“It was my first time utilizing any kind of outside service like this. Having someone look comprehensively at you, having that outside perspective was amazing; my ASR Mentor was able to connect dots about me, that I wasn’t able to see myself or formulate a narrative that was strong. Not like crafting it in an inauthentic way. It was still very authentic, but it took someone on the outside to help formulate that or help me see that, so that was really helpful.
Also, the process of distilling down in my particular case. I had so much difference. I had archaeology work. I had architecture work. I had a whole art graphic design, and fine arts portfolio, and theatre. I feel had all of these pieces. The process of narrowing it down to three or four projects to tell an overall story about myself. Synthesizing that with my narratives, and making sure my whole package was cohesive. Everything from the cover letters that I wrote, to the essays, to how the portfolio read, to the key points that I needed recommenders to say, to validate or to speak to. I had never done that before. I know that’s probably a very generic large answer, but I think that you need that to apply to architecture school successfully. Having that clear sense of yourself, that’s really important. That makes all the difference in a successful application versus one that’s just mediocre.
FULL INTERVIEW WITH EMILY MCGOWAN
Emily McGowan: So, I grew up in Indiana in a town called Carmel, Central Indiana. I always grew up really loving design and was really involved in theatre growing up as well as art, so I had a really strong fine arts background. I felt like my early education, high school education, as well as my travel experience had really formed me and shaped the desire to seek something encompassing of that in school. For undergrad, I went to Ball State University and I was crazy enough to do two majors. I did an undergraduate in architecture and I also did a graphic design degree. I graduated in 2011 with two degrees from Ball State. I wasn’t really sure where I wanted to go with that, whether it was more in the design realm, or whether it was architecture, and it was still in the recession. That hit the architectural profession a little bit from 2008.
It was a little harder to find jobs, but I was one of the lucky ones in my class to get a job working at a small firm in downtown Indianapolis. We were mainly focused on healthcare. That market was still pretty much driving the architectural practice at the time, so I took the job and fell in love with healthcare. It wasn’t something I was planning on loving, but I knew that I wanted to further my experience in it. Seeing the way that building design impacts human health, as well as environmental health, and the well-being of communities was really powerful. I moved to Washington DC. I took a job at SmithGroup in their healthcare design studio shortly after. I worked there for about two years and found you when I decided to apply to various schools to study healthcare and to get my Masters in architecture.
ASR: So, tell me a little bit about the process of applying to architecture schools. Take us through your experience, at least from what you remember.
Emily McGowan: Well, I think I was crazy. I decided to apply to nine schools. If I could do that over again, I would probably narrow it down a bit more. Again, I came from such a varied interest and a lot of background, with not only art and architecture but healthcare. I also have a secret life in archaeology where I work as a surveyor at different archaeological sites across the world. I thought maybe historic preservation was a route I wanted to look at too.
ASR: After work dressed up as an archaeologist? [Chuckles]
Emily McGowan: In the summers, I work as an archaeologist [chuckles]. I cast a wide net in school, in terms of applying, and like I said, I applied to eight or nine programs. Of which, your process really helped me to frame my portfolio, my brand. Kind of hone in on each of those specialities, and put my best foot forward with each of those modalities, and help me frame each application. Although we did end up reusing the same portfolio or a very similar version of the portfolio in each of them, that was really helpful. I spent six months preparing all those application materials, and I was lucky enough to get into most of the schools I had applied to. Of those, I got into the dual programs of Berkeley, Columbia, RISD and Clemson. Those were my final four and I narrowed it down from there.
It was a really tough choice after going to all the open houses. I went to Berkeley, I went to Colombia, I didn’t go to the RISD open house, but I was interested of course in their program. I also went to Clemson. I remember sitting in Colombia’s open house and someone was saying, “Oh, you know, they don’t offer financial aid for the first year and it’s a three-year program.” I had already come from a background in architecture, and I remember raising my hand and saying what would it cost me. The graduate student rate increasing from 3 to 6 % that year for loans, it would have cost me $US1750 a month for 35 years. I raised my hand and I was like, “Well, how do you make that back?” I worked in the industry and felt like I already had a pretty good salary for my position, and knew what the cap was, and that was just unthinkable. I remember them telling me that, “You can’t put a price on a dream” [laughter]. I was like, “Yes, you can,” so unfortunately, Columbia was out, and Berkeley was a really great offer too, but I did choose to go to Clemson.
