Team Talks

Meet Shima Miabadi from our New York office!

Interviewed by Katie Donahue, Senior Associate at Handel Architects.

Hi Shima, can you tell us a bit about yourself and why you chose architecture?

I'm a Senior Associate at Handel Architects. I've been here for almost nine years. I graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with my Masters in Architecture and I went to Ithaca College for my undergrad. I’ve been the field since 2012, so for about 10 years.

I’ve always been a kind of generalist. I really enjoy math and the world of the arts. I love drawing, painting, any artistic way of expressing myself. I grew up doing both, and when I went to college I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I just knew that I wanted to be able to continue doing art, but also continue that technical side of things, and architecture made sense because it brought those two worlds together. So I decided to give it a try.

Outside of architecture, what kinds of things do you like to do? How do you spend your time when you’re not working?

I still draw, that’s my downtime. When I feel inspired, I’ll grab my paper and pencils and get lost in that world. Otherwise, I’ve been exploring travel and trying to rediscover myself in a way I never have before by traveling, experiencing different cultures, and seeing the world. I grew up in different places and cultures. Rather than struggling with an identity crisis, I’m trying to create my own identity by exploring as many cultures as possible and inheriting little bits and pieces from everywhere.

What are some memorable trips that you’ve been on?

One of the most memorable trips was to South Africa. I was very humbled by a place I never thought I would get to visit. I was so in awe of the nature, the culture, and the people. There were moments I couldn’t capture in pictures or video. It was a whole different experience, so that was very humbling. We have these ingrained ideas of what African countries are like, but it’s so far removed from that. It’s just one of the most stunning places I’ve ever seen.

I would say another trip that stands out is exploring the South of France where some of the biggest art movements started. I was surrounded by the countryside that I’ve read about in so many books while studying art history. Seeing it in person, it made sense why so many artists moved there to make a name for themselves. It was absolutely beautiful, stunning. Another one of those places that you can’t capture in photos.

Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town, South Africa
South of France
South of France

The South of France and South Africa are very different than New York. What are some thing you love about living in New York?

It’s a love/struggle relationship. New York is the first place I’ve lived in where I’ve felt like I belonged because I’m different just like everybody else. That’s the beauty of it. The diversity in New York can’t be compared to anywhere else. You’re never bored here, there’s so much to do and see — the food scene, the art scene, the architecture scene. Networking opportunities are beyond any other city that I’ve been to. So as much as I do struggle with the cold and the chaos, I do love everything else it offers!

You said you grew up in a lot of different countries as a teenager. Where were some of the places you spent those formative years? How do you feel like it has formed you as an architect and professional?

I was born in Iran, and as a young child we moved to Japan where we lived for a few years, and where I started school. Then we moved back to Iran. When I was nine, we moved to The Netherlands. That’s where I spent those formative, impressionable teenage years. I think living in so many radically different cultures has informed the work that I do in that I’m very focused on who is going to be using the spaces I'm designing. Culture in general has so much to do with the way we create spaces and how people move throughout these places.

Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on right now?

I’ve been working on a residential tower called The Cottage in Jersey City. I inherited the project because it was put on hold during COVID, and then brought back to life in the middle of DD. We've submitted our drawings to the building department and if all goes well we can start construction this summer.

The Cottage has a big footprint and a large tower, but the layouts are clean and straightforward. It was challenging to take over a project midway through, but we're up to speed now. The tower is in a neighborhood called Journal Square, a few blocks away from a few other towers that we’ve done. The neighborhood is very much single family homes and low-rise. Within the next 5 to 7 years, that area will be a mini-skyscraper-skyline. It’s wild to think that we’re impacting that.

The Cottage in the Journal Square neighborhood of Jersey City

Which project that you've been involved with has inspired or shaped you the most?

My experience on Inspir Carnegie Hill affected me a lot. I was on that project from beginning to end. It was fascinating to see it take shape, I don’t think many people get to experience that. I still have the initial sketches we did with crayons, and now I follow their Instagram account and see how people live in that building day-to-day, which is really cool.

