Babble Interview: Catriona Winter


 [Catriona and Eric Winter, Charlottesville 2009]


You have to meet my friend Catriona Winter.  I often tell people she’s the busiest woman I know.  But that isn’t telling you much. Whenever I get the chance to talk to Catriona, I realize after the conversation is finished that I’ve done most of the talking and she’s done most of the question-asking.  She’s the type of person who makes you feel like she’s got all the time in the world for you, even though you know she’s got a million other things going on.  She’s a good friend I’ve known since college.  In fact, we got to know each other late one night as she drove me to the hospital to have stitches after the obligatory exacto knife cut in studio.  Yep, I think I still owe her for the hours she spent waiting around with me when she could have been working on her studio project.

Catriona has some incredible stories to tell.  Though she holds both an undergraduate and graduate degree in architecture, she works in management for a very large construction firm in Washington, D.C.  She uses that knowledge and the years of experience she’s gained to navigate the complicated turf of large-scale construction.  I think it’s important to share her perspective.  In the interview, you’ll easily be able to see what a hardworking, determined and thoughtful person she is.  She’s the mother to two beautiful daughters (one born in January!) and I’m so glad to call her my friend.  I’m really excited for you to meet Catriona.

Tell us a little about yourself- where you’re from, where you went to school, and what that lead to.

I was born in New Jersey in 1980 and grew up there until 1991, when we moved to Winchester, Virginia, where I lived until I went off to college at UVA.  I had had it in my mind as a young girl that I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon, and so a significant portion of my summers during high school when not lifeguarding were committed to gaining exposure to medicine by interning with a local orthopedic surgeon and volunteering as a candy striper (yes I wore one of those pink and white bibs) at the local hospital.

I went to UVA because I felt confident that the wide spectrum of major offerings would allow me to specialize in chemistry but experience many other departments as an “add-on” to my core focus; little did I know how convenient that characteristic would be in supporting my college path and the ability to maneuver nimbly throughout an academic system between colleges.

How did you get interested in architecture?

In retrospect I can connect the dots that lead to where I am now, but I was oblivious to it then.  A few things along the way piqued my interest in architecture and construction:

1)  Theoretical design for a Winnebago/touring bus.  Growing up my family was (and still is) extremely close with another family we met in New Jersey; my best friend and I dreamed one day our two families would load up in a Winnebago and travel the country to see all the sights.  Somehow we’d have to get nine people total packed in, so I took it upon myself to crack the space-planning nut of how exactly you could make nine people fit for a cross-country trip.  Many iterations later, I realized it would be tight and not practical, but I recall fondly how much fun I had drawing it over and over again, and sketching out what I thought would be creative ergonomic solutions.  I enjoy watching those luxury tour-bus episodes and thinking back to my ideas of tables flipping into beds and storage nooks galore.

2)  Latin trip to Italy.  After taking Latin III, with a focus on the intersection of history and architecture, our two teachers, this adorable husband-and-wife team, took me and about 25 of my classmates on a two and a half week long trip to Italy.  We visited Rome, Naples, Capri, and Florence.  Magistra had spent the year teaching us about the history of the Roman Empire through architecture and the political significance behind every master plan, building, fortified wall, obelisk, fountain, etc.  Seeing it in person blew my mind; the layers of history, the age of it all, and having studied the story behind every space was fascinating and so meaningful.  It was the most formative aspect of my high school education.

3)  Tagging along with Dad to work.  My Dad, now retired, is a polymer chemist who specializes in calendar processing and injection molding.  My version of what he did is that he not only designed products for the automotive, construction, and medical industries but also the machines and processes that created them.  There was nothing more exciting than joining him for a tour of the plant on an evening or weekend when he had to go check out a trial for a new product.  I think it is the reason why I now love visiting subcontractors’ workshops and suppliers’ manufacturing facilities; you get to know the full story behind a product and truly appreciate it when you can meet the “makers” and witness the product being manufactured in a clean, safe, and efficient facility.

