Sudden Impact

Three firms discuss how their internship programs benefit both interns and staff.

By Wendy Gilmartin

Tina Chee (left) and Marc Salette (right) at the Tina Chee Landscape Studio. Image courtesy of Tina Chee Landscape Studio.

With summertime come internships, those short stints of employment when students get the chance to enrich their academic experience with the practicalities of the real world. Of course, it’s an exciting time for interns, seeing how it all works for the first time. But how are offices reciprocally enriched by their internship programs? Once on board, how do interns fit into an office structure, and how do they affect day-to-day workflow? Three design offices explain their approach to taking on summer interns and discuss the impacts on office culture and resources.

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Doug Smith, ASLA, President and Principal; Cara Critchlow, Director of Human Resources; Jill Martinez, Executive VP of Marketing

What’s the onboarding process like for interns, and where do they go from there?

CARA CRITCHLOW: So, the first week, the HR team works with a few different designers from our office, different levels, typically associate seniors, to put together a program and a schedule for their week one. The program very much outlines the design challenge for them for that week. We try to find a current project that’s happening around the office, something tangible where they can go on a local site visit or see a comparable site locally to give them design ideas and inspiration, all of that. Kickoff week runs as a design challenge. At the end of the week, they present the findings and their concepts to the firm as a whole, so the firm can see their talent, their experience, their ideas, and then we celebrate the end of their first week and welcome them into different design studios. That week gives us an opportunity to understand their skill sets better, so we can place them in studios where we feel they would be most successful for the term of their internship.

DOUG SMITH: We ask an associate or a senior associate to step in and help organize. We also look at that as a leadership opportunity for some of our younger staff to come in and lead the interns through a design process and sort of mentor them through the week. There are a couple of benefits, not only for the interns, but for some of our younger staff to step up and get a little bit of leadership experience. We think of the interns as entry-level employees, and the tasks that we put on their plate are no different than what we ask the interns to do, and of course we give a lot of guidance.

CRITCHLOW: We run four programs throughout the year. For our spring and summer program, which runs January through August, we typically take anywhere from four to 10 interns, depending on what our staffing configuration and our projected work needs are. For our summer program, which tends to be our largest program, it’s a short 10-week run, and we typically take anywhere from 10 to 15 interns.

How has the structure of the different intern programs evolved over the years?

SMITH: This is the 58th year of the firm, founded in 1960, and I think from the very start, Ed Stone had interns who came into the fold within the practice, probably very informally in the early years of the firm. I have been here 30 years, and I would say we’ve had what I would call a formal internship program for a good 25 years, where we really put a structure around it in the way we brought the group of people in. And then we introduced the process of the design charrette exercise, which allows that group of interns to get to know each other and learn how to work in a team environment with somebody that they’ve never met before, and that sets them up to launch into the rest of their internship.

Behind the scenes, how does this extensive intern program affect

CRITCHLOW: HR and the leadership of our firm both see impacts, although we find it very worth the time invested, for sure. HR does spend a good portion of our year reviewing applicants, and we work with our marketing teams who’ve designed for us some really cool campaigns over the past several years. We have a great advertising process for the internship program itself, which is bringing in a good number of applicants to us. We lean on designers here at all levels to review the portfolios, and HR is interviewing via Skype. And then we get together as a team and make decisions on who we feel best fits the firm.

SMITH: Because the program is rolling through the year, it really has become part of the day-to-day structure of the company and, with regard to mentorship and education, it’s not just interns, it’s really a learning opportunity for everybody in the firm. It takes a little bit more time with an intern because there’s more for them to understand and be exposed to, but it really is a part of the process that we go through with teaching each other problem-solving tools. There’s always a renewed sense of energy when we have a new batch of interns coming in, and that charrette week has a lot of energy at the end when they make their presentations. And then they sort of distribute out into the firm—the new blood out there in the ranks is always a good thing.

Could you talk specifically about those campaigns and the coordination between marketing and HR and the principals?

