Career Profiles: Orla Punch

1. What is your name?
Orla Punch.

2. Where do you work and what is your role/job title
Currently as an Architectural Designer at Foster + Partners architecture firm in San Francisco, California.

3. What were the main ‘career decision’ milestones in your life so far?
A pivotal decision was basing my final year thesis on building architecture on Mars. I was given a scholarship from ESA to continue my research with a Masters of Science at the International Space University. This created an opportunity for me to work at the European Space Agency’s Astronaut Centre as part of their Spaceship EAC Project which focuses on preparing the Centre for future Lunar Missions.

4. Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?
During my final year of architecture school, I met Dr. Norah Patten who encouraged me to pursue Space Architecture. In terms of other architects – the work of female Space Architect Galina Balashova has had great influence over my approach and design of human focused space systems. She worked on the Soviet Space Program as well as more traditional terrestrial architecture projects. She designed the interior of the Soyuz Spacecraft, and the Space Stations Salyut and Mir. It is fair to say she is one of the first to apply a human centric approach to designing habitats for Astronauts to both work and live in.

5. Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
A career like architecture enables you to travel and work anywhere in the world. Its’ training also enables you to cross over and work in a variety of fields and industries (In my case – the Space Industry and Space Architecture).

Questions about your current Job

6. How did you go about getting your current job?
Since my time in architecture school at the University of Limerick, I had admired the work of Foster + Partners who have also partnered with ESA and NASA on projects. When I moved to San Francisco, an opportunity arose at the firm to which I applied and was accepted. For my time at the European Astronaut Centre, every year ESA advertises positions for trainees/interns and I was lucky that my background and M.Sc was related to the role they were looking to fill.

7. Describe a typical day?
It is a global practice with some of our team based in London. With the time difference to California, the first part of the day in San Francisco involves team catch-ups with the London office before they head home. The remainder of the day is spent carrying out a variety of design related tasks depending on the project, it is always quite varied and not typical.

8. What are the main tasks and responsibilities?
Working as an architect is mixed. For example, tasks vary from: design related items, preparing for client meetings, research, site visits, preparing drawings, 3D models and building physical models or prototypes to show design intent. Similarly with the European Astronaut Centre, some of the tasks involved conducting input interviews with Subject Matter Experts and Astronauts to create a design brief for the Lunar Analogue Habitat – working as an architect can be very diverse.

9. What are the main challenges?
In the world of design you will find there is never enough time.

10. What’s cool?
Being surrounded by sustainable future thinking architecture projects based all over the world – with some off-world concepts for the Moon and Mars – and very talented co-workers.

11. What’s not so cool?
In terms of space architecture, projects can more often than not remain in the concept stage unless you are lucky with timing and space industry missions. You have to be prepared that your designs might never be built unlike terrestrial architecture here on Earth. Technology isn’t quite there yet to allow us to live long-term on other planets, but I think in 25 years there will be an increase in Space Architects.

12. What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?
Being trained as an architect provides you with many different skills beyond just design. It equips you with great problem-solving skills and the ability to think outside of the box.

Questions about education and training

13. What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?
Maths, English, Irish, French, Biology and Art – which I really enjoyed. Art compelled me to be more creative in my pursuits, but Maths and Science grounded this creativity – producing a balance helpful for space architecture.

14. What is your education to date?
I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Limerick, I also have a Master of Science in Space Studies from the International Space University and I am a graduate from their Space Studies Program.

15. What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
For my M.Sc, I worked on the psychological study of how humans interact and work in confined spaces through conducting research on Space Flight Astronauts, and people who live in remote and extreme locations. In these situations, you can see how the spaces people occupy directly affects their health and performance with work, but also social relationships. Studying the effect the built environment has on people is something that is useful and beneficial here on Earth as well as for Space Exploration, I find I use what I learned from these studies in my everyday work today.

16. Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?
I am a firm believer in lifelong learning. As previously outlined, to merge my architecture degree with the Space Industry I undertook a M.Sc in Space Studies to gain a deeper knowledge in Space Science.

Questions about yourself

7. What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
Working with Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and the Spaceship EAC team at the European Astronaut Centre on the design of a Lunar Analogue Habitat.

18. What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?
The willingness to try new things and the determination to persevere despite setbacks.

19. What is your dream job?
Conducting construction administration on the Moon or Mars 🙂

Advice for people thinking of this job as a career choice

20. What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
For a Space Architecture career – just keep at it. I’ve been told a few times that “space architecture” is not quite a priority just yet, but if I had fully listened to that kind of talk in the past I would never have had the opportunity to work at the European Astronaut Centre.

21. What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?
Creativity, the ability to listen and take direction, and to be a team player – it can be very much a team based career so you have to be able to communicate effectively and enjoy working with people who come from different professional backgrounds and disciplines.

22. What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
I would advise using the transition year of school to get an internship with a design or architecture firm, that way you will experience the day to day tasks of the role and see if it fits. For the space industry as a whole, reach out and talk to people that do what you want to do – you never know who you will meet. Some of the most helpful people I know work in the space industry.