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Volunteer Profile: Amanda Bonelli, Architect

Meet Amanda, architect at Bright Common and one of the Collobarative's volunteers. Through her work with the Collaborative, Amanda was able to step out of her comfort zone, growing her expertise and network by serving on cross industry teams. 

We spent time with Amanda to talk about her passion for Philadelphia, the presence of women-indentified persons in the AEC/design community and her burgeoning love of Fairmount Park. 

How did you become a Collaborative Volunteer? 

I knew colleagues who had volunteered at the Collab for a while. Before becoming a volunteer, I attended a few Design Reviews, and was excited by the services being provided and who they were providing them too. My professional work had been predominantly residential work, and I appreciated how the Collaborative allowed you to engage with different project types outside of one’s expertise. For me it was about expanding outside of my comfort zone and growing my expertise.  

For Bright Common, I think we were at a point where we had grown the office. New people were coming in who had worked with the Collab before, and we were at a capacity where we could all volunteer some of our time. We’ve also been able to stay connected with folks we’ve been on design teams with and are working together professionally outside of the Collaborative.   

We want to keep finding time for volunteering.  

What has been most surprising, rewarding, or fun about your Collaborative experience? 

The most rewarding was meeting and working with the Tabernacle Evangelical Lutheran Church (TELC) in Cobbs Creek, the project I volunteered on. When I think about Philly and the history of the city and what makes it such a wonderful place to live in now; I think of organizations like TELC. They’ve been in their community, on the same lot for 113 years, since 1908. Those organizations are the one’s that the Collaborative gives the opportunity to. And we need more of that, intermediary organizations who bridge community organizations to service providers, fostering and creating connections.  

Most surprising was meeting the folks who made up the design team. It was the first time I had worked with a development consultant, a historic preservationist, or a cost estimator. There were a number of engineers that we’ve (Bright Common) continue to work with, who we met through the Collaborative. It’s been a combination of working with wonderful community orgs and fostering professional relationships; as well as working with and getting to meet Heidi Segall Levy.  

I didn’t expect the ongoing education I would receive as a volunteer, and the has been great. 

Why is design an important part of revitalizing communities? 

When I think about design, everything is design, and everyone experiences design every day. Be it a utensil, a car, or a city; it’s something that is experienced by everyone. Good design should be part of shaping something or engages people around something they have in common. A building, a neighborhood, or a park, whatever it is, it causes us to speak to each other, to reconsider an idea that makes us think differently, or bigger than we could imagine initially.  

Design always feels limitless and exciting, and it’s a communal activity that allows us to open up, share, and here other’s thoughts and ideas. The Collaborative makes that really easy to do. The process makes all feel involved, safe, and comfortable in expressing oneself. Bright Common has been influenced by the Collaborative’s community engagement process. I came out of school with an idea of how community engagement should go. I think the Collaborative has been a great teacher in how to do that well, and the folks who made up our TELC design team were also great teachers in sharing methods for an open community engagement process. 

There has been a consistent call for more equitable practices within the design profession and how the AEC industry engages with the communities served in recent years. What role/impact has equity played in your personal practice, the profession as you see it, and the goals and/or mission/purpose of Bright Common? 

I’m very grateful to be working at a studio whose work is mostly based in Philly and most of the work is within walking distance of where we practice. It’s really rare, and it makes us design buildings that we walk past for years and still need to be happy about. It’s not just about how the building looks on the outside. 

We have projects that make use of existing structures contained with wonderful things inside. A headquarters for community org, or play-based space for community kids; those programs that are housed in buildings that look a certain way already are not always about capital ‘A’-Architecture. What about everything else? What’s inside the walls, are those materials healthy for the people inside the building who spend most of their day there? Are the building systems resilient in the times we’re facing, changing weather patterns? Who is in the building?  

Bright Common is always been looking at and trying to answer those questions. When we do that, yes we happen to make interesting looking buildings, but all those other things are jsut as significant as the outer to us. The AEC industry needs to do better at making a practice of hiring designers or creating designs that are accessible to all. It shouldn’t be a luxury industry, as it’s considered now. Working in Philly, where the past two years, there’s been all these major social issues that have come to the surface and needed to surface for so long, has to impact our practice. We must do our best to listen to those talking about and sharing their experiences within these disparities and lending our trade as support and service.  

