Gensler Chicago’s summer internship in sustainable design brings together a group of the best and brightest design students to advance academic research while working in a professional design firm.

Gensler Chicago’s summer internship in sustainable design brings together a group of the best and brightest design students to advance academic research while working in a professional design firm. The result is a learning laboratory in which students are challenged to research a sustainable topic and present their findings for integration into professional practice.

Both interns and professionals benefit from this internship, because “each year, our environmental understanding and expertise in sustainable design grows exponentially,” says David Broz, a leader of Gensler’s internship program. “This program is a reflection of just how passionate Gensler is about advancing our understanding of green design.”

Each summer, architecture, interior design, and graphic design students explore issues in sustainability relevant to contemporary practice. While the focus of most internship programs is in preparing students for professional practice, Broz notes: “The big surprise is that we’re learning as much from them as they are from us.”

Working with the assistance of a LEED accredited professional mentor, each of Gensler Chicago’s interns developed an independent research project in sustainability. The program culminated in “Green Week,” a celebration in which each intern presented their research to the office, and their findings were compiled in a single document presented to the firm.

Green Week 2005 focused on issues of scale as it relates to sustainability in design. Presentations explored the connection between what it means to build “green” and issues of ecological, social, and economic developments. In addition to independent research, each intern participated in Gensler’s LEED training course. Gensler further contributes to interns’ professional development by covering the cost of each student’s LEED accreditation exam. In the past two years of the program, 18 of Gensler Chicago’s 20 interns became LEED accredited professionals by the end of the internship.

Intern research topics were divided into five overall issues of scale: individual, neighborhood, social, cultural, and global. Further, three main topics in sustainable building practice were investigated: green design as understood by clients and the general public; site, building, and urban analysis; and building-specific issues.

Recent approaches toward green architecture have concentrated on exploring technological innovations in building materials. Although material research is a critical component in creating sustainable solutions, the 2005 interns noted that sufficient attention must be paid to the integration of all components in a building system and its respective environment.

Individual topics included Matt Majack’s “Green Washing,” a study that exposed superficial approaches to green design. To assist designers in making sound decisions with regard to sustainable design decisions, he created a list of questions to guide designers through a step-by-step process that leads to what he describes as “greener” design. He coached designers to read past the fluff in marketing materials to identify the key components, chemicals, and processes utilized in building materials marketed as “green.”

Focusing upon site and urban analysis, Cheyne Owens investigated industrial waste and its relationship to economics as a design strategy in complex urban and political organizations. His presentation, entitled “Waste as Commodity: Reconsidering Brownfield Developments,” illustrated the ways in which waste can be applied as a funding mechanism to foster urban development and growth.

Kanisha Williams researched green education processes and created a deck of cards for designers to use in initial conversations with clients to increase awareness of the benefits of sustainable design. Williams designed cards with two complimentary sides: one geared toward clients with some interest in sustainability and another geared toward cost-conscious clients to educate them in regard to the financial advantages of green building.

Jim Follett, managing principal of Gensler’s North Central Region and DFC board member, says, “The interns challenge our architects and designers to rethink the multitude of ways that sustainable design is integrated into daily practice. Because half of Gensler Chicago’s employees are LEED accredited, we know that we’re beginning from a broad base of expertise in sustainability. Our interns raise the stakes and remind us that learning is a lifelong passion.”

-Leah Ray