HKS Xchange Fellowship Opens Doors to the World for Employees

The HKS Xchange Fellowship relocates 12 employees each year to any of three host offices to broaden their work and life experiences. Employees immerse themselves in their host office for three months, connecting with colleagues they might know only electronically and socializing in different cultures and places.

Xchange goes beyond tourism by promoting more collaboration in a global firm of more than 1,400 employees and exposing promising designers and other professionals to new ideas, projects and work styles. These lessons can improve how employees do their jobs once they return to their home offices.

Fellows are selected through a competitive application process. Below, three 2019 Fellows share how the Xchange experience has helped their careers and HKS:

The right call 

Wendy James was sure she wanted to work in health care. But as a pre-med student in Canada volunteering at a physiotherapy clinic, she discovered she had a weak stomach. So she delved into architecture.

But James didn’t give up on her first love. She eventually earned a nursing degree, then got a job in an emergency department, where she embraced the adrenaline rush from trying to save lives.

Now, at HKS, James’ architectural experience and familiarity with nurses’ daily routines and patient interactions inform how she lays out health care facilities as a medical planner. She moved to Europe in 2016 and joined the HKS London office, where she routinely connected with other colleagues who were visiting as Xchange fellows.

HKS London medical planner Wendy James has been exploring Chicago since her Xchange Fellowship began in the fall.

Those interactions and her curiosity about U.S. health care facility guidelines spurred her to seek the three-month Xchange Fellowship opportunity in Chicago. There she has worked on a project proposal that allowed her to dive into the Facility Guidelines Institute’s (FGI) guidelines for health care design, which have been widely adopted across the U.S. This was important to James because many clients in the Middle East and other international markets ask her office about American health care design standards. James has also been working with colleagues in the Sustainable Design studio to get their advice on achieving WELL certification for the HKS London office.

James — who has become a Chicago Bears football fan since her arrival in the Windy City in the fall— was also thrilled to find out about a monthly call for medical planners across the firm. The meeting takes place at a time that will work for her and colleagues in London.

“There are so many great and knowledgeable and really talented planners all across the company,” she said. “This is a great meeting of the minds and helps spread knowledge to make us all a better team.”

Back to India

North Carolina native Parker Stewart learned about India in school, reading about the East India Trading Company and the movement against British rule led by Mahatma Gandhi in the 20th century. However, it was a 1983 James Bond film that left an indelible impression, showing the secret agent landing in the lakeside city of Udaipur, where one of his contacts welcomes him in the guise of a snake charmer.

As an architecture student at North Carolina State University, Stewart was awarded a fellowship to travel to India and Southeast Asia. There, he researched the relationship between water and urban settings, and his understanding of India broadened beyond what he had seen in textbooks and movies.

Stewart’s interest in the country persisted after graduation. The commercial and aviation designer in HKS Atlanta applied for a spot in the Xchange Fellowship and picked New Delhi as his only preferred destination out of three possible cities.

At HKS New Delhi, he joined a team of more than 30 people this past summer. He continued serving clients from the Atlanta office while carrying on his research on watershed urbanism and helping the New Delhi office pursue aviation projects. He noticed that his Indian colleagues were on diverse project teams that usually included designers from at least two other HKS offices, all in different time zones.

HKS Atlanta designer Parker Stewart celebrated his 25th birthday this summer in the HKS New Delhi office.

“You see how other people work, how their teams work. You begin to understand different modes of collaboration and learn to operate under different styles of leadership,” Stewart said. “You’re experiencing all of that within the same company without having to transfer or change jobs. You’re really growing as a professional.”

After returning from the Xchange, HKS selected Stewart to participate in its 2019 Dallas Design Fellowship, which brought together nine designers to craft interventions to improve how Dallas-Fort Worth area residents interact with the Trinity River watershed.

Now back in Atlanta, Stewart said he looks forward to finding opportunities to work with the New Delhi office.

“The Xchange is an opportunity to expand everyone’s network – the friends I made at the office are more than contacts in Outlook,” he said. 

The power of green

Allison Smith’s interest in green practices dates to childhood, much like her love of architecture. She participated in her high school’s recycling club and learned principles of sustainable design during her undergraduate and graduate studies in Colorado and Oregon. 

In Dallas, Smith is a member of the Sustainable Design studio, a group of 11 people across the firm who coach design teams and advise clients on healthy materials, energy analysis, carbon accounting and other design strategies tied to sustainability. Smith manages project-specific documentation for LEED and other sustainable design ratings, and she also evaluates building materials for their potential impacts on human health and the environment.

The Xchange Fellowship sent Smith to HKS San Francisco, which doesn’t have a Sustainable Design team member. Since her arrival in the fall, she has acted as a resource to her West Coast colleagues, giving presentations on green design topics, including embodied carbon — the carbon footprint of building materials.

“For me, and for the firm, there’s a lot of benefit for me to come here,” she said. “You engage with people differently if you’re physically there than if you need to call or email somebody to figure something out.”

Allison Smith (center), a sustainable design manager at HKS headquarters in Dallas, joined San Francisco designers Gordon Gn and Naomi Willett on a site visit at San Francisco International Airport’s Harvey Milk Terminal 1, Boarding Area B, in the fall.

Smith said she has also had the opportunity to chat with other designers she has met at industry conferences or through her network. These informal conversations have given her a glimpse into how other firms are implementing sustainable design and offered her a chance to trade ideas on improving processes.

“It’s been really great to have those conversations and make those connections but also to understand how they approach different things, and knowing we have a lot of the same challenges, no matter where we are,” Smith said.