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playgorund, town houses and parking lot in the winter

View of the Mildred Hall School playground in Downtown Yellowknife from the Stantec office (late November).

Loving the Challenge: Architecture Co-op in the North

July 30, 2020 — 

Since September 2019, Master of Architecture student Fatima Naeem has been working as an architectural intern with Stantec Architecture Ltd. in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, as part of the Cooperative Education / Integrated work program (Co-op/I). Despite difficulties in recent months due to the global pandemic, Fatima is successfully completing the third (and last) consecutive work term this summer with Stantec, the international design and engineering company. Founded in Edmonton, Stantec has offices around the world and in each of Canada’s provinces and territories.

In July 2020, Lisa Landrum, Associate Dean Research and Academic Liaison for the Co-op/I Program, reached out to Fatima to ask about her current work, future career goals, and life in the north. 


Tell us about Yellowknife.

I moved to Winnipeg from Lahore, Pakistan in 2018. When I earned a Co-op position in Yellowknife it was a bit scary for me, as I had heard about extreme weather conditions and was still adjusting to life in Winnipeg. But I accepted the challenge (I love to take challenges). I moved to Yellowknife in September 2019. I have now enjoyed all four seasons here, including intense cold and darkness in the winter (with barely 4.5 hours of daylight) and intense sunlight in the summer (with no darkness) along with very large mosquitos. No matter how you look at it, Yellowknife is extremely unique and beautiful. Away from the city, life is so calm and peaceful. I’m grateful for this chance to closely live with and appreciate nature.

Describe the work you do at Stantec.

The Yellowknife Stantec team is committed to delivering excellent design service and quality that holds up under the most extreme conditions and scrutiny. The main objective is to serve the community and advance the quality of life.

Over the last several months, I have been working with my supervisor on the design of two new long-term care facilities in Hay River and Inuvik. I have been preparing proposals and drawings, reviewing healthcare aspects, and developing an acoustic system. The client is the Government of Northwest Territories (GNWT). These facilities will take care of the aging population and provide home-like feelings for residents. Each design has different challenges associated with the site, and both projects have close connections to Indigenous culture. I have found it very rewarding to work with the local Indigenous communities. I also worked on some construction details for the Air Terminal Building in Iqaluit.

What’s the most exciting part of the job?

Client meetings and critiques. I really enjoy being part of group conversations to refine and develop the design. Through working on two major projects, I have had many opportunities to collaborate with knowledgeable teams. My supervisor gave me confidence to make decisions, lead and organize team meetings and to take responsibility for collaborating with mechanical, electrical, civil and structural disciplines. Working with engineers from diverse fields to modify my drawings many times made me realize how design becomes more interesting and technically resolved through teamwork. This experience helped me to manage and streamline the project schedule. I also gained opportunities for public speaking and community engagement.

What are some of the challenges? 

Living in severe weather conditions is very challenging. Sustaining the extremes of Yellowknife takes a unique personality. People are very helpful here, but there are some constraints that take time to get used to. I am still learning the history and culture of this beautiful community. Another challenge is working from home in the COVID-19 situation. Yet, Stantec’s good strategies for collaboration and coordination were much appreciated, and I really admire their measures to support employees’ mental and physical health.

How is this professional experience enhancing your academic skills?

This experience is giving me a larger perspective on design. I have a better sense of how design, construction and logistical considerations work together. In school we always talk about the importance of the inhabitants and functionality of space, but now I am interacting directly with the people who will live and work in the spaces I design. I realize that it makes a big difference when you listen carefully to people, instead of assuming or generalizing their needs. Working on such large and complicated projects has given me insight on how buildings work as a whole and as part of a community.

Has this experience influenced ideas for your final design thesis, or future career goals?

When I return to school for my last year of the M.Arch program, I will have a good opportunity to link a practical approach to my academic research and apply knowledge, skills and experience to school assignments. Having feedback from diverse professionals through Stantec has given me a whole new perspective on design. This experience will help me think more critically and practically during the development of my thesis. This broader perspective brings with it a whole new vision of the role of designers in the North, as collaborators in an interconnected community.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I would like to add a few points about lessons I learnt from my Co-op experience:

  • it is important to build and maintain positive professional relationships;
  • greater involvement with communities leads to better architecture;
  • mixing work with study helps to identify and clarify future career paths; and
  • developing strong networking and mentoring relationships also helps build self-understanding, self-discipline, maturity and confidence.

In the end I want to say: Never be afraid of taking challenges! Every challenge comes with unique opportunities. Life begins at the end of one’s comfort zone.

All photos by Fatima Naeem.

Learn more on the Faculty of Architecture Co-op/I Program website.

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