4) I was a chemistry major for the first half of college until I had an epiphany one Tuesday in March of 2000 and realized I was in the wrong major and career track.  I had tagged along with my roommate on a study break to go visit some of her friends in the architecture school (bringing Ben and Jerry’s “Fish Food” ice cream to them) while they were taking their study break from charette.  I walked into the architecture school and was stunned by what I saw. Rockite was being poured into foam-core formwork, drawings were everywhere, the now-familiar buzz of Dremels carving away at wood and metal, music blasting.  It was fun, it was interactive, it was collaborative, and it was 11:00pm; I was blown away that on a weeknight every chair was filled.  Every one.  I didn’t sleep that night, wondering about this draw that pulled students to their work; there was something about the atmosphere that appealed to me and was very different to my chemistry and biology laboratory environment.  Looking back, 14 years later, I can see that I was interested in the architecture of joints; I had been studying it at the molecular level, and while not obviously related, I saw architecture as a scaled-up chemistry.


 [Catriona and her Dad, Ewen Campbell, discussing cast-in-place concrete process at a jobsite in Washington, D.C.]

July 2010 324

[Marva herb, used to flavor the tea during a lunch break with masons in the Negev Desert, Israel]


And what prompted you to move into the construction side of things?

I transferred into the A-school that summer between second and third year, and started working part-time at a local architecture firm to get caught up with my practical experience. I continued working at this firm through the remainder of both undergrad and through grad school, four years later.  While working with that firm I assembled proposals, competition submissions, designed historic renovations, additions, interior finishes, and landscape projects; of all those assignments, however, by far I found the most fascinating the construction administration for a few projects in the Albermarle County area and was immersed in a hands-on world which I then knew very little about, working side by side with the general contractors and subcontractors fine-tuning the details as construction progressed.

Apr 2009 a 043

[Thumbs-up for an approved window mock-up in Texas]


Describe a typical day might be like for you as a general contractor.  How is this different from how you started ten years ago?

Currently I manage the interiors and special construction division for a large general contractor in the DC metropolitan area.   We have 25 people in our group, and average 45 projects per year of varying contract size, from $500,000 to $50,000,000.  When I return from maternity leave with my second daughter, I will resume my normal daily work schedule from 6:30am – 4:30pm, when I leave work to commute home to pick the girls up.  I drive to multiple locations every day in MD, DC, and VA, visiting headquarters and walking various project sites, meeting with developers, architects, and subcontractors, and working to bring in new work for the division.  The trunk of my car is jam-packed with my dress shoes and work-boots to suit whatever meeting is next.  I found it to be a significant shift in thinking and manner of working to go from building buildings to pursuing and acquiring the contracts to build those buildings.  Winning work is hard, but a fun challenge and I enjoy learning the art of the deal and all the variables that go into it.

Much like architecture, there is no such thing as a 40 hour work-week in construction.  The hours, while they haven’t reduced any in quantity over the course of my career, have shifted now that my husband and I have our two daughters, Mairi and Maeve (3 years and 3 months respectively); while I might not be at the jobsite or my office past 4:30, my iPad has been a godsend for mobile working in the evening after we’ve put them to bed.

What are some misconceptions about the construction industry?

The stigma I find most troubling is the rather antiquated misconception that contractors (general or subcontractors) are lazy, unkempt, greedy, and uneducated; I have found the exact opposite to be true.  Most of my industry colleagues rise long before the sun, travel significant commutes, work extremely hard all day long, are in amazing physical shape, are focused on family, and still make time to be active in their community.  I think construction embodies the definition of work in its purest form.

A thought on education in particular . . . I interact with many different types of people every single day:  well-educated financial investors, real estate developers, urban planners, architects, code inspectors, lawyers, artists, foremen, and laborers.  There is a wide spectrum of levels of education in the construction industry, and I have found that it’s important to have a healthy appreciation for the kind of knowledge that can only be grown through experience and time, and that a formal education is not able to provide.  This was one of the most humbling lessons I learned upon graduation from my master’s.  I quickly found myself almost embarrassed to tell anyone I had my master’s because of how little I realized I knew about the practical nuts and bolts of how a building went together.  Some of the most brilliant people I work with, from technicians to artisans, haven’t necessarily had the same educational experience I have; their command of their skill, trade, or craft trumps everything and it demands respect.  My early years in my career were focused on following around and learning from the subcontractor foremen on my projects to soak up as much knowledge as I possibly could.

