Helena Zambrano

Helena Zambrano


How did you find your current job?
While still at the Weitzman School, I was fortunate to take a class with Professor Muscoe Martin. He took our class to visit the Horticulture Center at the Morris Arboretum, and it was there that I was introduced to Overland Partners’ work. I was really impressed with both the building’s sustainability features and how Muscoe described working with Overland to realize the building as a very positive experience.

What kind of work are you doing?
As an architect I focus on environmental building design. As Overland’s sustainability director, I lead the sustainability team and set the firm’s path to accomplish our sustainability goals.

The sustainability team helps project teams define their projects’ sustainability goals and strategies and assists with project research and translation between architects and technical consultants. We do daylight and energy modeling as well as computational fluid dynamics in house. This allows teams to receive faster feedback and test more iterations to make design decisions based on data through building performance simulation.

What attracted you to the firm or job?
Overland’s culture and commitment to diversity was something that attracted me to the firm initially. But after I visited the office, I was immediately drawn to the space. Overland adapted a 100-year-old plumbing warehouse into an office space. It is filled with natural light; it’s open plan helps facilitate collaboration; and it has brought new life to a part of downtown San Antonio that previously had been run down.

After I started working here, I calculated the embodied energy preserved by retrofitting our building as opposed to constructing a new building. There was a 52 percent reduction by reusing the original structure. A year later our building was recognized with a national COTE Top Ten award.

How did your education at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design prepare you for your current tasks?
My graduate studies at the Weitzman School provided an outstanding foundation for my technical skills in building performance simulation and solidified my passion for environmental design. After graduation, my work at UPenn continued, while I took on the role as a research associate at the TC Chan Center for Building Simulation and Energy Studies. It was in that role that I gained practical experience in research, data collection, analysis, and visualization.

Are there specific courses and instructors that influenced you philosophically?

I will never forget the thermal dynamic diagrams that my professor and director of my program, Dr. William W. Braham, taught us. Learning about environmental accounting and systems ecology changed my perspective on how I approach all my architecture projects.

Naree Phinyawatana inspired my fascination with daylighting design, and Billie Faircloth fueled my imagination with her multidisciplinary approach to research.

Any top moment(s) of your education here?
Our final studio was a top moment for me. Working alongside three classmates, we had a lot of freedom to reinvent the then semi-abandoned historic Philadelphia Navy Yard into a dynamic and sustainable development, applying all the theory and building performance simulation skills that we had learned during the course of our graduate program. We also had a lot of fun traveling to Seattle and visiting some of the most sustainable buildings in the country at the time and spending time with the architects that made them happen.

What’s next?
My next steps include leading a larger sustainability team, solving even more challenging questions as Overland’s design teams continue to grow in their knowledge of high-performance buildings, and conducting original academic research that bridges knowledge from other professional fields through the lens of architecture in order to help advance the profession.

A long-term goal is to help define the sustainability metrics for the entire architectural industry, which I am doing through my current work with the AIA COTE (Committee on the Environment). I contributed to the Top 10 Toolkit by leading the development of the toolkit’s Super Spreadsheet.

Are you keeping in touch with others from your class/the Penn community?
Yes. Our graduate class was composed of a group of thirteen students coming from all over the world. During that time, we became very close and developed a strong friendship that continued after graduation. Now, more than five years later, we continue to stay in touch and see each other at various conferences and sustainability events throughout the year.

Any words of advice for prospective students?
The Weitzman School is a richly intellectual environment where the exploration of ideas is encouraged. Look forward to deep and thoughtful conversations with professors and fellow students to inspire your intellectual curiosity.