HKS’ Sarah Nelson-Woynicz Brings Inclusivity and Activism as AIA Atlanta’s Exceptional Young Architect

Sarah Nelson-Woynicz didn’t grow up knowing she would be an architect. Instead, architecture found her. Starting in middle school, Nelson-Woynicz played brass instruments, thinking that would lead her into a career in music education or composer. 

But in high school, Nelson-Woynicz toured the College of Architecture at Virginia Tech University and thought to herself, “maybe this is where I’m supposed to be.” 

“I never knew that I wanted to be an architect, but now that I am, I couldn’t imagine doing something different,” said Nelson-Woynicz, an architect in the Commercial Mixed-Use studio of the HKS Atlanta office.  

The 28-year-old Raleigh, North Carolina native has always taken an active role in her community. In her youth, she was deeply involved in her community where she developed a devotion for volunteering, working with Habitat for Humanity, food banks and community gardens. 

She still brings that same passion and community-oriented mindset to her architecture role today. Her favorite part of the job comes from being a team player and learning from her peers throughout the design process of projects like the Neuhoff Mixed Use Development which brought together multiple team members from at least three time zones across the world. 

 “It was about the idea of creating the opportunity of bringing people together with one collective vision and one common goal,” she said.  

Taking on the Activist Role 

Nelson-Woynicz began her career at HKS in 2015 as an architectural intern in Richmond, Virginia. But she wanted to live in a larger city with public transit so, she moved to Atlanta after graduating. She wasted little time getting involved in her new city, becoming HKS Atlanta’s Better Together champion initially and then, a founding member of HKS Pride.  

Identifying with the LGBTQ community, Nelson-Woynicz wanted to contribute to an inclusivity program while helping to push the J.E.D.I. initiative further. 

“I knew that it was something where I wanted to bring together a community, a culture and a workplace that really emphasized equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging into Atlanta,” Nelson-Woynicz said. “I think my real passion is with HKS Pride, creating the space for voices that are not often heard for a variety of reasons.”  

She is the treasurer of HKS Pride and focuses on recruitment and engagement by reviewing HKS external opportunities and working to create and share information across the internal HKS Pride network.  

“Sarah’s passion and dedication for creating inclusive spaces is infectious,” said Yiselle Santos Rivera, HKS Director of J.E.D.I. “She not only will build you up with her enthusiasm but her commitment to J.E.D.I. work is inspirational. It’s a real joy to discuss how to develop platforms to celebrate authenticity and see her quickly transform a conversation into action.” 

“Sarah’s passion and dedication for creating inclusive spaces is infectious.”

Yiselle Santos Rivera, HKS Director of J.E.D.I.

Making a Difference in Atlanta

In 2021, Nelson-Woynicz was included as speaker for a panel discussion at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) about equity and inclusion in the workplace. All the panelists were queer-identifying practicing architects and Nelson-Woynicz shared her experiences in the profession, including a pivotal moment in her career when she first met an “out architect.” 

After the panel, she received a message from a student at SCAD who said that Nelson-Woynicz was the first openly LGBTQ person they had met. Nelson-Woynicz said that the exchange “ultimately pushed me to really want to get even more involved.”  

As a result, she launched a digital blog named “Pride by Design,” that focused on interviewing and elevating organizations, architects and designers who are specifically LGBTQIA identifying, creating a space to share their stories. She says she has not only seen and felt the impact this space gives but serves as a constant reminder to show up, and that there is more work to be done.

“There are students that are graduating who aren’t seeing themselves in the profession still and we can’t lose this amazing robust group of talent just because they don’t see themselves in the profession,” she said. 

Nelson-Woynicz is also involved in Atlanta neighborhood communities, including zoning and planning, as well as American Institute Architects (AIA). Previously, she served locally on the AIA Atlanta Board of Directors as the Emerging Professional Director. Currently, she has a two-year term for the Young Architects Forum Advisory Committee as the Community Director.  

In 2022, Nelson-Woynicz was awarded the first Carmen Stan Memorial Women Lead Scholarship by AIA Georgia and Equity in Architecture. That same year, she was also named the John Busby Jr. Award (Exceptional Young Architect), the highest recognition for young architecture professionals in the metro Atlanta area. 

Nelson-Woynicz said that being recognized by her peers and colleagues for her efforts was a humbling experience.  

“The award is not just about me being in this space, but it’s about the amazing group who set the path and the group who’s coming and carving new paths,” Nelson-Woynicz said. “It was really special in that moment to sit and see this broader group of people in that room who are making an impact and difference not just in architecture, but in every sense and definition of community and in our in our neighborhoods.” 

Due to her drive for continual learning and mentoring, she co-led the development of HKS Atlanta’s office-wide mentorship program in 2019. The effort, in which the entire staff was engaged in learning from each other at all levels and across practice and discipline, became a model that she and her team shared with other HKS offices. 

Julie Volosin, Office Director of HKS Atlanta, called Nelson-Woynicz a true servant leader who continually thinks about what is best for the greater good — whether it’s for HKS and its clients or young emerging professionals. 

“She naturally motivates other teammates through modeling the way of learning new things about our profession and then sharing it forward, constantly challenging herself and others around her,” said Volosin.  

Being a young professional in the growing Atlanta office, Nelson-Woynicz looks to her younger colleagues for inspiration.

“I am in total admiration and respect for our group of younger professionals because they are absolutely changing the way that we think and do things across the board, from mentorship all the way to our practice and process within projects,” Nelson-Woynicz said. 

Nelson-Woynicz wants to bring other young professionals to HKS to help them find opportunities and flourish in their careers. 

“HKS is a firm and place that I think every new graduate should be considering and want to be a part of because we are striving to authentically listen, engage, and impact our communities.”