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Confidence By Design: Spotlight on Katherine Faulkner '83

The walls of NADAAA, the award-winning Boston architecture and urban design firm, are disarmingly neutral, the monochromatic loft giving the impression of being a living, breathing blank canvas. Those walls encompass a hive of activity; NADAAA is a busy place, and the fruits of its labor surround the designers, architects, project managers, technicians, and behind-the-scenes people, as if to say, “Keep going; just look at what you’ve already done.” Small-scale models of soon-to-be landmarks grow out of glass-enclosed tables. Photographic patchworks of past and future projects cluster together on the walls, complemented by jutting 3D prototypes below, all of them physical manifestations of the art of progress.

The result is stunning. And one of the forces behind it all is Katie Faulkner ’83.

Faulkner, a founder and principal of NADAAA, started the firm in 2011 with fellow architect Nader Tehrani, when she realized that she wanted more control over her career.  

“In architecture, there is no career path, no prescribed way to get from Point A to Point B,” said Faulkner. “It’s a self-designed profession. You have to build your own path, and you have to do it with clarity and intention.”

Faulkner’s path has led her straight to the top. NADAAA’s walls showcase several of the firm’s high-profile projects:  the Melbourne School of Design building for the University of Melbourne; the University of Toronto’s Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design building; a dormitory that just broke ground in their backyard on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s East Campus in Boston’s Kendall Square; and plans for a section of Boston’s newly burgeoning Seaport District.

Though the projects she tackles vary, from designing furniture Down Under to building homes for hundreds in higher education, Faulkner attributes her achievements to one simple ingredient: confidence.

“It’s all a confidence game. Design always has been,” said Faulkner. “You put yourself out there every day. You take risks. You defend your work. You have to get comfortable with failure in order to succeed.”

It’s a lack of that very same key quality that Faulkner suspects is at the core of the glaring gender disparity in the field. In the United States, even though nearly half of architecture school graduates are women, they make up only 18% of licensed practitioners.

“When you’re a female in this field, you are frequently the only woman at the table. There is no doubt it’s more difficult for women, that too frequently women are absent from leadership roles, that there aren’t many getting recognition beyond their gender,” said Faulkner. “In part, I think it’s because as women, confidence may not be something we grew up with. Being sure and proud as a girl wasn’t always allowed.”

Faulkner—who attended Lincoln School for Grades 10-12, graduated from Dartmouth College, and later got her MArch (Master of Architecture) degree from Harvard University Graduate School of Design—found her academic confidence in the yellow building on the East Side of Providence.

“Lincoln has always had a history of academic excellence. It’s head and shoulders above anything academically I’ve ever experienced. Because it’s all girls, when I was at school, I was honed into my work and able to pursue my interests without judgment. I was inspired, focused, and excited,” said Faulkner. “It made me the ambitious person that I am. I credit Lincoln with all the good things that came thereafter.”

What came after for Faulkner was a career spanning two coasts, a family of four (“My only regret,” she joked, “is that my two sons won’t get to go to Lincoln.”), and eventually, being at the forefront of a career and industry she really loves.

“I love the challenge. I love the business component. I love the daily and weekly puzzle of working on a project, finishing the work, and delivering on our promises,” said Faulkner.

Despite the gender disparity in the field, Faulkner believes that architecture is a promising profession for women, perhaps particularly for Lincoln girls.

“Learn as much as you can and have plenty of different experiences. When girls get a great education like the one at Lincoln, it can only lead to confident women who are empowered to make choices, and become advocates for their own futures,” said Faulkner. “Whether it’s architecture or any other field, that’s what it takes to find the profession you love. That’s what it’s all about. You need to get out of bed every day and be excited about where you have to go.”

We can’t wait to see where Faulkner goes next.