It makes me hopeful and excited to know these questions are facing our industry. It’s a signal of change to come, of demystifying the process. A practice for me, when engaging with others around design and the process, is ditching the architecture jargon, and speaking as though I’m explaining it to my parents. We should be sharing as much as we can in a way that all can understand and digest, so all feel welcome and included in the process.   

What advice, if any, would you offer to women-identified persons considering a career in in the design/AEC industry? 

In any career, the sooner you learn to advocate for yourself, you inherently learn to advocate for others. I’ve had trouble with this. I held the mentality of letting your work speak for you. While that’s important, I’m reminded more and more to be an advocate beyond myself, and in doing so, break that mindset. It’s something that I work on everyday.  

The American AEC industry has been a male dominated industry forever. For any non male-identified person considering the field, GET IN. Break the trend. Architecture has many strong women already, but we need more! Come.  

What impact do you feel women have had on the design/AEC industry and what gap is still to be filled? Do you think they’ve had an overall impact that can be measured currently, or is that impact to be seen? 

Construction Trade, Developers in the city, most Architects are still predominately men currently. Women haven’t quite filled that gap yet. There’s a lot of projects in Philly that are requiring involvement of WBEs (Women Business Enterprises) and MBEs (Minority Business Enterprises) in development. I think that’s a great step. In 20 years, hopefully the AEC industry is diversified to the point that projects are inherently made up of these WBEs and MBEs. There’s a lot of work and infrastructure needed to get there, but it’s so important that we acknowledge these groups and make sure they are included in the decision making, planning, and design process. 

There’s so much opportunity for things to get better. It needs to get better! The AEC industry has been stuck, but there are colleagues in Philly and other cities having these important conversations. And hopefully we’re creating the momentum for this necessary and needed shift. We have to make it easier, more accessible for all folks to join this industry. 

We are currently living through climate change and the ripple effects of both not responding soon enough and planning for worsening conditions due to a global delayed reaction. Bright Common incorporates science, innovation, and fossil-fuel divestment as a part of its process. Can you tell us more about how that decision came to be, what impact that has had on your firm's projects, and what influence you hope to have on the design profession moving forward? 

Bright Common started 10 years ago with very small projects. That meant we were able to implement science, innovation, and fossil-fuel divestment because we found clients who were like-minded and smaller projects are easier to control. As we’ve grown, bit by bit, we’re learning to scale up that approach, and what we need to develop more, based on what we’ve learned. Focusing on what we’ve learned; we continue to read, talk with people, and get involved with special projects that are already happening with high performance buildings and construction methods. Those conversations have been happening and continue to happen in Philly and nationally, and we continue to be involved in them as a firm. 

The biggest hope is that those standards become the new normal in the Architecture industry. Our changing climate is definitely our present and will be our future. We all need to respond to it, work it into our practice; learn from each other, ask each other questions, and share resources. It can be difficult, with all of us being busy and siloed in our work, but that’s the testament to the work. If it’s important, the industry will have to change to respond to it.  

Cities across the US need to incentivize higher performance buildings. There will always be ways to build cheaper, but it will continue to push the problem forward. Hopefully, an incentive will kickstart that shift. But there are folks who have championed these new ways of working and building, and I hope  that we influence others in the industry to move in this direction. Some of these incentives are showing up in Philly, for the past 5-10 years, such as tax credits for raising energy standards. We’re seeing it already, but what more can we make happen? 

What do you love most about Philadelphia? 
Most recently, the extensive Park system, particularly Fairmount Park. It’s easy to get to, it’s a release from the bustle of the city. I forget when I’m in Fairmont Park, I’m a bus ride away from downtown. It’s magical like that. A respite from my apartment and work, in the past year of remote working. It’s also pretty neat that you can dip into the woods and pop out and get a cheesesteak.  

With the world opening up again, the past year in a half has made me very grateful to have the park system as an outlet. I’m grateful that the city’s founders had the foresight to consider the parks as important resources and our city’s current stewards for maintaining and protecting them.  



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