Flexible Learning, Diverse Possibilities

The Auburn University Environmental Design program is recognized as a flexible, multi-disciplinary degree that allows students to customize their educational experience. In the words of alumna Erika Dunavant (ENVD ’18), Environmental Design “encourages and teaches its students to look at the broader picture, identify systemic issues, and think critically about how to address them at the core, rather than focusing on isolated reactive measures.”

Mrs. Dunavant is currently a Project Coordinator for Marx|Okubo, a national Architecture and Engineering firm with a diverse portfolio of work that focuses on consulting for the built environment, and is dedicated to serving real estate owners, corporations, and lenders. Most recently, Erika’s firm was engaged to identify and understand the potential exposures and/or liabilities associated with purchasing a building during construction.

One of Chicago’s more noticeable skyscrapers, “Big Red” is a 45-story, high-rise tower over two sub-grade levels of parking, with approximately 40 floors of commercial office space, and several floors of newly renovated mixed-use development. The tower is located adjacent to Millennium Park and sits nearly one block off Lake Michigan, and has recently undergone extensive capital improvement work, with various tenants performing tenant improvement work on more than 25 floors. “Of the capital improvement work, the most exiting addition to this building is the bi-level food hall and event venue that will be open to the public. Unlike most food halls popping up in larger cities, Big Red’s food hall (which will be called Hayden Hall) will host nighttime events and add to the fabric of Chicago’s rich night life,” Erika noted.

Erika and her team spent several days walking the building, meeting with the current ownership and general contractors on site to develop an understanding of the project. Initially, her role included reviewing a multitude of service agreements and contracts, as well as assessing the development and construction progress underway. After creating a scope, budget, and schedule matrix detailing construction progress, her team advised the client (the potential buyer) on what risks and exposures are present now and in the future. The next phase of the project will include a more traditional project management role, with Erika and Marx|Okubo acting as the owner’s representative, managing the construction process and overseeing the project’s entirety to help mitigate risks associated with schedule and budget.

“Because of the ENVD program, I came into the architectural and engineering consulting world….with the foundation to look at the big picture and understand how to chase down relevant issues and solutions, rather than burying myself in the weeds. In studio, Professor Robert Sproull charges his students with approaching design challenges from a 30,000 foot view and to consider the various parties involved in the design world that may not share the same opinion as space planners or designers.  I now approach each new project from this angle and make sure that I am fully understanding my client, what is their end game, and how best to communicate complex technical issues to someone with potentially no construction or design knowledge. Aside from being taught how to think critically, we were taught to hone our graphic skills to help communicate broad ideas and specific issues effectively through verbal and visual presentations. My ability to take an exceptionally complex project, such as a 1.4 million square foot high rise in Chicago, and present specific concerns and issues graphically that are easy to digest and understand by someone who does not spend every day on a construction site, is a critical piece of the consulting world, and something that I attribute ENVD and Professor Magdalena Garmaz specifically with teaching me.”  -Erika Dunavant