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Husband-wife team is a ‘couple’ of architects

  • Written by Wiley Henry

robinsons 600The number of licensed African-American architects working in Tennessee – and across the United States for that matter – is a mere pittance compared to the overall percentage of architects working for themselves or for architectural firms.

Count the husband and wife team of Michael and Carolyn Robinson among those who are fortunate to work in a field that may indeed be considered by some as an exclusive membership club. This wasn't a factor for the Robinsons when they launched Robi4 Design and Planning, Inc. in 1999.

Consider the numbers: There were 105,596 registered (licensed) architects in the U.S., according a 2012 survey of U.S. architectural registration boards by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). Of that number, 1,558 (or 1.5 percent) were African American, according to Dennis Alan Mann's Center for the Study of Practice at the University of Cincinnati.

Robi4.home.001Michael D. Robinson received his license in 2012, making him one of approximately 21 licensed African-American architects in Tennessee. He promptly changed the firm's name to Robi4 Architecture and Planning, Inc. to reflect his legitimacy as an architect.
The inspiration to pursue a career in architecture welled up in Robinson in middle school in Fort Valley, Ga., in the mid-1970s.

"I read a story about McKissack & McKissack in Black Enterprise magazine that my aunt used to subscribe to. She was a student at Fort Valley State University," he recalls. "I would visit the library and noticed a bronze plaque on the ground floor while riding the elevator."

The name McKissack & McKissack stood out on the plaque as the architects who designed the university's Henry Alexander Hunt Memorial Library. When Robinson thought about the magazine article and read the inscription on the plaque, he knew then that he was destined to become an architect.

Carolyn D. Robinson also was smitten in the 1970s with the desire to become an architect. While walking past a construction site on her way home from elementary school in South Memphis, she would observe an apartment building under construction.

"I watched the construction from the ground up," she said.

In middle school, Robinson won honorable mention in a competition after submitting two houses she'd built for a science fair project based solely on the apartment building she'd observed under construction. One house was built using standard construction material; the other, with passive and solar design elements.

During the summer of 1980, Robinson landed an architectural job at Jones & Mah Architects just months before her freshman year in college. She said the principals, Walk Jones and Francis Mah, mentored her and inspired her to pursue a career in architecture.

"They personally introduced me to all the areas of architecture," she said, seizing the opportunity to extract invaluable knowledge from the firm's engineers, interior designers, architects and those in the marketing department.

Forging similar paths...

After receiving a scholarship, the former Carolyn Tribble would cross paths with her soon-to-be-husband at Tennessee State University in Nashville, while they were pursuing architectural engineering degrees. Their friendship was evident during study sessions, she said, and developed more after collaborating on several in-school projects and private projects as well.

"During our first year in college, Michael and I were asked to design a house for a couple. It was the first real project – and we got paid for it," she said.

In June of 1987, Carolyn and Michael were married. Two years later, Michael took an internship at McKissack & McKissack and Thompson Architects and Engineers in Nashville, the same firm – with a new partner – that he'd drawn inspiration from in his youth.

The priceless experience at MM&T led to an opportunity to work on drawings to convert the Lorraine Motel into the National Civil Rights Museum. The opportunity would lure Michael and Carolyn to Memphis, where they began working at MM&T's Memphis office.

"We did most of the drawings in Nashville," Michael pointed out. "When we relocated to Memphis, they were doing construction administration, the construction part of the job."

In 1999, the Robinsons stepped out on faith, trusting they'd succeed with divine intervention. They'd worked for various architectural firms and on myriad projects and decided to give self-employment a chance.

"We had given so much time and energy to other architectural firms," said Carolyn. "We figured since we'd worked hard for others, we would work hard for ourselves."

Robi4 Architecture and Planning, Inc. is a certified women-owned business. Carolyn is the majority owner and chief executive officer handling the day-to-day operation.

Michael is the firm's architect. He is a proud member of The American Institute of Architects (AIA), a nationwide network of more than 81,000 architects.

The firm provides full architectural services to a public, private and corporate clientele in the state of Tennessee that includes, but not limited to, hospitals, hotels, national historic places, museums, elected officials and professional athletes.

Some of the services include the following: architecture, master planning, site planning, space planning, adaptive re-use, renovations, additions, project management, construction contract administration, cost estimation, scheduling, bidding support, quality control, owner representation, field observations, facility operation, and more.

"We want to be known for our good work and making a difference," said Carolyn, who shares parenting responsibilities with Michael. They have two children in college, one studying in Paris on a fellowship.

Path to licensure...

Making a difference is what the Robinsons initially set out to do at the onset of their careers. They are succeeding against the odds, but don't find comfort in knowing that African Americans have not been able to close the gap as licensed architects.

"They can't pass the state board. So they give up. That's why the numbers are so low," said Michael, calling the examination "intense" and "comprehensive."

Applicants pursuing their license must pass a total of seven exams called the Architect Registration Examination. It is a competency test developed by The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, which focuses on those services that most affect the public health, safety, and welfare.

Michael had to pass a total of nine exams to get his license. He passed one more because of a change in the exam, he said. Carolyn is considering taking the exam.

According to NCARB, women are making strides in their pursuit of licensure. In 2012, 3,063 applications (39.9 percent of applicants) were by women, an increase of 1.6 percentage points from 2011.

"Each test took two to three hours to complete...to prove you're worthy of being an architect," Michael said. "It's not about drawing pretty pictures, but protecting the public health, safety and welfare on a construction project."

If the applicant fails any part of the exam, he or she can take it over in six months. "You have to pass the whole exam in five years," he said. "If you can't, then you'd have to start another application."

The fee is $210 a test and computerized, he said.

Michael hopes more African Americans are able to fulfill their dreams of becoming architects. "You need the camaraderie...and it's good to have colleagues," he said. "That's how I learned – from others."

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