Senior Project Architect Amy Karn, AIA, NCARB, CDT has joined the ranks of Building Design + Construction Magazine’s 40 Under 40 class of 2022. The honorees were chosen by BD+C editors based on three factors: career achievement, service to their professions and communities, and active participation in charitable work.
Amy’s nearly 20 years of experience in the AEC industry spans a wide range of projects including entertainment venues, performing arts theatres, and education spaces. But it almost didn’t happen. Though artistically gifted, her interests in science, physics, and the way things fit together nearly drove her to pursue a career in engineering. During a high school AP studio art class, she was exposed to perspective drawing and the mathematical process to do it correctly. Amy discovered the best way to combine her love of science and art would be in studying architecture, and subsequently studied at the University of Southern California (USC).
At USC, she studied abroad in Italy for six months, an experience that stays with her to this day. While she was in Rome, Venice, and the Lakes Region, she connected with Italian architects who connected historical design and construction techniques in a way you don’t get from a book. In Italy she learned that there is more to architecture than just pretty pictures. The hope is that the pretty picture is the cherry on top, but there is so much that goes into a beautiful building.
Amy worked at several small architecture firms while also working with her then-husband to build their plumbing contracting business. It was here, supervising construction projects, that her passion for architecture was reignited. She realized that her mechanical inclinations and ability to put things together were more important than she’d thought. “In architecture school, it’s all about design,” said Amy, “and in the field we only talk about the mechanics.” In 2014, once the company was on its feet, she started her own architecture firm. “I knew I could serve clients’ needs—both design and technical—and still be profitable,” she said.
In 2018, after four years at her own firm, she joined HMC. While she was happy running her own business, the size, scale, and complexity of HMC’s projects were an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. She was interested in HMC’s work with community college clients as these clients focus on serving students who often need more resources than those at most universities. This desire to serve these students and bring them a welcoming educational environment was an exciting prospect.
As a senior project architect in the firm’s Ontario, California education studio she has played an integral role on some of HMC’s biggest higher education projects including the California State University, Fullerton Housing Expansion in Fullerton, California and Mt. San Antonio College’s (Mt. SAC) Athletics Complex in Walnut, California.
Mt. SAC’s scoreboard is a particularly memorable project for Amy. The six-story tall scoreboard is one of the largest boards west of the Mississippi. It was the first project at HMC she worked on and the first time in years she’d worked on a project where both design intent and technical solutions were so highly valued. Mt SAC has a large and proud athletics program and the board is a key touchpoint in graduations, sports, and the Olympic trials. While it isn’t a typical high-design project, because it serves the client’s needs and is a primary tool for student engagement, the entire team cared enough to make it a beautiful object.
Currently, Amy serves as the president of the AIA’s Inland California (AIA-IC) chapter, which serves members in California’s San Bernardino and western Riverside Counties with programs and services to advance architecture and enhance the quality of our built environment. The chapter is focused on communications and events: giving the members opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. This includes access to buildings, education opportunities, and connection with local materials manufacturers. Her goal is to introduce more diversity and inclusion initiatives and ensure more women and people of color are active and represented in the chapter. Amy aims to show people that there is room for everyone at the table. As the chapter president, Amy knows that her service shows other young women that the industry and the AIA is a space that welcomes their ideas and their contributions.
Committed to increasing visibility within HMC and bringing up the next generation of designers, Amy is a member of the firm’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) Committee and Emerging Leaders Forum (ELF). She believes that industry leaders have a responsibility to intentionally make space and time for people to grow. In 2020, Amy created HMC’s continuing education program “So You Want to be an Architect.” The intent of this program is to break down walls between junior and senior staff and to fill the staffing gap that many firms are facing: architecture students who graduated during the Great Recession could not find work and as a result many left architecture altogether. A decade later, that gap has left firms without mid-level professionals with years of experience, and younger staff lacking peer mentors. Using case studies and veteran architects, the curriculum helps bring young professionals up to speed, providing them with the background they need to be confident, autonomous designers ready to serve clients and move up in their careers. “We don’t just assume project work will create opportunity for learning,” said Amy. In this same vein, Amy also blocks off one hour a week for every person she supervises. In this hour, they can talk about project work, professional development, their personal lives, or pop culture. The result is that people are comfortable and willing to come to her when they are struggling because they know she’s making the time.
Amy is active in speaking engagements throughout the industry. Recently, she has spoken at the ArchLIGHT Summit to discuss “Queer Perspectives in Architectural Lighting” and AECOM’s “Breaking Down Barriers and Forging New Frontiers.”
Equitable opportunities and visibility for queer people drives Amy. It’s what inspired her to take on the role of president at AIA IC, and why she takes on opportunities within HMC. She knows that many trans women have not had the opportunities she has had and wants to show people that these opportunities can and should exist for other trans people, for women of color, and for queer kids. By showing up, and taking on new opportunities, she hopes to show others what is possible.
Interrogate Your Assumptions
This focus on visibility and inclusion also influences the built environments on which she works. She can often be heard challenging her teammates to “interrogate their assumptions.”
“Designers make a lot of assumptions based on a developed taste, their own experiences, or where they were educated,” said Amy. She knows that these assumptions aren’t bad, but the resulting design choices always impact a building’s end-users. So, she encourages everyone around her to interrogate those assumptions. She believes, “We should be able to trust our design instincts, but we have to zoom out and consider ‘who am I not thinking about?’.” The design team is currently exploring how to honor the indigenous people and history of Palomar College’s Fallbrook Education Center, beyond a plaque on the wall. Amy believes “the result can be any number of things, but if you don’t ask questions and aren’t willing to scrap work to deliver a project in which everyone’s voice is heard, then change does not happen.”
Off the Clock
Amy is an avid motorcycle rider and crafter. Every year, she takes a two-week road trip on her Harley. Two years ago, she rode from her home in California to Houston, Texas, and back. On the way home, she didn’t take freeways, exploring the small one-lane backroads between the states and camping along the way. She also enjoys needlework and is currently working on a large (15” x 24”) counted cross stitch pattern she designed herself of Coccinelle, a Parisian trans woman actress from the 50s and 60s.