Sequoyah Hunter-Cuyjet, Vice President of Determined by Design, describes the impact that design equity standards can have on marginalized communities. Working with their development partner, Dantes Partner, Sequoyah and her team tackled two large affordable housing projects in Washington DC. Intent on serving the communities that will call these buildings home, the team drew from history and a strong sense of equity to create spaces filled with awe and wonderment for the residents.
Once Upon a Project is a member of the SURROUND podcast network. Check out more architecture and design shows at surroundpodcasts.com.
AJ Paron: [00:00:00] Welcome to Once Upon a Project from the SURROUND Podcast Network. I’m your host AJ Paron, Design Futurist and Executive Vice President at SANDOW Design Group.
If I asked you to picture affordable housing, what would you see? I’m guessing the picture in your head is not great. I bet it wouldn’t be a place you’d wanna live, or where you’d prefer to raise your family.
The term “affordable housing” through the years has become synonymous with places that are run down, full of drab finishes, and hard materials. Our guest today is Sequoyah Hunter-Cuyjet. I was introduced to her at a design conference focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and she absolutely blew my mind.
This woman is a force, and she made me realize maybe we’ve been designing affordable housing all wrong.
Sequoyah Hunter-Cuyjet: My name is Sequoyah Hunter-Cuyjet, and I’m the Vice President of Determined by Design.
Determined by [00:01:00] Design was founded in 2012. We are a full-service interior design firm working in affordable housing. Sometimes we don’t even say affordable housing, we just say housing, right, because we are really wanting to-to blur the lines of what is affordable housing supposed to look like.
AJ Paron: There is no universal definition of affordable housing, but for most communities it means housing that is subsidized for tenants with lower incomes that couldn’t otherwise afford to live in the area. And this is a really important topic right now.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, renters across the US have seen the average rent increase by 18% over the last five years. That’s seriously outpacing inflation. Renters tend to skew towards the lower ends of the economic scale. Because of this country’s history and lack of access to generational wealth, minority [00:02:00] communities tend to be renters and most affected by this inflation.
Sequoyah’s heritage brings her a unique angle of how they approach the design process for projects, but I’ll let her tell you more about her story.
Sequoyah Hunter-Cuyjet: I was born and raised on the Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton, New York. And everyone goes, “Ah, I didn’t know there is a reservation in New York.” There’s tons.
Native people, first native people, indigenous populations and nations here in the US are-are such a small percentage, and they’re often overlooked. And so being able to make the statement of acknowledging, the history that was—that existed—on a specific site, it’s really important because still, to this day, I have people sort of take a step back and be like, “Oh, I thought all the-all the Indians were dead.” Right? That’s still, that’s still a reaction in 2022, [00:03:00] 2023, that I get that there’s this idea that we don’t exist, and we do. We’re alive. We’re very present, but we are still the minority of the minorities.
So, even with the team, who is Black and Brown, and some of our African American team members, you know, have indigenous ancestry, that learning about the various tribes—I think right now there’s like over 600 tribal nations that are federally recognized versus nations that are still state recognized—it’s important for them to sort of learn about that.
Our team is primarily Black and Brown, right? We’re, we’re a Black woman-owned interior design firm. We’re indigenous led, and it’s so critical for us to present ourselves to communities that look like us, and we are giving them the best options because we always ask, “Would we live there? [00:04:00] Would we want our moms to live there? Would we want our aunties to live there? Would we want our nieces and nephews to grow up in this building?” And that’s what really motivates us, right?
And-and the-the unearthing the histories that are in these different communities that we’re serving. And we’ve got projects from Boston, down to Miami, to Chicago, to the Carolinas. Looking into those histories and being able to gain that knowledge, tell that knowledge, tell those stories that are so often lost, these are all things that make myself and my team so passionate about what we do, ‘cause we look like the communities that we’re serving.
AJ Paron: What I find fascinating Sequoyah and the other leaders have structured their business in the most equitable way possible. That mentality and value system extends to their designs by [00:05:00] incorporating a design equity standard.
Sequoyah Hunter-Cuyjet: A design equity standard is the act of advocating for the best design outcome despite any social-economical barriers to the community that we’re serving.
So, let’s go to flooring. An inequitable design standard would be to have the same flooring in the units and in the corridors. There’s no design intent there. Every design should be thought about, and there should be an intent and a purpose for placement.
When it comes to furnishings, we find that inequitable design provides hard furniture, [00:06:00] and it’s intended to be hard, so it’s not damaged. It becomes similar to furnishings that are put in detention centers, in jails.
