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Spotlight: Ingedia Sanchez

An architect, mentor, and community builder shares her story.

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Photo © Danielle Campbell | SOM

Right out of architecture school, Ingedia Sanchez landed on the design team for the world’s tallest building. Since joining SOM in 2003, her career has been a steady rise. In addition to her work as a technical architect, Ingedia is a mentor and community leader. In July she was elected the president of the nonprofit organization Arquitectos; she is the first licensed woman architect to hold this role.

I’m a technical architect in our Chicago office. My role is to take a project from the later stages of schematic design through construction administration, coordinating with consultants and with the client. Essentially it’s taking an idea and making it a reality.

One of the first projects I worked on at SOM was the Burj Khalifa. It was a very large team that extended over multiple studios and different disciplines — architects, structural engineers, and mechanical engineers. The layout of our studios was completely open, so you could see from one end of the floor to the other. At one point, the entire east end of the floor, maybe 40 people or more, were on that job at the same time.

I remember working out math equations for the exterior wall plans of the building — that project predates parametric design modeling. We were calculating by hand to get the correct arch lengths, to get each wall panel module to precision. The geometry needed to be exact.

As architects, we’re always learning. You have to hold on to that mentality and keep building your craft.

It was certainly intense and very demanding, but it was just an incredible experience. In those first years I really came to understand the dynamics of how to work on a large team, how projects were phased. I was able to take my knowledge of building systems to another level. My colleagues challenged me. They’d give me a set of drawings and say “study this — then let us know what you don’t understand.” I would look at other projects in the office to learn how drawings were laid out, how complex buildings were put together. Understanding how to read drawings is like learning a language.

As architects, we’re always learning. You have to hold on to that mentality and keep building your craft. And then, when you get to the point that you understand it, you’re able to guide the next person.

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As a graduate student, Ingedia followed her interest in high-rises—here on a tour of SOM skyscrapers in downtown Chicago. Photo courtesy Ingedia Sanchez

I came to SOM in large part because of my work in graduate school. For my thesis I focused on sustainability and high-rises — I established criteria for sustainable high-rise design, and then investigated the thermal performance of buildings, specifically for facades. My thesis concluded with a sustainable high-rise design project. In one of my classes we studied the Samsung Tower, a residential high-rise in Seoul designed and engineered by SOM, and I was introduced to a group of mentors from the firm. They were at the forefront of sustainability in high-rise design, so it seemed like a perfect fit. I felt supported in continuing my research and bringing that work to the office.

The professional environment was completely different from what I had experienced in design school. It was very rigorous and demanding — you could feel that intensity when you walked into the studio. The expectations were high and the pace was super fast. I came into it fresh and ready to learn.

The office culture continues to evolve, for the better. When I started, there were not a lot of women working on supertall towers. I used to get so excited when I saw women getting hired. Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen the numbers really go up — more women interns, more women in the architecture studio, women at all levels of leadership. And I think that all the opportunities that we’ve had for work-life balance, flexible schedules, support for parents, have really helped to push this evolution in a positive way. It’s helped me balance my work as an architect with what I do as a mother.

Since earning my license with the firm’s support, I’ve been able to dedicate more time to giving back to the community. I’ve been involved for years with Arquitectos, a nonprofit organization focused on providing professional development and mentorship to Latino and Latina architects. After serving as a volunteer and a mentor, just doing work that I like and is meaningful to me, I was nominated this year and elected as the president of the organization.

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Sharing career advice on a panel at the Women in the Built World symposium in February 2020.

I have many goals for expanding the impact of Arquitectos. Our main focus is giving young architects the support they need to start their careers and to earn their license. There are so many students who reach out to me who graduate and can’t find a job. Sometimes they need guidance, support in how to write their CV or do interviews. It’s so important to start getting the work experience, because it’s the first step toward getting licensed.

That’s also why we promote an annual shadowing program at SOM — it’s an opportunity for students to understand how an office works. I’ve been a big proponent of the program, and in the last two years we’ve expanded it to include members of Arquitectos.

I’m doing all of these things for multiple reasons — to promote women in architecture, to promote diversity in architecture, and also to show by example. To show students and young professionals that all of these challenges that you experience in the beginning, the rigor of the design studio coming out of school, are what shape you and prepare you to succeed in your professional life.

I always ask students: What do you want to keep learning about? What sparks your curiosity? That’s what will lead you to your best fit in your career. In my case, it was sustainability and facades. When you’re coming right out of school, it’s important to have a focus, something you want to contribute to the office you’re about to join.

I have two supertall projects in construction right now. The first is a set of twin towers in Hangzhou, China, both 302.6 meters tall. The second is an 81-story, 407-meter-tall tower in Kunming, China. I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in every aspect of a project over the years — and with these two supertall towers I get to focus on what I like the most, which is facades.

On a site visit with the SOM team to the Taylor Street Apartments and Roosevelt Branch Library, which opened in 2019 on Chicago’s Near West Side. Photo © SOM

I’m also working on a big project closer to home — the new satellite concourses for O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. It’s the first time I’ve worked on an airport project. My work on supertall towers has given me an understanding of all the issues in large teams, how all of the aspects of a project fit together. I wouldn’t say it’s like a tall building rotated on its side — it’s not that much area — but what really makes it challenging is the added complexities of the operations and systems within the airport.

The wider team brings together many different consultants and collaborators with an incredible set of expertise. My job is to make sure that we’re all communicating and working toward the same goals and deliverables. We’ve been working on various studies, modeling, and documents that need to be coordinated carefully with our designers. Understanding the existing conditions of the airport is the foundation of our design moving forward.

My experience has allowed me to piece all of that together and to be able to deliver at the level of quality that SOM demands. I’m taking it as another opportunity to learn — because we always have to keep learning.

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We are a collective of architects, designers, engineers, and planners building a better future. To learn more, visit www.som.com.

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