A New Approach to Leveraging Interns’ Talent

The Big Project is becoming a centerpiece of the summer-intern experience at Perkins Eastman’s DC studio.

An array of leaders from the Washington, DC, city planning department, local building industry, and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) arrived at Perkins Eastman’s offices last August to watch a presentation designed to advance Mayor Muriel Bowser’s call to attract at least 15,000 more residents to the downtown core. Under Managing Principal and Executive Director Barbara Mullenex AIA, the firm had already been instrumental in convening people and ideas to figure out how to make the city center as appealing to residents as it is for university students, business, and tourism. But the office’s summer interns played a powerful role in this August presentation, and their ideas are still in play as the Downtown Action Plan nears completion this quarter. “The work that we’re showing is the work that they presented, and the work they participated in. A lot of this was their ideas and their energy,” Mullenex says. “If we could make our summer intern program about what we get from them instead of what we’re doing for them, that’s the secret sauce.”

DC Downtown Action Plan Map of Zones for Improvement

The DC Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning & Economic Development (DMPED) issued this map of
downtown, highlighting zones most targeted for improvement in the post-pandemic era. Source: DMPED

The August presentation was the culmination of what’s come to be known as The Big Project. It represents a cultural shift in the way Perkins Eastman’s DC office organizes its intern program each summer. It originated in the summer of 2022, when Maryland’s Montgomery County invited the firm to present a concept vision for reimagining a transit center and public space in Silver Spring. “I thought it was perfect for the interns,” Principal Matthew Bell FAIA says. He divided them into teams, along with staff members at every rank up to and including principals. This vertical organization, Bell explains, “worked like a charm” to generate fresh perspectives through experienced guidance. The result was “Gateway Gardens,” a concept that provides a heart to this vibrant area with a well-defined public realm to make it a pleasing experience for pedestrians, where today it’s a knot of roads and transit stops. Montgomery County has posted the design on its website along for further consideration. “The goal was to get out there and open opportunities to be invited when the county is ready to develop the site,” says Senior Associate Ahmed Zaman AIA, who participated in the effort.

Perkins Eastman Architects proposed a new plan for downtown Silver Spring, MD, that improves the public realm around existing and new transit stops. Perkins Eastman Architects proposed a new plan for downtown Silver Spring, MD, that improves the public realm around existing and new transit stops.

Interns helped produce the Perkins Eastman plan to weave a public realm into central Silver Spring, MD, where the new Purple Line metro is expected to come through. It creates a destination along with intuitive connections between the area’s metro and bus stations, where none exist now. All illustrations Copyright Perkins Eastman

A similar visioning opportunity presented itself last June, when the office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development in DC began planning the Downtown Action Plan as a central focus of the city’s broader, five-year economic development strategy to revitalize the downtown after the impact of the pandemic. As a new class of nine interns was arriving at Perkins Eastman, office leaders homed in on several zones the city had identified as needing improvement. That became a natural organizing structure to establish another set of vertical teams, which would each address improvements that could attract more residents to one of the zones. “The different areas of DC really fired the imagination of a lot of the interns, and they came up with really interesting and creative ideas,” says Associate Principal Christian Calleri AIA, who manages the intern program. To wit: creating landscaped bridges meant for people, not cars, to traverse busy roads to connect a community center to the city’s sprawling Rock Creek Park; planning a pedestrian mall out of a largely forgotten street to celebrate its axis between the National Portrait Gallery and the historic Carnegie Library building; and reorganizing car-focused avenues to make them more people- and bike-friendly.

A map showing Perkins Eastman's proposed pedestrian "land bridge" connections between Georgetown and Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC

With examples from New York’s High Line to Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, the 2023 Big Project proposed a set of engaging, landscaped crossings that connect Georgetown with Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC.

“It was such an exciting experience working on a project that has real potential to impact Washington, DC’s, evolution,” says Nour Elfawal, a DC native and a student at the University of the District of Columbia. “Working on The Big Project had me look at the city from a different perspective—as a designer and a developer.” Muirinn Rooney, who grew up in Pittsburgh and attends Virginia Tech, added that her newcomer status was equally enriching. “I realized my perspective could be an asset for those who have lived in DC for a while,” says Rooney, who worked on a team addressing improvements around the city’s popular DuPont Circle. “I crafted a strategy, drawing inspiration from the spaces I cherish in Pittsburgh, and applied those ideas to address challenges at DuPont.”


