Celebrating the Future of Design with BWBR’s 2023 Scholarship Winners

If our latest podcast discussion is any indication, the future of design is in excellent hands. We were honored to sit down with the recipients of this year’s BWBR equity scholarships for an inspiring discussion about inclusion and diversity in design, the recipients’ incredible submission projects, and what’s next for them.

The BWBR Equity Scholarships

Our third annual equity scholarships aim to promote diversity and inclusion in the built environment by awarding $2,500 to students in architecture, interior design, or graphic design. We offer two scholarships each year: one for Gender Equity in Design, awarded to a woman, gender nonconforming, or trans applicant, and one for Diversity and Inclusion in Design, awarded to a BIPOC student.

The quality of submissions we received was exceptional, showcasing the remarkable creativity and dedication of emerging designers.

Let’s meet this year’s winners!

Scholarship for Gender Equity in Design

Valerie Lang, our recipient of the Scholarship for Gender Equity in Design, blew us away with her project “Transcendent Flow.” With a bachelor’s degree in interior design, Valerie is currently pursuing her Master of Architecture at the University of Washington. Her submitted design envisions an aerial acrobatics center that promotes gender equity within the circus community, creating an inclusive space where individuals can find peace and power and surpass their limits.

During our conversation, Valerie shared her perspective: “The [circus] community is really unique because we’re embracing everyone from anywhere. People in wheelchairs can have access to this physical movement. Everyone has this artistic expression within themselves.”

Scholarship for Diversity and Inclusion in Design

Mariam Elizabeth Jacob, our recipient of the Scholarship for Diversity and Inclusion in Design, entered a truly inspiring project, “The New Hearth.” As a Master of Architecture student at Columbia University, Mariam’s design reimagines a sanctuary for the youth of Poughkeepsie, New York, rooted in the rich history of an African American archaeological site.

Her project celebrates the hearth as a space of refuge and gathering, emphasizing the importance of community and cultural heritage. Mariam’s project conceptualizes programming that “looks into the idea of memory and sanctuary through the power of food across time.” The idea started as a monument but evolved into a living memorial where visitors “remember through making, reusing the space over and over again.”

Creating Empathy and Space for All

Valerie and Mariam highlight the importance of diversity and collaboration in the design industry through their projects, their words, and their clear passions. Valerie emphasizes how inclusive design can enhance quality of life. “We as designers can provide accessibility by creating spaces for people to be involved,” she says, adding that design can “influence how people behave and interact in our spaces.”

“The importance of diversity in the industry is crucial. It fosters an environment that demands empathy and fuels innovation and creativity,” Mariam says. She calls for a more interdisciplinary approach to design, involving specialists from various fields to effectively address complex and nuanced challenges. “I believe that fosters an environment that demands empathy—and not sympathy—with the stakeholders you’re dealing with.”

Shaping the Future of Design

Looking ahead, Valerie and Mariam each aspire to positively impact the future of design education. Valerie advocates for a stronger work-life balance in the industry, prioritizing mental health and challenging traditional norms. She adds, “I also want to help make a bigger impact on communities and be sustainable in my designs.” To that end, Valerie dreams of working at design firms internationally before becoming a professor to inspire and mentor the next generation of designers.

Mariam hopes to contribute to academia and practice simultaneously, bridging the gap between theory and application. She notes the power of representation, and as a woman of color in architecture, hopes to positively impact other young designers.

We’re proud to fund a scholarship program that elevates important voices and helps shape critical pathways within the design industry. Valerie and Mariam exemplify the values of innovation, collaboration, and social responsibility that are essential to shaping a more inclusive and sustainable future. We wholeheartedly congratulate them on their remarkable achievements and look forward to witnessing their continued impact on the design community.

BWBR Announces New Principal

BWBR is thrilled to announce Nate Roisen, AIA, as the firm’s newest principal. Based out of our Saint Paul office, Nate specializes in science + technology projects, creating innovative solutions for challenging and complex environments. He has worked with a variety of clients large and small, from tech start-up companies to well-known global corporations, and his eye for opportunities to optimize throughput while maintaining quality and consistency is second to none.

