Prof. Emeritus Sandy Miller (Interview 2009)


Many of your students have continued to practice in San Francisco and become leaders in the top firms. Would you comment on that success?

Finding the highest design firm possible that is a good fit and in the top career interest for each student has been the guiding principle of the San Francisco Urban Program. Spending 15- 20 minutes interviewing each student is crucial. Listening to their top priorities, goals and values, studying the student’s design language in their portfolio and matching all those with a compatible, thoughtful architectural firm has produced the successful results you refer to.

Building relationships is the heart of the SF Urban Program. If a student and firm have the same goals, values, design language and comfort level, they are naturally compatible, and it easily becomes a long-term relationship. A good match requires aligning these critical similarities. As much as possible, the student must be someone the firm would actually hire. The firm is looking for a great match too. The better the match, the more the firm invests its energy in the intern.

The first firm you are with becomes your résumé. The better match the firm is to your own goals, the closer you are to finding your dream career. I think that first job experience is a huge, career-setting transition. Cal Poly can open so many doors for each student’s future success that it would be a major lost opportunity if it failed to do so. The success of all these students pays back the Architecture Department for decades in so many ways. Last quarter two SF Program alumni gave our current students access to state-ofthe-art BIM and IPD methods from real projects in two case studies.

Establishing a strong track record with many award-winning design firms in San Francisco of all sizes and types has been a personal goal of mine. It’s long-term strategic planning. Over a period of 20 years, it has helped our students gain easier access to many top San Francisco firms, where they are mentored by very talented architects. As these students graduate and rejoin those firms permanently, they help create even more opportunities for Cal Poly graduates and help expand the Cal Poly network in San Francisco. They become second-generation mentors for the new crop of Cal Poly SF interns.

Every student needs to have professional work experience before they graduate. About half of the students in the program arrive in fourth year and have never worked in an office before. So the San Francisco Program gives them their critical first job experience where they can “test drive” their top career interest risk-free. It gives our students “early access” to the best offices.

Your understanding of the professional side of architecture has enabled you to lead the San Francisco program. Tell us about its conception.

I was recruited by Ray Yeh, who proposed the idea of starting the San Francisco Program with my involvement 50 percent in San Francisco and 50 percent on campus. When the program actually began in 1988, our design studios were held at the SF City Planning Department doing Urban Design Demonstration Projects for them. In 1993 that five-year body of work was awarded a national AIA Urban Design Award of Excellence. This was tangible evidence of the quality and range of the Cal Poly student work.

The distinctiveness of the SF Urban Program is that it immerses the students in real projects. Immersion learning is the fancy name for this very effective pedagogy. Cal Poly’s motto, “learn by doing,” defines it succinctly. Many students summarize the immersion experience by saying they simply learn more this way.

Our students enjoy the balance between design studio and internships. How do you nurture the balance?

The real projects chosen for the design studio immediately immerse the students in complex issues of context, culture, regulations and emerging ideas so they feel more comfortable when they begin their firm internships. At the design reviews, highly talented architects from our internship offices, often principals and associates, attend the juries. This helps set a high professional level for the class and allows the students to discover and build relationships with new architects and offices. Over the years we’ve been able to build solid relationships with many very talented firms through our studio projects, design reviews, case studies, and firm internships. It’s all about building and nurturing relationships so offices know Cal Poly students, and trust and respect their abilities.

How would you define the architecture scene and richness of San Francisco? And are there particular projects that students can tackle that are different than those on campus?

Studio projects take full advantage of the richness here. Projects range from large mixed-use projects covering a city block with strong urban design components to individual buildings. Some examples of this range: In two recent quarters we worked with the Western South of Market core committee on two demonstration sites, trying out their ideas for WSoMa design guidelines. Each project had a SF PlanningDepartment city planner, the real developer, plus the core committee of architects, neighborhood activists, etc. They all attended several initial tours, information sessions and intense design reviews.

At a different scale, in fall 2008 our studio liaisoned with PfauLong Architecture, using the new SPUR Urban Center as our studio project. Peter Pfau, principal, and Jeffery Galbraith, project manager, toured the class around the Mission Street site, attended our reviews and after the last student had presented, unveiled their design, which the students had not seen previously.

The model of the San Francisco program is going to expand to be more completely interdisciplinary. Given that, has the profession changed or has it always been this way?

IPD, BIM, and Revit are causing a huge paradigm shift in architectural project management and practice. The first participants in the SF Program are now project managers, associates and principals and have generously given their time and knowledge back to the current SF Program classes. Beginning spring 2008, SF classes began exposing our current students to these new techniques by lectures, Case Studies and individual Firm Internships. Casey Visintin, project manager at HOK, organized a panel of disciplines for the spring ’08 class, demonstrating how HOK integrates IPD, BIM and Revit on all of its new projects. The last two quarters, SF Program alum Eric Peabody, associate at Design Partnership, talked to our students, showing how they used these techniques to cut 37 percent off a project budget (from $6.8 million to $4.5 million actual), how the construction time was cut from 18 months to 15 months actual, and how the change orders for “mistakes” was cut to one, etc. The savings and changes are extensive. The class was so impressed that several of the students immediately started teaching themselves Revit and switched their design project into Revit. Most SF students now place interning in an office that uses Revit, IPD and BIM as one of their top priorities.

Offices like SOM and HOK have had interdisciplinary in-house teams from their beginnings in the 1950s. Offices using IPD, BIM and Revit are able to have a very different type of collaboration, which is the key to these amazing changes, now taking place, in the way architecture is practiced. Because Cal Poly students are capable in both technical and design abilities, I think they are uniquely poised to benefit from the current paradigm shift.

You have strong ties to the San Francisco AIA. How has that influenced your academic life?

When I was hired to teach at Cal Poly, I was on the SF AIA Board of Directors, had strong ties to the SF Planning Department, and had done my graduate work at UC Berkeley. Those strong ties and trust helped gain commitments from offices for the first internships and the SF Planning Department for doing demonstration projects on real sites for them. Staying involved with San Francisco AIA continues to help us build relationships with new emerging offices.

I agree with Stan Allen, dean at Princeton, who said that “architectural students should be taught by architects.” Giving our fourth-year students “early access” to highly talented architects who win major awards helps give Cal Poly students a unique architectural education with access to strong relationships to the profession before they graduate.

This year is the department’s 45th anniversary. What would you hope is remembered from these years?

First, that Cal Poly’s Architecture Department was willing to be unique. Its educational philosophy was that architecture students should be taught by architects; therefore, its faculty were experienced architects. Second, Cal Poly’s primary focus has always been teaching. Dedicated teaching and the students’ needs were clearly stated as the top priorities. Third, for the San Francisco Urban Program, it’s that building relationships is the heart of the program.

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