And these are things that start to have a-a visceral reaction for the residents. Those healthier materials are more expensive. The ones that are not expensive, do you know what they look like? They look like VCT. And VCT is one of the original materials that has been used in affordable housing that really disserved communities, primarily communities of color.
And those, those same materials—the VCT, the uh, concrete block, the accent colors of blues—again, are the same materials that you will see in public schools and juvenile detention centers, and then prisons. [00:07:00] And so there’s a design that’s in there that emphasizes that school to prison pipeline. And so that’s where we strive to do better.
AJ Paron: So, let’s hear how those fundamental design philosophies translate into actual projects.
Sequoyah Hunter-Cuyjet: So, today I wanna start out talking about one project, and then we’re gonna lead into another project.
Before Determined by Design grew exponentially, our founder, Kia Weatherspoon, was working on a project called Capital Vista. It’s an affordable housing project in Capitol Hill area of Washington DC. It’s a project that actually has terraced view of the Capitol. It’s about 10 blocks away.
It is one of the first affordable housing projects that is in the Capitol Hill area of Washington DC.
It was a project that was really a labor of love but was a behemoth of a project for one [00:08:00] designer to design, manage, implement, and, you know, do all the furnishings.
I got introduced to this project when we were in FF&E, and we were doing a furniture install.
Now, getting to the finish line of any project is always exhausting, and this one was the same. But what was so amazing, and what really made me truly believe in the level of impact that Determined by Design was making, was when we actually got to meet the residents who, you know, were just in awe and said, “I mean, I-I live here, right? Like I get to live here?” And it’s like, “Yes, absolutely. You get to live in this-this beautiful building that looks like a hotel—looks like better than a lot of hotels.”
So, overall Capital Vista was a really successful project. It’s won several [00:09:00] awards now, for multifamily, for beyond hospitality.
But when we took a step back and critiqued ourselves about what that process was like for a designer, some of the failures in the design outcome that was just due to designer fatigue and exhaustion. We realized we had to do things a little differently, and not in a traditional format of designer, junior designer, project manager, but like how could we really rethink the way in which we can provide fun for our design team and, like, the best possible design outcome? Because again, there were a lot of small things that sort of added up to big things that said to us, something’s not working here.
AJ Paron: Okay. This is where I get really excited because I’ve been saying for years [00:10:00] someone needs to come up with a way to revolutionize the design process. Firms are typically built on a hierarchical structure based on ranks and experience.
So, what could a new model really look like?
Sequoyah Hunter-Cuyjet: We decided every project deserves a full project design team.
So, instead of one designer designing a project in full, we decided to put three designers on a project, of equal standing, and they would all design different sections of the building, different square footage, which, okay, this is a little weird. And a lot of times, a traditional structure, a junior designer will get sort of bathrooms, or offices, and this, we tried to level out the hierarchy.
So, when we were designing [00:11:00] before, a single designer would be responsible for designing their entire project, really on their own. Get all their samples, you know, prepare all the presentations, and in our new system of the three designers for every project, they actually have to prepare their own section of the presentation. They have their own sections of historic research, of pulling imagery, of pulling color stories, and creating material palettes. Each one is tasked with a separate, independent piece of the puzzle, and then they have to put it all together.
We even, sort of, like push this even further where all three will always be on every correspondence. This also allows if one designer is gonna go on vacation for a week, there’s two other designers that the architect has spoken to as the development partner, knows by name and face.
[00:12:00] During the design development phase, designer two, they actually take the lead in the communication. And then during construction documentation and construction administration, designer three takes a lead of communication.
And this also allows for every designer who is on a project, they don’t always play the same role, so they’re learning as they’re working, as they’re designing. And this also allows us to then put a designer with entry level experience in a role where they can design a lobby for the first time all on their own. I mean, not exactly on their own. They do some check-ins. We make sure that they have everything up to code, and ADA compliant, but they’re able to have a chance to shine and-and have a voice.
And then they might be paired with a designer that might have seven years of experience, and that designer with seven years of experience is not the project [00:13:00] manager. They don’t get to boss the other two designers around, and they’re of equal standing, so it allows for younger designers to have a voice. It allows for designers, who sometimes get pigeonholed—when you get to a certain point in your career, you’re either a senior designer or you’re a project manager—and this is how you can like still design, but then still use your skillset.
And then it actually lessened that design fatigue and exhaustion, because you are only in—designers are very much control freaks. We all know this. I’m willing to admit it—But they can only control a small portion. And then they had to, like, give it up and let somebody else say, “Oh, I like this idea that you played with, so I’m gonna use it over here.” So, it pushed the creativity.
AJ Paron: One of the largest issues we have in the design industry is [00:14:00] designer burnout.
