Explore Design, Find a Lifelong Passion

At 6:30 every morning, Charis Armstrong darts out of her apartment, hops onto the DC metro, and makes her way into the offices of KCCT, an architecture and interior design firm that designs embassies and consulates both internationally and domestically. Once there, she dives into her day as an architectural intern: studying her company’s guidelines for government building design, hitting up a Lunch and Learn, taking a break in a nearby park to sketch passersby and sharpen her drawing skills, and exploring new features and functions in programs like Revit—all before heading out for the day around 5:30.

It’s a daily routine Charis has come to love—one that wouldn’t have been possible without a program called Explore Design.

Four years ago when she was a high school senior, the mom of a friend encouraged her to check out Explore Design, which teaches high school students about the world of design through seven interactive workshops and field trips. Led by Baskervill architects and interior designers, Explore Design has exposed nearly 300 students to potential career paths within the design industry. Heading into the program’s 15th year, we’re starting to see how influential it’s become for students like Charis.

“I honestly can’t thank Baskervill enough,” says Charis, who graduated from the University of Virginia this past spring. “Explore Design is one of the main reasons I am where I am today.”

We wanted to know more: How did Explore Design shape her path? What lessons stuck out to her? And what advice does she have for students who might be interested?

The site visits were incredibly interesting, because I’d never been to an active construction site before, and I got to see how a building is actually made. But the experience that really sticks out to me—when this idea of design really clicked—was when we learned about modularity and repeating patterns. We were given popsicle sticks and challenged to create a pattern that could be repeated over and over again. At the end of that activity, one of the mentors pulled me aside and asked me if I was seriously considering architecture, which made me think maybe I should, hearing someone else say that I could actually do it.

Only briefly and not seriously. My dad was a civilian architect for the U.S. Corps of Engineers. It wasn’t the kind of architecture work people typically think of, with a starchitect designing some huge, amazing building. He was more focused on the practical applications of design, which at that time didn’t appeal to me very much. I really hadn’t considered the impact of design on every aspect of our everyday lives.

I went into the first session of Explore Design thinking I was more interested in interior design. But then Sheena (that would be Sheena Mayfield, Assoc. AIA, the program leader for Explore Design) shared her experiences as a female architect, and she was inspiring. I remember thinking, “Here is this woman who had a passion for design and is sharing it every day.” Hearing her share her story made me completely reevaluate what I thought I knew about architecture, that it could be a balance of the practical and the creative. So for me, Explore Design helped me approach architecture as a career choice on my own terms.

Right now I’m most interested in how climate change affects our built environment. My thesis work in school focused on how we can rethink and prepare historical buildings in cities like Richmond or Boston to better withstand flooding (since so many of those buildings are in flood plains), while at the same time understanding how that problem affects underprivileged communities.

In my day-to-day at KCCT, I work within a small project team on international projects, and currently, I’ve been exploring a lot of the software technology available to us as designers that allows us to solve these problems.

Just go for it. Embrace the fun that is architecture, because it is wildly fun. Many people don’t think it is; they think because it’s an important field of work it’s got to be boring, but architecture is a beautiful union of art and engineering. It’s an iterative process that lets you explore ideas, then take those ideas and bring them to life on paper or computer until finally that idea is translated into a real, tangible thing. And even if you don’t end up going into architecture, the process of design thinking is all about taking a problem and breaking it down into its smaller components and solving those. Learning to think like a designer will enrich whatever career path you take.

Know a high school student who might be interested in design? Go ahead—send them this article. Then, share this link with them so they know when our informational session will be held. There, they’ll have a chance to talk to Charis directly through video chat about our upcoming 2018 Explore Design program.