0.2% of black female Architects registered in the United States, she is the 397th Black Woman to be licensed. Samantha continues her commitment to her community in hopes of raising the percentage of black women in the STEM fields as a member of the National Organization of Minority Architect's (NOMA) New York Chapter. Samantha also spearheaded Project Pipeline, an architectural day camp for elementary students. Some of Samantha's work has been exhibited at the United Nations Visitors Center. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Samantha talks about the decision to start her own firm and her "less is more" and "brick by brick" approaches, advising young architects to pay careful attention to the questions your mentors and project leaders are asking at work.
JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
SJ: My interest in architecture first started when I went house hunting with my mother as a kid. My mom loved bringing me along because I was her second pair of eyes and would narrate how one would move through the spaces. I was also never impressed with the layouts of the homes; they never seemed to have a good flow! These homes went up very quickly as mass produced cookie-cutter types, leaving me curious as to why anyone would settle for something that didn’t work.
I know that applying to and navigating architecture school was your first big formative experience in the field. Tell me about that.
Yes, applying to and getting accepted at Penn State was the first big milestone. I was actually questioned by my high school guidance counselor why I didn’t choose going to a HBUC - Historically Black University College and University - like everyone else around me. I responded by telling my counselor that I wanted to go to a school that reflects what the real world looks like - which then became a regretful statement many times along the journey.
Aware that I was embarking into a new world, where people, culture, and education would be different from how I grew up was exciting, though I’ll admit I was totally unprepared. A year after starting school, I then had to convince my friends outside of the architecture program that I hadn’t dropped out, as they grew concerned thinking that I had, not realizing that all my time had actually been shifted to living in the Architecture Studio [laughs].
What were your main takeaways from your time in architecture at Penn State?
School for me was a mix of emotions and experiences. Not only did I have to learn about architecture, but I also learned how different my culture was compared to majority of my classmates. These differences have allowed me to be well aware of how architecture can be used as a tool of diplomacy between cultures, and to this day shape the way I approach the field. While in school, I studied abroad three times with different programs – a week-long study abroad to Berlin by way of the Sociology Department studying cultural diplomacy, a semester long program in Rome with the Architecture Department studying Architecture, and then a 6 week program in Tanzania with the Landscape Architecture Department studying rural land planning.
The most valuable lesson I learned from school though was to stay dedicated to your craft and yourself; from there you will gain the ability to help others. While in school I also developed my work ethic and understanding of life's imperfections, allowing me to be aware and mentally fit to take on the treacherous yet beautiful journey of being an architect.
What was your first job in the field and what did you learn there?
After 150 personal cover letters and resumes, my first job was at an engineering firm. I had to fly back early from vacation to New York on Christmas, to start working the next day. While at the airport eating my Christmas dinner I said to myself, “This better be a sign that all my sacrifices will pay off!” I was hired to work on a beach front restoration project that had been destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Apart from learning how to put together a construction document set, my first mind blowing experience was when I saw the contractor on site with my drawings in his hand. I remember thinking to myself, “Oh no, what if the information is wrong, it’ll be all my fault!” Thankfully I was under amazing supervision and had learned early that every line that you draw has meaning.
How did you finally decide to start your own firm?
Following the engineering firm, I worked at a couple firms in New York where I worked on a range of projects from airports, to retail, to corporate interiors. I decided to start my own firm when I realized that the corporate environment was turning me into an ungrateful, deteriorating robot, whose health was being compromised. I had spent six years in school, and five years working, and all my hard work seemed to have made me lose my appetite for life.
However, stressed about the $180,000 I had accumulated in student loans to pay my way through college I knew I couldn’t just give up. The first step I took prior to taking my leap of faith was to talk to a wide range of people in architecture. The experience solidified to me that a large portion of the profession was miserable about pay, exhaustion, diversity, industry fees and accountability at all levels, and I had no interest in waiting any longer to realize I needed to make a drastic change. I made a promise to myself that my healthy lifestyle would no longer be compromised, and my ancestors would be proud that I would continue to push the status quo and not become another hidden figure.
What do you hope to achieve with your practice?
I plan to build a practice that explores design with both high end and affordable architecture. I don’t want to limit myself to one or the other, as I am great with client engagement on both ends. I hope that STUDIO 397 will also grow to become a firm providing quality career development opportunities with real diversity. In addition, outside of the traditional practice we are exploring how to harmoniously blur the boundaries between architecture, product design, and fashion.