An illustration shows Perkins Eastman's proposed improvements to DuPont Circle and Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC An illustration shows Perkins Eastman's proposed improvements to DuPont Circle, 20th Street, and Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC

The prominent Connecticut Avenue artery runs beneath DuPont Circle, creating a canyon separating the street where it comes back up on the North side, adjacent to a Metro stop. The Big Project team examining the area proposed to place a deck over that part of the avenue, and expand an existing pedestrian area around nearby 20th Street to create a contiguous pedestrian park and activity zone that further animates this bustling part of Washington. 

DC office leaders have continued to promote these ideas in meetings with the mayor’s office, the DC Building Industry Association, and the BIDs. Mullenex, Bell, and others are working with stakeholders to generate a final submission presentation of the Downtown Action Plan for the mayor this month. Mullenex also touched on the presentation in a recent article for Work Design magazine about the “21st century city.” And the firm is hoping to present the work at various professional conferences in the future. “In terms of design practice and operations, we talk about The Big Project regularly,” Zaman says. “It’s an opportunity to present ourselves as the experts on how to revitalize the downtown, because we have the intellectual capital, we’ve done the groundwork, we’ve done the analysis, and we’re now using the information in a consolidated format to present to different venues.”

An illustration showing Perkins Eastman's proposed improvements to 8th Street NW in Washington DC, which connects the National Portrait Gallery with the Apple store, which inhabits the historic Carnegie Library in front of the Washington Convention Center.

As it exists now, 8th Street boasts more parking-garage entrances and loading docks than it does retail, restaurant, or anything else that would entice pedestrians to stroll along this notable axis between the National Portrait Gallery and the Apple store that inhabits the historic Carnegie Library building.

After the first two successful summers, The Big Project is likely to be institutionalized as a regular element of the DC office’s intern program. It’s become a highlight of their time there, where their principal duties consist of helping project teams across various practice areas. “The reason why it’s really special is the vertical-studio aspect of it,” Zaman explains. “We always talk about diversity in the office, and part of that is intellectual diversity, so with a vertical studio, you’re getting a wide array of different points of view, and essentially, you’re creating a well-rounded decision-making process.”

An illustration showing Perkins Eastman's proposed improvements to E Street NW in Washington, DC, which would activate aging, underutilized federal buildings and create a pleasing, walkable connection between Foggy Bottom and George Washington University and the National Mall.

Reimagining the aging and underutilized federal buildings along E Street NW would create a a pleasing, walkable connection between Foggy Bottom and George Washington University and the National Mall.

Ben Roland, an intern from the Rhode Island School of Design, said the makeup of his team was particularly inspiring. “I got to learn so much from working closely with senior designers and really appreciated how receptive they were to ideas I brought to the table,” he says. “It is not often that someone so young gets the opportunity to have such a large impact on a city.” The process was also helpful for the office’s emerging professionals, who aren’t that far removed from their own internship days. “It was a chance for us to think differently than what we’re used to,” says Bhavishya Venkitaraman. It’s easy to get stuck in individual tasks, marking up plans and the like, she says, adding that you can get lost in the details. Here, she says, “you’re looking at the big picture, and understand how our projects plug into that.”

An illustration showing Perkins Eastman's proposed improvements to activate existing alleys throughout downtown Washington, DC, so pedestrians can traverse its blocks without fighting traffic.

With the interns’ help, The Big Project proposals featured solutions that were more surgical than sweeping, such as remaking existing alleyways throughout the downtown area to improve the pedestrian experience as people move from block to block, so they can enjoy their surroundings rather than dodge traffic.

For Bell, who with Calleri first conceived of The Big Project, that’s precisely the point—especially where the interns are concerned. “They want to feel like they’re engaged in something that matters,” Bell says. “For us, it was great to see something new through fresh eyes. For them, it was an opportunity to work with very experienced people and also try out their ways of thinking on urban problems in Washington, DC.” When a new set of interns arrives in June, he says, The Big Project will continue to enlist them in examining innovative ways to capitalize on the city’s changing landscape.