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Sonali Khanna '18

Sonali Khanna, a third-year Architecture major, explains her experiences as an architectural intern, the detail-oriented work that goes into a design, and the increasing passion and drive instilled in her by the rigorous academic programming in the department of Architecture.


When did you discover that architecture was your desired career path?

Since I was young, I’ve always been really interested in art. My mother was an art teacher at my elementary school, and at the end of the day while she’d clean up her art studio, I would utilize the materials leftover from the day. But when I hit high school, I realized going into an art profession didn’t initially seem like a financially stable route for me. However, my grandfather has held a career in architecture for quite some time, and I knew that I could also go down that path. Since attending UMass, my love of architecture has flourished and I truly see myself following the career path of my grandfather.

Why did you choose to study Architecture at UMass Amherst?

I chose to study architecture at UMass mainly because of the school’s atmosphere. When I came to visit as a senior in high school, I found that I could picture myself adapting to the environment comfortably. I pictured myself gaining incredible knowledge while working in the architecture program along with the impressive faculty, and I also could see myself immersed in student activities and creating a solid community of friends within the large campus. When I went to other schools, I couldn’t picture that same balance.

What do you like about the program here?

The Department of Architecture at UMass, while always supportive, pushes every one of their students to be the absolute best. While we, as students, may believe our first design is amazing, the faculty will continue to push us even further in order for us to come up with the absolute best design we possibly can. Even though our projects are time-consuming and sometimes very difficult to push through in the small amount of time we usually have, it prepares us for the time constraints and critiques we will have in the real world.    

How does the program vary from from other schools?

I think the most unique feature of UMass’s program is the closely-knit bond that exists in between the different grades. Since our program is smaller than other universities, we are able to intermingle between the different levels. It doesn’t matter what level of experience you are, because everyone is welcomed into the classroom of another Design class. The department’s students are always open to help a fellow architect in need and always available to lend needed materials. As a lowerclassman, I remember utilizing any advice older students gave me and now as an upperclassman, I hope I can provide the same knowledge to my younger colleagues. We are very cohesive and generous as a department, and I think that closeness makes this program even more special.

You mentioned the impressive faculty. How have they helped you particularly in your studies?

The faculty from our program are very helpful and overall integral to our studies. We as students don’t give enough credit to our professors because critiquing someone’s work is a very difficult task, but they ultimately know that we can be challenged further in our creative processes. As I said previously, they are preparing us for our future endeavors as architectures, and they expect us to adhere to their guidelines and deadlines--just as any client would. The teachers have always been very supportive in my experience and have always encouraged me to create my best work, and I absolutely owe my two internships to their help.

What are some additional steps you have to take prior to becoming a licensed architect, beyond the four-year BFA program at UMass?

I will have to go to grad school for two years. Beyond that, I have to accumulate 3,600 AXP (Architectural Experience Program) hours during my time as a student in order to become a licensed architect. In addition, there are seven licensing exams per state that I will need to be studying for during my time at grad school. I, personally, will most likely be taking the licensing exams in California because that’s where I plan to go to grad school. It’s a very tedious process, but well worth it in the end. It’s also comforting to know that once I’m licensed, I will be incredibly prepared to tackle my career with some incredible experience in my backpocket.

Tell me about your experience thus far being an intern for architecture firms.

I have held two internships this past year that are completely different. This summer I worked in a design firm, Steven Mueller Architects in Greenwich, CT. Over there, I got to incorporate a lot of design methods that I learned in class, so instead of doing remedial office work, I got to work hands on with rendering softwares and even a specific client. A rendering is a draft made from a computer program and, after my initial design work, I personally alter it to the client’s needs. With my photo-realistic renderings, I would design a particular part of a building, like a kitchen or a master bath, and present it to my client.

I now hold an internship at Amherst College Design and Construction Firm. Because the firm is private, it solely deals with academic buildings and dorms on the Amherst campus. It’s not an architectural firm--it’s a project management firm, which means it deals mostly with the construction phase of a project. My duties include visiting construction sites and talking to the contractors.

How have educational programs and the architecture industry in general adapted with modern eco-friendly initiatives?

I took ARCH 301: Design 2 last spring, and my final project surrounded the idea of sustainability. This was by far the most time-consuming project I had tackled at this point in my educational career at UMass, and it required a couple of all-nighters to see my planning come to fruition. Mainly, we focused on how to create an aesthetically pleasing building while also utilizing the least amount of resources. For my project specifically, I used solar powered windows that were new to the market, a green roof (a roof completely covered with vegetation), and I incorporated a harvesting rainwater system to recycle nature’s precipitation to use for bathroom water. It is important to focus on our buildings’ consumption rate because these natural resources are depleting, and sustainable designs will restrict wasteful usage.  

What are the misconceptions about being an architecture major?

People always assume it’s an easy major because they think I’m just “drawing stuff,” and they envy me for its “fun nature.” Yes, I have fun with what I’m doing because I’m very passionate about my craft, but architecture and art as a whole go far beyond drawing. With my major specifically, everything needs to be in exact measurement and in an appropriate scale that easily could be translated to a real building. Even if I’m off by half an inch, my entire design could be ruined. Not to mention with every design we make as architects, there has to be a thorough reason behind its construction--we can’t just make it because it looks cool.

Would you say that architecture is a competitive field?

Yes, especially as a woman. The field is predominantly male, and as a woman architect, people may assume you are solely a “designer” and constrict you from working in a leading position, doubting your credibility. Men in your firm or a client may not accept you to create a sustainable design or respect your authority. Like many careers, it is likely a person less qualified than you can be given the job just because they are a man. Though that concept is disappointing, I just know I have to prove myself that much more. I have been taught that there’s definitely a double standard in the career, but as a hardworking woman I cannot be discouraged. I have to continue to demonstrate that my abilities are no less than any man competing for the same job.

You're about to embark on a trip to New York City under the architecture deparment. Tell us about that!

The trip is for architecture students to New York City to showcase our work in an exhibit in Chelsea for two days. NYPOP is hosting the exhibit, and my classmates and I are bringing our posters from the "Animal Architecture" project we had in the beginning of the semester to pin up in the exhibit. For my project, I was assigned the hummingbird, so my animal-friendly architecture was focused around bringing the hummingbird nest more common to view around residential areas in order for humans to be able to see how hummingbirds nest. My design includes a flower planter, a hummingbird feeder and typical perches that hummingbirds would nest on and is intended to rest on a deck raising. This piece of architecture brings hummingbirds and humans closer together while also maintaining a safe distance for the bird and being aesthetically pleasing for the humans’ residence. In New York City, we will be visiting architecture firms, looking into grad school admissions, and there will be potential employers coming to look at our work. So it's a great opportunity not only to feature our work in the city, but to also network and make connections with future employers and grad school.