ASR: Can you remember the specific offer that they gave you?
Emily McGowan: They gave me some scholarship that was for both the M. Arch. and the Master of Urban Planning dual degree. I know they admit a certain number of students for both of them, and I was lucky enough to get into both. I think it was $US16,000 a year, which was great. It was pretty significant, and on top of that, offering a graduate assistantship, then after a year having in-state tuition. It was still a three-year program. My parents were very generous to help with my undergraduate education, but I was pretty much footing this one on my own, so that was a little tough. Especially because Clemson had offered a full scholarship, so that was one of the big factors. Also, Clemson has the best healthcare architecture program in the country. It’s actually harder to get into that program that it is to get into Harvard [chuckles]. I didn’t believe that until I sat on the other side of admissions for a little bit, while I was there and realized that. They accept eight students a year into that program, and I was lucky enough to get a seat. I wanted to pursue healthcare, so, there was no better place in the country for me. It ended up being the best decision [chuckle]. Even though it was a little tough to say no to Berkeley, I’m not going to lie. I remember that was a struggle but it was a good choice.
ASR: What was the name of the fellowship that you got at Clemson?
Emily McGowan: I got both an AIA scholarship to Clemson and also their graduate assistantship award, which allowed me to have a really reduced tuition. That was the scholarship, and on top of that, I got the graduate assistant award which allowed me to work when I was there for 20 hours a week. It was a guaranteed position as long as my GPA stayed up, which it did, so, it was good.
One of the big draws for Clemson was their study abroad programs. They have a really great fluid campus program for both their general Master of Architecture students, as well as their undergraduate students. They have off-site locations in Barcelona and Genoa Italy, but in healthcare, the curriculum is so rigorous and it’s such a concentrated and special thing. There wasn’t the opportunity to travel abroad and that’s something that I really wanted. I negotiated delaying my admission a semester to enter with the general master of architecture students in the spring and get an abroad semester. My first semester at Clemson was actually in Italy, which was cool, and that was paid for by the college as well, so that was great. I ended up going two and a half years, but it was worth it for the extra time abroad.
ASR: I want to go back before we start discussing Clemson a little deeper. I want to go back to the application. I was wondering what was the part of the process that we used, that you found most useful.
Emily McGowan: There were several. It was my first time utilizing any kind of outside service like this. In undergrad, you go through portfolio development classes and you can find blogs online. But having someone look comprehensively at you, having that outside perspective; you were able to connect dots about me. That I wasn’t maybe able to see myself or formulate a narrative that was strong. Not like crafting it in an inauthentic way. It was still very authentic, but it took someone on the outside to help formulate that or help me see that, so that was really helpful.
Also, the process of distilling down in my particular case. I had so much difference. I had archaeology work. I had architecture work. I had a whole art graphic design, and fine arts portfolio, and theatre. I feel had all of these pieces. The process of narrowing it down to three or four projects to tell an overall story about myself. Synthesizing that with my narratives, and making sure my whole package was cohesive. Everything from the cover letters that I wrote, to the essays, to how the portfolio read, to the key points that I needed recommenders to say, to validate or to speak to. You’re branding yourself and it’s a whole process. I had never done that before. I know that’s probably a very generic large answer, but I think that you need that to apply to architecture school successfully. Having that clear sense of yourself, that’s really important. That makes all the difference in a successful application versus one that’s just mediocre.
ASR: You feel that some of the skills that we worked on or learned during that process into your studies at Clemson. Did it benefit you at all as a student at Clemson later on? Or did you discover something new about yourself?