CRITCHLOW: Marketing will talk to recent hires in the firm or even candidates that we’ve had in for internship programs and say, “What would attract you, or what works?” Our campaign from this past year was a superhero-themed campaign where we introduced “landscape architecture superheroes.” I think we had a really good draw from students with that campaign. Everybody referenced it when we visited campuses this year. We did a campaign about having a good day at the office when your arm is covered in marker because that means you were on the boards drawing and creating. I think we had a poster full of dirty, markered-up arms.

JILL MARTINEZ: Anytime that you hire anybody, you want to make sure that they’re a fit for your company culture. I think that the marketing campaigns and the concepts that we put out into the marketplace portray what our guiding principles are and what our core values are as a company: hand graphics and technology and the stewardship of the land. All that comes into play so that we are attracting the right people who are going to really enjoy their internship experience with us.

Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners PLLC
New York City
Stephen Whitehouse, ASLA, Partner and Founder

How do interns work into the structure of the office?

We don’t have a formal intern program. I think there is a challenge to structuring an experience for the interns that is both interesting and, I hope, beneficial for them, and beneficial for the office as well. The challenge is that you want to keep the intern busy. Honestly, we don’t want to turn the office upside down, but want to find the projects in which there is the potential for making a contribution with a short engagement to the project. We do try to have interns directly involved in ongoing projects and different types of work. If we have a research project, something that we have been interested in that maybe has been a little bit back-burnered, that could give the intern a sort of steady and ongoing set of interests and responsibilities while the rest of the projects may be going in and out. Last year, we had two interns, landscape architecture interns—I think the most we ever had. At that time, we had active planning projects in process, so we had people involved with regional or area research and graphics, and we were doing public participation meetings. They were actively involved in those. We had another project that was in construction, and one of our interns joined our staff for about eight days of summer planting. So, in a way, this is not that dissimilar from how our people work as well. We tend not to have strict specializations within the office, and we expose the younger professionals to as many corners of practice as we can. The other thing I feel obligated to say, and this is certainly true for anyone, I think we’ve had some unpaid interns who have been here for a week between semesters or a couple of weeks max. That’s happened a few times. I think only once did we have an unpaid intern over the summer and, honestly, I greatly prefer to pay interns, and I think it’s important. I think it’s important in terms of the seriousness with which they’re taken inside the office. And I also think, in regard to students and their education, I like to hold out the notion that landscape architecture is a profession whose practitioners get paid.

What are the impacts of internships on the staff?

The Starr Whitehouse office in New York. Image courtesy of Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners.

For the last several years, an intern has tended to become attached to an associate or project manager. It’s more than shadowing: That person becomes their direct supervisor on the core group of things that they’re dealing with. Fortunately, we’ve been busy enough that those project managers have had no difficulty in giving the interns a whole group of useful and challenging things to do. In terms of the value, we are, as a profession, a strange vestige of the apprenticeship system, in that we have degrees, but don’t have licenses until we gain experience. So we don’t necessarily expect interns to express or exercise all manner of judgment that comes with years of experience, but I will say one thing, that they bring a couple of wonderful things to the office. We love their energy. We have a somewhat youthful office anyway, but that sort of energy and enthusiasm that the interns bring to the office is infectious. While they may have things to learn about the use of software for producing professional documents, boy, do they tend to bring an awful lot of computer, graphics, and visualization skills. Many of them make real contributions in terms of visualizing projects and communicating them to clients and the public. And ideally, we like it as well if they come away from the summer with not just three lines on their résumés, but a couple of things that look good in their portfolio. This is every bit a reasonable exchange. So, they should be able to come away with a good experience of value. We’ve actually been space constrained a bit over the last couple of years, but we have managed to fit people in [laughs].

Nobody’s working in a closet or anything?

And nobody’s working on a 10-year-old computer without current software. We don’t have a formal feedback process for internships, so my statements are somewhat impressionistic now, not data based. But, in terms of our own interest as a business, it’s important for us to meet young people in the field, and likewise, through professional events and other related events in New York and through the networks of the people who work for us, to be aware of professionals at all levels.

Tina Chee Landscape Studio
Los Angeles
Tina Chee, Design Principal and Partner

What’s the overall structure like at Tina Chee Landscape Studio?

