From Suzhou to Seattle

by Ning Yang

If you told me ten years ago that I would be working in the United States on my path to becoming an architect, I would not have believed you. Every morning as I pass Pike Place Market on my way to HEWITT, I am reminded of where I started.

I’m from Suzhou, a city in the east of China, and three years ago I completed my undergraduate degree. I attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute for my Master’s Degree in Architecture. I’m happy to share some of the unique experiences I’ve had during this transition.

Since I began at HEWITT last July I have been a part of the Mama Tower design team, beginning during the early Schematic Design phase. As the project progresses, I am learning about Seattle’s nuanced public processes related to design and construction. Like a newborn emerging into a new world, I am being exposed to many new experiences daily. I have worked on the preparation for Community Outreach, Early Design Guidance (EDG), and Master Use Permit (MUP) sets. Not only have my Revit skills greatly improved over the last nine months, but I am also more familiar with making design decisions through meetings with clients, engineers, consultants and the like. I enjoy the process most when we get the team together drawing sketches or discussing details around our desks. In a world, this is a good start for me.

Before HEWITT, I had two internships in Shanghai. My first internship was in a gigantic design group with around 1,000 architects and engineers. The famous Shanghai Tower is representative work of this firm (as a local partner). When I was there in 2015, I was involved in competition for a cultural center and middle school design. My other internship was at a France based firm with 20 architects, mainly working on office planning and design for retail shops. 

In my experience, there are major differences between working here and in China. In general, the overall project duration is much longer, if not double, in the U.S. compared to China. This extended process allows more time spent massaging the design and details, and studying potential massing options or different building materials. Ultimately, this time allows us to design a better place for people’s living. Enduring longer project cycles also allows a better work life balance for designers – no need for continuous late nights.

Rendering for the competition-winning project in China.
Rendering for the competition-winning project in China.

Another notable difference is firm organization. Here, HEWITT is identified as a small/ mid-sized design firm with approximately 20 Architects, 20 Landscape Architects and 15 Transportation Architects. However, in China, a 100-person-firm is a mid-sized firm. Next time when you see a 700- person firm, don’t be surprised! It is common for China based firms to employ architects, civil and structural engineers, urban planners, landscape architects, interior designers, bridge engineers, and even general contractors. While the size may seem overwhelming, architects are provided the benefit of easier communication and collaboration with consultants resulting in a more efficient workflow.

Apart from these two major differences, other small aspects are dissimilar, such as the public permitting process and minor cultural differences like discussion during design meetings. Everyday I am learning how to be an architect through the Mama Tower design process and my experiences at HEWITT.

Ning Yang graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University with a Master’s Degree of Architecture last May, and is now working on Mama Tower, a high-rise residential building. She is interested in exploring new things in life and enjoys travelling, painting and hiking in her free time.