Emily McGowan: Yeah, from just the hard skills perspective on the composition of a portfolio and what needs to go in. You were very process-driven, it was never about the product in my portfolio. I don’t know about other portfolios that you’ve coached or worked on, but mine was always a process. I took that narrative through a lot of my subsequent portfolios, and applications for fellowships, and applications elsewhere. It just evolved and it was really interesting.
I’ve been going through this process now, applying to different awards or being nominated for different awards and having to provide materials. I still reference that portfolio and that process of branding yourself, being boiled down to synthesize what you’re about and your values. That was the backbone decision for why I chose my school. That was the narrative I displayed throughout the portfolio, but that becomes still that same background. It’s different work, different context, different scenarios that you’re still going through in life, but it’s still the very core things that you fall back on. Those I definitely used throughout and still do.
ASR: I wanna talk a little bit about your awards now. Let’s talk about where you are now and then maybe talk about Clemson because I want to discuss Clemson compared to where you are now. You’re already very successful and on track to greatness, so, I’m just curious. Let’s start from that. I know that you received some awards so let’s just mention them, list them, and what is it that you do specifically and where do you work?
Emily McGowan: All right, so this is a whole story Elos. My whole path after Clemson is quite a story. Right now I am in Washington DC again. I work at HOK in their healthcare studio here. I’m a medical planner and a healthcare designer. I’ve been here since 2017, so a couple of years, and love it. Absolutely love it. This past fall. I recently won a…
ASR: I’m sorry to interrupt you, I know that you also worked for a very big firm before HOK which was Mass Design, right?
Emily McGowan: I did. I also worked for Mass Design Group right out of school. I was awarded a big fellowship right when leaving Clemson, called the Global Health Corps Fellowship. That was an honour and a big achievement to win and they went to work for Mass Design Group. I was working on different prototype hospitals and specifically the Nyarugenge District Hospital. While I was at Mass, it was kind of an extension of thesis work that derived from my Clemson studies. In terms of prototype hospitals and the intersection of policy, global health, and architecture, which was great. That was my path right out of school and I’m now with a more global focused firm, HOK, which is been wonderful too.
ASR: How have you been doing since you joined HOK?
Emily McGowan: Pretty well. I’ve been doing very well. Since joining HOK, I’ve been working on really large-scale Healthcare work all over the US. I’ve been working on very large-scale projects with international teams too. That has been really rewarding. I liked the work that we were doing at Mass. I ended up having some disappointments with the firm at large leaving there, but I think I was inspired by their work and the idea behind it. I was looking for more of a learning opportunity and a reality that was more in line with where I needed to grow as a designer and a leader. I’m finding that very well at HOK. It’s been a good fit.
ASR: Let’s talk a bit about your aspirations as an architect. What are your goals? Let’s talk about that first, then we’ll go back to Clemson because I really want to talk about Clemson, but let’s talk about your goals. What are your aspirations for the future? Where do you want to be when you’re 60?
Emily McGowan: [Laughter] I don’t know, it changes. I recently won this big award called the Rising Star in Healthcare Design Award by Healthcare Design Magazine. That was a huge honour and I feel like they ask the same thing. I still don’t know the answer to where I want to be or what I want to do, but right now I’m in an environment that I’m learning how to take on large-scale projects. I’m learning how to manage them. I’m learning how to plan for billions of dollars of infrastructure and speciality tertiary healthcare. I want to still be a leader in that.
When I look back at Mass, that was my dream job forever. It really was, and I learned some valuable lessons about what to do and what not to do. I also unlearned a lot about myself in that process. Having other firms that are competitive in that non-profit market, to really validate some of those things, or to bring a rigger to it, is very much needed. At least in the space of healthcare. It’s something I would love to do, but to be the leader in that space, I very much need to learn how to do that well. Not just jump in and pretend like I can do it. That’s my driver and where I hope I end up.
I really want to supplement my education even after this with public health; a Master of Health Administration. Something more in the arm of healthcare, health policy and delivery, so that’s another stepping stone. That’s a long-winded answer to say I don’t know but I think I’m on the path to getting there. My dream would be filling the gaps that I saw very much in working at a non-profit. They’re pretty gaping and I’m really dedicated to filling them. That’s a lot of personal growth and professional growth that has to happen before I make that jump into more of that sector.
