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The Graduate School

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Box 353770
Seattle, Washington 98195-3770

Phone: 206.543.5900
Fax: 206.685.3234

DLR project rendering

International Style

Seattle-Based Design Firm Hires UW Alum, Expands to Asia

Kevin Zhang never thought the architects would actually come to his thesis presentation, the last step in earning his master's degree in architecture from the University of Washington. But he asked them anyway.

DLR Group project rendering

Seattle-Based Design Firm Hires UW Alum,
Expands to Asia →

Read the International Student Report →  

To his surprise, they showed up. That evening, architect Larry Yuan called Zhang and invited him to dinner. A few days later, Yuan offered him a job at DLR Group, a Seattle-based design firm that offers architecture, engineering, planning and interior design services.

"Kevin was hired initially because of our need for a young and talented bilingual intern as we were starting earnestly to enter the China market," said Yuan, a principal at DLR and the firm's Asia sector leader. Yuan was impressed with Zhang's ability to create a large, diverse body of design work through his intensive graduate program, "which is the primary hiring criterion when I look for team staff in the China project studio."

Yuan immediately put Zhang to work. DLR was in the midst of designing a sustainable urban campus on the site of a decommissioned coal-fired power plant in Shanghai, as part of an international design competition. The project was complex, and the timeline impossibly short. Most importantly, winning the competition would give DLR the foothold it needed to expand into Asia.

"Kevin's speed and willingness to work extra hard and, at times, long hours to meet the short deadlines were critical since all the U.S.-based designers could not even comprehend the pace," said Yuan, who is Zhang's mentor. Born and raised in Tianjin in northern China, Zhang said his knowledge of Chinese culture and fluency in Mandarin also meant he could help the team understand the proposal's subtle intentions.

DLR won the international design competition – beating out three other international design firms from France, Germany and the United States – and was awarded the contract to further develop the conceptual master plan and design for the sustainable redevelopment of the Yang Shu Pu Power Plant.

"This is a perfect example of the value international graduate students and alumni bring to Washington state," said David L. Eaton, dean of the UW Graduate School. "In order for Washington companies—from design firms to biotech to aerospace— to successfully compete globally, they need exceptional applicants with diverse backgrounds in education, social environments, experience and languages to enrich the talent pool."

Almost 20 percent of the graduate students in the College of Built Environments are from other countries. The college's most popular graduate programs among international applicants include Construction Management, Landscape Architecture, Real Estate and Urban Design and Planning.

As part of Shanghai's efforts to establish a more sustainable infrastructure, Shanghai Electric Power invited international firms to create master plans and design schemes for the 130-year-old power plant, which sits on a 35-acre tract of riverfront land and was decommissioned in 2010. The plant is one of the oldest coal-fired power plants in the world. Part of the challenge was preserving and incorporating into the design one of two 590-foot-tall smoke chimneys, as well as repurposing several historic buildings into commercial space.

DLR's plan organized the site into four zones that integrate onsite water preservation, energy production and energy efficiency. The chimney serves as an anchor for six large rotating wind turbines, which are part of the onsite power generation program. The historic buildings will be renovated into retail, museum, gallery, exhibition, education and office spaces for Shanghai Electric.

Winning the Shanghai Electric design competition has opened the door to more work in China. DLR is now designing an American-style school for kindergarten through ninth graders in Shanghai.

Founded in the Midwest in the 1960s, DLR eventually moved to Seattle. Over the years, the firm has acquired small to mid-sized architectural firms in cities such as Kansas City, Phoenix and Los Angeles, under the leadership of architect and senior principal John Pettit, who earned his master's degree from the UW. Pettit died last year. DLR now has 20 offices nationwide and one in China.

DLR Group was rated No. 1 in the American Institute of Architects' 2012 ranking of the top 50 U.S. firms. And the firm has won national awards for its design of the Marysville Getchell High School in Marysville, Wash. DLR's Kansas City office won an AIA award for its design of an interim high school in an abandoned big box retail store after tornadoes destroyed Joplin's school in 2011.

The majority of early career architects, and about half of the engineers, that DLR hires have graduate degrees.

"Someone who comes in with a graduate degree has a much more developed sense of what it takes to work in our industry," said Dan Munn, structural engineer and senior principal at DLR. New architects with graduate degrees generally have a sharper, deeper knowledge base — and they catch up to speed very quickly so that within three to six months they are working independently with little training.

"Hiring graduates from the University means they are well-prepared and connected to the city. They have a history with the city, which clients like," Munn said.

Because DLR's projects, many of which are in the Pacific Northwest, are quite diverse – from public schools, to correctional facilities, to sports stadiums, to aerospace campuses – the company strives to recruit and retain a diverse workforce.

"Our plan is not to expand to only Asia, but internationally and to become a global company," Munn said. "By partnering with our sister office in Shanghai, their professionals will work on our projects, and we will work on theirs."

The ebb and flow of deadlines allow young architects to work on various projects throughout DLR's sectors, meaning Zhang isn't limited to projects based in Asia. Because the newest staff members are the future of the firm, DLR principals want to ensure they have broad skills and strong leadership abilities, which will ensure the firm's longevity.

"We don't know what we would do without them," Munn said.