Allison Ewing: A Visionary Architect & Advocate for Change, Impacting Sustainable Design and Beyond

The 10 Most Inspirational Businesswomen to Follow in 2024

In her role as an architect and influential figure, Allison Ewing, Principal at HEDS Architects, has been a leader in advancing sustainability through her designs, implementation strategies, and advocacy efforts. Her impact extends not only within the architectural profession but also beyond, as she models transformative change in the building industry with visionary and practical solutions.

With a rich portfolio encompassing commercial, institutional, residential, and mixed-use projects on both large and small scales, Allison’s architectural journey spans thirty years and three continents. Throughout her career, she has dedicated herself to the pursuit of transformation — whether it be in site development, workplace design, or shaping living environments.

Her commitment to design excellence is evident across all scales, from the macro perspective of the site down to the meticulous details. This holistic approach not only aligns with client goals but also results in elegant solutions that embody sustainable best practices.

An Architectural Odyssey to Pioneering Environmental Design

Allison Ewing’s path to success was less than direct. But that outcome was not assured. She sees her journey as serendipitous and wonders if she’d have ended up in another career. Are other’s lives thus, like the hand that guides the Ouija board – is it fate or the gentle pressure of ambition? In her case, the latter she muses. And, if she is inspiring to others, she hopes it is as an example of someone who has kept moving forward toward self-improvement, even without initially knowing where her path would lead.

A hay barn, a cathedral, and a flight from Paris– these were the signposts along her journey.

Allison’s upbringing in Vermont within a 1770s home, played a pivotal role in sparking her passion for architecture. An adjacent hay barn, a vast space for exploration, left an indelible mark. Larger than the house, it housed cows at the lower level and hay at the upper. The structure was of hand-hewn large timbers. Light streamed through the gaps in the siding boards.

The play of light catching on particles of hay dust, accompanied by the cooing of pigeons from upper rafters, created a magical ambiance. Allison credits her early interest in architecture to the enchantment of that hay barn. However, as a child, she faced discouragement from a family friend who doubted her abilities due to her gender. Despite this setback, she pursued a degree in psychology, adding another dimension to her eventual successful and innovative architectural career.

Paris played a pivotal role in reigniting Allison’s passion for design during an extended study tour. After graduating from the University of Vermont, Allison took a semester to travel and landed in Paris. She stayed two years. While teaching English she also received a degree in History of Art from the University of the Louvre. She was as moved by the great cathedrals as she had been by her childhood hay barn. Where better to rekindle her love of architecture than in Paris?

This prompted her decision to return to the United States and enroll at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City. Happily, she jokes, somewhere between her flight from Paris and New York the program’s focus shifted from interior design to environmental design, aligning perfectly with her aspirations. She realized her potential and embraced the architectural path.

Continuing her academic journey, Allison pursued graduate studies in architecture at Yale University and holds a Master’s in Architecture from Yale University Graduate School of Architecture. There, she received a Monbusho Scholarship that granted her the opportunity to explore Japanese architecture and delve into the study of housing in Japan, providing a unique lens into the intricacies of Japanese architectural practices.

Before co-founding HEDS Architects with partner Chris Hays, Allison’s professional journey encompassed key roles such as contributing to the offices of Cesar Pelli & Associates and Mitchell Giurgola Architects. She honed her skills as a Partner at William McDonough + Partners and a design associate at the Renzo Piano Building Workshop in Italy, working with renowned architect Renzo Piano in Genoa.

At the forefront of green design before the LEED era, Allison and her husband became partners at William McDonough and Partners in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she was a driving force. Their projects, both within their own firm and at William McDonough + Partners, have earned them numerous prestigious architectural awards.

Allison finds it amusing that her path has been so serendipitous. She believes her inner drive for self-improvement has been the hand of pressure that, despite the vagaries of fate, have led her along the path she was always meant to pursue. In 2022 Allison was elevated to the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows, the organization’s highest membership honor, awarded to only 3% of AIA members. She credits “hard work, a drive to constantly improve and maybe a sprinkle of talent,” for this recognition by her peers.

Crafting Enduring Architecture with a Sustainable Focus

In 2006, Allison and her husband, Christopher Hays, founded Hays + Ewing Design Studio (HEDS) emphasizing contemporary design while prioritizing environmental responsibility. HEDS Architects stands as a women-owned architectural firm based in Charlottesville, VA. The principals, driven by a belief in enduring architecture, emphasize a profound understanding of the locale, project needs, and client desires, seamlessly integrating sustainable best practices.

Allison comes from a heritage of environmental conservation. Her father, a well-known environmental advocate in Vermont, nurtured a love of nature. Allison remembers forming a nature club at age eight. She remembers fondly the membership cards her father had printed – he’d listed her a president. She jokes that it took another forty years to again assume that title.

