Lori North & Keshika De Saram
Lori North – Their Story
During fourth year, I took an option studio where we were able to visit DC and study embassy design. We worked with a firm in the city, KCCT, that specializes in designing embassies and consulates and the U.S. Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (OBO), which is responsible for those buildings. This studio piqued my interest because diplomatic design seemed to unite the interests which originally led me to pursue architecture as a career. During my job search, I pursued opportunities across the country–I was open to almost anywhere! I lived in South Carolina my whole life, and didn’t necessarily plan to stay, or necessarily have a specific place in mind I wanted to move to. Receiving an offer to work in DC for KCCT stood out to me the most though, as I would get to work in their international studio and have a part in the embassy and consulate projects I’d come to be fascinated by.
What sort of job opportunities are available?
DC has a healthy amount of opportunity for young professionals. There are offices of varying sizes here, from small boutique firms to offices like Gensler, which has around 500 people. There is also a large variety of type of work. You can find residential, commercial, cultural, historic preservation, and of course health care. As DC is our capital, it holds a responsibility for representing American culture to visitors. Because of this, cultural architecture is one of our biggest focuses. As it is also the home of our Federal Government, there is big opportunity for government work. This is the category I fall into. Our client on embassy projects is OBO. Unfortunately, “government work” is such a stigmatized phrase. However these projects create ample opportunity for growth as an emerging professional. They are often large, complex, offer a healthy amount of job security, and sometimes require more than one architecture firm to work together. This means you’ll get lots of experience designing a wide variety of unique spaces, coordinating across teams (often between firms), and learning about construction methods, as security is often a main concern driving material and method selection.
Tell us a little about your internship and exams. What were your successes/failures?
I currently hold a 4-year pre-professional degree. My plan is to return to school and earn an M.Arch in the next few years, but during my fourth year in undergrad I made the choice to work in the field first. I am currently not testing, but I am enrolled in AXP and am actively earning those experience hours. I know from experience the grad school vs. working decision at the end of undergrad (specifically for those in a pre-professional program) can be a heavy burden. I believe whichever you choose, in the long run, will be the correct choice for you. For me personally, I could not be happier with my decision.
I certainly questioned it at times, especially as fall approached and my peers were returning to school, but the growth I’ve experienced working in an office environment for longer than a summer has been invaluable. I’ve learned how to take care of myself by preparing meals, exercising, prioritizing my mental health, socializing, and living a balanced life while working 40 hour weeks (and being available if I’m needed late or on weekends approaching deadlines). I never quite developed the capacity to maintain a balance like this in school, but I’ve created enough habits I know I’ll be able to take with me when I return, and that’ll make me a better student than I could have been before.
How did you overcome your failures (if any) with the ARE/AXP?
The challenges I’ve experienced so far in my career haven’t involved the ARE or AXP. My challenges have revolved around the shift I experienced from viewing myself as an “intern” to viewing myself as a “designer”. During summers in college I had internships, which were great experience for me, but as they were temporary arrangements, I always viewed my role as temporary in the firm. Working full time I came to see myself as a permanent part of the firm, and therefore valued my work and experiences much higher. This shift in attitude has caused me to step up more in the teams I’m a part of and pursue more responsibility because I know the more I learn, the more I will grow and the more valuable I become to my firm. My number one challenge has been identifying what I know and what I don’t know.
Figuring out what I don’t know is imperative to being able to move forward with the work I’m responsible for. I recently had to work for someone who tended to over explain things I did know, but under explain (or entirely leave out) things I didn’t know. This became extremely frustrating, as I felt they didn’t trust me with tasks I was confident in completing, and at times I was unable to progress because I was missing information I didn’t know I needed. The solution to this, as cliche as it is, was to learn how to better communicate with this person. When we didn’t communicate well, there was generally a bit of tension in our interactions and neither of us were very happy. But once we learned how to make ourselves understood to each other, that tension disappeared, we built trust and respect for each other, and we worked significantly more efficiently. It was about learning how to be patient when listening to this person, and learning how to decode what they actually needed from me. On my end it was about learning to successfully encode for them how exactly I needed their help.
What kind of firm support did you have for the licensure process?
I’ve established very helpful mentor relationships with different people in my firm, and the culture in my firm is very supportive of emerging professionals. My firm is large enough and diverse enough that there is at least one person in any step of the process, so there are plenty of people to ask advice from. Even though I’m not testing yet, I know my firm, like many others in the city, provides financial support for exams.
What is the social scene like?
