Better Together: Megan Chusid on Seeing the Industry, Helping Organizations, and Making a Difference
By Julia Gamolina
Megan Chusid is a New York-based architect and the Operations Director and Senior Project Manager at Urban Projects Collaborative. Her strength lies in her ability to seamlessly manage all of the demands of a project, ranging from creative solutions for the ongoing day to day operations of an organization to implementing long term strategic development plans.
Megan is a registered architect with over 15 years of real estate experience working in architecture, construction, and facility management for both corporate and non-profit organizations. Prior to joining UPC, Megan oversaw global corporate real estate projects at MetLife and worked as the Associate Director of Facilities at the Guggenheim Museum & Foundation.
JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
MC: I was born into it - my mom practiced as an architectural designer, worked for interior designers and real estate companies in the city, and eventually went out on her own. She was a one-woman design-build firm, providing full turnkey design services which included hiring subcontractors to do the construction.
Her office was in our apartment and I worked for her in high school - returning samples and doing runs to the D&D building. Architecture was a natural fit for me; I grew up with it, saw how excited she was about it, and I loved it too. I never thought about doing anything else, and only applied to B.Arch programs for undergrad, ending up at Syracuse University.
What did you learn about yourself at Syracuse?
Syracuse is very social, and I was one of two women in my year that pledged a sorority. This was something very few architecture students did, and it was frowned upon, but I really needed that balance. I’d get home from studio and there were always people around - I had a great social outlet and met a lot of people.
What was your first job in the field?
I ended up joining a medium size firm right out of college, HTO Architects, where for almost five years, I focused on high-end mixed use residential in NYC during a housing boom and learned how to put a building together.
While at HTO, I met Marc Heiman. I remember talking over breakfast, and he asked, “What’s your plan? Your five-year plan, your ten-year plan.” I said, “I think I might want to be an owner’s rep, but I am not ready just yet and want to see more of the industry first.”
So what did you do?
I joined Marc at Richter+Ratner, a boutique construction management company. Initially I focused on business development, and eventually, a large part of my time was supporting Marc with general company operations. I learned a tremendous amount - about contracts, risk, insurance, things that are vital to the industry but that you don’t learn in school.
One of my challenges was to figure out how CM’s can work better with architects. You know, there’s that triangle of owner, architect, contractor, and I was able to bring my voice, from the perspective of an architect, to how Richter+Ratner were creating their systems.
How do you make everyone work better together?
Well, that’s something I’ve dedicated my career to! I wanted to work on each side of the table to be able to work better at the table. Understanding where everyone is coming from, what their intent is, and what their drive is, has been vital - generally everyone just wants to build something great. The architect has to provide the design intent and the details, and the contractor has to figure out how to bring it to life through means and methods. Both need to understand what the owner wants and what’s driving that. As an owner’s rep, I get to bring the team together.
As someone who studied architecture, worked as an architect, and got her license, how did you get over the hurdle of leaving that identity behind and no longer working as one?
I’ve always been involved in design outside of work. I joined the “Emerging NY Architects”, ENYA, a committee at AIANY, and eventually became a co-chair. We developed programs, led design-ideas competitions; it was an outlet for me to stay involved and advance the practice of architecture. Eventually, I needed more of a day to day creative outlet and that’s when I ended up finding a job at the Guggenheim.
Yes, tell me all about this! How did this come about?
I worked on several ENYA programs, loved the exhibition component, and just felt like I needed more culture in my work life. I literally opened Crain’s one day, saw the Top 100 Cultural Institutions in New York, and searched to see if anyone was hiring. I went to every website on that list, and saw that the Guggenheim was.
What was your role there?
I was the Associate Director of Facilities and Office Services. At first I was working for the Chief Operating Officer and Director of Facilities to oversee Office Services which included space assessment, allocation, and planning for their real estate properties in NYC- the corporate office, storage facilities and the fifth avenue museum.
Working directly with the COO I then became more involved with facilities operations, long-term maintenance and capital planning. I ended up managing the final phase of a large city grant that included the exterior renovation of the museum, as well as other building improvements.
What were your main takeaways from your time there?
As part of capital planning, I started to do a lot of work with the archives department and the original construction drawings for the museum. I was able to not only see the drawings, but also the correspondence between Frank Lloyd Wright, the local architect in New York, the client, and the director at the time.