ASR: Do you feel that a business degree or an administrative degree in public policy or something like that is necessary? Or it’s just something that would be a nice feather your pillow?
Emily McGowan: No, I think it’s necessary, or finding, a partner or someone with that. That we would complement each other. I love learning, so for me personally, to understand the whole different business side of it would be critical. I also think that bringing design thinking and leveraging that into alternate careers is valuable. My peers would also have a lot to learn from me in a program like that. I would have a lot to offer the program.
ASR: The non-profit model of IDO, perhaps is something that you are interested in?
Emily McGowan: I love IDO [laughter].
ASR: They also have ido.org, which is their non-profit arm. Is that more your…
Emily McGowan: I think so. I’m very interested in that, so, we’ll see. I’m still trying to figure out the right fit.
Emily McGowan: At least with the HOK, it’s been awesome. I’ve been able to do a lot of pro bono work through the firm. I’ve also been able to lead some of those initiatives too. Academic and professional partnerships, I’ve also been able to volunteer and do some work with. Which has been very inspiring and a more sustainable model, but also a shortcoming what maybe a non-for-profit model would fill. I’ve been learning about different models of architecture and the realities of operating within each one of them. That’s been interesting.
ASR: Let’s talk a bit about Clemson now. My main interest is to find out whether schools of architecture, in your case Clemson, actually managed to prepare you for the career that you want? Schools of architecture tend to be very expensive, and they have to be an investment. You have to get a return on that. Do you feel that you have that return, and do you feel you have been prepared for what you expect to achieve in your life?
Emily McGowan: Yes! Yes, yes, yes. Again, one of the best decisions I made, was going to Clemson. Especially that program because my goal was pretty narrow. I really wanted to do something with healthcare and if you look at the Clemson alumni network from healthcare architecture, they’re the heads of every single major firm. They’re doing really amazing things and that network is tightknit. I knew that having that and learning from those people, I couldn’t get a better education and experience, and leverage that. That has been really valuable. Versus if I still had that interest in healthcare, and I went to a Berkeley for example. Not to say I couldn’t still do great in healthcare architecture, but I think I would have had a disadvantage, versus coming from a program like Clemson.
ASR: You’re saying that you would not be as to well position in the field of…
Emily McGowan: Yes. Berkley is an excellent school, but from the field of healthcare architecture, it was better to go to Clemson to have a career in that way. Also, the rigor of the academics train you to be a generalist specialist. On top of the healthcare classes, I also had to take all the regular Master of Architecture requirements and classes. It really is a rigorous program to train you in both modes, but all my projects were very focused on health and wellness in the built environment. Not just, “Oh I’m going to design a hospital,” or, “I’m going to do this clinic.” It was very much more about one health, environmental health, and sustainable impacts on building structures. Seeing a more holistic view of health and the environment, and not just punctuated by a hospital here, a clinic here, something really prescriptive I should say. That was really helpful, especially my relationship with David Allison who’s the head of the healthcare program. He was the biggest influence and mentor to me in that program. I can’t say enough good things about Dave, although he’s tough. He’s really tough and that program was very tough.
ASR Was David head of the program?
Emily McGowan: Yeah, David’s the head of the program. He allowed me a lot of opportunities. I was the atypical Clemson student in that I just crafted my own itinerary from the beginning, wanting to go and study abroad in Genoa. I also did a graduate student thesis where I was looking at…
Actually, I’m going to step back a minute before then. When I was a student, a friend of mine and classmate of mine, and now colleague. She and I, back in 2015 during the Ebola epidemic; which is kind of the times now; we entered a competition for a mobile isolation unit to curb communicable disease outbreaks. Specifically in East Africa, and we won the competition. It was an international competition from the Union of International Architects Public Health Group. That kind of jump-started my interest in doing these more developmental projects, and also prototypes, and what happens to those models afterwards, and how to have more of sustainable implementation of those, led to my thesis work. Which, the following year, I won a big fellowship to look at storefront primary care delivery, and prototype healthcare facilities that would be integrated into the developing context. I got to go to Ethiopia and Addis Ababa and help implement them. From there, I won the Global Health Corps Fellowship, which took some of that work further into the stuff that I was working on at Mass. It was kind of this big snowball of things [chuckle], but again, I would never have been able to do that without going to a program like Clemson. Having those opportunities, winning those competitions and having those fellowships and awards that were able to support me.