HEDS Architects boasts a diverse portfolio that reflects its ability to tackle projects of various types and scales with a unique vision for each. From academic and cultural institutions to commercial buildings, mixed-use developments, and single/multi-family residences, the firm’s work showcases adaptability and a tailored approach. Both Christopher and Allison bring a global architectural background to the table, having lived and worked in Europe, Asia, and the United States.

“The building industry is at a Darwinian crossroads. It’s time to evolve.” – Quote from Building Design + Performance, Vision 2020: Adapt and Prosper, by Allison Ewing – EcoBuilding Pulse 1/5/2015

Environmental Integration Beyond Borders

HEDS Architects’ footprint extends beyond Virginia and North Carolina, with projects spanning the US, Canada, and Europe. It specializes in the meticulous integration of buildings with their environment, operating on various levels, including harmonizing structures with surroundings and integrating building and natural systems such as natural ventilation, rainwater collection, and solar energy harnessing.

Under Allison’s leadership, HEDS Architects operates with a commitment to efficiency and agility, championing a lean and effective organizational structure. Collaborating on major decisions, Allison takes charge of marketing and human resources. In marketing, she advocates for a clear and articulated point of view reflected in their work and public presentations. Regarding human resources, Allison emphasizes nurturing professional growth as a key element of the firm’s operational ethos.

When discussing the vision and plan for the future of the company, Allison underscores the project-based nature of their work. As the firm matures, its strategic position enables it to pursue projects aligning with its core mission of establishing design legitimacy in environmentally intelligent design.

Acknowledging the diverse spectrum of the architectural profession, spanning from conceptualization to execution, Allison emphasizes the importance of product research and integration. For each new project, the goal is to incorporate “state of the shelf” products and strategies.

This approach seeks to advance green building technologies, propelling the industry toward a transition to net zero carbon emissions. In this ever-evolving landscape, staying abreast with growing competition involves a commitment to innovation and the integration of cutting-edge solutions.

Crafting Beauty from Building Science

Allison’s work stands as a beacon of “Good Design,” embracing its fullest meaning. While the green architectural movement of the 70s and 80s may have fallen short, she champions a more integrative approach. Rejecting the notion that beauty must be sacrificed for green design, she advocates for their coexistence, believing that both elements are essential for creating enduring buildings.

Coined as “Architecture of the Fittest,” Allison’s philosophy promotes an adaptive approach to building — one that leaves a lasting and fundamental impact on the industry by advancing a new aesthetic of ecology. She and her team at HEDS Architects emphasize a robust commitment to blending landscape, architecture, and the environment through a fresh and integrative approach.

Drawing parallels to animal species, Allison points out how the local building types had long adapted to climate– that is before the advent of central heating and cooling. She points to the 1770’s house where she grew up – its floor plan was broader and deeper than its southern counterpart. With more mass to surface area, the norther home stayed warmer in the cold seasons. The same is true of many species – the northern white tailed deer is larger and broader than the same species found in the south – an adaptive response to climate. Allison argues that buildings must re-adapt to climate – this is Architecture of the Fittest.

Preferring a modern aesthetic, the firm also values the climate-specific solutions found in traditional models. Maintaining a process-oriented mindset, Allison avoids preconceived notions about a building’s appearance. She believes that the real power of sustainability lies in forging a new architectural language, where aesthetics naturally evolves from pragmatic considerations.

Allison emphasizes the nuanced interplay between form and function. Acknowledging that mere adherence to LEED credits (the U.S. Green Building Council’s rating system) falls short of ensuring good design, she draws attention to the importance of merging science and art for a truly aesthetic architectural language. Allison cautions that efficiency alone cannot guarantee enduring beauty, using the example of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, where practicality lacked a soul, leading to its eventual demolition.

Detailing her process, Allison begins with comprehensive research, examining site-specific elements such as hydrology, topography, solar patterns, wind characteristics, and social dynamics. Highlighting a project in Banff, Alberta, she illustrates the integration of the Japanese concept of Shakkei, or borrowed landscape, where the building design harmonizes with the surrounding mountains. Rejecting preconceived architectural styles, Allison emphasizes a responsive and innovative approach tailored to each environment.

“Who else uses a minimum of resources to maximum advantage? Nature. We have much to learn from nature’s solutions developed over billions of years of evolutionary design. – biomimicry is highlighting nature’s inherent design excellence.”

Advocating Responsible Design & Community as a Sustainability Criterion

Encouraging a conscientious approach, Allison emphasizes that design should be intentional and evaluated based on both aesthetic and moral considerations. She urges architects to delve into building science, familiarize themselves with the climate and site, and integrate these elements to shape their design aesthetics. Drawing a parallel with cooking, she likens a master chef exploring sustainable strategies to creating a remarkable dish, emphasizing the transformative power of design. Allison advocates for a departure from the additive approach, urging architects to adopt an integrative and inherently beautiful design ethos.

