2017 Extension Honored Instructor Stephen Wong

An inspiring interview with an architect who combines personal and professional success

Stephen Wong, one of our esteemed Extension Honored Instructors for 2017, exemplifies the best that we have to offer: professionally talented, devoted to his students and intellectually curious. In addition to his teaching experience, Stephen is an architect and staff project manager with Kaiser Permanente, overseeing the planning, design and construction of a variety of capital projects.

We recently caught up with Stephen at his work in San Leandro to find out what makes him tick.

The director of the Certificate Program in Interior Architecture and Interior Design applauds your talents in design, technical and business. That's quite a varied list. Can you relate your career arc? How did you first get involved with architecture and design?

When I was a sophomore in high school, I took a mechanical drafting class, which involved a T square, triangles and a lot of sharp pencils; this was before any sort of computer drafting. I liked it and decided that I wanted to design buildings for a living, and so attended UC Berkeley for my undergraduate training.

When I graduated, I decided to learn design, then hovered around the seasoned men and women of KMD and started learning technical detailing. That led to becoming a job captain (or junior project manager), and I started learning how to turn a profit on a job. Sometimes architects are not the best business people, so it's important to learn the balance between amazing design, technical accuracy and "bringing home the bacon."

You work on large capital projects as part of a team. What are some of the challenges and rewards of working with others?

People enter the field of design because, at some level, they care about the betterment of the built environment. There is a passion about great design and that we can make a difference. I still get goose bumps when I visit the job site and see that after months or years of hard work, a physical project is completed and I can see and touch it. That is always breathtaking.

One of the keys to a great project is the people you work with, and I have worked with thousands of people over the years. As a project manager, I manage construction projects and work with people. I never believe that I “manage” people; I feel that diminishes them as professionals.

Working well with people and getting them to work well with each other are soft skills that are highly underrated in our industry. If you can master those, you are well on your way to having a successful project. Build those relationships early, so when problems arise (and problems always arise on construction projects), you work as a team to resolve them and not point fingers.

You were invited to teach at AutoDesk because of your abilities with AutoCAD. Did you start off drawing digitally, or has this been a change since you began your career?

Oh boy, has the industry changed since I first started! In the late '80s and early '90s, we used drafting tables, straight edges, Mylar and pencils. There were various grades of pencils depending on how thick of a line you wanted to draw. You would go home with graphite on your shirt and hands.

Now, with AutoCAD, Revit, Rhino and all those other fancy software packages, you don’t need any of that. I do, however, tell my students not to lose the art of the pencil.

And how did you decide to start teaching?

That actually is a funny story. During my years of practice, I met Dickson Sum who was part of a California state regulatory agency and we became good friends. He was teaching AutoCAD at Extension and decided it was too time-consuming. As a single, ambitious person, I asked if I could take his place—I started teaching here in 2001 and never left.

You often bring students to your workplace for critiques and meetings. How has that been working?

In every design studio class I have taught, I required students to pin up their midterm and final reviews in the firm I was working in at the time. On occasion, I would also do this with my construction documents class.

All the students would dress in business attire and bring their drawings and models to the firm. We would check out one or two conference rooms starting at 5 pm and pin up the drawings. I would already have organized a dozen or so of my colleagues, co-instructors and friends to come and give critiques.

Every time, the students raved about the feedback from professional interior designers and architects. I don’t remember how I got the idea, but I do remember thinking, “It would be great to have the students’ class experience mimic the real world.”

Because the critiques would begin after 5 pm, it was tough to get professionals to stay after a long day’s work. So I bribed them with the one thing all architects want: free food! I also put some thought into assigning the right professional to the right student. If I saw that a student was having trouble grasping three-dimensional space, I would pull in a designer who could address that issue.

How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

I try to determine my students’ level of preparedness for the field and flex my syllabus to train accordingly. I do strongly believe that in order for a student to learn, they need to feel comfortable asking questions, and then feel comfortable (and do better) when my critique is not what they expected.

Construction document example

You teach multiple courses in our interior design and interior architecture certificate. Is there  a class that is closest to your heart or that you most like to teach?

During the past three decades, I have discovered—after being blessed with such a variety of assignments—that I am really an architectural nerd. And to satisfy that nerd-ness, I teach Construction Documents every summer.

In the field, it is one thing to design something that looks pretty, but another for someone to build it. Our job is to change the world by combining amazing design with practical detailing.

Honored Instructor Stephen Wong in front of Kaiser hospital

You've also been involved with curriculum development. How well does the certificate prepare students who are interested in a career in interior design and interior architecture?

I have seen students go directly from graduating from the IDIA certificate to landing jobs at large, well-known firms. Our certificate is one of the most rigorous out there and for good reason. We train students for a tough yet rewarding career in the design field. Students often ask me if, having completed the AutoCAD class, they would be considered experts in AutoCAD. My answer is absolutely yes.

You've received great reviews from your students. Do you ever hear from them after they receive their certificate and go out into the working world?

I do! In fact, I visited a graduate last week. One of my friend’s sons is interested in pursuing a degree in design, and my former student was kind enough to make time for us. She works for an internationally prestigious design firm and showed us what it takes to make the transition from school to work. We had a great time talking about UC Berkeley Extension and the profession. It is always so encouraging to see students go on to surpass their teacher.

Do you have any outside interests or hobbies?

I have a beautiful and amazingly gifted wife and three wonderful kids. My wife designs and sells hand-crafted greeting cards, and I do what I can to support her. My oldest now loves volleyball, and I share her passion. My middle one loves anything Star Wars, so we watch the series over and over again. He also loves basketball, so I have been an assistant coach for his team. My youngest is into all things sports and so I play baseball, tag, hide and seek, and everything else.

We just finished our annual summer camp for kids; we have about 100 to 120 kids and 30 counselors from many different churches around California converge for a week-long camp in the heart of the Sierra Foothills. I have been serving as one of the co-directors for as long as I have been teaching at Extension! It is tons of fun and lets me be a kid again. I also co-teach Sunday school and have been doing so for a number of years. It is quite life changing.