ASR: Can we deconstruct the program a little bit more. Can we talk about the people involved in the program? You mentioned David before, but can you talk about the faculty as well as the students, as well as the general life of a Clemson student. What was your experience like, not just academically but also personal?
Emily McGowan: Again, Clemson has the general Master of Architecture program and it also has the healthcare studio. Those two studios sit separately within the building. The building was designed by Thomas Pfeiffer, so, it’s a really beautiful modern addition to another older architecture building on campus and a really collaborative space. We sat in a different section. It operated more like a firm. Everyone had their own desk and computer, and it was a very different experience than maybe what people would have experienced in Lee Hall. Although, still in the spirit of the collaboration, open floor, and everyone knows what everyone is doing, and it’s very fluid.
I would say, that one of the things I wish happened more during my time at Clemson, was more of an integration between the general program and the healthcare program. It happened, in the overlapping coursework in classes that we had to prepare, but there was a divide naturally because we would be working on specific projects for our program, and they would be working on specific projects through theirs. When it did happen, it was wonderful having different design-build opportunities. The general Master of Architectures had a concentration in community build. Integrating some of those with healthcare would have been cool, and I think that’s something that that would be neat to see in the future. In terms of…
ASR: Hold on. I’d like to interrupt you there. This is something that a lot of students are complaining about. That there’s no integration between let’s say the building technology program intake per semester. The studio course, maybe the history theory and criticism course. In your case at Clemson, you have one more variable, which is the healthcare administration courses that you take. How would you suggest that happens? How can one integrate all these different fields together in a way that you’re productive in a measurable way? You can actually say that you’ve achieved the separate goals for each course, and at the same time integrated them mean into one?
Emily McGowan: That’s a really good question. In terms of Clemson’s case, I would have loved to have been able to take more electives. Our program was so rigorous, we had very set classes each time. We had room for two electives throughout my two years there, to be able to branch out and take course work cross courses. I do think that it’s more in the studio, rather than in the elective courses, that could happen. Whether that’s a joint effort in terms of having different studios come together on a joint project. Or whether that’s a vertical studio, where you have second years working with first years on a similar project. Then branch out in different aspects and tailor it to the specific academic point and learning objectives that they’re at. There needs to be more of that.
The other thing that I was shocked at when I left Clemson was, we worked on projects with groups and with teams pretty much my entire career at Clemson. I may be worked on one individual project for one semester. I think that’s so important because some of my colleagues that I work with today, have come from other programs where all they did was individual work. They even describe studios where you put tents over your desk, so no one sees what you’re doing, and that to me is absurd because that’s not architecture. It will never ever operate that way. It is never about you. It’s always about teamwork and projects don’t operate in silos, so in that aspect, I was very happy. I know some students wished that there was more one-on-one or solo projects so that they could distinguish themselves or so that they could try a different avenue. I don’t know where the balance of that is, but I do know that I came from a program whose pedagogy was very much all about collaboration.
ASR: Is there anything else that you feel you didn’t like about Clemson?
Emily McGowan: It was a blessing and a curse that it was in the middle of nowhere in South Carolina. I had never been to South Carolina prior to going to Clemson. I mean, maybe Myrtle Beach when I was growing up, but that doesn’t really count. On the one hand, isolation from other places. Greenville’s a wonderful city, but an hour away. You’re two hours from Atlanta and two hours from Charlotte, so that rural life when I was moving from DC, or in this case Italy, that was a shock. It was definitely a shock. Small town living was a shock. I think there are six bars at Clemson, two of which are okay for graduate students to go to. That was good in the sense that the only thing to do was study and be in studio. There was nowhere else to be, but then the bad thing was you don’t get the exposure that you would, going to a school in the middle of a city like New York, or Boston, or DC. That was a struggle.