Recognizing community as a fundamental aspect of sustainability, Allison contends that achieving LEED points alone is insufficient for creating a healthy building. The additive approach lacks the depth required for fostering a vibrant community. Introducing the Japanese concept of Ma, denoting the space between structural elements, she underscores its significance in promoting human interactions. In architectural design, she identifies the void between spaces as the locus of heightened consciousness and rich interactions.

Applying an integrative approach, Allison extends her philosophy to various scales of community within buildings. Rejecting the traditional separation of dining, living, and kitchen spaces, she advocates for an open-plan design that facilitates family gatherings. This not only fosters community at the family level but also aligns with energy efficiency goals, as consolidating spaces reduces overall building area, optimizing heating and cooling efficiency.

“I see design as a complex Rubik’s Cube – you have to solve for all conditions to arrive at that perfect solution. And yet, great spaces embody something more – they transcend function to connect people with nature in a fundamental way.” – New View, A Curated Visual Gallery – Twenty Magnificent Homes by Northeast Architects, Beth Buckley, Benton Buckley Books, 2023

Embarking on Architectural Leadership

Describing her journey, Allison acknowledges the challenges of leading a successful company, recognizing that “the development of an architectural practice can take time,” often culminating in success later in one’s career. Fortunate to work with inspiring firms, she credits Cesar Pelli’s emphasis on organizational excellence, Renzo Piano’s legible design approach, and William McDonough’s sustainability leadership as influential in shaping her own vision. The lessons learned from these firms have been instrumental in navigating her own practice.

In 2008, facing challenges as a fledgling company, Allison’s team took control of their fate by purchasing land, designing, and developing a sustainable community in Charlottesville, VA. Despite letting go of employees during the economic downturn, they evolved into a smarter, leaner organization. The adoption of powerful Computer-Aided Design (CAD) programs enabled smaller teams to achieve more, with partners actively involved in design work, resulting in enhanced happiness and stronger work.

Addressing roadblocks in her professional journey, Allison highlights occasional misalignments between client budgetary goals and design ideals. To achieve a balance, the team involves cost estimators or contractors early in the project, conducting additional cost estimates as the project progresses. Strategic contract selection, based on client priorities, guides the design and building process, including such factors such as schedule and budget. Early experiences have informed their approach as they navigate “with the clients, the design and build process.”

The onset of COVID-19 presented challenges regarding building costs and schedules. Despite limited control, Allison emphasizes the importance of keeping clients as informed as possible. Throughout these experiences, managing client expectations has become a cornerstone of their approach, ensuring transparency and successful project navigation.

Overcoming Stereotypes with Trailblazing Leadership in Architecture

When reflecting on thriving in the architectural industry as a woman in leadership, Allison recalls that although she developed an early interest in architecture as a child, a family friend, an architect, discouraged her, suggesting it was a man’s profession. She does not let her gender define who she is, even while most often the only woman on a jobsite. She underscores a key to success for women in the profession is not viewing themselves as female architects but as just architects.

Allison seeks to champion sustainability across disciplines and beyond, particularly in the home construction industry, which contributes to 16 percent of greenhouse gases. In her role as Vision 2020 Build Design and Co-Chair, she advocates for change in the developer home-building industry.

Allison’s blog addresses related issues, discussing topics such as “Creating layers of value – What’s good for the environment is good for business” and “Green Design closes the wealth gap in the US.” She also mentors young women in the profession, primarily through collaborations with female colleagues, and actively participates in forums discussing women’s roles and challenges in the field.

Regarding her greatest achievement as a leader, Allison highlights her pro bono work addressing a wastewater problem in Charlottesville. Utilizing her architectural skills, she proposed a tunnel to the sewage plant as an alternative to an above-ground transfer facility.

This solution gained support from decision-making bodies and the community, leading to the revitalization of a long-abandoned mill and transforming an adjacent industrial zone into an amenity-focused area with craft breweries. The neighborhood property values also rose as a result of this improvement. Former City Councilor, Kathy Galvin, acknowledges Allison’s pivotal role, saying, “Allison’s design-based method of problem-solving gave rise to a workable solution with compelling benefits.”

Enduring Impact and Recognition in Sustainable Architecture

Allison stands prominently among the first generation of architects shaping the industry’s trajectory toward sustainability over the past 30 years. In the esteemed company of visionaries such as William McDonough, Ed Mazria, Bob Berkebile, and Mary Ann Lazarus, her name, work, and enduring impact in this critical field reflect her dedication.

