Women in Transit, IBI Group Architects Open the Door

There is a tendency to talk about women in architecture in an abstract way. We know we need to celebrate women in professional roles, promote them into senior positions and get more women on boards, but how is this actually cultivated in the working environment, and where are the real-world examples?

One team of transit architects at global design and technology firm, IBI Group, is leading the charge. Director, Celia Johnstone, Lead Architect, Lisa D’Abbondanza and Architectural Designer, Jennifer Ujimoto, were brought together on the recently completed, multimillion-dollar MiWay station design for Mississauga’s new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line.

The City’s transportation master plan (Moving Mississauga) focused on the need for a sophisticated, sustainable, multimodal transportation system to direct its urban intensification, and provide options that would motivate its residents to consider alternate modes of transportation. Like many suburban cities in Canada, however, Mississauga shared a familiar problem: providing efficient transit in a community originally designed around the automobile, where distances are great and densities are low. And so, as the second, grade-separated BRT line in Canada, and serving as a crucial connection for local residents to Toronto, Halton and Brampton, the project team was faced with a formidable challenge.

“Celia won the project and graciously let me lead it,” said D’Abbondanza. “She was always there but trusted that I would find my way.” Lisa found this style of leadership to be contagious. “The ‘I trust you’ belief gives people confidence in themselves and lets them know they can excel without being micromanaged. Simultaneously, I had Jennifer’s support in the trenches throughout the process, and we would often yell things across the office at each other while executing on project deliverables.”

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Using a simple palette, each station building makes use of elemental materials, including steel, wood, glass and concrete, in an individualistic way. All eight stations are based on a set of prototypes developed by IBI, depending on their orientation to the road. As an investment for the City of Mississauga, this simple, straightforward detailing for the station buildings is both maintainable and flexible for future growth, but that doesn’t mean their design has to be utilitarian. “These are very high-quality structures, striking in their prosaic surroundings but also welcoming, which is essential for transit buildings,” said Director, Celia Johnstone.

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The team also incorporated all of the stations’ mechanical and functional elements into the shell of the building (essentially hiding them), resulting in a sleek design and elevated transit experience for commuters – creating places you wouldn’t mind waiting to catch the next bus. This structural feature means ventilation systems and even vending machines are shielded to declutter the space and improve the flow of traffic.  

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Why does it work so well? “Commitment to passenger experience and the holistic nature of the design,” said Design Architect, Jennifer Ujimoto. The team was able to address the entire passenger experience including accessibility, wayfinding, daylight, transparency, and crime prevention through environmental design principals. “By incorporating natural wood and exposed concrete, as well as the landscaping at bus level and public art throughout, the stations’ philosophy of inclusion and wellbeing help provide social equity and environmental sustainability.”

When D’Abbondanza thinks back on the project in its entirety, “what I’m really proud of is the level of trust we had from the lead civil engineer. There was trust in our team from the beginning. We had an important seat at the table and were contributing actively as the design experts.”

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Trust in your colleagues and from your client leads to the best outcomes in major engineering projects. “In these big civil jobs,” said Lisa, “the weight of cost can take up a lot of the project, like an elephant in the room. There is this pervasive idea that good design costs an exorbitant amount of money. As the architect, you have to know how to balance this opinion, while maintaining design integrity throughout the process.”

Headquartered in Toronto, IBI Group is known the world over for its expertise in designing for mobility in urban environments. Now that the Mississauga BRT is complete, its station designers have moved on to other global transit projects.

Jennifer is working on capital improvements for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and looking to bring autonomous vehicle technology to public transportation from IBI’s New York office. Lisa is the deputy lead designer on the Eglinton Crosstown Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, due for completion in 2022, and Celia is leading the design of the Redline LRT in Tel Aviv, Israel’s first underground transit line.

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“Our team has always had a quirky culture,” emphasizes Celia. “I think this has made it more welcoming for a diverse group of people. We all take our work personally, and we give others room to develop their own way of handling things. This, and having someone willing to open the door, has allowed more women in the firm to excel and lead.”

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What’s more, though IBI has many women leading transit architecture projects internationally, today there are even more women working as engineers, planners, landscape architects and designers, bringing transit projects to completion from the conceptual phase through to construction, and championing for inclusion.

Lisa reinforces that putting in the time to develop a deep understanding of your trade allows people to put that trust in you and makes cooperation seamless. “Giving team members opportunities when they’re ready and allowing them to step up to the plate has always been our way.”

She also knows the true value of her team’s work. “I’ve had women in my neighbourhood tell me about some of the stations without even knowing we were responsible for them. My hair dresser recently mentioned about one station in particular, ‘I used to get my husband to pick me up down the street. Now I feel comfortable waiting for the bus.’”

Station photography credit Shai Gil

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