That was also my first CA project where I got to work on construction and see it come to life physically and make decisions in the field. It gave me autonomy that I needed and hadn’t had in my career before. I found this voice inside me that I hadn’t had before. It made me feel like I could lead and help the project get to its end goal. Once I found that voice, I gained a lot of respect on site and I was able to befriend the contractors and have more of a teamwork relationship with them. We created a great partnership and I think that became evident to everyone working on the project. That process was helpful for me because it gave me the confidence that at the end of the day, I do know what I’m talking about and there’s actual, physical proof of it. Unfortunately, not everyone gets to see a project through from beginning to end, but everyone should. When you actually build something that you’re proud of, and you can say, "Look I did this!", that's so empowering. With the help of a huge team, obviously.

Inspir Carnegie Hill

It feels especially poignant because it’s women’s history month. It's interesting the way you talk about the artistic, creative, and design oriented part of architecture just as much as the mathematical, technical, constructability part. The Inspir project is so reflective of that entire process. A lot of times when young people go into architecture, they gravitate towards one side or the other and don't realize what a big team it takes, what a big process it is and why both sides are so critical. So, after everything you’ve learned, what would you share with other women who are either getting into the field, or are at places in their careers where they’re not being given opportunities that give them the confidence to be a part of construction administration, which often has a very different dynamic than being in an office?

I credit a lot of this to (Handel Architects Principal) Elga Killinger. I think being on a woman-led team on Inspir Carnegie Hill was really helpful for me because I followed her lead for many years. I took bits and pieces from that to see what would work for me and moving forward on this current project that I’m on, I’ve heard from teammates that they sometimes have to have their "Shima moments," meaning they have to be a boss and speak up, which is one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received.

At the beginning of my current project, I would sit down with my team and say, “Okay, I want one of you guys to take charge. If you don’t like something, say so. Come up with suggestions if you must. We want to create a nice project that we’re going to be proud of for the rest of our lives.” You must wear a lot of different hats and you have to be firm in your opinions and the decisions that you’re making. Because if you leave it open ended, people will run with the easiest solution. My team members have told me that they really appreciated these pep talks. I noticed that during the end of coordination, they began to speak up more. They would push back and fight for the design to pursue towards our intent. That was really nice. A lot of confidence comes with experience but I’m so happy and proud that they’re already doing that. Especially as women in our industry, it is easy to be dismissed sometimes. We do work with a lot of professionals, but men do tend to have the loudest voices in the room. I would say to other women in the industry, don’t let that happen, you have just as loud of a voice, you just need to use it. Don’t let anyone push you around- regardless of who is in the room. It’s okay to be the loudest voice in the room every once in awhile.

Well said. So often it’s expected that we’re supposed to keep the peace, or be the people who are the most flexible instead of the most knowledgeable, or the people leading the team.

You're also involved in a multitude of things at the office that go beyond architecture. Can you tell us a little about that?

I’m involved in internal and external events and our weekly happy hours. During COVID the happy hours shifted focus because, especially in the beginning, everyone was so confused and no one was in a good place. Doing those virtual happy hours was successful because we brought everyone together and said hey, we’re all still here and figuring it out.

After we started coming back to the office, we had to come up with new ways to introduce all the new people who had been hired, especially if they had been working with each other virtually for months. We started doing Super Happy Hours. About once a month, we’ll celebrate an occasion—work related or not, it doesn’t matter—and throw a big party. And theme it. I love themes and I love party planning. I go and buy a bunch of decorations, a bunch of booze, we’ll have a food menu, and make it a thing and invite friends. Invite your peers, whoever you want, and talk, listen to music, hang out, and I think it’s been successful. I think it’s been successful because people are finally meeting each other outside of their own team environment. But I want to make it even better.

I’m also in charge of the internship program in the office. I’ve been trying to come up with a way to make the internship program more involved and engaging because they’re potentially our next hires, and they are going back out in the world and speaking about us so we have to make a good impression. I’m also involved with the Firm Culture Committee, communications initiatives, university recruiting, and community outreach.

Super Happy Hour Whiteboard Groups
Super Happy Hour Back to School Event

A little bit of everything. I think this speaks to how multifaceted your skill set is, and why you’re such a good architect. Do you have any remaining remarks about what inspires you in architecture?

Ultimately we need to realize that we’re all human, and we need to bring things back down to a human level to be able to work together. Most importantly, what I’ve learned throughout my career is that speaking out goes a long way. Whether it's internally, to the client, to consultants, or to your peers, it can really help set the tone. It has helped me with my work/life balance because I’ve been able to set boundaries so much better than at the beginning of my career. It comes down to being able to properly communicate your needs and efficiently use your skill set. I want everyone to understand that there’s no need to feel intimidated in your career.

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