ASR: So, you brought something very interesting up. You spent most of your time in studio, didn’t you?
Emily McGowan: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
ASR: 80 hours? [Chuckle]
Emily McGowan: [Laughter] I also was the graduate assistant to Dave. There was a group of us each year that were, but on top of my coursework, I was owing him work or working for the school for 20 hours of my week, which happened in the studio. They set you up there to work, live, and breathe in the studio. I know that’s a big point of contention right now with not just Clemson, but a lot of schools are talking about that unhealthy expectation, and balance of always being there. We always worked on group projects, so that’s where you meet. That’s what you have to do, and I guess I have a mixed feeling about that On the one hand, that environment over time could become toxic, but also, a lot of the innovation happens at 3am in the morning when you’re sitting there next to somebody sketching or working on a project. It was a blessing and a curse, just the nature of it. I don’t know that I agree that architecture school has to be that way or should be that way, but it is that way regardless of where you go. For better or for worse.
ASR: What about socializing? Does socializing play an important role in the Architects education?
Emily McGowan: [Laughter] it should. In my case, that was something I personally struggled with a little bit. The good thing about Clemson was that in my eight-person class, half of us where international students. I did feel like I got- despite being in a small town in South Carolina- a lot of diversity within the program, and diversity of thought, which was great. In general, graduate students… this is horrible to say, but they’re the most miserable people. You’re barely getting paid or barely getting by. It’s just not a lot to be happy about. You’re always getting criticized, always working on a project, not eating well, probably not sleeping. I don’t mean to paint that a grim picture, but it is that thing you have to go through, and I can’t say I was happy always going through that. Socialization is yes very important, but I made some of my closest friends in graduate school because we spent all the time together regardless. It was like a family, and families are both functional and dysfunctional. You love them, but there are tough times too, so it’s a mixed bag. At least that one with me is something I personally did struggle with a little bit. Maintaining a balanced and healthy social life when there are so many demands on your time, and there’s so much that you have to juggle with school.
ASR: Before you mentioned that you missed being in a large urban centre, close to a larger city or something where things were happening. Only six bars, et cetera. Had you been in New York, let’s say that you had the opportunity to go around and experience the city, or Boston, or another place. Do you feel that it would have made a difference in your education if you had the opportunity to experience the life of the city et cetera? And in what way?
Emily McGowan: I think so. I think you’re inspired by your surroundings, and a city like Boston or New York has so much heritage, and history, and museums, and resources. Just general avenues to explore and learn in other ways. I could imagine on the one hand, and in my head, because I didn’t go to a school in a city, it would be like this Mecca of learning. But then, to your point, do you balance that with the guilt of not being in studio? Can you afford it? You’re a student, right? I guess that’s like a double-edged sword. I’m a big sketcher, as you know, and I feel like I would have drawn a lot of inspiration from case studies, or going to visit offices, or firms, or seeing what work was happening. You don’t need money, you just need time to do that. It’s interesting to think about that. I would have been inspired by that surrounding and I think students can be. It’s just the balance of doing that on top of schoolwork and being able to find that balance. I do feel like more opportunity could come to you in a bigger city, in a lot of ways too. For me with Clemson, the biggest thing was our network. We have alumni all over the world and we’re very close. Thankfully; as part of the healthcare studio, we were able to go to different conferences and events and travel a lot for projects. I did a lot of travelling when I was at Clemson, but I imagine in a big city if you had a lot of those resources right there, that would have been different.
ASR: Is there anything, any course that you would add to the curriculum of Clemson? Anything? If you could add two or three courses, what was missing from Clemson?
Emily McGowan: From the healthcare studio, I got an excellent education in healthcare planning, and I feel that I was able to push the boundaries to have a great healthcare facility or any facility that facilitates health. You have to marry both the planning and design, whereas in other design studios, you would focus on the gem of something. It has to look a certain way. It has to be beautiful, but that’s so disconnected from the reality of needing to function. You have to find the in-between, and I think we were very heavily educated on how to make something work and how to make something very effective and then design.
