Lessons Learned: A week in the life of a Carleton College extern

Each year, the firm hosts an “extern” from Carleton College. These are undergraduate students who may be interested in pursuing design studies and architect careers, and their 1-2 weeks here are designed to give them a taste of every aspect of our profession. Our most recent extern, Karen Chen, shares reflections from her November externship. Her post has been slightly edited for brevity.

Karen Chen, right, with her externship homestay host at Portland’s Tilikum Crossing bridge.

I had the privilege and pleasure of being dipped into the professional sphere of architecture for a week at Hennebery Eddy Architects. During the externship application process, I was attracted to Hennebery Eddy’s demonstrated core values of innovative design, responsive service, and the obligation that firm members take ownership in their work. They aligned with my developing interests in art, STEM, and environmental and social justice — what would be more complementary than a discipline that uses considerations in aesthetics and physical function to create structures for people to inhabit in the real world?

I was exposed to an eye-opening, informative slice of the architectural industry and what professional life entailed. I gleaned a ton of knowledge and insight about architect careers simply through watching and talking with architects in various roles. Through shadowing, observing meetings, and conversations, I have a firmer handle on topics like entrance into the field, schooling, school-to-career transitions, internships, and career and job development. I both sat in on meetings about projects and accompanied architects who had volunteered to take me to tours of those project sites, including the Clackamas County fire stations, the new PDX terminal, a commercial renovation at Columbia Square, a factory cafeteria, and community college buildings.

From my observations, I came to appreciate the complexity of the process of actualizing a building. Within the firm, there are specialized staff like historic preservation experts and sustainability advocates who contribute their knowledge where applicable. At an owner/architect/contractor (OAC) meeting discussing the plans for a welding facility at a college, there was careful consideration and debate among the different parties on every facet and function as they applied to construction, display aesthetic, influence on the student-staff symbiosis, and costs. In another meeting on an in-development fire district headquarters, four architects as well as various fire department personnel and lighting/ fixture experts presented, then addressed, complications and troubleshot. It was neat to see them in action, brainstorming and rearranging rooms to meet certain constraints and all the logistical considerations. Value engineering, I learned, means strategically altering design, materials, and elements of construction in order to augment the cost to function ratio. Drawing on the projection on the dry erase board, they worked together to tweak details.

architect careers Hennebery Eddy Architects Portland Oregon
The externship included construction site visits to a 12,700SF, wood-framed fire station (left) and a 157,000SF, steel-framed airport concourse (right).

It also became clear that architects have expanded responsibilities beyond just design. They’re involved with every step in the process of putting up a structure, like collaborating and coordinating with a plethora of folks in different sectors (the building owners or the clients, fixtures providers, real estate companies, construction contractors, engineers, the occupants). One architect, for example, is tasked on each project with visiting the construction site weekly to monitor and troubleshoot any number of issues that crop up. Multiple architects told me that they had to strengthen critical skills from working that weren’t taught in school — soft skills like problem solving, communication, diplomacy, flexibility, time management, work ethic, taking criticism, emotional intelligence, and capacity for compromise.

At Hennebery Eddy, it was easy to see a great community in the office dynamics. They were all super welcoming, and two architects even treated me at a local Portland coffee shop where they let me pick their brains. The culture was collaborative, full of camaraderie but effective and professional. Everyone seemed to appreciate the core values at the forefront of the firm. Everyone also seemed to hold strong personal opinions about aesthetics and design, which made me wonder how often divergent styles clashed. Hennebery Eddy evidently makes it work, judging by their accomplishments (plus a row of awards across the wall), and I figure that the shared ethos unites them and their team skills give them flexibility. A lot of people expressed exhilaration and satisfaction at their power to actualize a physical occupied building. It never gets boring because it’s so interdisciplinary and dynamic, with both technical and creative sides. They love their work, but that love is kind of a necessity because of its demanding nature. Additionally, I was told that the market for architecture can be volatile as it fluxes with the construction sector and economy, and that the salaries don’t quite compare to doctor or engineer pay. However, an architect only appreciates in professional value with age and experience, in contrast to many other jobs; their expertise doesn’t expire or rest on physical stamina.

I also wondered about their ethical roles and responsibilities. As the directors of the construction of large-scale structures, they direct large-scale use of materials and long-term use of facilities and environmental resources like energy, water, and land. Thus, they have the opportunity to have a correspondingly real and appreciable environmental and societal impact. They strive to minimize their footprint or create “net-positive” structures through utilizing the environment and intended function to inform design, using natural lighting, being LEED certified, using passive heating and cooling, and cutting down on transportation through sourcing local materials. There’s a common overemphasis of the individual consumer’s role of being sustainable, and it was cool and enlightening to be witness to people so essential to environmental stewardship carry out their responsibility!

From the sum of my experiences at Hennebery Eddy, I pulled insights not only about the architectural discipline but the practicalities of working on a team and across sectors to handle large-scale projects and resources. They filled in many pieces of the mostly blank picture I possessed previously about architect careers. I saw how projects gained realness and complexity at various stages in development, from a computer model using Revit software, to walls papered in protective tarp, to a finished school a year on. I realized that through being architects of buildings, they’re enabled to also be architects of positive change. It was a great week, and I’m super grateful to all the people who were a part of making it happen.