Four Austin Women Leading Local Construction and Design Industries
Kelly DeWitt, Krysta Lopez, Bhavani Singal and Sarah Yant talk inspiration, mentorship and passion for their fields
By Darcie Duttweiler
Portraits by Weston Carls
Architecture and construction have been predominantly men’s worlds, but that’s quickly changing. The following four women are just a few examples of the talented architects, builders and landscape designers that are operating at the top of their fields in our fair city — and they’re all helping to pave the way for other women to follow in their footsteps.
Founder of Workshop No. 5
Bhavani Singal has been an architect for almost 20 years, but she didn’t originally set out on that career path. Singal’s family is made up of doctors and computer scientists — no one was an artist or a designer. When she was a student at the University of Houston, she took a handful of classes after remembering how much she loved watching her dad steer the construction of their family home and was hooked.
“I fell in love with the craft of creating spaces that bring people together,” Singal explains. “In Indian culture, we have big families and big gathering spaces, and all of that resonated with me. When I saw my dad plan out the house, there must have been some subconscious level. I loved seeing all of that happen in front of me, to see our house, our family home, come to life — but I didn’t realize it until I started practicing architecture.”
Singal is affiliated with AIA Austin, NCARB, Rice Design Alliance and USGBC, was awarded the 2009 AIA Austin Design Award, and has been published in “Texas Architect” in 2009 and 2013 for her work on the Ella Wooten Neighborhood Park, Met Retail and Rackspace.
After the birth of her son in 2014, Singal realized she wanted to have more balance in her life, and that meant starting her own firm.
“I don’t drive my office like the environments I used to work in,” she says. “I wanted to create a firm where everyone felt like they had a balanced life and could have a family while still pursuing their passions and designing beautiful environments.”
Singal likes to bring in her Indian heritage to her contemporary modern designs, and the majority of her projects are residential and small-scale commercial projects. She’s most passionate about creating small-scale commercial projects that have heart and soul, like her recent project Karisha Community Center for Wellness, which was built with an all-inclusive intention for its East Austin environment.
While Singal admits that sometimes “being a woman in this industry feels limiting,” she says it’s getting better all the time, and she aims to help other women by launching a scholarship geared toward women of color and by making her firm welcoming to mothers, especially new ones.
“Once I became a mom, I became a better architect because of everything we have to design around in our lives,” Singal explains. “I started to understand more what a client was going through. Now I understand how it feels, and I can design a space to make their lives better.”
Founder of KKDW Studios
“My passion certainly lies in creating spaces for other people’s businesses and feeling inspired by their own dreams,” says Kelly DeWitt when asked about what exactly her company KKDW Studios does.
While during the pandemic she added residential construction work to her company’s repertoire, KKDW Studios now focuses solely on hospitality and workplace designs, and she prides herself on being a one-stop shop, all the way down to the furniture.
“We envision an entire space and create a very cohesive space that reflects the brand,” DeWitt says. “I always say that I’m creating immersive environments. I want someone who walks in to understand the brand right away.”
One of these “immersive environments” is East Side’s hotspot wine bar Birdie’s, where the team designed and produced all the millwork, steel work, windows and custom furniture, which is where DeWitt originally got her start. The self-proclaimed crafter turned to furniture making as another medium in which to create art. Then-boyfriend-now-husband Travis Norman had a cabinet shop at the time, so DeWitt began learning woodworking. She first started her company in 2013 to create custom furniture but started taking on bigger and bigger projects until she was eventually designing spaces from floor to ceiling, including Pinthouse Brewing, Civil Goat Coffee, Meanwhile Brewing, High Noon, Frazier’s, Miranda Bennett Studios, Easy Tiger and more.
“Non-residential design is usually quite cold and impersonal, especially with offices. There’s a thoughtfulness behind our design that brings that warmth into the non-residential world,” DeWitt says.
As someone who’s been a professional woodworker and welder, DeWitt knows how intimidating it can seem, especially to women. That’s why she likes to help her community by offering classes, some specifically geared to women. She says there’s “empowerment via education,” and historically she finds that women are typically better at welding.
