What a principal architect does in a workday


Welcome to The Work Day, a series that charts a single day in various women’s working lives — from gallery owners to chief executives. In this installment, we hear from Sybil Wa, a principal architect who recorded a workday in August.

Current roles: Principal architect, Diamond Schmitt; assistant adjunct professor, Columbia University, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; vice chair, Toronto Community Housing Design Review Panel

Previous jobs: I first started at Diamond Schmitt as a co-op student in high school. At the firm, I went on to design performing arts venues like the Four Seasons Performing Arts Centre in Toronto and the Mariinsky II in St. Petersburg before leading the reimagining of David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, which opens Oct. 8. I’ve also had the opportunity to serve as project architect for the second largest Ronald McDonald House in North America for Montgomery Sisam Architects in Toronto.

What led me to my current role: I was introduced to the world of architectural practice at Diamond Schmitt through a co-op program at my high school. Luckily, learning and opportunities progressed together. I’ve had the chance to enjoy the best parts of people through working on civic and institutional projects.

Inspiration and mentorship has defined most of the growth in my career. I was generously mentored by my teammates and the leadership at Diamond Schmitt before becoming a principal and still benefit from the wisdom of people around me. Outside the organization, many people guided me along the way by seeing what I could do before I knew that I could. My mom worked in fashion and my dad was an interior designer, but when they immigrated, they had to reestablish their careers. Remembering how they worked to rebuild their lives reminds me of my privilege and responsibility.

How I spend the majority of my workday: Being an architect is my dream job. I spend most of my day as part of a multidisciplinary team thinking about, designing or supporting the construction of buildings and cities. The days vary widely because each client, site, list of functional requirements and design is different. I’m sometimes tired, but never bored.

As architects, we sketch, use software to model and develop designs in virtual 3D, physically mock-up key parts of buildings in warehouses, lay out material samples in the studio for deliberation and visit sites of new projects or projects under construction. Our teams include engineers, quantity surveyors, fabricators and contractors.

8:25 a.m.: By 8:25, child drop-off is complete. I have four kids in four different schools but only two of them need a bit of extra hands-on attention in the mornings. During the summer, the child-care arrangements are more chaotic and irregular, but the commute reliably feels like a daily reboot for me. I bike to the office and need to shift gears quickly from focusing on home to work.

9 a.m.: Every day starts with a brief team huddle on David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, a major renovation project that I’ve been leading from New York since 2018, which will finally reopen to the public this October. We discuss the design and construction progress, upcoming meeting agendas and share a few jokes to balance our moods.

Today, I update the team on my experience touring the New York Philharmonic musicians’ committee through the construction site. Many of us have been working on this project for years and empathize with the artists’ dedication and preparation for their performances. Even seemingly mundane details will serve to enable the artistry onstage.

11 a.m.: While one project is preparing to open after years of effort, another project is just starting! I bike over from our studio to the new site to help complete a photogrammetry scan. We move the camera device and tripod in eight-foot increments to record web-based immersive imagery that we will use to virtually revisit the site from our computer screens. It’s a powerful tool for this new design project, and we are geeking out a lot.

12:25 p.m.: At lunch, we eat the empanadas sold on the campus of our new project, feeling nostalgic as we sit in the hangout with the students.

1:05 p.m.: We briefly stop to experiment with the photogrammetry technology at David Geffen Hall. The building is nearing completion, but still covered in places with scaffold, tarps and plywood. We are excited to capture this pivotal moment of construction.

1:40 p.m.: I ride my bike up to Columbia University, where I teach at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. The ride up is slightly strenuous, uphill and hot, but it is mostly next to Central Park and scenic.

2:05 p.m.: This fall, I’ll be teaching fundamentals of urban digital design and in the spring, an urban planning studio in which we’ll be working with Red Sky Performance, a contemporary Indigenous performance company based in Toronto with roots in Temagami. Our goal includes introducing the students to planning with members of the Anishinaabe Indigenous community. I’m on campus today to do some prep. It’s my fifth year here, but I still have some healthy anxiety before courses start.

3 p.m.: I have reminders set on my phone for when I need to text my kids to check in on their whereabouts. I like to make sure that they get home from their summer programs safely. Today, one kid will walk with a friend, and another will carpool. I prefer to have some assurance that everything is rolling smoothly at home so I may dive back into work fully. I am grateful for my family, babysitter and support network for making this even possible.

3:05 p.m.: I ride my bike back to Lincoln Center to hear the New York Philharmonic onstage for the first time since 2019 as they begin the process of acoustically tuning the hall. While I’m on my bike, my team calls to make sure that I’m on my way, and I get there right on time.

3:30 p.m.: I take my hard hat off inside for the first time since construction started. Hae-Young Ham, a violinist, spontaneously grabs my hand from the stage in excitement. Hearing their first notes is sublime. They perform parts of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17, selected especially to illuminate the acoustic dimensions of the new room. There is impactful, immersive beauty in the music, and I take a moment to reflect on the joy, relief, and collective and personal pride.

6:40 p.m.: After the tuning, there is a reception across the street at Alice Tully Hall, where we advised on the updated lobby furniture and layout. It’s always satisfying to see people enjoying a space that we helped bring to life.

I drop off my construction boots and hard hat at the site office, and then walk over to the party with Sharon Yamada, one of the N.Y. Phil musicians from the renovation committee. We excitedly exchange reactions to the tuning and how it will support the Philharmonic’s musical identity and Lincoln Center’s artistic mission. I learn that this musician studied architecture before becoming a professional performer, and we connect over our shared design background.

7:30 p.m.: I stay late at the reception talking to the engineers, the acousticians, theater planners, contractors, clients, musicians and teammates. I am also introduced to (and star-struck by) pianist Emanuel Ax at the party, and he indulges me in a selfie and shares a bit of his preperformance routine with me.

8:25 p.m.: An enthusiastic group of us stand talking and decompressing until the caterers have cleaned up. Our topics blend into a texture of happy chatter about David Geffen Hall, our kids, warm bass frequencies, aging parents, building inspections, hot sauces, flecking in beech wood. … I opt out of the after-party dinner invite and ride my bike home.

8:45 p.m.: Days like this are amazing, but I did miss eating dinner with the family. As a consolation, I try to be back before bedtime. Because I have a big family, there are often no leftovers, and I am too hungry to cook something, so I grab what is readily available; in this case, I eat parts of lunch that my kids didn’t eat as I empty their backpacks, accompanied by a cup of tea.

9:15 p.m.: The kids sit with me as I drink the tea and share my thrilling day. When I tell them that I am also sharing my day with readers of The Washington Post, they school me on how to keep a story short and offer tips on how to take a better selfie next time.

10 p.m.: After the younger kids are solidly tucked in bed, I have a routine of squeezing in a quick workout and then getting back onto the laptop at night to keep up with my various threads of work. Sometimes I have camp forms to complete or emails to reply to. Today I am refining my course syllabus and am hopeful about inspiring a new generation of urban planners and architects.

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