Designing Woman: Architect Sabrina Raia '15 Conceives a Light-filled Haven for the Women of Bihar

(from the left) Architectural designers Snigdha Agarwal and Sabrina Raia '15 with Alissa Moore, a co-founder of the Nomi Network.

In her first year at the New York headquarters of architecture and planning firm Perkins Eastman, Sabrina Raia ’15 signed onto an eye-opening, high-wattage project on the Upper East Side of Manhattan:  a 25-story cancer center for Memorial Sloan Kettering that will house research, clinical trials and new models for outpatient care – all under one roof.

“An incredible amount of thinking goes into designing a health care facility, where the rooms house different equipment and serve very specific functions. There is such detail, not all of it visible. For example, patients become radioactive after some treatments and the walls and floors in those areas are lined with lead to protect the other patients and staff,” explained Raia, who helped coordinate utility infrastructure drawings and will soon be on-site during construction making sure the work is done according to specifications.

But eager to keep her hand in design, Raia leapt at the chance to enter an in-house competition that took her a world away from the technical complexities of construction administration on a 21st-century high-rise. This year’s focus was a career-training and development center slated for Bihar, India, an impoverished state bordering Nepal, for women on the margins of society – victims of domestic violence, women and girls forced into prostitution and members of the so-called “untouchable” caste, all at continuing risk of human trafficking.

Two Twenty Somethings Win the Perkins Eastman Internal Design Competition

Open to young architects below associate level in the firm’s offices across the globe, Raia teamed up with Snigdha Agarwal, a 26-year-old colleague in New York, to create a light-filled, airy, environmentally sustainable complex centered around large, open-air courtyards with trees and plants on site. Porous, red-brick walls run through the interior with openings of various sizes to create a sense of fluidity and connection, while providing ready-made niches for the women to display their handiwork. To her complete surprise, they won.

“You can imagine how shocked everyone was to see who the winners were – including me – because we’re so young. And all of the competitors’ projects were so beautiful!  It was a humbling moment since this project will help so many women, and I get to be a part of it,” said Raia. At a recent gala held by the Nomi Network, the non-profit organization that will run the center, she met co-founders Diana Mao, Alissa Moore and Supei Liu.

Nomi Network’s current facility in Bihar is a rented office space with three rooms that its training program “has rapidly outgrown,” Moore said. The new facility will allow the group to more than double its capacity to admit women on the waiting list, as well as to create more capacity for production. The group teaches “soft skills,” including basic math, literacy, financial planning and saving as well as technical skills in sewing and the production of other goods.

“The center will create a safe and creative space for the women to build community, learn from one another and the staff and redefine their futures,” she noted, adding that it would also include an emergency housing unit “to support some of the more critical cases that we have encountered,” such as the children of women in the program who are also the targets of violence.

In addition to skills training, the center will provide job counseling and placement, while also serving as a haven where the women will feel nurtured and protected. “This training facility is all about helping women get back on their feet,” Raia says. “It needs to be a place of refuge, where they can reflect on themselves to do some self-healing, and so we made our design simple, with architecture that reflects their talents and interests.”

“Sabrina and Snigdha’s design is very doable, very constructible. I loved the planning, the hierarchy of scheme, with its configuration of office spaces, production areas and residences, and the possibility of extensions,” said Christine Schlendorf, a principal at the firm who organized and oversaw the competition. “Its nice overall layout caught the eye.”

Site Unseen

Designing from afar was no small challenge, she added.

“To begin with, the designers didn’t know much about the site,” Schlendorf noted.  “And Bihar is rural and not easy to get to, and so they had to take that into account in terms of construction options. They also had to figure out which materials are made using slave labor – and avoid them. They did a lot of research.”

The pair’s sustainable design features permeable pavers that will allow rainfall to collect in below-ground containers for reuse in the building, and solar panels on roofs pitched to the south to maximize the amount of sunlight harvested.

“The buildings are raised above the ground to allow for flooding during the monsoon season and to trap air to cool the floor at night. The orientation of the buildings along with the placement of openings on the façade allow for a cross breeze within the spaces and for the hot air to escape,” she said. “We kept the interior plan very open with flexible courtyards to allow for the spaces to grow as needed.”

Schlendorf described the Internal Design Competitions, now in their 10th year, as a way to “reinvigorate the practice with more of a ‘school culture,’ where students regularly do pin-ups of their designs in studio, and to allow young designers opportunities to show their peers and the senior designers what they can do.”

“It’s also a way to give our younger staff opportunities,” she added, noting that while the Mumbai office would take over the Nomi Network project, the New York designers would keep a hand in. The initial design was provided without charge, while the ongoing work will be offered at reduced rates.

“Snigdha and I originally chose each other because we have very similar design goals and drawing styles. As we worked together, we realized that we brought different strengths to the project – hers, knowledge of Indian culture and local materials, and mine, sustainability,” Raia said. “It was a great collaboration.”

Going Back, Giving Back

She credits her ability to work on highly technical aspects of building projects, wading through densely detailed construction documents, with her firm grounding in engineering at NJIT, where she earned both an undergraduate degree in architecture and a master’s in civil engineering. “It made me well-rounded. That’s why I was able to work on the complex health facility project right after graduation,” said Raia, who is now back at her alma mater as an adjunct professor teaching a first-year class on tools and techniques.

While the Nomi Center and MSK’s David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care are geographically and functionally miles apart, she pointed to an important correlation.

“Both buildings are designed to be soothing and welcoming, places for people to heal. It’s tremendously rewarding to be a part of both. People go into architecture for many different reasons and I like to think that mine is to help people, either by designing for the user in a way that improves quality of life or teaching students the language of architecture that will allow them to unlock their full potential.”

Tracey Regan