Tell me about your engagements with various organizations in the industry and how they’ve informed your development as well.
Remaining social within and outside of our industry is very important. I am now trying to merge into the conversations pertaining to business development and real estate. Aside from being in the know, I continue my commitment to sustaining a supportive platform for minorities in architecture through the National Organization for Minority Architects. I currently sit on the NY Chapter's Executive Board as the 2018 President-Elect. Having major responsibilities within my extra-curricular engagements has taught me valuable time management skills, however I am aware that time management is a skill that needs to be refined from time to time. As a young professional engaged with extra-curricular commitments, I developed my professional relationship building skills with industry leaders I didn't typically have access to.
Where are you in your career at this moment?
I am currently a firm owner, really starting to build my clientele for STUDIO 397 this past year. I currently have four projects, two in the residential sector. What I appreciate about having two different projects within the residential sector is that one which is a high end private residence has allowed me to practice with cutting edge design materials, and the other which is a supportive housing project has a social community impact servicing previously homeless New Yorkers. These projects allow me to advance my skills through exploring innovative design in technology, materials, spatial planning, and community development at two different price points. Being able to understand the numbers behind your design and comfortably speaking with your client on how to value engineer a particular element while keeping with the same look and feel is an important skill to process. It builds the trust of the client, allowing the architect to have more wiggle room when presenting alternates.
What have so far been the biggest challenges in your career?
The biggest challenges in my career have been about getting equal opportunities. After graduation for example, I focused on building my professional network, which then, after eight months, landed me my first job. That process of networking made me aware that the majority of my opportunities unfortunately wouldn’t come from the typical application process, but from a champion who could vouch for me in order for me to be considered.
Although at the time that was a frustrating process to learn from, I am now extremely thankful for the way things went – the process made me prove to myself that I was good enough and taught me the power of relationship building. Years later these connections have been vital to the start-up of STUDIO 397, which is why I try to strongly encourage professionals to never give up on themselves or the relationships they hold dear. You never know when your hard work will return ten-fold.
What have been some highlights and what are you most proud of?
Since school, it’s been a whirlwind. Passing that last ARE exam and becoming a registered architect was huge, then starting Studio 397, completing our first high end residential renovation, and just recently starting our first supporting housing project have all been major. Personally, the highlights have been becoming a Licensed Architect, and thus providing myself the opportunities to have control over my time and finances as I am able to run my own firm.
In terms of projects, the COS retail store in Toronto and Fordham University’s Lowenstein Hall 6th Floor Renovation project were major highlights. COS elevated my skills in design and material selection high end design, while Lowenstein allowed me to carry a project from concept to construction as both the Architect and Interior Designer.
Finally, being available to students and young professionals who don't have the necessary resources, network, or motivation during their professional development process, has been the biggest highlight. As a student and young professional I experienced both the setbacks of what a lack of representation can have on your unconscious experience in the field and the success of having a network of resources and representation. A lot of people leave the profession due to lack of interest and a healthy physical and financial lifestyle. Until I started STUDIO 397 it was hard for me to convince others to explore the profession some more. I am happy and able to share my journey of failures and triumphs on how I figured it out. I strongly express to people my journey is my journey, but what you can take from it is the work ethic and determination to figure it out.
What else would you like to do?
I would also like to use my architecture skills to scope out real estate for the fashion and hospitality industry, while fostering culture diplomacy and economic development locally and globally at an close to even margin.
What advice do you have for those just starting their careers?
Listen to the questions the leaders on your projects are asking. Try your best to learn all that you can learn on your project. Appreciate the success and failures of your project as everything is a learning experience. Be open to try something different for the next project, as this will build your understanding of architecture as a whole. Having a diverse portfolio helps young architects understand the constants of Architecture, while understanding differences resulting in a better understanding of the specifics.
Finally, what has been your general approach to your career?
I’ve held on to two philosophies: "Brick by Brick" and "Less is More". Brick by brick reminds me that I got to where I am today because I saw the journey I was on and understood I couldn’t do everything at once, but I could one step at a time. Less is more was something I learned along the way. Instead of trying to do everything to make myself feel equal to my peers or environment I learned to do less, resulting in more of me. It now shines through in my design, social encounters, fashion, and love for my life!
Also having a focused mind allows me to emerge in my craft. Time management has taught me to be rational with the complexity of Architecture, in the sense of taking a huge complex problem and breaking it down to where it is manageable to digest without being overwhelming. As an architect and community leader I believe if I remain calm the synergy between my team and I will remain powerful.