The social scene is great for me, especially since I live in the District, so it’s easy to get around to different areas to find things to do. I don’t have a car though, so my adventures tend to be limited to the metropolitan area. Sports-wise, Wizards games (basketball), Capitals games (hockey), and Nationals games (you may have heard we won the World Series this year, #DistrictOfChampions) are always fun. There are always concerts, breweries, and of course the neighborhoods like Adams Morgan, U St., H St., and Navy Yard that have good bar scenes.
I recently discovered a company called SoFar Sounds (which is a thing in many cities, I encourage you to look it up) that hosts small concerts with local artists in secret locations. There are also countless museums and galleries, and the Smithsonians are all free. On weekends when the weather is nice, I enjoy exploring on foot. I live close enough to walk to the National Mall, so I often take a run there and may or may not pop into a museum or stop at a food truck in the area. Besides that, exploring different neighborhoods is super interesting because they all have their own unique identity.
How did you manage to make friends the first few months?
I am lucky to have wonderful housemates and a firm that employs many young professionals, so right off the bat I had a good base to lean on. I’ve also been able to meet more friends through these initial friends as we mixed groups, and met each other’s roommates, work friends, and former school mates. Full disclosure, as a single woman, dating has also been a good way to meet people outside of these circles and find new things to do in the city. One person I met introduced me to bar that has (really good) free comedy shows and that’s become something I enjoy doing.
Professionally, there is literally always something going on. Networking is so much ingrained in the culture of DC (many make fun of it, criticize it, but honestly there are worse things) so there are many opportunities to meet others in your field and learn new things. AIA DC is quite active, as is NOMA, and there are often other events such as a panel discussion opening a new exhibit at an embassy. Ultimately the secret is to just be up for anything, especially when you first move somewhere. The more you put yourself out there, the more fun you’ll have and the more people you’ll meet.
How did you find your apartment?
I found my apartment on Craigslist. I’d say this is the best way to look for a place in DC, as I noticed an obscene amount of fraudulent listings and scammers on dedicated roommate finding websites or in housing Facebook groups. The Facebook groups aren’t bad to check here though, but if you do, check often because good opportunities go very quickly. I also know of a friend who he and his roommates found their place through a Facebook group run by a church, even though none of them ever went to said church.
What is your favorite part about Washington, DC?
My favorite part about DC isn’t necessarily a specific quality of the city. I truly just love the life I’ve built here, and I’m thankful for the environment this city provided for me to do that in. The wonderful people I’ve gotten to know, the new things I’ve gotten to try, and ditching my car to rely on public transit are just a few gifts DC has given me.
Keshika De Saram – Professional Experiences
Keshika is a Past President of the AIAS, from 2017-2018, and has been living in Washington, D.C. ever since! He and Lori are actually very good friends, (along with Vice President DeFranza)! Keshika had made a great deal of friends in D.C., is a roller-skate aficionado, food adventurer, and loves to walk through the city. Keshika has been working at Quinn Evans Architects for about 4 years now, and has begun his ARE examinations as the final step towards his license. Keshika wanted to specifically share his experience on the exams and experience farther along in the process with licensure than Lori.
How are you doing with the AXP? Do you have any tips?
I am almost done with my AXP! AXP takes time. You have to be proactive about it, as your boss may not pay attention to what hours you need. Make sure to communicate about what phases of work you want to be assigned to, so that you can get the experience that you still need hours for.
Choose an AXP supervisor that you think would be a good mentor. Ask questions: e.g. what category of AXP should this task I did be recorded under? My AXP supervisor was super helpful in getting me to understand the categories and what sorts of work applies to each.
Here in Washington, DC, there’s a large enough community of emerging professionals in architecture that you can make friends to support you on the AXP journey, regardless of what firm you work for.
Do you have a plan for tackling the AREs? How are they going?
I am currently testing. I first attempted a division of the ARE in 2019, but then decided I wanted to wait until I was a little more experienced. I resumed testing in 2022. I have been studying on weeknights, and finding that I have a much better grasp of the material now that I have been in practice for a little longer. You don’t want to put it off to the point where you lose all your motivation to test; but it’s okay to take your time. It’s also okay to fail and retake a test.
The point of the ARE is to test your competence to be a legally-defined professional —that’s something that carries weight. You should take the time you need to grow into that professional, as you go through the testing process.
Are there any resources or study groups you used in D.C.?
I am definitely the wrong person to help with that. I don’t do well in study groups, so I haven’t sought them out! But that speaks to knowing yourself, and what will help you! But if you did want a study group, as I said there’s a large community of emerging professionals that you could lean on. Most firms, and local AIA chapters will have a set of study materials as well.
This month, ‘I Want to Work In’ is sponsored by PPI, A Kaplan Company, the Preferred ARE Prep Provider of the AIAS.