Q&A: New book sheds light on Architecture and democracy through Unitarian churches

The history of American Unitarian church architecture is one that’s lesser-known. With this in mind, Ann Marie Borys, associate professor of architecture, wanted to provide context for two extremely highly regarded Unitarian projects of the 20th century that had only been written about independently. Her new book explores how they fit into the broader scope of Unitarian churches.

American Unitarian Churches: Architecture of a Democratic Religion” explores Unitarian church design and the progressive ideals shown through them — ideals that were central to the founding of the United States. By situating Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple and Louis Kahn’s First Unitarian Church of Rochester in their full context, Borys writes about the interconnectedness of American democracy and American architecture.

We asked Borys about the book.

Why did you want to write this book?

I initiated the research in an effort to provide context for two extremely highly regarded architectural projects of the 20th century. Each one had been written about independently with regard to its place in the architect’s creative oeuvre and its “moment” in American architecture. And they had sometimes been discussed in relation to each other (though separated by 50 years) because they were both Unitarian churches. But there was very little written about how they fit into the broader scope of Unitarian churches.

I soon discovered that there were quite a lot of Unitarian churches from both the 19th and 20th centuries that were also architecturally significant. So the book that emerged became a narrative of Unitarian church design as a central factor in the development of American architecture itself.

Why has this contribution not been evident in narratives of American architectural history previously? Why is it important to bring this to light?

A simplistic explanation is that architectural history was first developed as a chronology of styles, and then a narrative of architect-heros. It was in the later part of the 20th century that larger social and cultural patterns began to be studied. By then, Unitarianism represented a very small portion of the population, and it was not widely understood to have historical roots connected with those of the country itself.

It is important partly because there are some misconceptions about the two buildings that prompted my research—Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple, and Louis Kahn’s First Unitarian Church of Rochester. But more broadly speaking, it is important because it adds a significant body of work to an issue of theoretical importance: What is an ‘architecture of democracy’?

What’s the connection between faith and architecture?

This is a trick question with respect to Unitarian churches. Most faiths build churches that support specific rituals spatially, that express beliefs symbolically, and that aspire to place the church-goers in some relation to the divine. Unitarianism is unusual because it has never had rituals, and in the 20th century, the question of religious belief was transferred from clergy to the individuals. So there can be a wide variety of beliefs in any congregation. This makes the design of a memorable architectural space more difficult.

What elements of Unitarian spirituality are expressed through the architecture of its churches?

I found three things to be in the foreground of Unitarian churches: awareness of nature and with that, the interconnectedness of all things; respect for the individual coupled with responsibility for others; and the necessity for individuals to share knowledge and ideas in a community.

How are the ideals/values of Unitarianism shown through the design of their buildings/spaces?

The awareness of nature and natural processes is evident either directly through generous views promoting connection between the sanctuary and surrounding gardens or natural features or it is present through daylight and through the use of natural materials. Respect for the individual and for individual choice is evident in the way that doors into the sanctuary are located as one choice among others, and in the non-hierarchical arrangement of space in the sanctuary. The necessity to share ideas for the enrichment of all is present in the provision of ample social spaces in addition to a space for worship.

The combination of these features creates an architecture of democracy.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

I hope that readers will understand that Unitarianism was a mainstream denomination in America throughout the 19th century, and that many of our country’s progressive social and cultural advancements were led by Unitarians. I hope that they will be able to appreciate how Unitarianism remains true to its original philosophies and values–values which were formed along with and were practically identical to the American democratic ideals articulated by the founding documents of this country. I hope they will understand that Unitarianism is a democratic religion, and that its architecture is an expression of authentically American ideals.

From the Dean: June 2022

Congratulations to this year’s graduates and also to those from 2020 and 2021! Even with all of the changes that the past two years have brought us, our community has continued to be resilient, creative, passionate, and kind.

