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Designing for humanity: Black-owned Indianapolis architecture firm aims to build legacy, give back

We're Open Indy — Black History Month: Meticulous Design + Architecture
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Posted at 10:41 PM, Feb 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-26 09:48:22-05

In celebration of Black History Month, We're Open Indy is highlighting Black-owned businesses in the Indianapolis-area. Check out all of the stories at wrtv.com/blackhistorymonth.

INDIANAPOLIS — An architecture and design firm headquartered in Indianapolis is, essentially, history in the making.

Meticulous Design + Architecture — founded by Brian Robinson, Ramon Morrison and Damon Hewlin in 2015 — is collectively behind commercial and residential projects locally, nationally and internationally.

Without much of a framework or a how-to guide, all three of the men have remained resilient and have put in hard work since the 1990s to become the globally-recognized company they are.

"Nothing is just gonna fall in your lap — you have to go get it," Robinson said. "The way opportunity works is that it comes close enough to you that you have to do something to make up the gap. And when you recognize that's how opportunity works, and that's how opportunity looks, then it just gives you a different energy."

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The founding partners of Meticulous Design + Architecture.

Playing the long game

It's no easy feat to break into the architecture and design world. As it stands, it's especially difficult for minorities and people of color to enter and maintain in the field.

Only 2% of the 113,000 licensed architects in the United States are Black, according to US Modernist. And, according to data from the 2017 Census Bureau, 4.84% of designers across all disciplines are Black.

The lack of diversity amongst their architectural peers is an obstacle Robinson and Hewlin have been dealing with since achieving their Bachelor of Architecture from Ball State University.

"I was the only graduate from Ball State's architecture program the year I came out of college. And from there, it's just more of the same as you enter into the profession," Hewlin said.

Hewlin, a New Jersey native, faced countless hurdles in achieving his degree in 1999, which he speaks of extensively in an Instagram video. But he says his character and integrity carried him through.

"I will never give up on my dream, and I will keep pressing forward, no matter what," Hewlin recalled telling himself as he powered through undergrad. "But it was the support of the (Kappa) Brotherhood and those around us, who carried us through the struggles of the things that we faced as minority students in the program, and that is exactly why today, we've cultivated a relationship with Ball State so that other students won't have to go through what we went through. And we're extremely passionate about that."

Robinson, from Gary, was the only architecture graduate from Ball State in the 2000 class. Throughout that experience, he was able to travel all of Europe during his time abroad at the University of Berlin. It was an experience that helped him realize all of the possibilities out in the world.

"That is what kind of planted the seed and opened my mind to different ways of thinking, different cultures, and that experience also showed me that there is ... very little diversity in architecture, in essence, not just in the United States, but worldwide and it does take exposure and it takes a certain level of [resilience]."

Both of the practicing architects believe there is not enough exposure to the design and architectural world in Black communities.

"We have a lot of work to overcome this major failure of enough exposure to cultivate more talent from communities, for people who look like us," Hewlin said.

"For me, my first and only exposure as a kid to who an architect was, was Michael Brady from the Brady Bunch," Hewlin explained. "And in most urban communities, even if you saw an architect, we're not like these 6-foot-8 basketball players where you, you say, 'Oh there's an architect' or whatever. You just don't even know what it is unless you have someone in your family, or in your community that comes and shares with you, and exposes you to the profession."

Morrison explains that architecture intersects with so much in life (which he expands on later in the article). It's a fact that can open more doors for minority communities.

"It's really about how do we expose our people — who look like us from Black and Brown communities, and underserved communities — to know that there's a pathway to do something different," Morrison said.

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Building Legacy

"It's really about legacy," said Morrison, whose core work for the firm is business development and client engagement.

"We're doing work here in Indianapolis, as well as in Abu Dhabi in the UAE," Morrison said. "We think that global exposure is quite unique and quite different, particularly when you talk to folks that may have never lived any place but Indianapolis, may have never gone any place but Indianapolis, and so it's again to help folks see, help folks who look like us, and even our clients understand that there's a broader impact. There's a broader world out there and that influences how we design, and how we exist in the world."

