Conversations with Colleagues: Crystal Chan

Crystal is a Senior Project Manager at our New York studio

Q: What drew you to the design profession, and what’s keeping you here?

A: Growing up in Hong Kong, one of the most expensive cities for real estate in the world, our apartment was 667 square feet. To fit three tiny bedrooms, you had to open the door, and walk right into the bed. As an only child with working parents, I spent a lot of time playing dollhouse with our actual house, moving the furniture around (much to my mom’s chagrin). In hindsight, I was optimizing, seeing how we could fit differently, and aspiring to improve life within the physical constraints.

This experience got me interested in design and architecture, but the lesson that stuck was resourcefulness. How can I do a lot with a little? When thinking through every design problem, this sense of hustle is always at the back of my mind. How many birds can I kill with this one stone? If I think about this challenge differently, can I turn it into an opportunity? This mindset helped me solve complex design projects over the years, along with the support of great colleagues and clients of courseThis feeling, where at the end of the day you have made it just a little bit better for the project and everyone involved, is addicting, and keeps me coming back for more.  

Q: What role does diversity, inclusion, and engagement play in the design profession at large? 

A: It is the only way! How can we design, foster wellbeing, and create a sense of belonging for all, when the design profession does not represent people holisticallyFrom a building science perspective, the most basic function of architecture as shelter has been evolving and developing continuously in different cultures for millennia. There are just too many lessons for all of us from indigenous and native architecture, design, and craft to gloss over  

This topic hits home from a cultural and social-economic perspective, since Hong Kong—my hometown—has been built up with the standard western vernacular of hermetically sealed glassy high-rises, championed as “architecture of progress and prosperity” since colonial times. This practice continues to this day all the while ignoring the fact that it is in a subtropical coastal climate with very limited natural resources to fuel all the air conditioning necessaryWith all this density, though, it remains one of the least affordable cities in the world with an everincreasing wealth gapI cannot help but wonder if the city can be more sustainable and equitable if more local, diverse voices were a part of its growth and evolution beyond the magazine-cover “architectural icon”. In my newly-adopted city of New York, the struggle is different yet familiarcan we ever solve the housing crisis? How do you balance increasing supply without sense of displacement, or the much-dreaded “g” word of gentrification? Can zoning regulation better support adapting and reusing our building thus reducing the need to raze buildings, culture and sometimes communities, all in the interest of “progress”?  

Crystal presented at the Advanced Management Development Program (AMDP) lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design last year.
Art is an important source of inspiration for Crystal.

Q: In what ways do you think our firm stands apart from other firms as far as diversity, inclusion, and engagement go—and how has our firm enabled you to thrive as a professional?  

I have heard the saying “you cannot be what you don’t see,” so clearly representation matters. Beyond that, I think being outspoken with the work, and most importantly being open and supportive of each other is what will help. I have personally benefited from a tremendously supportive network that has lifted me through the years, so I work hard to pay that forward. Even though sometimes this outspokenness surprises people, it’s worth it. After all, if not now, when? 

In partnership with my cohort here in the New York studio, we contribute by being career mentors, review student portfolios, and volunteer within our community. Most recently we’ve started working on a Minority, Women, Veteran, or Disability-owned Business (XBE) Outreach List to identify XBE-owned firms to connect, build a relationship, with the ultimate goal of working with them in the future as design partners across our platform and projects. This active and dedicated group of colleagues is committed to the cause, putting in personal time to do the work, even when the news headline has moved on. They inspire me to keep going. It may seem insignificant in the day to day, but history says that persistence will pay off.  

Q: In what positive ways have your experiences at Perkins&Will changed you, personally or professionally, and/or your outlook on the world? 

A: It’s all about the people at the end of the day, isn’t it? A supportive and like-minded network of folks in the office is what allows me to thrive, contribute to such a wide variety of projects and pursuits, and above all, give back.  

Crystal and her team "getting together" (virtually) for a happy hour.