Designing The Future

Derrek Niec-Williams

Derrek Niec-Williams’ choice of architecture as a profession was more than just a choice. It was a need. 

According to a U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics report, there were about 178,000 architects employed in the country in 2014. Of that number, only 4.1 percent of them were African American.

“This is yet another area where we have an invaluable contribution to make,” said Howard University President Wayne A. I. Frederick. “However, this contribution isn’t enough; so, we must and will con- tinue to promote this field.”

Niec-Williams (B.Arch. ’07), Howard University’s executive director of campus planning, architecture and development, agrees. 

“I’m interested in seeing more diversity in the design field,” he said.

In his current position at the University, Niec-Williams is carrying on the legacy of Albert Irvin Cassell, Howard’s first Black University architect, whose 1932 Campus Master Plan laid out the framework of the campus that many know and love today.

Among the other Black architects and faculty members who taught at Howard’s School of Architecture and Design, Professor Harry G. Robinson III (B.Arch. ’66; M.C.P. ’70) was one of Niec-Williams’ mentors.

Niec-Williams and Robinson are of the same mind that there is a phenomenon behind these disparate numbers. Black professionals have been historically relegated to specific types of roles in the industry.

“Historically, architecture has been referred to as ‘a White man’s profession,’ ” Niec-Williams said. “[There are] design types and [then there are] ‘sticks and bricks’ types that have to make a design constructible . . . . There’s a design, but [also] a back-end process to make it a reality.”

Robinson echoes that “a lot of the students find their places in the construction companies” because they aren’t disciplined or committed to the profession enough to start out working more than 80 hours a week at an architecture firm, only to have to spend a few years working their way up to earn more money. Instead, African-American students fresh out of college would typically rather start out with higher pay, on the construction end, building other people’s designs. 

Yet, Robinson and Frederick concur that the University does a great job of grooming great candidates for the field of architecture.

Designing the Future

“Our School of Architecture and Design continues to produce highly competent people of color for this field,” Frederick said.

Niec-Williams, who Robinson believed would go directly to an architecture firm, is a prime example.

As a result of Niec-Williams’ path, Frederick hand-picked him for his current position.

“Derrek has worked on several projects here at the University while in the private sector,” Frederick said. “Also, as an alumnus, he brings a unique understanding of the University’s history.”

Niec-Williams has also been charged with one of his largest architectural and urban planning undertakings yet—managing the Howard University Interdisciplinary Research Building (HUIRB) project, an 81,670-gross-square-foot, state-of-the-art research facility on Georgia Avenue at W Street. 

‘Passion for art’ 

Take one look at Niec-Williams, and one can tell that he means business. Clad in a dark-colored suit, perfectly creased shirt and sharply tied tie, his gold Howard University pin stands out brightly on his left lapel.

Tall and lean, he takes University- related calls on his cell phone as he walks 

along Georgia Avenue toward the HUIRB; but, he never once thinks he’s too important to interact with the contractors working on the building—most of whom are African American. He locks eyes with them, or points and smiles along the way.

“How’s it going, man?” Niec-Williams asks one guy, with a fist pound.

“Have a good birthday weekend?” he asks another guy wearing a yellow hard hat.

As senior project manager, Niec-Williams insisted that the key firms involved hire Howard students and create programs to expose students to the construction process in real time.

“[There is a] value chain, all the way down from the guy who’s swinging a hammer up to the guy who’s writing the check,” Niec-Williams said.
As he walks along the side of the building, Niec-Williams admires the HUIRB’s brick-colored terra-cotta material ridges that cast shadows onto the façade. Once inside, he inspects the composition and construction of the monumental stair between the third and fourth floors and comments about his fascination with the automatic task lighting in the laboratories and the natural light throughout the building.

The way Niec-Williams speaks so eloquently about each area of the HUIRB, one would think that he knows the build- ing inside out.

“Some of the areas I’m more familiar with than others,” he said. 

Niec-Williams’ allure with all things architecture is, in part, a result of his passion for art that stemmed from childhood.

The son of a jeweler and a diplomat, he grew up in Senegal, Mali, Guinea and Barbados before coming back to the states for high school. Bilingual in English and French, Niec-Williams was inspired to pursue architecture through his teenage exposure to the work of Eliel Saarinen (1873–1950), a Finnish “starchitect,” whose master plan governed every aspect of Niec-Williams’ high school campusnin the suburbs of Detroit—Cranbrook Schools. Saarinen lived on campus, designed each building and taught architecture at the school’s graduate art pro- gram. His son, Eero Saarinen, was raised at Cranbrook and also became a noted architect, whose work includes the Washington Dulles International Airport.

“The idea that this one guy resided in and raised his family in the environment that he created ... was a cool concept,” Niec-Williams said.

After landing a National Merit Scholarship, which is awarded to the top 1 percent of PSAT and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test takers in each state, Niec-Williams earned a full-ride scholarship to virtually any university he wanted to attend.

After attending Howard’s Weekend at the Mecca, an invitation-only, overnight visitation program for recruiting National Merit Scholarship recipients, Niec- Williams was sold.

“I was met with a campus that had Black Americans, Caribbean Americans and Africans,” he said. “I thought, wait, that’s me.”

He found his home at the University’s School of Architecture and Design.

“Derrek was a student of mine,” Robinson said. “He took my Urban Design course in ’05. He’s one of our star students.”

Niec-Williams’ undergraduate experience gave him a clear picture of where his career would be headed. His first job out of college was at Brailsford & Dunlavey, a national, minority-owned company that specializes in planning and development for education, sports and government industries.

“In architecture, I found a ... marriage of technology and art ... a place that blended creative expression with an above-average salary.”

For Niec-Williams, though, it doesn’t just stop there. He goes beyond the surface of “drawing pretty pictures” to try to understand the end user.

“What happened before the client saw the need for an architect?” Niec-Williams said he often asks himself. “What hap- pens when the client receives the design?”

Niec-Williams prefers to get a well- rounded sense of each end user.

“As a planner ... I prefer to talk to the dean, faculty, staff and students,” he said. “Each user has a different feel. You need to accommodate that in your design.”

HUIRB partnerships speak to African-American economic escalator
For the HUIRB architectural design, the University chose leading design firm HDR, Inc., which specializes in designing health care, justice, science and industrial facilities. But the University also encouraged a partnership with Black-owned design firm Lance Bailey & Associates.

This move was not only important to Niec-Williams, but also to Frederick.

“President Frederick has been quoted saying that Howard University does many things, but a key facet of our mission is to be an economic escalator that enables people of color to pursue fulfill- ing careers that elevate their net worth,” Niec-Williams said. “If that’s part of our mission, that mission must permeate all of our activities and departments.”

As for the Howard campus plans and designs that Frederick and Niec-Williams will bring about together in the future, Robinson is more than optimistic.

“I think it’ll be perfect,” Robinson said. “What a pair.” 

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