Meticulous' mantra is "Doing work that's meaningful, personal, impactful." For them, that all starts with working in and for the community.

In giving back, the firm as a whole makes sure to go into communities through schools, from elementary to university. They've started programs such as Meticulous Cares and are helping cultivate the next generation of young Black female architects.

"We try to walk our talk with that regard. It's really about how do we knock down the doors and open the door wider for folks to come behind us. And let folks see that ... it's really about the merit of the work that we bring to the table," Morrison said.

Philanthropic work is a big part of the legacy-in-the-making at Meticulous, however, they set the record straight that their firm's skill set and quality is what always brings them to any table and what opens up cross-cultural conversations.

"One thing we will never want is tokenism as a firm," Hewlin said.

"It's a challenge to compete for work and prove that you are capable, and to gain the trust of clients not just on our portfolio," Hewlin continued. "We're having to overcome numerous hurdles, and challenges, especially in the market. But on a national level, there are many successful firms. We actually just were partnering with Moody Nolan, who is the largest African American-owned and managed firm in the country. And they just won the AIA Firm of the year. So we're making strides. However, he has decades on us, whereas we're a six-year-old firm. You have to, stick to it, and not give up, and continue to grind every day."

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Why Indianapolis?

When folks think Hoosier architecture they tend to think of Columbus. The Indiana city that's seen the likes of world-class architects and even has a movie named after it and the modernist buildings that it encapsulates.

For the founding partners of Meticulous, however, it was Indianapolis that had its pull on them.

"When we started our careers here we found fertile ground for upward mobility. And we were pleasantly surprised at the time that the Indianapolis arts culture was much, much greater than the outside persona and perception," Robinson said.

"And what we found is that it presented an opportunity to be able to push the envelope in ways that aren't usually associated with the Midwest because a lot of the architectural masterpieces, for example, are scattered all over the world, all over the country, but they're usually associated with the coasts, or Chicago, which is our big brother just right next door," he continued. "And we just found that the atmosphere here was great to raise families, and it was great to begin a practice."

The collective work from the team at Meticulous has seen no bounds overseas and locally. They have been associated with projects that serve many purposes, such as schools, libraries, parks, and art.

Some of their favorite projects that Meticulous has been associated with, collectively, are the Founder's Memorial in Abu Dhabi, the Martindale-Brightwood Library here in Indianapolis, the Pike YMCA, also in Indy, and the Indianapolis International Airport.

Future projects they're a part of are the new Frederick Douglass Family Rec Center as it celebrates 100 years and the Oak Tree redevelopment on the far east side.

"We seek to leverage our international experience and utilize that to help grow the entire state of Indiana and put Indiana on the map as one of the premier design focus states in the country," Hewlin explained.

The pandemic's potential impact

"We're more than just architects, we are more than just planners and designers who focus on the bricks-and-mortars of society — we seek to reach people at their point of need; to reach people at their heart," Hewlin commented on how the COVID-19 pandemic has further shaped their mission as a firm and the industry as a whole.

According to Meticulous, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a glaring light on the environmental and economic inequities that exist in our current society. This has transformed how folks in the architecture and design world have thought about projects.

For the Meticulous firm, they know how architecture plays a role in housing equity, generational wealth and disparities all too well, and hopes the last year has changed the thinking of firms nation-wide.

"One of the things we try to slip in there for some of our clients, that are so inclined, is considering instead of having rental property, create an opportunity for your actual tenants to have some property ownership, and so there begins a transfer of wealth," Morrison said. "I hope that the pandemic, and the sensitivities that are coming out of the pandemic, keep eliminating those pieces and giving those opportunities."

Hewlin says the pandemic has helped their firm in particular understand the impact the design and architecture world has on an entire community's development.

"We like to believe that we design for humanity," Hewlin said. "We don't just focus on designing for Black communities, or White communities, or affluent communities, or impoverished communities — we seek to solve problems for humanity. So (the pandemic) has allowed us to, as creative problem-solvers, to ask ... if these master plans and communities help to either create these problems or perpetuate them?"

You can learn so much more about Meticulous and keep an eye on their work at meticulousda.com.