We have two full-time principals and, from time to time, a couple of freelancers who help us out on specific tasks.

In addition to your other principal and the occasional freelance staff, you also take on interns?

That’s something we started to do last year, and we’ll have a few interns this summer as well. This summer we’re going to have three interns joining us. We’ve basically identified very specific tasks we would like explored. It could be, for example, building a physical model at various scales. Or developing a couple of renderings. Basically, things that maybe are not specifically something that’s required for a project deadline, but more something that’s an exploration or a study on a certain project. We plan for fitting tasks within the time frame of when interns are available. For example, we’re working on the January 8th memorial. It’s in remembrance of the shooting of the former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords from Arizona [and 18 other people, six of whom were killed]. It’s a one-acre project on a four-acre site in the old historic part of [Tucson]. And our proposed structure has got a landform shape. We would like to really study the form, and how we’re going to build the exterior. It’s a little bit of a blend of landscape and architecture with a highly articulated architectural form, but one that is softened by landscape. We will have the interns build that over the summer. We had to go through several iterations due to budget constraints, as any typical project would, and so we have already existing models, but we’re going to build another model of the current version. But we still need to study constructability and materiality. Those models will be important to show to contractors and the client, of course. But these are extra things that maybe we don’t need to do, but we want to do them for ourselves.

And something you likely wouldn’t have time for in the day-to-day work of the office yourself?

Absolutely. Yeah, now with computers, renderings can provide a really accurate representation of the elements of a project, but we really believe that there’s something special about seeing a physical model. It’s something that takes many hours to do well. And I think it’s kind of a nice thing also for interns to do, to take the time to build these things, and it’s something they’re capable of doing. I try to find a task and a project that would suit the skill set of the intern, and one I know they will succeed at. I don’t want to give them something that would be too frustrating, but something that is still challenging at the same time.

How do you know the intern’s skill set will mesh with the specific tasks?

As a studio instructor of both landscape architecture and architecture, I work with students on a daily basis, so I get to know them. I think teaching is kind of the best source of finding interns and potentially entry-level staff, because you already know them. Sometimes it’s about personality, if it clicks or doesn’t click—that’s one level. And then you get to see how they work on their own projects, their intensity level. Can they listen to what you advise them to do? Can you see how they carried out that specific advice? We can assess and see their thinking. It’s like a mini trial almost, like a little test run. Students are great, because you have that trust level with them already. You believe in them. They trust you because you’ve built a relationship together already. I am hiring somebody this summer who I have not previously had as a student. I just posted at a local university, and somehow this posting got put on other websites, so we’re getting résumés from students from all over the country. And we are selecting those candidates based on Skype interviews, and really scrutinizing the portfolios, in addition to asking pointed questions: “Is this individual work or group work?” We will ask about workflow process to see what they’re thinking about, maybe the various techniques they use and so forth. There are extra checks we have to put in place to know if what they are presenting is really their work, because we don’t have that existing relationship with them. We also ask what they plan for the rest of the summer in their free time, just to get to know their personality, what their interests may be outside of work, to see if it’s a good fit with us. We have one person from the University of Virginia coming this summer. I’m really excited about that.

What kind of impact will interns have on you and your resources, or even the space of the office itself? Where will you put everyone?

For interns specifically, I need to attend to quality control. We had an intern last year who had a bit of a learning curve with modeling software. The modeling needed a certain precision level that maybe she had not been used to in school. I had to invest more review time. In terms of space, we’re just in an open office. Obviously, I’ll be keeping more personal information a little bit quieter, for example, when I’m on the phone in the open studio. But, with the interns, especially ones I don’t already have a relationship with, the security of files is very important to me. I think that would be important to anybody. You have to understand once you’re in an office structure sharing files with somebody, it can be copied, it can be deleted by accident, whatever the case is. So, for file security, I really try to limit the types of files they have access to, for example, and obviously, I’ll have to keep copies in case something does go wrong! But those are the normal challenges one has with any new people in the office.

Wendy Gilmartin is a writer and architect in Los Angeles. The founding principal of Wendy Gilmartin Architecture, she teaches in the College of Environmental Design at California Polytechnic State University, Pomona.


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