HKS’ Sidney M. Smith Uses Lessons from His Past to Build a New Legacy as a Black Architect
When Sidney Smith graduated from Florida A&M University at age 25 with a degree in architecture, friends in his hometown of Lynn Haven, Florida were shocked. Not because they didn’t think Smith was smart enough. They just hadn’t realized that he was attending college 95 miles away in Tallahassee because they saw him at home in Lynn Haven nearly every weekend.
Almost every Friday of his college career, Smith would pack his drafting board, design tools and tracing paper into his gold-rimmed 1988 Ford Mustang GT 5.0 and make the nearly two-hour drive back to Lynn Haven to spend time with his toddler son. The young single father would then wake early on Monday mornings for the return trip to campus in time for his 8 a.m. or 10 a.m. classes.
Although Smith hadn’t planned to become a father at that time, he said he didn’t get serious about life until his son, Khairi, was born.
Smith enrolled at FAMU so that he could earn a Bachelor of Architecture degree and still make those weekly trips home. He was determined to set a good example for his child.
“I made up my mind to graduate with honors, and I did,” said Smith, who graduated Cum Laude in 1995.
Smith has brought that same spirit of determination and devotion to his career at global design firm HKS, where in 2022 he was among the first African Americans to be named a Partner in the firm.
According to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, people who identify as Black or African American make up less than 2 percent of licensed architects in the U.S. As part of HKS’ celebration of Black History Month, Smith, who has been co-director of the Phoenix HKS office since 2022, shared his journey as an African American leader in the field.
A descendant of Alabama sharecroppers, Smith inherited a strong work ethic and commitment to family life.
His maternal and paternal grandfathers were born in 1901 and 1899, respectively, roughly 35 years after the 1865 adoption of the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery in the U.S.
Under the sharecropping system, tenant farmers rented land in exchange for a portion of their annual harvest. Smith said both sets of his grandparents “worked to give away a lot of their profits and learned to raise their families on what they were given.”
Smith’s father, Julius “Doc” Smith, received a 9th-grade education and his mother, Della Smith, graduated high school. The two, who were married 55 years at the time of Doc’s death in 2016, raised five sons on the profits of a Lynn Haven business they owned, Doc’s Tire Repair.
“They started from nothing,” Smith said of the shop, which opened in 1974 and is now run by two of his older brothers. “It’s a true American story.”
The family business is “where I learned about hard work, relationships and being true to your word,” Smith said.
“I also learned about not overpromising and underperforming. My dad was very big on making sure that if he told someone that he could get a job done, he would do it and he would do it timely. So this was instilled in me at a very early age.”
Born in 1970 as the youngest of five brothers, Smith recalls having “a great childhood, just playing outside until the streetlights came on.”
He and his brothers helped at the tire shop and were into anything with wheels – toy Matchbox cars, go-karts, three-wheelers, bicycles.
“We used to love building these Evel Knievel-type ramps, trying to jump ditches,” Smith said, referring to the late motorcycle stunt performer who was popular in the 1970s. “Fortunately, I never had any broken bones.”
Smith spent a lot of time drawing as a child, particularly superheroes.
“My best was probably Spider-Man,” he said. “People often ask, ‘What made you get into architecture?’ For me it was a love of drawing.”
Growing up in the Florida panhandle, Smith experienced racism in ways that reverberate with him to this day.
“You’d like to think that in the 70s and 80s, you would escape racism. But there was no way to escape it in the South,” Smith said. “There were times when you felt out of place. You even felt threatened at times. There were times when you were called the n-word.”
Looking back, he said, “those were probably some of the lowest moments of my life. There’s no way to ever erase those thoughts from your mind. They’re still as fresh today as they were when those incidents happened.”
By the grace of God, his family survived through difficult times, Smith said, adding that culturally, “we’ve seen changes but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Smith performed well in high school and wanted to attend the University of North Carolina, but his application was rejected.
So, he began studying pre-architecture at a local junior college, his interest in the profession stoked by a high school drafting class. He was going to school and working at his parents’ shop when he realized he wanted something different for his life.
He transferred to FAMU, signing on for an extra year of coursework because many of his junior college credits weren’t accepted by the FAMU School of Architecture program.
“I didn’t know if it would pay off,” Smith said, noting the scarcity of African American role models in architecture during his student days. “I honestly did not have a clue about what my future would entail after college.”
After he graduated, Smith returned home to Lynn Haven to figure out that future. His job search was frustrated by his inexperience with AutoCAD design software.
Using the 386DX computer he received from his parents as a graduation gift and a bootleg copy of AutoCAD version 10, Smith applied himself to learning the software.
“That’s what I did every day after working in my dad’s shop, teach myself enough AutoCAD to land a job,” Smith said.
He reached out to a FAMU classmate who was working as an architect in nearby Panama City and inquired about job leads. His friend introduced Smith to Bayne Collins, “one of the best-known architects in Panama City” at the time, according to Smith.
