Kennesaw State architecture student wins prestigious Portman Prize for outstanding thesis

KENNESAW, Ga. | May 17, 2021

Azha Parker
Azha Parker

Kennesaw State University’s Department of Architecture has named Azha Parker as the recipient of the 2021 Portman Prize for Outstanding Thesis, awarded to students who best exemplify comprehensive research and design excellence as determined by a panel of experts.

Parker was chosen among 36 fifth-year architecture students for the award, earning a $2,000 prize and a summer internship with award sponsor Portman Architects. Kennesaw State joins the Georgia Institute of Technology and Harvard University as the only institutions to award the Portman Prize.

“I’ve put in a lot of hard work over these past five years, and winning this prize has definitely validated that I can design and implement these architectural ideas,” Parker said. “It motivated me to try to achieve more in architecture after graduation. I hope to use my skills to effect lasting change in the African-American community."

Parker worked alongside Pegah Zamani, associate professor of architecture, on her thesis, “Black Holistic: A Response to Respiratory Health and Equity through K-12 Environments and Community-based Design,” which examined asthma cases in an elementary school in Portsmouth, Va., and how the built environments of African-Americans and other minorities affects their overall health.

"Azha and I have focused on the critical intersection of K-12 education, health and equity in the built environment to rigorously decode our research inquiry into a design solution by analyzing and overlapping multiple layers from a human scale to a sustainable and equitable community at large," Zamani said.

The competition marks the culmination of a three-semester project that begins as a thesis prep course, where students work with faculty to choose an architectural topic to explore, and continues with a research course where students continue to investigate their topic and begin to work with their advisors. Fifth-year architecture students participate in a studio during their final semester, where they combine their research and architectural skills to present a new perspective on their topic.  KSU’s Department of Architecture is one of only a handful of programs nationwide that requires its undergraduate students to pursue thesis projects while earning an architecture degree.

“The Portman Prize helps us maintain the unique spirit of exploration that defines our undergraduate thesis sequence and encourage our students to develop a more holistic design approach that ties big ideas to the built environment,” said Liz Martin-Malikian, thesis coordinator.

As part of her thesis, Parker analyzed the environment surrounding the elementary school and discovered that it was built upon a capped landfill. She used this newfound knowledge to implement ecological practices to help remediate the effects of the landfill, including phytoremediation, the process of extracting metals from the soil using plants. Parker’s research site visit in Virginia was funded by the Atlanta-based Center for Sustainable Communities.

“I wanted to design a gym to help both the students and the African-American community as a whole,” said Parker, who also designed green walls that students could plant on, an outdoor classroom and a nature exhibit. “I wanted to break the generational tension between nature and the African-American community in a culturally appropriate way, and architecture is how I could do that.”

Parker also won the People’s Choice Award for her thesis, which was voted on by her classmates. She plans to continue in the workforce and keep studying to get her architecture license in the future.

"The thesis process is an incredible part of the undergraduate experience within our college, and it fills me with pride to see our students grow under the guidance of our talented faculty members," said Andrew Payne, dean of the College of Architecture and Construction Management. "We are fortunate to have partners like John Portman & Associates who share our values with regard to architectural excellence and look forward to following Azha as she tackles new challenges."

– Josh Milton

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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 45,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit