A year of firsts: life as a graduate student & intern

Thoughts from Shelter team member Keely Ashton

A balancing act

With year one of my two-year Masters of Architecture program at the University of Minnesota having recently wrapped up, I wanted to take a moment to reflect back on the last ten months of learning and growth. Balancing the roles of intern and student has challenged me to use both hemispheres of my brain on a daily basis, inherently strengthening my ability to switch between creative and logical thinking. I tend to tap more into my “left brain” at Shelter, getting experience in more process-focused and technical work like zoning and code research during a project’s site analysis. On the other hand, I often rely more on my “right brain” at school, drawing on my creativity and spatial awareness to problem solve. I’ve experienced firsthand the importance of having this mental flexibility as a designer because we’re constantly being asked to push the boundaries of the built environment while also maintaining a realistic concept. The reality is that designers and students alike will use both sides of the brain to excel in their work and studies, but given that the two hemispheres function somewhat independently, I’d say it’s been a successful year balancing my grad school responsibilities and internship project work.

One of my grad school studio reviews this past fall.

What ‘studio’ entails

Pursuing a degree in architecture requires a certain amount of rigor, grit, and the ability to think on your feet (all of which require engaging both sides of your brain). Studio, the central active-learning component of a Masters of Architecture curriculum, is the place where we research, test, develop, and present designs. We’re asked to create an overarching concept in response to a project’s site, stakeholders, program, and materials. Then, over the course of a semester, we each thoughtfully design an actual output (in this semester’s case, a co-housing community) with deliverables such as site models, floor plans, sections, and elevations coming out of the studio process.

Studio is intended to mimic phases in the design process that we’ll eventually follow in our architectural roles post-grad. In practice, the full design process from conception to build can take anywhere from a few months for smaller scale projects, to multiple years for bigger scale projects. Since this is a lot of work to squeeze into just about fifteen weeks of school, we typically exclude certain design constraints that you would otherwise consider in professional practice (i.e. budget, building codes, etc.). But, having the background knowledge that these constraints exist and impact a project is important. Working on active residential and commercial projects during my Shelter internship has given me exposure to designing around budgets, codes, timelines, consultants, and other real-life constraints. These experiences have helped me to create more thoughtful, sensible, and realistic designs in school.

Designing at school and work

There are many other instances, too, when work and school overlap and I can apply learnings from one to the other. Throughout the year, I have turned to my Shelter colleagues for design feedback, especially for my studio projects. David Jensen, my Shelter mentor, has been someone I often bounce ideas off of frequently. I’ve found that the major difference between designing at school and designing in a professional studio like Shelter’s is the level of collaboration. When you’re creating a school studio project, it’s entirely your own work and thought process. This is very different from working at Shelter where our whole team (both architects and interior designers) contribute to a project. We constantly iterate off of one another’s ideas, offer alternative perspectives, and support one another throughout the design process.

‘Ensemble Rowhomes’: spring 2024 studio

My most recent studio project was focused on net positive design for the development of a co-housing community in St. Paul, MN. Net positive architecture is the practice of building structures that generate more energy than they use each year. This approach can also improve factors such as biodiversity, inclusivity, and well-being, all of which we explored both in theory (during class) and in practice (during studio).

The first half of the semester centered around daylight analysis and energy modeling while the second half focused on designing high performance wall assemblies and intriguing exteriors.

Exterior rendering of the rowhomes and surrounding courtyard I designed for my spring studio project.

Using these learnings from class, I developed rowhouses (groupings of identical or similar low-rise homes, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder) that blend sustainability, inclusivity, and modernity to redefine urban living while honoring the traditional history of the rowhouse structure. From the simplistic rectilinear forms to the intricate details of the exterior wall assembly, every element in my design was meticulously considered to optimize both function and aesthetics. The integration of mass timber structures and high-performance envelopes not only minimizes environmental impact but also ensures longevity and resilience of the built form.

Exterior wall assembly shown in a rendered elevation, plan, and section view.

Central to the design ethos for this project is a commitment to accessibility, with main-level living spaces and provisions for future elevator installation catering to residents of all abilities and ages. This parallels much of the work we do at Shelter, as we design spaces that are sensitive and accommodating to users of all abilities.

Section perspective cutting through a unit of the rowhomes.

On the exterior, the rowhomes feature undulating facades to engage passersby while sawtooth roofs optimize solar energy collection and daylighting. The material palette of aging ash wood and black steel standing seam offers a contemporary yet timeless aesthetic that seamlessly integrates with the surrounding urban and suburban contexts of the site.

Exterior rendering of the rowhomes from the street.

Throughout the design process, I also strived to adhere to the AIA Framework for Design Excellence, a topic I’ve researched at Shelter to inform our own approach to holistic design. Drawing from my internship experience where I gained valuable insights into these types of professional standards, I’ve become an all-around more thoughtful designer, enriching my studio project with a deeper understanding of performance metrics, graphic standards, accessibility considerations, sustainability, and overall coherence.

AIA Framework matrix showcasing design elements of the ‘Ensemble Rowhomes.’

Work-school balance pays off

Having an in-field internship while also being in graduate school has proven extremely valuable. It offers financial support, an opportunity to expand your network, and, especially in architecture, it allows you to gain the experience hours required for eventual licensure. Moreso, what I’ve taken away from this experience is an increased fondness for the arduous, yet rewarding, process of becoming an architect.

When I’m fully set on school, it becomes all-consuming. Studio projects take up much of the bandwidth in your mind, homework is nagging and seemingly never-ending. The same can be said when one is all in on their job. What meeting is next? What deadlines are encroaching? Personally, I’ve loved being able to switch back and forth between brain hemispheres throughout the day when I’m balancing both work and school. Being focused on Shelter work for half of the day allows the school-oriented part of me to relax, and vice-versa. That way, when I do work on my studio project, or grad school homework, I am more compelled, informed, inspired, and creative in the work I do.

Another building section of the ‘Ensemble Rowhomes’.

Embracing the ‘firsts’

When I look back on the past year, I have grown tremendously as a student, colleague, and aspiring architect. This year of ‘firsts’ has been both overwhelming at times but incredibly rewarding. My first architectural internship, my first year in the graduate program. My studio projects also presented a learning curve of ‘firsts’, integrating structural load paths and engineering as well as conducting daylight and energy analyses. As I inch closer to my career in architecture, I am realizing there will be a lot of ‘firsts.’ But, when you are surrounded by a team and peers who support your learning and growth as a person, the ‘firsts’ seem a lot less daunting.

Related Posts

2018 Emerging Talent Award goes to…

Shelter's Co-Founder Jackie Millea receives Midwest Home 2018 Architecture Honor Each year, Midwest Home magazine teams up with the American Institute…

Read more

St Olaf Alumni Magazine features Minneapolis Architects

"Being in the studio is a key part of being an architect - you can't just take the materials home and…

Read more

The Designer + Client Relationship

As Shelter approaches its 10th anniversary, we are looking back at what we have learned as designers, creative thinkers, mentors…

Read more