Staff Inspire High School Students Through Architecture Industry Mentorship

Architect Cara Wessel and interior designer Abby Cridland share about their experience volunteering with the ACE Mentor Program. The firm annually sponsors and enables staff to participate in this architecture industry mentorship as part of our Hennebery Eddy Gives program.

Cara (standing left) explains architectural design concepts to students during a mentor session in the Hennebery Eddy office.

Describe how the ACE program works.

Cara: ACE is an after-school program for high school students interested in Architecture, Construction and Engineering. Students are placed on teams and collaborate on a building design project under the mentorship of industry professionals from each of the three disciplines. Over the course of 12 meetings, the students learn about different phases of design through presentations, hands-on activities, and construction site visits. The mentors guide the students to complete their design project and present it at the end-of-year program.

Abby: These students are from all over the Portland metro area and are grouped together to create their own project. I even had a student who traveled from Jefferson County — that’s almost a three-hour drive! Each ACE session is hosted at a mentor’s office. This gives students a sense of not only how we work but were we work, helping make what they are learning more real.

What was your goal for the students in ACE?

Cara: I wanted to inspire the students and demonstrate the immense impact they can have on the built environment and the surrounding community.

Abby: My goal was to teach them about teamwork and communication: how it’s not up to a single person or discipline to make all of the decisions for a project, and all of the disciplines have to communicate for a project to be successful. I also wanted to teach the students there are multiple avenues in the ACE industry. I am the only interior designer in the ACE Mentor Program, so I show students how important it is to look at the interior of the building, the psychology of space, and different design principles to make building users comfortable.

How did you explain architecture and design concepts to students?

Cara: Through the assigned design project (a renovation of a parking garage adjacent to the Portland State University campus), the students learned about different tools and strategies to take their vision and implement it through design solutions. During a site visit to the parking garage, the mentors taught them how to document existing conditions and surrounding context. In meetings, we shared our personal experiences and topics we consider at different phases of the projects. Hands-on programming and design exercises help develop their design using “bubble” diagrams, plans, and details. The architecture industry mentorship provided tangible examples that the students could relate to, and mentors asked directed questions to spark design thinking. It was important to allow the students to come to their own solutions instead of giving them all the answers. Construction site visits to the new Multnomah County Courthouse and The Glass Lab, a creative office space, exposed students to how all the disciplines come together.

Abby: I focused on different ways a space can be divided without using four walls and a door. I later explained the human scale of spaces. One example I used is how space feels when the ceiling is at 8 feet versus 24 feet in height: What is the human response to a space with a double-height ceiling? From there, we discussed dividing space based on human measurements and how to think of space in a human scale. That all wraps into drawing sections of buildings: How are we going to show the different ceiling heights? To help them understand different types of design drawings (plan, elevation, or section), I relate them to food.

Abby uses food to explain different types of design drawings, like these examples of Chapman Hall.

How did the students demonstrate what they learned?

Cara: Their progress each week culminated in a final project design presentation. The students took the existing parking garage and transformed it into affordable family housing with shared social spaces. They developed a wide range of programs to support the young families who would use the facility, including a central atrium to foster social interaction between floors, along with communal kitchens, daycare, lending library, and rooftop garden. In a short period of time, the students paid great attention to detail, creating custom sunshades for each unit, which gave the building a unique identity.

Abby: Each week, the students demonstrate what they’ve learned through drawing. They have an exercise each session to apply what they learned from the mentor presentation to their own project. My favorite part is that while they are drawing, they will be discussing with their peers and asking questions of the mentors.

Why did you get involved in ACE?

Cara: I wanted to share my experience with the next generation in the design and construction industry. I wish I had the same opportunity when I was that age, so it was rewarding to pay it forward and encourage students to embrace their creativity. They came up with some great ideas, and who knows, maybe I’ll get to work with them again someday!

Abby: I was an ACE student in 2009. My experience led me to the interior architecture program at the University of Oregon, where I gained the knowledge and connections to land my first job. It was a no-brainer that I would want to return to the program as a mentor. I continue to volunteer because the energy and excitement of the students is contagious and gets me excited about my career.

What is your favorite memory from the program?

Cara: The students came from different schools and were randomly assigned to teams. They did not know each other before the program and at first were timid sharing their ideas in a large group setting. It was amazing to watch the group dynamic unfold and see the students build the confidence to let their great ideas and design solutions be heard.

Abby: At the mid-term, the students received a project “risk card” that said, “The construction schedule has been delayed three months due to late payment by the client.” My students asked questions about the reality of this risk: Does that happen in real projects? How do the mentors deal with this issue? How does that affect the budget? As the students were all thinking about this, a quiet student spoke up with a plan to raise money for the project by opening up the construction site for use as a skateboard park, ensuring the site didn’t go to waste during the three-month delay. While this is not a realistic solution in our industry, it allowed an otherwise quiet student to engage, be a problem-solver, and get the rest of the team excited. That student gained confidence and continued to be fully engaged in the ACE project.

At the end of the program, students present a final project they’ve designed and drawn during mentorship sessions.