Peter Bafitis of RKTB Architects: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society
Housing is an issue that is critical, even central to the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, so tackling that would be a good first step. Where one lives, and grows up directly impacts one’s life trajectory and range of opportunities. Equality of opportunity in housing goes to the heart of achieving a fair and equitable society, and our inability as a society to make significant strides in this area — even with community and housing integration codified into law — is a stark reminder of how far we have to go.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Peter Bafitis, AIA, managing principal of RKTB Architects.
Peter Bafitis, AIA, managing principal at RKTB since 2004, has over thirty years of experience in the design and construction of a diverse range of projects including multifamily housing, schools, hospitals, transportation projects, adaptive reuse, and large scale urban design work. This experience has been concentrated in the New York metropolitan area but has also included work in Washington, DC and Florida as well as international work in Japan and Nigeria. Mr. Bafitis has focused his career on strengthening the urban environment by reinforcing the social institutions that sustain it. This has centered on neighborhood preservation achieved most prominently through the design and integration of affordable housing, K-12 schools, and transportation facilities. A registered architect in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, he currently serves as co-chairman of the AIA NY Chapter Housing Committee and is also a member of the CFA Foundation Scholarship Committee.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I’m a New York City boy born and raised in Flushing, Queens. Anyone who knows the borough can tell you how diverse the population is. It’s a neighborhood filled with immigrants, people from a lot of different backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures. It may be what I appreciate most about growing up there: being exposed early to people with diverse experiences, all striving and coming to New York to seek opportunity. Queens is fertile ground for this type of striving, and that desire aligned with the ethos of my parents’ generation, who wanted their children to do better, have more opportunity, achieve more than they were able to.
The reality, of course, is that not everyone had equal access to opportunity, but my formative years were shaped by this incredibly diverse neighborhood in which people shared a common desire for generational achievement and advancement.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The non-fiction work Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari comes to mind. The book is a kind of primer on human existence, through our evolution and into the growth of civilization, and gave me, among other things, real insight into the motivations of our species. Sapiens is a well-known and popular book that grapples with big ideas about humanity, a subject that has always intrigued me. It makes a compelling case for what distinguishes the human species from the rest of the animal kingdom: In short, we are the only species that can create and share an agreed-upon fiction.
Things as universal as money or religion are trusts based on shared belief. Animals are basically transactional and cannot begin to grasp an abstracted concept like money or a deity — which in a way makes animals more rational than human beings!
But of course, without these fictions and abstractions there might be no outgrowth of civilization. Human interaction, being based on so many agreed-upon fictions, myths and stories becomes infinitely more mysterious and complex.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
I have many favorites. I often think about John Lennon singing, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” — it occurs to me often when I’m feeling stressed out about work. And Ghandi’s statement that, “Fear is the enemy — we think it is hate, but it is really fear,” often resonates with me as I look at the world and the ways in which conflict inevitably arises even when unexpected. But perhaps the most resonant quotes for me are two that originate with Albert Einstein.
The first of these is, “All that is valuable in human society depends on the opportunity for development accorded the individual.” This is a remarkable statement coming from a theoretical physicist, since it has little to do with physics and everything to do with what people owe to each other, socially, ethically, and morally. This idea that a better society arises from providing each other with “opportunity for development” has influenced my career significantly. It impacts how I think about the spaces and buildings I design — creating an imperative to support and nurture the people using and occupying those environments — and also which spaces and buildings I want to design in the first place.
The other Einstein quote is, “Logic will only get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.” Again, remarkable coming from a man whose career is in science. But of course, it was Einstein whose imagination gave us his theories of relativity, which completely revolutionized multiple fields of study. I think of this quote often, and the lesson it offers about opening your mind and thinking expansively and creatively in any endeavor. In design and architecture, logic alone rarely provides the solution to a problem. Sharing this lesson has become central to my efforts at mentorship — I want young architects to use and develop their imaginations, because this leads to our best work.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership styles vary from person to person and from endeavor to endeavor by necessity. Different situations call for different kinds of leaders. For my part, as a partner in a business, as a design team “captain,” and as a mentor, leadership requires one to provide inspiration, articulate a clear vision or goal, and set good examples to be followed or imitated. But perhaps most importantly, there is an element of nurturing that is essential to good leadership. Like a good parent, you make sure people feel safe and appreciated, and give them the space to succeed — sometimes giving them more responsibility than they feel ready to take on — even if that means a chance of falling down.