While this year continued to challenge us, there is a lot to celebrate:

    • We celebrated in-person graduation for the first time since 2019, 350 students attended the interdisciplinary CBE ceremony with over 2500 family, friends, and supporters.
    • We had three students named to the 2020 Husky 100 awards and two students named to the 2021 and 2022 Husky 100 awards.
    • We completed a first-ever cohort hire, bringing on 6 new faculty – which is an important part of our strategic framework to grow our capacity for collaborative interdisciplinary work with the goal of advancing climate solutions.
    • And we continued to impact the broader community through work like the Nehemiah studio, work with the Duwamish Longhouse, and coastal communities facing rising sea levels.

As we wrap up this academic year, I’m looking forward to:

    • Our visionary programming analysis that will look at how our college’s virtual and physical spaces and places support our goals and answer the question of ‘what are the academic work and learning spaces of the future?’
    • The branding effort that will help us align our Strategic Framework with the visual identity of the college

I hope you have a revitalizing summer. See you in September.


Announcing the Chair of the Runstad Department of Real Estate

I am excited to share that Steven Bourassa will take on the role of Chair of the Runstad Department of Real Estate. For the past 7 years, he has been Chair of the Department of Urban Design and Planning at Florida Atlantic University, starting August 8, 2022, he will join our college as department Chair and Jon and Judith Runstad Endowed Professor.

Throughout his career, he has led programs that combine real estate development, housing, and planning, at institutions in the US, Australia, and New Zealand. In addition to leading the department, Steven will build on and elevate the Runstad Department’s research strengths in housing prices and tenure, land tenure, and property taxes. His most recent work includes collaboration with finance and planning scholars on the use of big data in housing value. I am confident that Steven’s expertise and leadership will move the department toward even greater success in the years ahead.

I want to thank the search committee for their excellent work in bringing such a strong slate of candidates and hosting robust conversations on the leadership needs of the department. I would like to thank Professor Sofia Dermisi for her strong leadership of the department faculty as Acting Chair over the past year. Finally, I appreciate the energy and engagement of the students and the Runstad Advisory Board.

I think the future is bright and I look forward to seeing how the department’s next phases unfold.


Renée Cheng
John and Rosalind Jacobi Family Endowed Dean
College of Built Environments

Two CBE students named to 2022 Husky 100

The University of Washington recognized two students from the College of Built Environments for the 2022 Husky 100. Congratulations to Talia Kertsman and Andrew Hengstler!


Talia Kertsman, Community, Environment, and Planning major

“I came to the UW seeking a depth of understanding around questions keeping me up at night – questions about the future of cities and how to sustain belonging in all spaces. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to grow in Seattle and learn from those working to preserve spaces of cultural value. I hope to work at the intersection of equitable community development and education, thinking about how students and educators can co-create spaces of learning, inside and outside the classroom.”


Andrew Hengstler, Construction Management major 

Blonde boy in dark clothing smiling in front of a dark brown door“Strong communities promote positive progress. I have focused my years at the UW working to foster this sense of community, empowering others to rally and grow together. Within my career, I seek to develop built environments that encourage community collaboration, where people are not separated by class or culture. By creating environmentally and socially sustainable habitats, we can both protect nature and preserve our vital sense of community.”


The Husky 100 recognizes 100 UW undergraduate and graduate students who are making the most of their time at the UW. Those named include undergraduates and graduate students who have founded start-ups, conducted research, and advocated for social justice.

CBE welcomes new cohort of faculty

In pursuit of our vision for a more just and beautiful world, the College of Built Environments is implementing an important part of our strategic framework: growing our capacity for collaborative interdisciplinary work with the goal of advancing climate solutions. We are excited to announce the first wave of CBE’s new faculty cohort! Each brings new strengths and perspectives and as a group, they have the potential to be an effective team who, together with the excellent faculty already at CBE, will accelerate the positive impact of our teaching, research, and engagement.