What contributes to that? Stress that everything is riding on your shoulders, working insane hours to hit a deadline, or doing the same work over and over again?
Designers are naturally curious. They want new challenges and new opportunities. That is the exciting part of design. Not being pigeonholed into a specific design area because you did well on the last project. Many times, you just wanna move onto something different.
So, after this epiphany of how they needed to design differently, what happened on the next project the firm had under their belt?
Sequoyah Hunter-Cuyjet: Probably six months, nine months after wrapping a final furniture install for Capital Vista, the same development partner—Dantes Partners—asked for us to engage in another project called Parcel 42.
Now, this also was another behemoth of a project that was going to be in the Shaw area of Washington DC, and it was-it’s a total of [00:15:00] 110 affordable housing units. And it’s a mix of one bedrooms and studios with ground floor retail space. So, really exciting for this community to have such a project.
Now, the project schedule for this was that we were going to be in a permit stage in six months, which is really unheard of. Everybody was like, “Oh my goodness, like, how are we gonna get there?”
So, we have our first sematic design presentation.
The synergy in the room is just really, really incredible. Everyone’s laughing and smiling. It’s one of those types of meetings where everybody is just wanting to push the envelope further, and everybody’s flying high on a schematic design presentation. And then there’s the reality that kicks in, right?
So, here then we’ve gotta take all of these, like, amazing and crazy ideas because I mean, we’re talking about, you know, mailrooms as like [00:16:00] community space, and everybody’s got to get their mail, let’s make sure there’s like soft seating around the mailroom ‘cause this is a social space. This might be the only time you might meet a neighbor in your building.
Let’s have this massive, like, beautiful, co-working lounge space as, like, the lobby in the reception area. We’re just saying we want it all, and they’re like, “Yes.” And now we have to do it.
So, as we enter into a very abbreviated design development process, the team is just, you know, their nose is-is to the grind, and they are just exploring all sorts of things.
Now, once we get to a design development phase, our final deliverable of a presentation includes every finish and every rendering is fully rendered with that finish. Again, it’s a very lengthy presentation.
Now, we technically have a little office space in DC. We’re a hundred percent remote as a design team, [00:17:00] and we’re in about seven different states, and everybody flies in for meetings. And we’ve all convened at the Moxy, but this time we decide we wanna employ a level of hospitality of saying, “Come to our space. Let’s do this at our space.”
Our office is a little small, so we’re, like, there only can be like 10 people. That’s it. We’re gonna max out. And I’m, like, picking up pastries and, like, coffee and stuff and sandwiches, right? I’m like, “Oh, this is gonna be great.” And they’re just setting up their finishes.
My phone starts ringing, and there’s a massive outage with Comcast and the southeast section of DC, and we have no, we have no internet. We have no internet. Like, what are we gonna do?
Like we-we try to get a conference room at the Moxy. They’re booked the entire day for a totally different event. So, one of the designers is like, “I can use my hotspot. We can do [00:18:00] this.” You know, we’re-we’re trying, people are still trying to export, like, presentations from InDesign to PDF.
We’re trying to find like external hard drives. Nobody seems to have a thumb drive anymore because, like, that’s not a thing that people use or carry. And I have like an emergency pouch of stuff—like I’m always forever with like a little level, 10-foot tape measure. I have a tiny scale. I have like—
I always come prepared.
I got a bunch of jacks for things and computers and, so, I get to the office, they’re panicked. They’re trying not to get irritated with each other, right. Understandable. Very human. And we say, “It’s okay. We’re gonna-we’re gonna get through this.”
And there we are, and people start rolling in, and they’re still trying to figure out how to get the technology to work in all of this.
Everyone trickles in. They’re late. We have sandwiches. We’re trying to be the hostess with the mostest being like, “Oh, well these are the type of sandwiches,” and, “Let’s get you a sandwich, and here’s a drink.” And we’re [00:19:00] just biding time because we’re just, like, “Well, there’s an outage. And so just make yourself comfortable.”
So, finally the President of Dantes Partner comes in, and, you know, we also have more than 10 people, so some of us are standing, some of us are sitting, and everyone’s huddled at this table, and the team has all of the finishes out. It looks fantastic. The presentation looks fantastic, and they just deliver it slide after slide.
I mean, and they’re showing, sort of, these amazing light fixtures. You know, the entire color palette is black and brass, and black marbles, and white, and it’s this beautiful, like, design. And they have this shimmer screen—two story shimmer screen element—everyone’s like, “Yes, yes, yes. We love this. We want this. This looks so [00:20:00] cool.”
We get to the unit finishes, and then Buwa from Dantes Partners all of a sudden says, “Hey, like, why do we have to have these white cabinets in the units?”