I recall one occasion where a young designer accompanied me to give a presentation to a client. We had worked closely together on the content, and at the last minute I said, “Why don’t you do the presentation?” My goal was to show the employee that I valued what he has to offer and that he had my support. Naturally he was nervous but took on the challenge, stammering a bit as he began. I chimed in here and there to add a key point or piece of information, and that helped him to remain steady and become less nervous as it went on. We finished together, strong. It went well, and the young architect had taken an important step in personal growth and career development.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I don’t necessarily have a routine, though if I’m feeling particularly anxious I might listen to music to distract myself or practice focused breathing with deep breaths. But as a matter of practice, I always prepare thoroughly. It’s being prepared that makes the biggest difference, offers me the most confidence in making a decision or giving a presentation. If I feel wobbly or nervous, I can think about my preparation and find a foothold, a place from which to center myself quickly and assuredly.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
As a country each generation makes progress toward true equality, and then we inevitably hit an inflection point like this. The current crossroads seems to be the result of rapidly changing demographics nationwide that are forcing us to reckon with our past history of racism, sexism and violence. I think globalization is making a huge difference, too, and these reckonings are being occasioned in many places around the world.
To focus on the bigger picture, as we begin to move past fossil fuels we are coming closer to achieving a “Type I” civilization as defined by the Kardashev scale measuring technological advancement: A Type I civilization is able to use and store all of the energy available on the planet, including that which falls onto the planet, i.e. solar energy. Approaching this level in our civilization’s growth and evolution is changing our perception of who we are, and it’s at the root of what many complain about. Because energy can be hoarded and traded for profit, there are going to be marginalized people and groups, especially the poor and ethnic minorities who will not enjoy abundance or access. The disproportionate impacts of the climate crisis are creating a global reckoning that parallels our national one.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
We’re very proud that our company is actively pushing those boundaries, working hard to recruit people of all backgrounds. Our various associations with City College of New York (including the Spitzer School of Architecture) has been great for recruiting from an enormously diverse pool of talented emerging professionals. We have also been able through our work with New York City agencies (Housing Authority, School Construction Authority) to offer young people from disadvantaged backgrounds entry-level roles on building and construction projects. The agencies reach out to us to see if we can directly hire kids who might be able to work on a project or in our office for a summer. We do as often as we can, and we find these opportunities to be wildly rewarding.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
We primarily serve the City of New York, and its people. It’s very important that we represent, to the extent possible, the whole of that constituency and its full range of diversity. Think about an affordable housing project, of which we have designed many: When people who live in one of our residences can see that its people who share a part of their experience helped to create that residence, it resonates with them. It makes their unit feel more like a home and makes them feel like they are truly part of a community. There’s a moral synergy to that.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Housing is an issue that is critical, even central to the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, so tackling that would be a good first step. Where one lives, and grows up directly impacts one’s life trajectory and range of opportunities. Equality of opportunity in housing goes to the heart of achieving a fair and equitable society, and our inability as a society to make significant strides in this area — even with community and housing integration codified into law — is a stark reminder of how far we have to go.
That said, laws that address fair housing can do much: the New Jersey laws that followed the famous Mt. Laurel decision of the 1970’s resulted in the state having a better track record in realizing diverse, inclusive communities than even New York City and its immediate suburbs. But perhaps even better than laws are commitments from municipalities (and the developers, planners and designers they work with) to make building equitable, sustainable communities with affordable housing options a major priority.
- Addressing education would be the next step on my list, or perhaps it’s Part B of step one. Because of the way funding for schools is structured around property taxes in most U.S. school districts, addressing housing equity would naturally lead to more achievements in educational parity for disadvantaged or marginalized groups.
