hen Claudette Soto (ARCH ’02, M.S. STE ’05) was a young girl, she saw the hidden world within walls. Her father, in the process of renovating an apartment building in her Chicago neighborhood, took a hammer to a wall, exposing the network of pipes, wires, and support beams behind the Sheetrock. Soto says this new perspective was “mind-blowing.” From that point on, she dreamed about making buildings.
Soto, however, didn’t know exactly how she could do that. Growing up in Gage Park, a Chicago community beset by violence and disinvestment, she never felt that she had any meaningful exposure to architecture or to engineering. So, when she came across a recruitment brochure for Illinois Institute of Technology in her high school cafeteria that had been left behind from a recruiting event, she found a path forward and enrolled.
But it was far from easy.
“I had a lot of ups and downs in college; I doubted myself a lot,” says Soto. “I wondered, why was it so hard for me? The simple reason is exposure. The community that I grew up in didn’t have those peers that were visual, so I never learned what architecture was or what it meant. It was the same case for engineering.”
That realization helped lead Soto to the creation of VAMOS (Volunteer and Mentor One Summer) during the fourth year of her undergraduate program. At its beginning, VAMOS coached Gage Park middle school students in the STEM fields. The organization is still active today and now mentors first-generation university students as well. Soto remains involved as a mentor.
Following graduation, Soto began work at d’Escoto, Inc., one of the Midwest’s largest Hispanic-run professional engineering service firms. There she had the opportunity to work on what would become a pivotal project: the construction of a new high school, today known as Victoria Soto High School, a Modernist glass-paneled school in Gage Park.
"As an architect and engineer, [I felt] it was like a dream come true to work on a project in my community."
“I told the president of our company that it has to be my project,” says Soto. “As an architect and engineer, [I felt] it was like a dream come true to work on a project in my community. As a minority and a woman, you’re often overlooked and ignored, the same way as the community is overlooked and ignored.”
After her time at d’Escoto, Soto started her own construction management firm, baso, Ltd., in 2016. A small but growing company, baso focuses on the management and owner representation of community-centric projects in often overlooked areas. As an owner’s representative, Soto helps bring designs to life by finding the best possible teams to build them.
“What a lot of people don’t know is that the architects, engineers, and general contractors that work on these projects don’t usually send their A-teams to work on them,” she says. “I make sure that we find partners that have a mission to support my clients who don’t believe that this is just another job.”
Some of baso’s current and most recently completed projects include the Chatham Education and Workforce Center, the adaptive reuse of a building on 95th Street into a coffee shop, and the headquarters for PODER in Gage Park, which will serve as a learning and job center for adult Spanish-speaking immigrants. When it is completed, it will offer 7,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space for education and events.
Additionally, Soto is working on the redevelopment of Neal Math & Science Academy in the predominantly Black and Latinx suburb of North Chicago, funded by the pharmaceutical company AbbVie. The building, Soto says, is poised to be one of the tallest in the city, offering views of the lake. Ground broke this past May.
“The magnitude of this structure is super-impactful,” says Soto. “You would be amazed as to how, on a certain level, kids perceive things in a different way. As soon as you start elevating the structure, you can see beyond that community, and the perspective changes so much. I am really excited to see that building come up, and to see those kids in there and what they dream about and think about from their new vantage point.”