As senior director of planning, design, and construction at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, Leandra Davis leads master and space planning and manages the lease portfolio, sustainability initiatives, and all renovations and new building construction for the school. It’s a role she’s excelled in for 14 years, but Davis was originally an artist and dancer, and it isn’t the path she expected she would take.
Born in San Diego and raised in North Jersey, Davis had interest in both science and music classes throughout her childhood. “I took an interior design class in high school because it sounded interesting, and I picked it up quickly,” she recalls. “At the end of the year, my teacher asked me to put on my own school-wide art showcase; that started my interest in designing spaces and architecture.”
Davis went to Drexel University to pursue interior design and architecture with a small scholarship from her competitive dance years. While studying, she worked for six months in a co-op program at the School of Arts and Science at Penn.
“I ended up working part-time for about a year while I worked for other architecture and interior design firms,” Davis recounts. “At the end of my career at Drexel, Penn Engineering was growing rapidly, and I was hired to start up a design team for [it].”
She brought on other Drexel co-op students to join the group, a practice she continues to this day. “Hiring co-op students is part teaching and mentoring, which I love. But you also gain additional support for the department to help with CAD work, floor plans, and selecting furniture and finishes,” Davis says.
Before she took the position, the school didn’t have a streamlined design vision or a person responsible for the long-term planning of its buildings and spaces.
“As Engineering was just starting to build the new Singh Center for Nanotechnology, they brought me on because they needed design support,” Davis explains. “In the beginning, I was working on small lab projects and Singh interiors. It is challenging to start up a department soon after graduating, especially in an environment where things have always been one way for 40 years. I was challenging assumptions, creating new standards, and changing the physical environment, which was difficult for some who had been overseeing spaces for a long time.”
Leandra Davis’s oldest daughter reminds the senior director of herself at that age, designing what her ideal house would be. She remembers drawing big rooms to house all the different kinds of animals she wanted to live with and loves watching her child draw elevations and plans for her own dream house. Perhaps, Davis notes, her daughter will follow in a career that has given her mother so much.
It wasn’t long before Davis moved from the operations team and focused exclusively on the design and construction team. “The majority of the time, I was going above and beyond and taking on additional responsibilities to prove to the people above and around me that I was ready. . . . I ended up learning a lot of the trade from the engineers and architects I was hiring, so I learned on the job.”
This inspired Davis’s decision to enroll at the Wharton School at Penn for a certificate in executive management, so she could accomplish even more in the position.
“I am most proud of the change I have been able to create at Penn Engineering,” she says. “We’ve built a lot of buildings and new research and education facilities in the past 14 years. We build for where we see the industry going; we design to support our leadership’s goals and the way they want their research spaces to work.
“The buildings are beautiful, and the renovations have been a great team effort with professionals throughout the university as well as our talented consultants,” she adds. “Dean Kumar said recently that he was particularly happy with the impact I’ve had at the school to make change through the physical spaces that we have. He quoted Churchill: ‘We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,’ while describing our work together.”
The newest building is the 68,000-square-foot Tangen Hall, which houses Wharton Entrepreneurship, Engineering Integrated Product Design (IPD), the Weiss Tech Hub, and more. “We built large, open maker and engineering laboratories with high ceilings, flexible infrastructure, and natural light accessible by all,” Davis describes.
Looking ahead, Penn Engineering will be growing its footprint about 20 percent in the next three years, so Davis is excited about what’s next. In particular, the 116,000-square-foot Data Science Building will be Philadelphia’s first mass timber building, the senior director says. “We’ve always designed and certified LEED buildings on campus, but this project takes an additional step into designing for user wellness. Along with the mass timber exposed structure, we are building increased air filtration, skylights, natural finishes, organic furniture layouts, and interior green walls.”Another new building is the $173 million Vagelos Laboratory for Energy Science and Technology, a collaboration between the Schools of Arts and Science and Engineering, which will consolidate existing and emerging energy research programs by providing 110,000 square feet of state-of-the-art laboratory space.
“We are planning to open both of these buildings in 2024,” Davis says. “It is an exciting time for Penn Engineering’s growth in research and education.
“Penn Engineering has some of the brightest minds, and being able to collaborate with them to build the spaces where they do their cutting-edge, life-changing research is quite rewarding,” Davis continues. “I’m lucky to be surrounded by the greatest minds in both engineering and architecture.”
Founded in 1989 and working out of offices in Stuttgart, Munich, Boston, and Los Angeles, Behnisch Architekten is currently collaborating with Leandra Davis and her team to complete the Vagelos Laboratory for Energy, Science, and Technology at the University of Pennsylvania. Leandra’s leadership has been instrumental in fostering a collaborative team culture that harnesses the team’s strengths and collective wisdom.
KSS is proud to collaborate with Leandra Davis, senior director at Penn Engineering, to design flexible spaces that support research, collaboration, innovation, and entrepreneurship. From Pennovation Center to Tangen Hall and the new Data Sciences Building, our team crafts dynamic environments that nurture student success and foster long-term institutional resilience.