Marrying those two is always a struggle even in practice, but I do wish that we had one studio that was a little bit more focused on design only. That might go back to my point of that cross-collaboration because the general students were very focused on form, and on composition, and materiality, and articulation, and such. We definitely touched that, but it was in a very different capacity. I really wish we had focused on those aspects a little bit more, for at least a studio, and then be able to strengthen the design of some of our more functional needs of the project. Again, that’s very specific to healthcare, so that would just be my one wish, that we could have spent a little more time in design.
That being said, it’s always going to be that, even in practice, that’s the balance. You work with designers who have never done healthcare, but they are very excellent at facade articulation and they move something. You have to work back and forth because they need to know what’s informing it behind the wall and in front of the wall, and why some things work and why something can’t. Yes, it could be about a form but it also has to function [chuckle]. It’s a constant battle. We had a little more of a development in design.
They operate every other year too. I’m a class of eight, the class above me was eight people or seven people, but our studio operated like an office of all of us together. For our first semester, to integrate, it was all 15 or 16 of us working on a vertical studio project. Which looks at the more macro site aspects of health, so we did a lot of large landscape design, and building placement, and understanding more of the sustainability aspects of that and narrowing it down. Then each person would take a parcel within this larger context. We would do all the group work, and maybe have the entire studio working on the site models, and analysis, and so forth. Then the next phase of it would be two or three of you develop a specific section, and an ethos. Then each of you take a specific piece to develop further. In those pieces we’ve done doctors housing, we’ve done low-income housing. Yes, the housing can be part of that but it’s within a larger systemic context of a healthcare campus or health environment. The first semester was very general and kind of big like that. But I loved it because you worked at all different scales, and you came out with a project that was something that you did, but also something you learn from team work. It was a great way to get to know your peers above you, and learn the process and so forth.
The second semester we split off into two. My class of eight and the class above me. They all worked on their comprehensive project or their thesis in their second year, and we worked on an individual or smaller group project. We did a small federally qualified healthcare clinic on campus, and we also won a grant through NCARB to look at that further. We did a whole research development with them. Jilly Joseph was the PhD Chair and professor. She’s fabulous and she won a big grant for the OR project, so, part of them also worked on this design-build of this operating room at MUSC in Charleston, which was really cool. That was a four-year research grant so we did parts of that as well. Then I did the competition, so I had the time with a colleague of mine to do a rapid response; a vehicle for curbing communicable disease outbreaks. I’m trying to think of some of the other project types we did.
We’ve done the whole hospital. One of our semesters is very dedicated to a hospital, a tertiary hospital facility, which is important. The other one, I elected to do a thesis, so a personal project that I wanted to work on. In our other classes, we were able to be more exposed to a residential project, for example, our professional practice class or some of our professional documentation classes of learning CDs and how the progression of that goes. We would do smaller projects like that. This is a long-winded answer, but there were aspects about those things integrated within parts of our projects, but I didn’t have to necessarily design a residential facility as part of a project only. It would be that within a bigger build, so that that would have been nice too, to do a different typology of project, but if you’re going to that specific program for healthcare, you know that’s what you want to do. You get a lot of different angles to that. That was really helpful.
ASR: What was your thesis about?
Emily McGowan: As I mentioned before, it started back in 2015 after winning the competition with my classmate. We looked at those structures and it was a rapid deployable model, using shipping containers and converting those into these villages that were around Sierra Leone that could prototype and rapidly assess different specific needs for Ebola camps. But then what happens to that after? As we’re seeing even right now, so many of these facilities that we’re converting or that we’re building in these cases, have a life after.
I wanted to marry that with some of the other work that I was looking at in terms of prototyping, and the concept of more of a sustainable approach. Looking at how healthcare infrastructure policy can inform standards or inform and elevate health in general. I took those two ideas and was looking at primary care facilities that then turned into more storefront settings within a developing context. I looked at doing a health and healing village and in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was a primary care facility at first that evolved into more of a district health centre. It was using also, the more informal aspects of life, and how health can integrate into more accessible settings for people rather than tertiary facilities. Which is a trend we’re seeing even here in the US. We’re seeing a lot of pop-up clinics, and branding, and the whole total health, and trying to be more accessible even on your phone now.