Rick Schwolsky, Senior Fellow at Architecture 2030, underscores Allison’s contributions with admiration for her generosity, grace, and humility. He emphasizes how she has elevated the standing and standards of the architectural profession, actively sharing insights and awareness with diverse audiences, including practicing architects and aspiring students. He writes: “Through her architectural practice and unwavering service to both the architectural and societal realms, Allison enriches the connections between people, the built environment, and the world we inhabit each day.”

Schwolsky highlights her key role in significant programs during his tenure at Hanley Wood, noting her chairmanship in the Vision 2020 Sustainability Research Initiative and her position as a judge for The Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainability. He concludes with a sentiment shared by many: “We all are better for knowing her.”

Championing Sustainability Across Disciplines

When discussing success, Allison emphasizes that it is measured by the fulfillment of her core mission – promoting sustainability through aspirational models of change in design, implementation, and advocacy. Her conception of success involves embodying “Good Design” in its fullest sense.

Diverging from past architectural movements, Allison advocates for a more integrative approach, asserting that beauty and green design are not mutually exclusive. She coins this philosophy as “Architecture of the Fittest,” advocating for buildings with a lasting and fundamental impact on the industry through the advancement of a new aesthetic of ecology.

To change the business-as-usual dynamics, Allison challenges builders and subcontractors to embrace sustainable products, innovative building methods, and new thinking. By encouraging them to attain certifications like LEED, Passivhaus, and Earthcraft, she aims to pioneer new means and methods that effect tangible change in building industries, whether locally or globally.

In her service to the profession and community, Allison seeks to champion sustainable design across disciplines, aiming for success in seeing goals translated into policy through government and community-led initiatives. On a personal level, Allison finds gratification in knowing that the firm’s work improves people’s lives.

“I don’t see function and aesthetics in conflict – there is a healthy tension between the two and the best of all outcomes solves for both.” – New View, A Curated Visual Gallery – Twenty Magnificent Homes by Northeast Architects, Beth Buckley, Benton Buckley Books, 2023

Balancing Multiple Roles with Uninterrupted Focus

In the role of a principal in a lean firm, Allison manages a multifaceted workload. Juggling projects at different stages, overseeing staff, and collaborating with her partner on firm management, her typical day involves a dynamic mix of calls with contractors and dedicated design work. She succinctly defines herself as “persevering,” embodying the steadfast commitment required in her multifaceted position.

Having chosen Charlottesville for its conducive work/life balance, Allison appreciates the reduced commute, with her office just a 15-minute bike ride away. Drawing parallels between Charlottesville and her hometown, Burlington, Vermont, she values the scale, proximity to nature, and attainable quality of life. Competitive tennis adds a recreational dimension to her personal life.

Weekends away from work are pivotal for recharging and fostering idea generation. However, the demands of her profession occasionally spill over into weekends, revealing the dedicated nature of her work. Having recently concluded an intense, nearly two-year-long project with tight deadlines, she treasures weekends all the more.

Motivation is not a challenge for Allison in her chosen profession. Engaging in diverse activities such as design, research, team coordination, and project oversight, she finds fulfillment in seeing concepts materialize and positively impact clients’ lives. With each project, Allison strives to integrate new approaches and design ideas.

A current project nearing completion showcases the use of high-strength concrete, eliminating the need for reinforcing steel and allowing for versatile formwork. The design concept draws inspiration from the patterns in the sand for exterior panels, adding a distinctive dimension to her professional repertoire.

When discussing personal goals as a businessperson, Allison aligns them with her overarching mission – to continue promoting sustainability through aspirational models of change in design, implementation, and advocacy. To aspiring business professionals, Allison emphasizes the importance of self-definition. Encouraging the development of a strong sense of purpose, she advises disregarding external noise and staying focused on larger goals while navigating one’s career path.

“Studies show it is the pursuit of happiness, not the attainment thereof that enriches our lives. We should consider how to actively engage with nature at an intimate level toward a happier and healthier life – one that has a positive impact on the environment.”


Allison Ewing stands as a visionary architect, seamlessly blending her roles as a principal, designer, and advocate for sustainable change. Her perseverance and commitment shine through as she navigates the complex landscape of architectural projects, pushing the boundaries of design and integrating innovative solutions.

Allison’s dedication to promoting sustainability extends beyond the professional realm, influencing government policies and community-led initiatives. Her leadership is marked by a relentless pursuit of excellence, with every project serving as a canvas for integrating new approaches and ideas.

With a focus on work/life balance, Allison’s decision to call Charlottesville home reflects not just her strategic mindset but also her appreciation for a quality lifestyle. As a recognized Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Allison Ewing’s influence extends far beyond her immediate projects, leaving an indelible mark on the architectural industry and inspiring aspiring professionals to chart their own course with purpose and resilience. It all started with a hay barn.