This led to writing a blog for the museum! I was able to share information on the history of the oculus, and different materials of the building. This was amazing - I mean, I took a job in office services and was able to grow my role. The most amazing part of my time at the Guggenheim was getting to know the building and how it was put together, and how a museum is put together in general.
What did you do next?
I went to MetLife! A short pitstop in corporate America [laughs]. I wasn’t looking, but a colleague of mine called and said, “Hey, would you want to work globally?” MetLife was in the process of consolidating multiple New York offices into a new Urban Campus at the base of the former Pan Am building, what is now the MetLife building. I was hired by the Global Design & Construction team to support the new Urban Campus and also ended up working on a projects in New Jersey, Mexico, Japan and Ireland.
When you say “worked on”, what was your role there?
The Global Design & Construction team are in-house project managers. They develop the design intent of new build-outs and renovations, and manage the architects and the outside consultant teams in various regions around the world, making sure the office design of MetLife was consistent and thought out.
How did you finally get to Urban Projects Collaborative?
I had been considering going out on my own for a while, spoke to a few people, and two people said, “You’ve got to meet Sarah Haga.” Sarah is the founder of UPC. Two people I respect in the industry said it to me in the same week, so I thought, “I better go meet this woman.” We had a phone call, hit it off, and as we joke around, “courted” each other for six months [laughs]. We had monthly breakfasts where we would discuss what it would be like to work together. The company was three years old at the time and had grown to twelve people, and she knew the company needed more support. I wanted to be an owner’s rep, but also had a desire for operations. UPC seemed like a great size for me to have an impact, both with operations and with projects.
Additionally, UPC’s structure as a collective and the projects they focused on resonated with me. UPC strives to work with mission-driven organizations, and that was exactly what I wanted to be doing. Granted everyone has a mission - though some people’s missions are just to make money - but for us it was cultural institutions, community and religious institutions, non-profits - socially responsible organizations. It was a perfect fit, and after six months, I came on board.
Where do you feel like you’re in your career today?
I’m truly in an amazing place. Absolutely, without a doubt. I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing, I have experience behind me to help me grow more, and I’m at a place where I can make a difference in the company. Sarah has brought together amazing people who she knows are the best at what they do, and I’m honored to be a part of that. I’ve been here a little over a year, a great year, and success for me now is not only about work, but that I’m able to manage my life to the point where work is not taking over. UPC strives to offer a flexible work arrangements for all employees.
Can we unpack that a little bit? How do you manage the integration of work with your personal life?
There’s never a perfect “balance”, but you find on a day to day basis, what works for you. What works for me is the fact that, as a consultant, my big bag is my office, and I’m not defined by 9-5. I got up this morning, worked for a bit, came here to meet you at The Wing, and then later today, I’m caring for my grandmother who is 96 years old, and lives in the city. I’ll leave work at 4pm, go spend time with her, have dinner with her, and then go home and finish my work.
Looking back, what have been the biggest challenges in your career?
Figuring out what to do when the economy was down was a challenge. During the recession, the thought on everyone’s mind was, “Oh my god, what will I do.” I used the situation to get my license - I pitched my boss that I’d go down to working a few days a week, and use the remaining days to study. I’ve never been laid off, thankfully.
Being a woman in the industry is certainly a challenge, but I’ve had a lot of great experience early in my career that set me up well. I try not to think in challenges though - it’s all just life. You deal with things, you learn, you move on, and you become more confident and successful.
What about highlights?
The Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition was a huge highlight. I can’t begin to describe what it was like to be a part of that - the jury deliberations, being in Helsinki, seeing the entries come in and the dialogue around them, meeting the finalists, the politics around an American institution abroad, the Bilbao effect, all of that. The biggest takeaway is that design and culture have an impact on politics and vice versa.
Also being where I am now is a highlight! I hope it’ll be a really long highlight, being at UPC and doing what I do.
What has been your general approach to your career?
To do what I love and to go with my gut. My career has been organic - I knew I wanted to use my architecture, construction, and in-house experience to help other organizations get to where they want to be and that has led me to where I am today.
Finally, what advice do you have for those just starting their careers?
Ask a lot of questions - that’s it. Also, find great people to answer those questions - I look back at my career and there have been so many great people who have influenced and mentored me. Create a community of people to help answer questions, also have the confidence to ask them. Don’t think that asking questions shows a weakness; it’s the total opposite, it shows a strength. Be a sponge, absorb everything, and if you don’t know, just ask.