“There’s an inherent tenderness to women, and welding is very tender, very subtle,” DeWitt explains. “You have to listen. You have to use all of your senses. You have to hear the world. You have to concentrate. You see this little tiny connection point that you have to focus on. It is a very sensual thing, and it comes a little more naturally to women.”
Owner of PonyBoy Construction
“This is going to sound really corny, but I love this sh*t because it really does actually help other women,” Krysta Lopez laughs. “It’s good to have exposure because women are really good at construction!”
The former “computer nerd” and fifth-generation Austinite studied sculpture in college and says she got into woodworking because as a thrill seeker she was originally scared of the power tools and wanted to overcome her fears. She eventually moved into construction because, as she says, “construction is an art form.” Lopez credits Amanda Jones, aka “Handy Mandy,” with helping her gain confidence in her construction skills and learn that women don’t have to work under a “mountain of mansplaining and ego.”
After several years of working on crews with men, Lopez was sick of working for other people, especially in some caustic environments full of partying or where she wasn’t allowed to do any of the more challenging tasks. So she created PonyBoy Construction — named after her dog, not “The Outsiders,” by the way.
“I really just got sick of not being given any opportunities,” Lopez says on why she started her own company. “I want to kick ass and do gnarly sh*t. Let me!”
With her best friend Bailey Cromwell and a general contractor, the team at PonyBoy Construction does “literally anything” from structural renovations, framing, insulation, repairs and “we’ll even hang your curtains!” The mostly female team has done historical preservation of Victorian buildings in Lockhart, built a music studio in a Lakeway home and even constructed the rooms of an upcoming East Austin boutique hotel that Lopez is very hush-hush about.
When asked about why she loves construction so much, Lopez likens it to problem solving, but she also admits, “It’s fun as hell. It’s so satisfying on so many levels. It’s an art form. It’s physical. It’s creative. I love the complexity of construction.”
Lopez also says her clients have mostly been women, who really respond well to having a female general contractor. “They feel so much more comfortable with a woman in the house.”
Founder of Twistleaf | Land Design
Landscape designer Sarah Yant got her love of the great outdoors from her childhood spent growing up on her family’s Northeast Texas farm. Now, after 20 years in the industry, she’s happy to spend her days at her two-year-old landscaping design firm, Twistleaf Land Design, focusing on the local ecology of Central Texas and native plants instead of designing green lawns that aren’t eco-friendly or sustainable.
“Twistleaf has a very different perspective than more of a typical landscape approach that might be just about beautifying a place but isn’t really thinking about the wildlife that may live there or water conservation or building the soil or taking care of the trees,” Yant explains.
By implementing what Yant calls “smart design,” Twistleaf creates the landscape design of planned communities, subdivisions, commercial properties, apartment complexes, breweries, as well as large-scale residential projects and ranches. But she’s especially passionate about restoration focused projects, especially the Horseshoe Bay Nature Park, where her team focused on prairie restoration by building berms and swales to capture overland water flows, and seeding those with native plants, grasses and wildflowers, so that rainwater can feed those seeds and restore the land.
The all-female team of Twistleaf lean heavily on hardy native plants and trees, like the twistleaf yucca the business is named after, which “exemplifies biodiversity and adaptability,” bear grass (“it needs little to no water) and Texas sotol, “a beautiful but tough evergreen.” She says with so many people relocating to Austin to build homes, it’s important for newcomers to educate themselves on native plants. And while her designs may shift from project to project, Yant says that they are “primarily motivated by ecology.”
“We’re motivated by the place that we live, the Hill Country and our native ecology and what things should look like here,” she explains. “That’s really the foundation.”
Another foundation important to Yant is mentoring other female landscape designers and helping to guide them in the field. She cites her own mentor Annie Gillespie for helping her succeed.
“She was so influential and helped me have confidence and understand the ropes when I was figuring it out, which is what a lot of young women are doing,” Yant says. “It’s really important to have a mentor. That’s something I really believe in, and I do that for other women who don’t work for me but are newer in our field, by supporting them when I can and helping them learn along the way.”