And I was, “Oh, well, I mean, we could be whatever you want.”
And one of the designers said, “I mean, they could be glossy black.”
And he was like, “I love that. Let’s do that.”
Now, the excitement with the design team, and they were like, “We’re gonna do, like, glossy black cabinets in units, in an apartment, in an affordable housing project?” Mind blown, right? Just drop the mic here because there is no, there is no other project that has this in their units. So, they’re thrilled. Everybody’s thrilled.
Again, the presentations are always fantastic, and everybody leaves really excited about what’s going to happen next. Except for me sometimes ‘cause I’m terrified because- [00:21:00] because we have, basically, three weeks to then document this entire project. And it’s a lot of documentation to do in terms of the design details, making sure this project is, sort of, getting designed, documented, priced all at the same time. Like we have never worked on a project with such a tight timeline, and everyone is just, sort of, like hustling, hustling, hustling, hustling.
So, we have this, you know, we finished this design presentation in December. There’s a small break for the-for the holidays, and then, we come back and, basically, like we pump out a- a documentation set for permit three weeks later, in January.
And then, all of a sudden, we’re at a groundbreaking ceremony for the project. And, you know, then just time speeds up, and now we are in construction. The building is slated to finish in [00:22:00] September of 2023, and the team couldn’t be more excited about what is happening, and they are in the throes of construction administration, which is probably the most stressful part of any project.
There’s this great graphic that’s been going around. There’s like a bunch of Spider-Men, and they’re all pointing their fingers, and it’s saying, you know, “Architect to coordinate with engineer; engineer to coordinate, uh, with architect; architect to coordinate with interiors,” and everyone’s, sort of, pointing to coordinate with him, which is, sort of, where we are in this project.
And for this particular project, we are so fortunate that the lighting, the materials, nothing has been value engineered out of this project, which is huge. It’s huge. It’s a strategy that we have been pretty successful at, and which a lot of projects, there’s a written spec for an item, and we provide, like, true [00:23:00] specs early on because we know it’s so important, especially in the work that we’re doing that this pricing gets held, and there needs to be a real thing that is tagged to that.
AJ Paron: Again, here is another area where Sequoyah blows my mind.
Value engineering, or finding less expensive, typically, less cool options, seems to be the norm for every design project, and expected for an affordable housing project. But because the interiors team has a seat at the table from the beginning, where they can make sure that high design standards are carved out as a part of the budget, that’s what keeps the design intent whole.
And who really wins here? It’s the community that ends up with the equitable design.
Sequoyah Hunter-Cuyjet: Luckily, this particular development partner, Dantes Partners, their President and Founder is very much a visionary. So, he is always interested in, like, what’s exciting, and what’s gonna be really different. And [00:24:00] because of the success of Capital Vista, we’ve really been able to gain a level of trust.
Let me backtrack on that for a second, because I keep saying development partner.
So, we don’t have clients. Clients are people that you serve. They’re the people that, you know, you are at their beck and call. We don’t. We have partners, and we are in partnership to the community that we serve.
So, we refer to the architects on the job as our architectural partners, and we refer to the developer as our development partner. And we’re very intentional about that language because we will always advocate for an elevated design experience for that community that we’re serving. It’s not for the development partner. It’s certainly not for our architectural partners, who we often give headaches to, uh, because they are not always aligned with what we’re, what we’re doing.
That aligns with this [00:25:00] idea we design from a concept, and that concept is the words of intention for that particular community.
So, with every project, we start out with a concept. And for us, a concept is not a partee, it’s not a style or a period of design. It is a, it’s like a prayer or words of intention that we are providing for the community that we’re serving.
AJ Paron: And this is where we go back to Sequoyah heritage. In order to design for the future, we must understand the past.
This very important step of the process is almost always overlooked. I sit on the local community board that is supporting the redevelopment of land from a decommissioned coal plant on the St. Croix River.
When we reviewed the history of the land, nobody—and I mean nobody—from the government officials to the developer [00:26:00] to the community brought up the indigenous people that lived on the site prior to 1870. It was all but ignored until, of course, we pushed to recognize it.
So, how do you even start to incorporate such history into a project in a productive way?
Sequoyah Hunter-Cuyjet: It takes a lot of research.
The design team will do historic research, and they’ll start with the land. Then go to the site, then go to, you know, the city, and then the neighborhood, and the community.
And we start with the land because we start out with the indigenous story. And because indigenous people, sort of didn’t, believe in the possession of the land—they were stewards of the land—they were not owners.
