Sonia Kalia, Associate Vice President Design Management
EHC: Can you please explain what you do as an Architect?
Sonia: Absolutely! I am the Associate Vice President (AVP) for a real estate firm. As an architect, I am responsible for creating a good environment for people in terms of the building type, for example a retail building, educational institution, or residential complex.
By profession, I am an architect, but over the years I have maneuvered my career to be a designer. As a designer, I ensure the vision of the real estate developer is translated into a good and efficient building.
One of the key principles of architecture and design is that aesthetics (or form) should always follow function. The most important consideration to an architect is the end user of the space–the design should center on them. Functionally, the building should serve the design purpose; it should incorporate the best engineering and design guidelines, such as energy efficiency.
It’s important to note that each region is bound by local accordance, and buildings must meet all guidelines and codes. When I manage the design, I oversee the entire process as well as each individual component, which requires a huge team including mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and firefighting engineers. The architect is the key coordinator to ensure everything is in place to construct a safe and functional building.
EHC: What type of degree or experience did you need to get into this career?
Sonia: I completed a Bachelor of Architecture Degree, which is a five-year program in India. I have not yet pursued a master’s degree but plan to in just a few years; in fact, I hope to attain a master’s in landscape design because over the years I’ve developed a passion for landscape and believe it will be complementary to my work.
I think it’s important for someone interested in architecture to have design sensibilities and technical know-how including science, physics, and applied science, but mathematics and even geotechnical knowledge are extremely applicable. All of these subjects are important to developing a project because architecture entails so much, including analyzing the soil and evaluating water tables, to understand the impact on the building.
It’s ideal to be creative; however, an important distinction is that great artists don’t necessarily make great architects. If your goal is architecture, it’s ideal to learn as much as you can about the environment, energy, infrastructure, and sustainability.
EHC: What do you think is the most important aspect of architecture?
Sonia: Well, using the guiding principle that function should follow form, the most important aspect is structural design. After all, the building needs to stand! Structural design is a specialized technical field, and when I am designing a building, I need to connect with structural designers to create the building design. As an example, I may have a sense of where I want all of the beams to be located within the building, but the structure needs to be strong enough to take on the load of the building; in other words, the plan has to be executable. The structural engineers and I work together to develop a plan for the building that incorporates all of these factors into the overall design.
The second most important aspect is safety (fire, light, and electrical). When architects design a building, one of the main factors to take into consideration is how people behave in a disaster. In other words, an architect must think about the psyche of a person during an emergency.
Aesthetics (factors like design, landscaping, furniture, and art) is the last factor considered because while it impacts how people interact. It doesn’t impact the functionality or safety of the building.
EHC: What steps did you take to get into this career?
Sonia: I started my career in India when I was about 20 and didn’t have many career options. Honestly, for me, it’s a debate about whether options are good or not because having limited options was a very good thing!
In India, your career is dependent upon the results of the common entrance test, which is a technical and aptitude test taken nationwide after students finish grades 11 and 12. The test is tough, and results are critical because the ranking determines which colleges someone is eligible to apply to. As you can imagine, that also drives career options. After taking this assessment, I had a choice between engineering and architecture because, at that time, I thought architecture involved a lot of art. As it turns out, architecture isn’t art, which is a commonly held myth.
EHC: What is your favorite part of your career?
Sonia: My favorite aspect is the satisfaction I get when I create something. It could be the smallest building, but it is so satisfying. For example, right now I’m working on developing a ground-floor lobby for an apartment complex, and even though it’s a small area, when I consider the ways people are using it, how the light is behaving, and the artwork within the space, I feel as though I’ve created something!
Notably, as I have moved up within my organization, my job has become more focused on management and less focused on architecture and design work.
EHC: What do you find most challenging?
Sonia: I have been in the real estate sector for the past 12 years. The sector itself is performing well, but the flip side is that real estate in India is unorganized and unstructured. I regularly interact with contractors and small vendors (to supply lighting, furniture, plants, masons, etc.), but the industry isn’t fluid or methodical.
I enjoy working with systems and processes and in black and white terms; however, this industry isn’t a well-oiled machine. In multinational companies, processes govern the work, but real estate is complex, and the processes are more difficult to navigate. I see the difference and often know what I want to do but understand that I cannot due to the lack of organization and structure; nonetheless, I always think about what I can contribute to the industry to make it more organized.
EHC: What advice would you offer to young women exploring careers?
Sonia: We hear a lot about equality. The thought is “I am a women, and so I must be empowered and treated as an equal,” but when I see young women working, I want to share this message: Pregnancy is not a disease and children are not a burden.
As women, we play many roles. We are empowered and deserve equality, but I don’t think we need to plea for understanding. I want women to know we are blessed to be women and we should let our careers flourish, as our careers are part of our lives. Your life is a sum of your parts, your choices, and you have to make it work.
I see a lot of women asking for exceptions, but with work comes a commitment. I have two daughters and was able to balance. We need to do justice to ourselves as women. I am the only woman at a table of 15 department heads; if you want that, you have to work hard and strive for it.
EHC: What did you want to be as a child? In what ways does this relate to what you do now?
Sonia: I was a quiet and shy child who was always happy and content with where I was. I was in a convent during my school years and thought I would become a teacher. I was not seasoned to think about careers and don’t even remember thinking about what I wanted to do. After the all India common entrance test, I chose architecture and have grown into this career.