One of the most important steps in implementing the College of Built Environments strategic framework is growing our capacity for collaborative interdisciplinary work with the goal of advancing climate solutions which are at the heart of our vision for a more just and beautiful world. In the college, we invested in a search process to bring a cohort of faculty to add to our already collaborative culture. Over this academic year, we have invested time and energy in mapping out research and teaching opportunities that these new faculty could join or initiate and checking that our culture was as welcoming as possible. This led to understanding departmental priorities and areas of opportunity for promoting college-level strategic goals. The result was a wonderful dialogue leading to an unprecedented cohort hiring effort launched in the Autumn Quarter.

The search attracted applicants from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds and demographic diversity along many dimensions, including race, gender, and ethnicity. There were strong themes of using big data and machine learning to develop tools and processes to address disparities in built environments impacts as well as addressing climate mitigation. We were encouraged by the response to the call, yet realize there is much work still to be done. We are committed to continuing this work next year with additional searches, considering tenure-track and teaching-track opportunities. The compelling vision for the cohort attracted positive responses from across the world for applicants and nominations. Closer to home at UW, the Provost recognizes the hard work to develop our goals and initiate this search and he congratulates us on our success. The strength of our alignment with UW priorities created synergies that brought funding from sources such as the UW Office of Provost, Office of Research, Office of Faculty Advancement, Clean Energy Institute, and the Escience Institute.

The first of its kind for the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington, this faculty listing for an interdisciplinary cohort attracted applications from across the globe with a broad range of collaborative research and teaching interests. We are thrilled with the interest, and excited to welcome and support our new faculty who will continue to expand our capacity as we seek to develop opportunities for engaging and investing in our communities in an effort to build a more just and beautiful future.

– Ken Yocom, faculty lead for the cohort hire

The College of Built Environments is thrilled to welcome this esteemed cohort of new interdisciplinary faculty to our community. Read about each of the full-time tenure-track faculty below.


Narjes Abbasabadi

Narjes Abbasabadi, Ph.D., is an architect, researcher, and educator. Dr. Abbasabadi currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington. She earned her Ph.D. in Architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). She also holds master’s and bachelor’s degrees in architecture from Tehran Azad University. Prior to joining UTA, she taught in the College of Architecture at IIT. Dr. Abbasabadi’s research investigates sustainability, environmental technologies, and computation in the built environment. Much of her work focuses on developing frameworks and tools to investigate urban building energy systems, human-energy interactions, ambient intelligence, and sensing to enable dynamic exploration of performance-driven and human-centered design. Her work has been published in premier journals, including Applied Energy, Building and Environment, Energy and Buildings, and Sustainable Cities and Society.

Dr. Abbasabadi received honors and awards, including “ARCC Dissertation Award Honorable Mention” (Architectural Research Centers Consortium (ARCC), 2020), “Best Ph.D. Program Dissertation Award” (IIT CoA, 2019), and 2nd place in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Race to Zero Design Competition (DOE, 2018). In 2018, she organized the 3rd IIT CoA International Symposium on Buildings, Cities, and Performance. She served as editor of the third issue of Prometheus Journal, which received the 2020 Haskell Award from AIA New York, Center for Architecture. She has practiced with several firms and institutions and led design research projects such as developing national design codes and prototypes for low-carbon buildings. Most recently, she practiced as an architect with Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG), where she has been involved in major projects, including the 2020 World Expo.


Celina Balderas Guzmán

Landscape Architecture
Celina Balderas Guzmán works across environmental planning, design, and science on a diverse set of research projects broadly focused on water flows, particularly coastal climate adaptation, urban stormwater, and green infrastructure. In adaptation, Celina studies how shoreline strategies for sea level rise could shift socio-ecological vulnerabilities at a regional scale in the future. Specifically, she uses ecological modeling to examine the impacts of future shoreline hardening/softening on coastal wetlands and the communities that depend on them for coastal protection. By documenting these interactions, Celina’s research contributes to greater effectiveness in adaptation to sea level rise at a regional scale.

In urban stormwater, Celina studies how pollution relates to the urban form and human activity of watersheds using data science methods in collaboration with environmental scientists. Before studying its root causes, Celina developed green infrastructure designs to address stormwater pollution and flooding. In collaboration with environmental engineers, Celina created innovative designs for wetlands that combine hydraulic performance, ecological potential, and recreation into one landscape form.