Once we sort of elevate to the site, that’s when we’re talking about the owners of the land. The team put together an amazing story for Parcel 42, which was marks of a triumphant [00:27:00] crest, and that is based on the history of-of DC and the Shaw area, of the original, like, Black Broadway. And it’s honoring and bringing back the legacy of that history and making sure that there’s not a erasure to it. And that this building itself was going to be this mark of a triumphant crest, of providing equitable housing to a community that was getting out-priced from their neighborhood, and a community that really continued to live and patronize their own neighborhood.
It’s quite fascinating for the community members to even understand, like, who were the first settlers, you know, and what that interaction was, right? And this is, sort of, neighborhoods that hold names that most people don’t even realize the names of their neighborhoods are [00:28:00] from the 1600s or the 1700s before the, you know, the United States was even formed.
We all inherit history as good, bad, and ugly—and a lot of it is ugly—but it’s so important that we take that inheritance, and we continue to own that. To push us forward so that we don’t repeat.
AJ Paron: Mark of a triumphant crest. That intention has weight and importance. And if you are in that community that holds this intention, I can imagine it has the potential to make you feel seen and grounded as you move forward in this new iteration of the space.
I asked Sequoyah to share the results they see after our project is complete. How did the residents, the new stewards of the intention, react to their new space?
Sequoyah Hunter-Cuyjet: The outcomes that we’re always striving for for our projects are for the residents to live in a space of awe and wonderment [00:29:00] and reflection.
Capital Vista has an extraordinary collection of art that is by local and BIPOC artist that represent Black and Brown bodies in a positive light, that expressed joy.
And so, we think about sort of our elders who are living in the building, and we think about the children growing up in a building, and for them to see themselves, and for them to experience a level of materiality, really, changes their life. That cultivation changes their life.
I know that most of our designers when they’ve gone on-site, and they’ve actually met residents, they’re expressions like, “This is for us? You guys are here, you’re doing this for us? Oh, this, these are so beautiful.” And there is the sheer surprise [00:30:00] that anyone would consider more than, you know, a card table and like metal stackable chairs. That’s really an affirmation, right? It’s those small interactions that constantly, like, say, “Yes, this means something to them.”
AJ Paron: Standard practice that has been the norm in designing for affordable housing is that anything nice in the space will get stolen or vandalized.
So, it’s acceptable for durability to be the most important factor in design, like you would design a prison. But this is not a prison. It’s people’s homes, the place of refuge and restoration that every human being needs. It should be a place of awe and wonderment.
Sequoyah Hunter-Cuyjet: We don’t glue down the accessories. We don’t have a problem with the theft. We-we-we provide [00:31:00] these beautiful spaces that people are simply proud of, that they protect it. There’s a level of community policing that, you know, that they don’t want their space to be ruined, that they take pride in it.
So, when you go back, months later, year later, and you-you see that like no one’s taken a knife and, like, ripped up the sofas, which is always a thing that somebody says, right? You know, “What if somebody takes a knife to this, or whether, what-what if the teenagers like, you know, just run sharpies on the walls?” Like, when you realize nobody’s done that, right, and you didn’t back down. You didn’t back down and say, “Oh, well I guess we won’t do this. I guess that might be too nice,” and you realize that none of that has happened, again, you know that you’re on the right path.
AJ Paron: How do we not fall in love with Sequoyah Hunter-Cuyjet?
Everything she says seems intuitive, like common sense. But those of us in the design community know how rare this design thinking is, and that makes [00:32:00] Sequoyah and her team a precious gem.
I asked Sequoyah: what advice does she have for the other designers out there?
Sequoyah Hunter-Cuyjet: A word of advice, and a challenge for the design community, is don’t design pretty. Meaning that designing pretty and designing fantasy is great, and it’s fun, but we always have to design for real people. People matter. Wallcovering doesn’t. It’s great, it’s fun, but people matter.
AJ Paron: To hear more stories about the design process behind some of the most amazing projects and some really cool designers, make sure you follow us wherever you get your podcasts. Once Upon a Project is a part of the SURROUND Podcast Network.
You can find our show notes and full transcripts on our page at surroundpodcasts.com. That’s podcasts with an “s”. [00:33:00]
There, you can also contact us. If you or someone you know has a great project to share on this podcast, just go to surroundpodcasts.com and head over to the Once Upon a Project page to submit your ideas. I really wanna hear them.
A huge thank you to Vornado for letting us use their incredible podcast studio in the brand-new PENN 1 building in Manhattan.
This show is produced by The Studio at SANDOW Design Group. Huge thank you to the pod squad that makes me sound amazing—Samantha Sager, Wize Grazette, Hannah Viti, and Brittany Lloyd.