“I went on an interview, and I was honest with him. I said, ‘I don’t know AutoCAD as well as I should, but I’m a quick learner,’” Smith said.
Collins had reason to believe the young aspiring architect and hired him in the summer of 1995 at his firm, Collins & Associates.
“Bayne Collins knew my family, knew my dad – my dad had done tire work for him years before,” Smith said. “All the stars lined up.”
That same year, Susan Casper started her first job as a television news personality in Panama City. Casper had attended the University of West Florida with a mutual friend of Smith’s who gave Casper his telephone number. In the age before social media, Smith was curious about what Casper was like and asked friends and relatives if they knew anything about her.
One friend eventually told him, “When that phone rings, you need to pick up,’” said Smith. “I answered the call.”
That “amazing conversation” led to another, Smith said, and eight months later he proposed marriage. The couple wed in May 1997.
Casper soon landed a position in Tampa, where she would go on to become the first African American woman to anchor a primetime newscast in Tampa. Looking to relocate closer to his wife’s new job, Smith asked another FAMU classmate, Jeff Bush, who worked in what was then the HKS Tampa office, if he knew anyone who was hiring in the region.
Bush, who is now a Principal and Senior Project Manager at HKS Orlando, was aware of an imminent job opening at HKS – his own. He was about to go back to school for his master’s degree.
Smith interviewed and was “basically offered the job on the spot,” he said.
When he started at Collins & Associates, Smith had sworn to himself that he’d never again be in the position of not knowing the tools of his trade. Since then, he said, he’d “learned everything there was to learn about AutoCAD” – including writing his own lisp files and code.
“When I interviewed at HKS, that’s exactly what they needed.”
In addition to his roles as Office Director and Partner, Smith has also served as a Senior Construction Administrator and a Project Manager since joining HKS. He has worked in HKS’ Health, Sports & Entertainment, Commercial, Residential Mixed-Use and Life Science practice areas. His projects include BOE Hefei Digital Hospital in China, a 1000-bed facility that involved eight HKS offices and approximately 65 HKS staff members worldwide.
In 2008, Smith and his family – which by then included twin 3-year-old daughters, Sophia and Sierra – moved to Phoenix so that he could be the lead construction administrator on HKS’ Phoenix Children’s Hospital project.
“Phoenix Children’s is still our client today,” Smith said.
Jeffrey Stouffer, Global Sector Director of HKS’ Community practice and an Executive Vice President and Partner in the firm, attributes such long-standing client relationships to Smith’s accessibility and willingness to listen.
“He’s empathetic and he’s wise,” said Stouffer.
As the principal-in-charge and principal designer of Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Stouffer said he was privileged to watch Smith develop his natural skills as a leader.
When Smith joined the hospital project, “I immediately saw leadership qualities” in him, said Stouffer. “He related to clients with confidence (but) without any arrogance. He’s always been very measured and he thinks before he speaks. He represents the best in HKS.”
Keith Lashley is a Senior Construction Administrator at HKS who, in 2011, was among the first African Americans to become a Principal at HKS. Lashley said Smith “has a unique ability to engage with people and meet them at their level. And he has a very infectious laugh.”
Lashley and Smith met when both worked for HKS in Florida. The two have maintained a friendship despite Smith’s move across the country.
“We still connect, knowing that this is a very difficult journey for African Americans, people of color,” Lashley said. “I consider Sid more of a colleague than a mentee. It takes rowing in the same direction.”
As Smith’s career progressed at HKS, he realized that a partnership in the firm was within his reach. “I thought, ‘If I can make it as a Partner, that will be a pinnacle for me,’” Smith said.
“It just kept driving and pushing me forward, knowing that my father was a business owner with a 9th-grade (education) and my mom graduated from high school,” he said. “(My father) never lived to see me become a Partner – that’s one of my biggest regrets – but I can only imagine how proud he is of me.”
Helping to increase the visibility of African American architects is meaningful to Smith, a member of the Arizona Chapter (NOMAarizona) of the National Organization of Minority Architects. He said that within the group there are often talks about the “lonely only” – being the only African American in an office or meeting. “It’s unfortunate,” Smith said. “We have to help as much as we can to change that.”
He added that “at the same time, we, as African Americans, have to also help ourselves.” He said that one way future architects and design professionals can do that is to actively pursue licensure.
“It’s hard enough as a minority in the field to be seen. It’s even harder to compete when you’re not registered,” Smith said.
Beyond encouraging registration, Smith often tells young architects that cultivating a diverse set of skills can help them manage the economic ups and downs of the architecture, engineering and construction industry.
As Smith has advanced in his profession – and endeavored to help his profession advance – his family has also grown and matured.
The child he nurtured during his college years is now a married father of two. The twin preschoolers Smith and his wife brought to Arizona are in their first year at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University.
Marveling at his children’s successes, Smith is reminded of the lessons he learned years ago back at Doc’s Tire Repair that have helped push him to the top of his field.
“They’re listening,” Smith said proudly of his children. “Like I listened to my dad.”