Her research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Global Metropolitan Studies, and the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab. She is completing a PhD in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at the University of California, Berkeley in summer 2022. From MIT, she obtained two masters degrees in urban planning and urban design, as well as an undergraduate degree in architecture.


Dylan Stevenson

Urban Design and Planning
Dylan Stevenson’s (Prairie Band Potawatomi descent) research examines how culture informs planning strategies and influences land relationships. More specifically, he investigates how tribal epistemologies structure notions of Indigenous futurities by centering Indigenous cultural values at the forefront of environmental stewardship and cultural preservation. He is currently working on a project researching how governments (Federal, State, and Tribal) embed cultural values in Water Resources Planning strategies, drawing from ethnographic research he conducted in the joint territory of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. His other research interests include ecological restoration, intangible cultural heritage, and food systems planning. Previously, Dylan has worked for public and quasi-public entities dealing with the implementation and compliance of local, state, and federal legislation in California and has forthcoming work analyzing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives in planning programs.

Dylan is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University. He earned his master’s degree in Planning with a concentration in Preservation and Design of the Built Environment from the University of Southern California, a bachelor’s degree in Linguistics with a minor in Native American Studies from the University of California—Davis, and an associate of arts degree in Liberal Arts from De Anza College.


Lingzi Wu

Construction Management
Dr. Lingzi Wu is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Alberta. She graduated from Tianjin University with a dual degree in Civil Engineering and English in 2010 and obtained her MSc and PhD in Construction Engineering and Management from the University of Alberta in 2013 and 2020 respectively. Prior to her PhD, Dr. Wu worked in the residential construction sector as a site engineer with Changzhou Erjian from 2010 to 2011 and in the industrial construction sector as a project coordinator with PCL Industrial from 2013 to 2017.

An interdisciplinary scholar focused on advancing digital transformation in construction, Dr. Wu’s current research interests include (1) integration of advanced data analytics and complex system modeling to enhance construction practices and (2) development of human-in-the-loop decision support systems to improve construction performance (e.g., sustainability and safety). Dr. Wu has published 10 papers in top journals and conference proceedings, including the Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, Journal of Computing in Civil Engineering, and Automation in Construction. Her research and academic excellence notable recognition, including a “Best Paper Award” at the 17th International Conference on Modeling and Applied Simulation.

As an educator and mentor, Dr. Wu aims to create an inclusive, innovative, and interactive learning environment where students develop personal, technical, and transferable skills to grow today, tomorrow, and into the future. The effectiveness of her teaching is evidenced by students’ comments that can be found at https://xiaomoling.github.io/PersonalWebsite/#/teaching.


Ruoniu (Vince) Wang

Real Estate
Ruoniu (Vince) Wang joins CBE’s new faculty cohort from Grounded Solutions Network, a national nonprofit organization promoting inclusive communities through housing strategies with lasting affordability. In his capacity as the Research Director, Vince spearheads the organization’s research agenda to track the prevalence, practice, and impact of shared-equity homeownership programs. He compiled the first census of inclusionary housing in the U.S. and currently leads a census of community land trusts in North America.

More generally, Vince studies spatial justice and inclusive communities, including their impacts reflected in the built environment, human behaviors, and policy interventions. He was/is the PI/Co-PI of eight funded research projects totaling over $1 million. Vince grounds his research with applied tools to democratize data for low-income communities. His work has been published in academic journals such as the Journal of the American Planning Association, Urban Studies, Housing Studies, and Housing Policy Debate, as well as through other publishers such as Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Cityscape, and Shelterforce.

Vince received his masters and doctorate in Urban and Regional Planning with a minor in Real Estate from the University of Florida. In 2005, he spent one year at CBE as an undergraduate exchange student from China. Vince is excited about his new role as a scholar and educator that builds upon extensive professional experience in public, nonprofit, research, and for-profit sectors.