Team Talks

Meet Sarah Smith from our New York office!

Interviewed by Katie Donahue, Senior Associate at Handel Architects.

Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get into architecture?

I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. I went to school at Clemson University where I swam competitively. Then I went to grad school at the University of Cincinnati where I got my Master of Architecture degree. I always enjoyed making things, and on top of that I was good at math. People kept telling me I would make a great architect, so I looked into it, and now here I am!

How long have you been with Handel Architects?

It’s going on 8 years now. I did a Co-op program here when I was in grad school and I worked with Selina Kwan, Mindy Shields, and Tony Donofrio. I felt really included as an intern which was meaningful to me. I just loved my time here so when I graduated I reached back out to Handel, and have been here ever since.

What do you like most about being an architect?

I think my favorite part about being an architect is the challenge of a problem – I like solving puzzles. Also, now that I'm doing Construction Administration, there's a lot of reward seeing the project you've been working on for so long come to life. In so many jobs, you do your daily tasks and then you never see it again. Everything we do is eventually tangible. I love that about architecture: you’ve worked on a building for so long that you know exactly why everything is the way it is – more than anyone else who walks through it. I know why every little notch in the wall is the way it is. Things like that that are just fun to see in the field.

Would you mind telling us a little bit about your current project?

The project is 312 West 43rd Street. It’s residential rental housing with retail, and it’s right next to the Port Authority so there’s a lot of activity around there. The client is Taconic Partners who we've been working with for a long time, so I’ve gotten to know them well and we all work really well together. I've been working on this project for about four years now, from Concept Design through Construction Administration, and we just topped out. It's been really good to see it come to life - really rewarding. You see every decision you made in real life. There have been many changes, especially with COVID, people are trying to live differently, and that shifted things in the building and impacted costs. But I like being aware of each of those shifts in the project.

312 West 43rd Street in Manhattan’s Times Square neighborhood, for which Sarah is leading the architecture and interiors.

What are some of the most valuable things that you've learned from being on that project?

I think, looking back, the most valuable thing I've learned is how the entire process works. You learn what is really important, what people are really going to notice. Also, how other people do their jobs in relation to yours. Until you see it done, you don’t quite grasp it all.

That's such an interesting point. In architecture school you often don't learn how complex all the inner workings of making a building are, and all the people that you work alongside with to make it happen.

Especially on this project, I've seen the full gamut, and I have a better understanding now of the whole process. They're going to start bringing the facade to the site in the next few months - the curtain wall and mega-panels. There are three different contractors for exterior wall and all the materials are in shipping containers waiting to come to the site. So, it’ll be fun to start seeing that go up.

What's a typical day like for you like?

It depends on what phase of a project I’m working on. But usually I get up at six, leave my house by seven, and catch the ferry. I just bought a house near Sandy Hook in New Jersey. I take the ferry to Wall Street, grab my coffee, and get to my desk a little before eight-thirty and enjoy that half hour of quiet before it starts to get busy. The lights are often still off. I check my email and get into the day. My tasks are varied: RFIs, submittals, design changes, sending sketches for different things, going to the site. Every day is a little bit different. It’s different than earlier design phases when you have giant deadlines. You’re always juggling a handful of things—perpetual small tasks—but it feels nice because you’re constantly crossing things off your list. Of course, just as soon as you get something out, you get three more things sent to you.

You were recently promoted to Senior Associate. Can you tell us about that? What sorts of leadership activities are you involved with at Handel Architects?

I’ve been leading this project alongside some of my other coworkers for awhile now, but also have always been involved in The Whiteboard Groups at Handel Architects, especially the Professional Development Group. We started the group in the office to help with studying, resources, getting licensed. I’ve been working on the Mentorship Program and shepherding some ways of revamping it and always trying to make it more successful. There are a lot of cultural things that I’ve been working on for the office as well as being involved in hiring. It’s enlightening to see different aspects of the company and learn about the business side just as much as the design side.

The only reason I got licensed was because I saw how easy it was with all the resources laid out by the Professional Development Group.

Yeah, it definitely helps when you have other people also doing it.

Do you have advice for other young women wanting to become architects?

I think something that I have learned, especially lately doing construction administration, and working with heavily male-dominated teams, is not to apologize. I've learned that if it’s your fault, fix it and move on. Or really stand up for yourself if it's not your fault and be confident. You or I know just as much as anybody else out there. Just believe it and move forward!

Be the first to hear about our latest news by signing up for our newsletter.