July 2010 487

[Learning how to chisel Jerusalem Gold limestone into a split-face finish]


What from your architecture education do you take with you into your career?

We all found this painful when we were going through it in architecture school, but now I can say I truly appreciate it.  I have found the best training for life at work was the frequent, constant pin-ups, desk crits and Friday morning weekly reviews.  Demonstrating thought process, generating work product of which you are proud enough to present and defend, establishing relevance within context, developing speaking skills and convincing an audience of the validity of your design. And never showing up to any meeting empty handed.  Always coming prepared with something in hand:  research, notes, history, context, deliverables, relevant precedents, progressed concepts, etc.   Thank you, thank you, thank you to all my professors who hammered that message home; now that I see it from the recruitment side of things when hiring, I think this ability to work the process and generate iterative product sets architecture students apart from other undergraduate candidates.

What’s the thing you like most about your job?

To answer it generally:  Every day is an adventure.  There’s always a short and long term plan, but every day poses new surprises, introduces new people, exposes me to new design concepts.  There is never a dull moment and I have learned the importance of improvising and adjusting to the changing conditions.  The work product is never stale and always interesting, as I have had the opportunity to work on a wide cross-section of building types:  historic renovations, high-end law firm and corporate interior fit-outs, national monuments, heavy civil road and rail projects, a seasonal water fountain that converts into an ice rink, residential, and base building (core-and-shell) projects.  I love the people I work with; some of my closest friends are my colleagues, my clients, consultants, and subcontractors.  Life and work have blurred together in this way; they are not distinct and separate.  I am fortunate to have such enriching work relationships.

To answer it specifically:  I am not the most patient person, and like to see immediate progress and returns on my work effort and decision-making.  It is thrilling to make a decision on the fly in the field and seeing the physical result take form nearly immediately.  Construction is fast-paced and you have to run hard to stay out in front of it or you can get lost in the details.  I’m proud to be able to drive through DC, MD, and VA, and point out the buildings and monuments I worked to build or renovate.

July 2010 192

[Reviewing stone samples for consistency]


What is your favorite city for architecture?

Jerusalem, Israel. I was fortunate enough to have a client on a project I built from 2008-2010 who believed strongly in seeing material at its source, and insisted on taking their contractor, architect, and subcontractor with them to see every major material element.  This meant a significant amount of international travel, and I coordinated two trips in 2008 and 2009 to select blocks of Jerusalem Gold limestone from the Negev Desert three hours south of Jerusalem.  We were involved in the process from stone block selection in the quarry, to full-scale dry-lays for approval, and the production slabbing and dimensional cuts.

The architectural layering of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in that area is stunning and I look forward to returning on personal travel.

September-December 2008 234

[Tea time in the Grebelsky Quarry, Negev Desert, Israel]


[Demolishing a building to make way for another]


What, if anything, would you change about architectural education?

An increased focus during both undergraduate and graduate years on business principles.

I appreciate that working for a large general contractor means that in my decade of working I have been able to build projects that have been designed by some of the best architects around today.  Even as early as the preconstruction phase, what becomes immediately apparent is which firms are well-run businesses and which ones aren’t; some firms find it difficult to advocate for the value of their services through appropriate fees or creative cost structures to suit the long gestation of a project from concept to final realization, and as a result can struggle financially.  I think we need to teach architecture students some of the basic tenets of business so that no matter which path they pursue post graduation they have a fundamental grounding in strong business principles.

July 2010 616

[Catriona and Eric Winter, Charleston 2009]

Inspiring, isn’t she?  I loved reading how she originally became interested in architecture.  Catriona, thank you for sharing a little of your time and enthusiasm for building with us!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s