My thesis was looking at those prototypes, and template design, and adopting those to different conditions. That was what got me into Global Health Corps and Mass had done a lot of work in that realm already. They worked with the Ministry of Health in Rwanda and also Liberia to develop their infrastructure standards, which were very similar prototypical examples. It just had a bit of a larger scale, so as, where I was looking in Ethiopia at healthcare clinics that were a smaller community health clinic scale, they were looking more at a District Hospital scale. But it was cool because that’s still a very fluid document, and we were able to inform it through the design and the realization of the prototype hospitals. They worked mainly on the urban one, which is, my thesis was in the urban realm, so that was perfect. I really got my dream job. It was a really neat opportunity to work with them and to contribute. That project just got built, it just opened this past month or two months ago. It’s really exciting. I would love if someone did a post-occupancy evaluation on it, just to see if everything we designed was able to be realized, or if there were opportunities missed, or what the lessons learned could be, that would be the next step.
ASR: What are your recommendations for people applying to architecture school as far as their studies in architecture? What should they look out for? What should they do? What should they not do?
Emily McGowan: You told me this once actually, and it stuck with me, “Would you rather be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond?” I think it really helped me to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. It allowed me to have a lot of opportunities that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have in a bigger pond [chuckles]. I definitely think people should look at more than just the name brand of the school. I struggled with that, and I know that you know that because we went through this whole thing together. But I graduated at a time when the value of the brand name of architecture school was diminishing in lieu of what graduates could do after. We were in the middle of the recession, and the first question people would ask you is, “What can you do?” “Can you get started?” “Do you know these programs?” That’s still very real, and even in this recession that we’re going to inevitably go through again, it’s going to be the same thing.
Not that a brand name doesn’t carry a certain weight, and the networks that you can derive from those are very valuable but don’t just to do that for name-brand sake. That individual attention, the type of education you’re going to get, and just who you’re going to be connected too. What has been far more valuable and it’s advanced me in my career is, who I know, who I was able to be exposed to, and that network that you’re building. That to me is critical. No one asks me anymore, “Where’d you go to school?”[Laughter] They do but it’s not that important, but what’s important is your application of your education, rather than the brand name of it. That was a big lesson. I think that’s hard for Architects to understand too, or to let go of [laughter].
ASR: What about planning one’s career. Yes, it’s never too early to begin planning your career even before you’ve attended architecture school, so, what’s your advice for young Architects who are applying to architecture school now, as far as planning for their career?
Emily McGowan: I would tell anybody before they apply to their Master’s program if they have a background in architecture, to try to work in architecture. At least shadow an office and a reality before you decide to sign up for it because even the experience in school is going to be far different than what practice is. A lot of my colleagues have had a shock coming out of school, having never practiced. Maybe they went straight from undergrad to graduate school, and then they get out and are like, “Oh my gosh, this is so different than what I thought this would be.” Whether that’s a good thing or sometimes it’s a bad thing [chuckle]. Then they are like, “What did I do? This isn’t what I want to do.” We spend so much time learning to be designers, but the reality is design is only a fractional part of the entire building process. Again, it’s not individual, it’s group work, and there’s so much more to it than what you’re going to learn necessarily in school.
The translation of design thinking can happen even in an industry or a career beyond architecture. That’s been one of the biggest things that I’ve learned, that you have valuable skills of problem-solving and critical thinking. And being able to see the possibility of something, or to spin a situation or a project into creating something much larger than the built product itself. Architecture does go beyond just that building and just that object. Keeping that in context too, for young designers to realize that there are many other avenues. Architecture isn’t just going to be sitting in an office all day designing a building. There are many other opportunities and it really is a good springboard and platform for that type of thinking. It can prepare you for a multitude of careers, but also the more exposure, the better.