Here in New York City we think we are likely to reap significant dividends from investments in Pre-Kindergarten programs, which not only give kids a chance at a leg-up when they start grade school but make it possible for their families to find employment without as much concern about paying for childcare. Nothing puts a young person’s education at risk like poverty or hunger. That said, while funding for New York City’s public school system is decoupled from property taxes, integration and parity remain a challenge — and it’s a much more serious challenge in the suburbs.
- Making changes to the workplace is the next step. As a business owner, I believe that one must lead by example. At RKTB one of our core principles derives from the fact that so many of our team studied at City College of New York, where the institutional mission is based on the Ephebic Oath, an ancient expression of commitment to “fight for the ideals and sacred things of the city.” We are New Yorkers who live and work in New York, and we are aware that our portfolio of work (largely housing and public schools) impacts diversity and equity directly. We believe our work reflects our commitment to the “ideals and sacred things” we cherish.
Also, as an organization, we work hard to walk the walk, recruiting and promoting across race and gender with attention to the importance of diversity, inclusivity and representation. New York’s diversity helps, feeding our commitment, but we still have to be proactive. We focus on public schools and universities for recruitment, and we believe our roster, both staff and leadership, reflects our commitment.
- Here’s where it gets harder to identify steps. How to create a truly inclusive, equitable society is the most daunting challenge of our time, and far greater minds than my own are working on it. Often these great minds have reported that true inclusivity appears at odds with the tribalism that seems to always emerge in human behavior, though they also acknowledge that it is unclear how much of our tribal thinking is hardwired. Somehow, one of these five steps needs to address society itself, that is, people, and how to break down our resistance to this important goal.
Of course, imposing rules in a top-down manner often spurs even greater resistance, and charismatic public figures can only do so much. It might be that what we need is to invest in different kinds of public pilot programs, like the universal basic income experiment happening right now in Stockton, California. Research and real data, well-publicized, could impact grassroots-level interest in achieving an equitable society. I think we would learn that a rising tide lifts all boats, and instead of “us versus them” the thinking would become more about “us.”
- This last step I envision in more aspirational and spiritual terms than the rest: We need to promote a better understanding of each other. This means practicing compassion and facilitating the ethos of the Golden Rule, in order to foster belief in the notion that we are all better off when everyone prospers. The current national (or global) vaccination drive offers a good analogy: We don’t get rid of COVID completely until everyone is vaccinated. Whether you are rich or poor, whatever your ethnicity or belief system, ultimately all our fates are inextricably connected. We need to encourage people to listen to each other, to join organizations that seek to bridge divides between groups or “tribes.” Whatever form this last step might take for each person who engages in it, the goal is to win over hearts and minds to the idea that we are all human, and we need each other.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
By nature I’m very much an optimist, if a cautious one. If you’re not at least a little optimistic, you won’t have the creativity or the energy to try to make a difference. In terms of the racial divide and related issues, I really do see a light at the end of the tunnel, albeit still far off. To paraphrase Barack Obama, as long as you’re continuing to move forward in the right direction, even when faced with setbacks the small victories can help you persevere.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
There are many! I’d be fascinated to have one-on-one conversations with Bill Gates, Stacey Abrams, Pete Buttigieg, Maurice Cox, or Sir Paul McCartney. Cox is the figure whose work most closely relates to my own — he is a brilliant and nationally recognized community designer and the leader of the public interest design movement. Currently serving as Chicago’s Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development, Cox has served in similar roles for Detroit and New Orleans, was mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia, and has taught at Harvard, Syracuse, and UVA. There is so much to admire about him and his enormous resume. Considering the kind of design work I do, I’d have a thousand questions to ask him, if he’d let me.
How can our readers follow you online?
I’m not online a lot, but I would recommend following my firm’s account on Twitter, @RKTBArchitects, or me on LinkedIn. I’m also active as co-Chair of the Housing Committee of AIA New York, our local component of the American Institute of Architects. If anyone wants to know what’s happening in housing in New York City, you can check out the calendar for upcoming events at https://calendar.aiany.org/.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!