Co-Op Talk: Varsha Iyengar @ Perkins + Will

said by: Leah Finley

We are excited to present a new series of #CoopTalks this semester. This interview series provides an opportunity for students to share co-op experiences with students, faculty, staff and beyond. We speak to fellow students who we collectively admire to hear what co-op means to them and the insight into what has contributed to their growth as a student at The School of Architecture and Interior Design at DAAP.

Next up in our series is Varsha Iyengar. She is in her thesis year in the Masters of Architecture program and did her very last co-op over the summer. Here is an edited conversation with Varsha about working at Perkins + Will in Chicago. 

Check back for our next interview in this series or read our previous interviews here.


 Tell us about your decision to work there. 

My first co-op was at Handel Architects in New York. My second co-op was at BCJ, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, in Philadelphia. Handel was about 100 or so people and BCJ was like 25 to 30. So, I wanted to experience a bigger firm. I had visited Chicago a lot the previous semester, and I really liked it. I was set on finding a firm there. I looked into Chicago for my second co-op, but, I didn’t want to bear the winter there, so, I decided it would be better to live in Chicago during the summer. I wanted the location first and selecting the firm came after. I still had good choices in Chicago. I ended up getting my first choice.


What sort of projects do they do?

Perkins + Will in general is a huge firm. They do anything from residential and commercial, to education and health care. They’re really about sustainability as well as health and well-being in all their projects. I worked in the education department, which is something I haven’t done before in a firm. I started in k-12, then I switched to higher education. I filled in wherever they needed me. There was one project I worked on through out my time there. It was a building on the Ohio University campus; the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine . They were in the schematic design phase over the summer. I hadn’t worked on the SD phase of a project in any other firm.


How were you involved in the design process?

We did a bunch of iterations of the facade and massing. I sat with the designers and saw them through that process. They would draw out an idea and ask me to put it into Revit for them. I would use Enscape to render the Revit model quickly.


Tell us about a typical day there.

I’ll start with Mondays because Monday is bagel Monday. They would bring in bagels and coffee and fruit. The office is in the Wrigley building, right on the river. It’s in the north tower and they have the top four floors. It’s really nice. They have a terrace on the roof. The whole top level is a communal space. All the big staff meetings and events would be held there. People eat lunch there. That’s where all the bagels are on Mondays. Then I would report to whoever oversaw me that day. People went on vacation a lot, because of the summer, so I got passed around sometimes. I worked with this one guy, named Max, who was project architect. He’s worked for Perkins + Will for over 10 years. Max would usually tell me what was happening that day. In the SD phase things were changing all the time. So, you didn’t really know what you’re doing until that day. Which is exciting, but, also hard to plan.


What other things would you do? 

We would have to make models. I had to learn how to use their foam cutter. Sometimes, I had to ship models. Once, when everyone on my team was out of town, I had to ship a model to Ohio. That week was probably the most experience I’ve gotten so far. I had to coordinate things with the Minneapolis office because I was the only one in the Chicago office that knew anything about the project. It was a lot of responsibility. There were plenty of other interns as well, about 15 of us. Most of them were younger than me.


Did other interns look to you for guidance? 

Kind of. Our school ends earlier than other schools. I started early May and everyone else started around June. So, I’d been there a few weeks longer. Not everyone was in the same area of the office. We did have this intern program where we would meet every Friday and have a lecture on something related to health and well-being. The lectures would help us develop our final project. That final project was done in groups of two or three. I was in a group of three.

What did you do for your final project? 

We looked at homeless women. In particular, we looked at Deborah’s Place, a shelter that helps women out of homelessness. Perkins + Will will be renovating their gym space eventually. Our assignment was to create a video on a topic of our choice. It had to relate to health and well-being. Our group chose homelessness and narrowed it down to women. Then we narrowed it down to Deborah’s Place specifically. I think the point of the assignment was to really understand storytelling in design. In school we kind of story-tell when we’re presenting, but, in the work place the storytelling is sometimes in the form of a video. They wanted us to make a short video that got to the point and was kind of emotional. It ended up being a fun project.


What did you like the most about working there?

The people. Everyone was really friendly. Also, the culture and the resources they have. They have a model shop and variety of programs. If I wanted to not work in education I could’ve asked to try another team. There’s room to jump around. Even though not everyone is younger, the older people really take an interest in you and want to get to know you. The food was also really good. Every time there’s a meeting there’s food. When there are leftovers it goes up to ‘The Cloud’. ‘The Cloud’ is that top floor I was talking about. We had an intern GroupMe and whenever there was food it would be broadcast in the GroupMe. Everyone says they gained weight after working for Perkins + Will.


What do you know now that you didn't before co-op?

In terms of what I want professionally, I know now that a big firm is not a bad thing. I don’t know if I’ll choose a big firm or a small firm after graduation, but I’m not as opposed to it as I thought I might be. I do think it’s specific to the firm though. If the culture doesn’t feel like a small firm, you might not like it. It felt like a small firm at Perkins + Will. I felt like I knew a lot of people. Work wise, I learned basic things. I learned how to use Enscape more. I learned how to use a headset.


What have you found the most challenging on this co-op? 

Some interns had to work long hours. I didn’t really. Sometimes my supervisor would ask me to draw some schemes, like to a ceiling or facade. That was a challenge for me because I wouldn’t really know what he wanted until I did some options and he gave me feedback. That’s really just design though. It was a lot of pressure because if a supervisor didn’t like it, I did it. It wasn’t like someone else drew it and I modeled it.


How has this experience compared to your other co-ops?

It was probably equivalent to BCJ. Maybe better because I spent the summer in Chicago. BCJ was in Philadelphia and I did like Chicago a lot more. I didn’t end up exploring Philadelphia as much as I did Chicago though. I made the most of every weekend in Chicago.

What sort of things did you do? 

So many things. My favorite thing to do, especially when someone was visiting, would be to bike along the lake shore trail. We would rent those shared bikes, Divvy bikes, and ride them around. Chicago also had a lot of food festivals. I think I went to like four “taste of”s.


Finish this sentence: Co-op is... 

Over. I’m over being an intern and I’m ready to start working full time.



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