Architect Donald King: determined to build

Guest post by Rita Brogan, CEO of PRR

Architect Donald King has received much recognition for his lifetime achievements in his chosen field. He was elected an AIA Fellow in 2000 and, of approximately 2200 AIA Fellows, Mr. King is one of about 50 living African American fellows. His buildings have earned scores of national and local design awards. We see his work through the greater Seattle region—the Urban League at Colman School, the new and green Asian Counseling and Referral Service, transit centers, clinics, schools, libraries, public housing. His career has been satisfying and fulfilling as an architect and as an entrepreneur.

But his journey was not a path well-travelled.

Donald King knew he wanted to be an architect when he was only 12 years old, but “in the 1950’s and 1960’s it was hard to say you wanted to be an architect if you were young, black, working class and poor,” he said. Many people discouraged him from pursuing architecture, including his guidance counselor. “I overcame discouragement because of my stubbornness. Every time I was told I couldn’t be an architect, it would make me want to disprove that person. I was not the best student in high school, and I had to go to community college to get caught up and improve my GPA. Working full time and going to school part time, it took me 11 years from the time I started undergrad to complete college with my masters in architecture at UCLA.”

After moving to Seattle in 1980, it was very difficult for King to find work. Most firms were only interested in having him work on projects in the black community. He eventually obtained a position as principle architect for the non-profit Environmental Works Community Design Center. And it was because of the encouragement of Sea Mar Community Health Centers Executive Director Rogelio Riojas that he ventured forth in 1985 to start Donald King Architects (DKA).

After nearly 27 years, and over 400 projects, King has become known for his strengths as a planner, programmer, and designer, and noted especially for his collaborative design approach. Although primarily focused on community facilities, DKA has weathered several economic downturns by being flexible enough to move back and forth between public and private sector contracts. This last economic downturn has had the greatest impact because activity has slowed in both the public and private sectors, and competition is tighter. “The big firms got hit, and they have started moving into the markets that we have served.” Despite the success of DKA, King believes there is still a “glass ceiling” for black architects.

“Success can be a double-edged sword,” he notes. If you grow, you need to “feed the beast.” He advises minority entrepreneurs to understand that things are going to be a little more challenging than you might think. “You need to be flexible, ready for changes in the economy and market. You can’t rest on your laurels,” he said. “There are a lot of rewards, but you have to love what you do to sustain your commitment.”

Today Donald King is practicing his craft, working on an ownership transition for DKA, and teaching at the University of Hawaii. He is currently working with the university to set up a non-profit Community Design Center in Honolulu which will support community building needs in Hawaii’s low-income neighborhoods. Still not resting on his laurels, still stubborn, still serving the greater good.

Rita Brogan is the CEO of PRR, a public affairs and communications firm based in Seattle, one of Washington’s 50 largest minority-owned businesses. Brogan was a recent recipient of the Foster School’s Business and Economic Development Center Asian/Pacific Islander Business Leadership Award. She writes the BEDC Brogan blog series monthly. Previously, she covered green economy issues with an emphasis on ways that businesses owned by people of color or women can create a competitive advantage. Her current blog topic focus is on innovation.

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