Effective March 1, Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott will have the first woman president in its 130-year history—Carole Wedge, who has been with the firm for 18 years.

Effective March 1, Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott will have the first woman president in its 130-year history—Carole Wedge, who has been with the firm for 18 years. A principal since 2000, she has served as a senior member of the firm’s Education Practice Group with clients including Wellesley, Princeton, Harvard, Cornell, Dartmouth and Georgetown. As Wedge takes office, she will lead SBRA in an accelerated implementation of its strategic plan, which, she says, includes strengthening the firm’s national reputation for excellence in design as informed by changing technology and meeting the needs of converging markets.

SBRA’s reputation as a standard-bearer for Ivy League design started with H.H. Richardson’s Sever Hall at Harvard (the first of more than 120 projects the firm has designed there). Its list of clients in academia is as enviable and deep. However, Wedge says the bolting pace of information technology is changing the way the firm designs for those markets.

The firm’s steering will continue toward higher education, science and healthcare. In the latter, there’s an emphasis on medical specialty facilities. “Our markets are converging,” Wedge said. She considers this an exciting period, as rapid changes in technology are affecting design. Built-in adaptability is paramount to creating an enduring, yet flexible environment. As is building in room for harmonious growth at institutions that have expansion in their future. Therefore, masterplanning remains a large part of SBRA’s work, Wedge said.

Wedge includes her 2003 LEED accreditation in her title, reflecting her long-standing sense of responsible, sustainable design dating to her undergraduate days at the University of Colorado, where she majored in environmental design. She later earned her bachelor in architecture from the Boston Architectural Center.

“Sustainable design is part of our strategic mission,” she said, adding, “the ripple effect is quite significant” when you consider all the alliances necessary to complete the large, long-range designs SBRA is known for. Because of the considerable number of people on a project like the Dartmouth College Library, a commitment to green design from the outset has the potential to affect, perhaps in a lasting way, many firms and professionals who will carry that knowledge and those values to other, later projects.

In the same way, Wedge says connections and relationships drive the firm’s growth and projects abroad, despite the decision to have a single Boston headquarters.

“There’s a lot of benefit from being all together,” Wedge said. As for the global nature of the design business, she said SBRA tends not to go out to conquer a geographical market—instead their relationships with clients lead them to new territory, including current projects in Ireland, Canada and Chile.

A combination of videoconferencing and strategic alliances make the long distance projects work without satellite offices. Still, she understands the need for across-the-table meetings, given the trust level needed on substantial international work.

“It’s a combination of being adventurous and careful,” Wedge said. “But you do reach a point where you just need to go to dinner.”

“All creative firms are our competition,” she said, choosing not to name specific firms when ask which firms she considers contenders.

“Architecture is a service industry affected by the economy,” Wedge said. “This is the third recession I’ve seen as a professional—I think the difference is that now it’s more global.”

But starting around the turn of the millennium, there’s been more of a public emphasis on design. Expectations are that products and buildings will look and perform well, and delight the eye. Her generation and those following are much more visually oriented.

In the next five years, she sees a “course correction” in the industry along with growth and real change in how architects develop and implement ideas.
“I think we’re going to see more use of technology to simulate new environments before they’re built,” she said, mentioning her brother-in-law’s work in computer simulations.

“The worlds he creates get me very excited about what we can do in design,” she said. “I think we’re just steps away from letting technology transform the way we work.”

And as for advice to other women in a field that has lagged behind other professions in adding women, Wedge says her generation has been lucky.

“As a child of the ‘70s, I always felt as though I could do anything I wanted to,” she said. “Whereas perhaps my mother’s generation could not.”

She believes the profession is on its way not only to gender diversity, but also toward greater cultural inclusion, pointing to the 31 nationalities represented by the SBRA staff. “If the mentor looks a little more like you, that’s always reassuring.”

At 44, Wedge is the mother of two daughters, ages 7 and 13, and wed to another architect. Along with the privilege of the “I can do anything” generation was the charge that they design the much-heralded “balance” of career and family.
The first fallacy (that also extends to architecture) is imagining that once you design a plan, it will work forever. “There’s always readjusting and calibration,” she said.

—Lisa Ashmore