Fueling the fire: How a designer’s diversion from studying created new opportunities

November 21, 2018 Zuhair Hussaini

An international design competition provides an unexpected platform for personal and professional growth 


In architecture school, my greatest achievement was my fifth-year thesis project. It entailed the redesign of a mausoleum at the Baqi cemetery located in the city of Medina, Saudi Arabia. The original mausoleum was razed in the 1920s by the government as a result of extremism, but the site continued to be important to many Muslims around the world as part of Islamic heritage.  This personal connection to the project inspired my passion and enthusiasm from day one. Even upon graduating, I kept the momentum going by marketing it as much as I could to my community.  It blossomed further when I was able to present the project in different cities, including Washington DC, Chicago, Toronto, Detroit, and Cologne. 

The way I see it, each of these opportunities are a preamble to the next big thing on your career path.


A 3D rendering of the courtyard area of Zuhair's project submission. 


Distraction leads to inspiration

Last summer I came across Tamayouz, an organization that hosts competitions around the world for architecture students and professionals. At the time, I was with Stantec taking my Architect Registration Exams and needed a break from the intense studying. I stumbled upon a competition seeking to address the housing needs of Mosul, Iraq by designing prototype housing in a post-ISIS period. Immediately something resonated within me—much like my time working on my thesis—and I registered for the competition without thinking twice. I was especially inspired by the chance to impact human life for the greater good. 

I come from an Afghan background and, although I’ve never visited, I’m very aware of how debilitating the effects of war can be on a society based on my parents’ stories about their own experiences. I’ve also visited Iraq in the past for a religious pilgrimage and have learned about Iraqi traditions and culture through my friends. 

_q_tweetable:It was a welcome distraction that not only intensified my passion and ambitions for design and architecture, but also created a valuable opportunity at Stantec._q_

The competition material included reports and photos for designers to familiarize themselves with the prompt. There were research papers to provide us a background on the traditional housing in the area, as well as the lifestyle and family values associated with the people of Mosul. There was also documentation on the level of damage to the city. After filtering through the research to fully understand the problem and subsequently shape a solution, I came up with a design during my time outside of work and studying—surprisingly two weeks before the deadline.

The intention was to design something simple that could be constructed quickly using local materials. But the philosophy of my design was much more complex: to create a space that inspires comfort and healing for families that had gone through much distress. I envisioned a set of dense low- to medium-rise condos surrounding courtyard space wherein families and children could gather. This design stems from traditional housing architecture in Mosul, but this interpretation would facilitate the sheer amount of housing needed.  


An “Artist’s Impression” sketch expressing Zuhair's design of the residential units.


After a month of judging, I was thrilled to make the short list with a Top 20 design. I attended the awards ceremony in Amman, Jordan and accepted my award from the British Ambassador to Jordan. I also spent valuable time meeting several professionals from Middle Eastern firms as well as other students of architecture from both Jordan and Iraq. It was my first experience within the field of architecture on an International level and something I’ll cherish forever. 


Trusting my instincts

There were several takeaways that opened my eyes and taught me many lessons. The most important was finding comfort in taking risks. In the past, I’ve found myself throttling ideas or decisions due to fear of rejection or criticism. But one can learn from any scenario. During this competition, some of my design decisions were quite risky and I had my doubts, but I still went ahead with them anyways. Those risks ended up paying off big time and that gives me a lot of confidence to trust my instincts more often. 

If I were to be honest, I didn’t think I was going to make it so far in a pool of 300+ submissions from across the globe—chiefly because I struggled to come up with a design that I was truly content with. After all, design really has no end (especially if you’re a perfectionist!). Let alone when you’re supposed to put together a masterpiece in such a short duration. 

The result gave me the self-assurance to trust my wit and be more optimistic about my abilities. If you don’t have conviction about what you put on paper, how can you expect others to accept it? 


Zuhair receiving the Award from Edward Oakden, British Ambassador to Jordan.


Thinking big, within reason

Another discovery, which is perhaps a double-edged sword, is my ability to think outside the box.  The competition asked for realistic designs that could be built efficiently with respect to time and construction cost. This is understandable as the situation in Mosul is dire with more and more families returning to find they no longer have a place to live. 

When I saw the other shortlist finalists, I saw designs that were not practical with today’s technology. For example, there was one design proposing flying drones to 3D print the residential units. Such a concept may sound cool but from a practical standpoint, it’s years away from reality. Despite this, many international blogs had praised the idea. 

From that, I learned that there’s benefit to evaluating ideas from all perspectives. 


Front elevation of Zuhair's design.


Nurturing the fire

Overall, the competition was an experience I’ll always remember. It was a welcome distraction that not only intensified my passion and ambitions for design and architecture, but also created a valuable opportunity at Stantec. Earlier this year I was invited to present my design at the company’s Tri-State regional leadership meeting. The audience was filled with senior managers and it became a stepping stone to build my presence with company leaders.

Something I’ve come to realize in my post-education life is that you’ll come across different types of opportunities that—regardless of impact or size—will be a driving factor in how you perform and where you set your goals. 

About the Author

Zuhair Hussaini

Zuhair Hussaini is an architectural designer who exemplifies Stantec’s collaborative approach to projects. With a diverse mix of projects including biopharmaceutical, healthcare, and transportation, Zuhair has to bring his listening skills to all of his jobs. The spaces he designs are customized solutions, each with specific users, for diverse, complex processes, with significantly different equipment

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