My Experience as an Intern at KPFF Portland

For the past three months, I’ve been an engineering intern with KPFF’s Structural office in Portland. Growing up in Portland, I’ve always been interested in buildings and construction, and KPFF seemed like a great fit when I first learned about it a couple of years ago. My first foray into structural engineering has been extremely insightful, and I’d like to share some of the highlights. For other students considering structural engineering, or KPFF, I hope my perspective offers an idea of what to expect. 

Background & Previous Experience

In May I completed my B.S. in Civil Engineering at the University of Southern California. In the Building Science program there, I studied structural engineering with a focus on its interaction with architecture and other disciplines. Last year, I interned with a general contractor working at the jobsite office for a 1.1 million square foot mixed-use development


I witnessed the construction process firsthand—with schedule and budget driving the decision making process, the efforts by consultants (including KPFF’s civil office in Los Angeles on this project) could have a significant impact on the project’s progress when working through design and constructability issues. Joining KPFF for this summer, I had an appreciation for contractors’ needs and an understanding of the project delivery process that is invaluable when entering the design side of the industry.

Projects & Tasks

My very first day I received my first design assignment—a concrete exhaust plenum that also serves as a planter, on the green roof podium of a new residential tower in Portland. I immediately began to understand the real-world structural design process more precisely. For example, rather than considering somewhat complex building-wide seismic forces when designing smaller components, there are code provisions for seismic forces on nonstructural components. Throughout the summer I completed several smaller design tasks for large projects, including a rooftop mechanical screen wall on a 20-story hotel project in downtown Portland, a site retaining wall at the new high school in Beaverton, and more.

With senior oversight, I spent much of my internship helping with construction administration. Reviewing contractors’ shop drawing submittals, I gained a detailed understanding of exactly how the building is put together, checking each individual structural member and its connections.

The task of reviewing a 600-page submittal can be daunting at first. It can take a few days to a week or more. And often, there are repetitive errors that must be carefully marked up as comments to send back to the contractor. But there is no better way to understand exactly how a steel connection works than to see it detailed several hundred times, in a few different variations, based on a single detail in the structural drawings. Moving into design work, this experience is critical to becoming comfortable with structural detailing.


Reviewing shop drawings, I had the chance to work on a wide array of projects. The largest is South Cooper Mountain High School, a new school in the Portland suburb of Beaverton, OR that will eventually accommodate over 2000 students. Throughout the summer, I reviewed submittals for structural steel, CMU reinforcing, open web joists, stairs, concrete, and more. For each submittal, I became immersed in our detailing, and the contractor’s interpretations, resulting in a deep understanding of the building’s structure. At the end of the summer, I had the opportunity to visit the project site, where crews were actively installing many of the components that I reviewed. 

Mentorship & Resources

wp_20160810_11_54_43_rich-reduced.jpgOne of the most valuable parts of my experience this summer was working in a large office with numerous experienced engineers that constantly share their knowledge. Everyone in the office is always learning, collaborating to develop innovative approaches and ensure that everyone understands the basics. Many of the projects I worked on feature creative solutions to architectural challenges, such as the 60’+ tall CMU auditorium structure at South Cooper Mountain High School. One of the other interns spent much of her summer working on the new Multnomah County Courthouse, which features a concrete moment frame structure with viscous dampers.

Supplementing the mentorship of more senior engineers, the office frequently organizes lunch seminars featuring presentations on a variety of topics relevant to structural engineering. Some of the most interesting seminars this summer included a presentation on mechanical engineering systems and their impacts on building structures, and also a discussion of the current state of mass timber structures presented by an engineer in our office.

Design Projects

By the end of the summer, I had the opportunity to apply my experiences to several smaller design projects. Smaller projects afford the opportunity to complete most of the project design process as an intern, from the initial layout of a structural approach to preparing calculation packages and creating sketches to communicate the design intent. My first couple of design projects were seismic anchorages, where equipment must be anchored to the building structure to prevent movement during an earthquake.

img_8743-with-text-3.jpgI also worked on two tenant improvement projects, working closely with experienced engineers to evaluate different design options, support the architectural intent, and select the best solutions. In the process, I learned about metal stud framing as well as designing for interior loads. Both projects featured interesting spaces, with one located at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, and the other as the new Amazon Books store at Washington Square Mall in Tigard.


This fall, I’ll be back at USC completing my M.S. degree in structural engineering. Now that I’ve seen how structural engineering is done in the real world, I have a much better understanding of why certain elements of my formal education are important. Yes, highly theoretical classes can be hard to work through and often seem unimportant. But knowing the foundational principles behind actual design processes is critical, especially when so much of the work done in industry abstracts these concepts through the use of software and other design aids.

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