Since joining BWBR in 2013, Nate has worked on so many incredible projects, including cleanrooms, R&D facilities, quality control labs, production facilities, and more, and is a sought-out mentor within the firm to provide insight on all things related to lab planning and design. Nate says, “I love the diverse array of projects in our S&T practice. Every day is a new opportunity to learn about the incredible things our clients do and develop spaces to make them more effective. I’m excited to lead our teams in delivering thoughtfully designed, carefully detailed, and seamlessly executed new buildings.”

BWBR CEO and President Terri Ulrick says, “In his 10 years at the firm, Nate has developed a reputation for providing great client service, amazing knowledge of the technical aspects of science + tech design, as well as a passion for mentoring and developing our staff.” 

Congratulations, Nate!

Healing, Not Just Sheltering: The Unique Needs of Therapeutic Residential Spaces

Social services and mental health organizations face challenges on numerous fronts—from balancing safety and comfort, to helping clients create community as they work towards their individual therapeutic goals, to effectively tailoring the right level of support for each client. This is especially true for residential facilities, where staff work tirelessly to connect individuals to the services they so desperately need. By focusing on the person first in order to truly understand and support their needs, we can utilize impactful design to support those efforts.

Human-Centered Safety®

After decades of experience designing for holistic mental health and wellness, BWBR firmly believes that to promote therapeutic behaviors, we have to see the environment from a human-centered lens. By creating spaces that promote safety and flexibility and putting appropriate levels of choice and control back into the hands of residents, therapeutic housing can help foster healing and recovery. Intentional design can make a real difference in the lives of people experiencing mental illness, addiction, and/or homelessness to encourage positive outcomes.

Our human-centered approach supports trauma-informed care through design, creating a healing environment that embodies the mission and treatment goals of the client organization. Human-Centered Safety® helps to shift the emotional response a therapeutic environment evokes – from confrontational to inviting, cold to comforting, and alienating to approachable. Person-centered, trauma-informed treatment practices are essential when working to prioritize and address the complex issues many residents face—whether that is shelter from an abusive partner, a space free of drugs and other substances, or simply an environment where they can rest in safety.

The Power of Choice

But an optimal therapeutic setting must provide more than safety, creating a caring environment that respects the private issues surrounding care while still creating the warm and welcoming atmosphere that everyone deserves. Incorporating elements of daylight, nature, and beauty help reinforce the inherent worthiness of every resident and provide a home that is familiar and safe. By honoring their personal choices and providing some ability to control their own environment, the space can affirm residents’ dignity while still supporting staff needs.

For example, residents under stress or in crisis require more personal space, and crowding can be a source of additional stress. So, while smaller units are more space efficient, they can be less effective for occupants, and designers must balance the needs of first costs and long-term usability while keeping the needs and wants of the resident firmly centered. This extends to shared spaces, which may need to be larger than in non-therapeutic housing and carefully planned to reduce potential triggers for aggression while actively promoting regulated emotional and mental states.

From Housing to Home

Space that supports community is also important, in order to create an experience apart from the clinical experience. As staff support residents in navigating a period of transition and change, a quiet, positive, and respectful environment supplies crucial support. Providing residents with choices between quiet and active spaces, amenities like self-serve refreshment stations, and opportunities to join activities without mandating them can empower folks to settle in and find their people according to their own needs and interests. Adding color and creativity through intuitive and welcoming wayfinding or theming for therapeutic spaces can also help people both find and identify with their space.

For one of our social services clients, supporting two generations was a touchstone, so that informed a multi-generational approach to design to engage even the youngest visitors. For another, incorporating cultural design language cues relevant to the population being served was a way to help residents feel seen and included. An inpatient mental health unit design focused around a central dayroom with comfy seating, a wall mural, and activity tables, while also providing homelike patient rooms with private bathrooms.

Engaging Everyone

In order to create spaces like these, it is essential for the project team to make sure all key stakeholders are at the heart of the design. This means listening to the real needs of staff, residents, and administration, and not presuming to know what’s best from the outside. BWBR is committed to deep stakeholder engagement and an inclusive design process that brings together our experience from across our healthcare, worship, and community projects with the unique voices of those who will be using the space, making sure everyone has a place at the table.

For example, we heard from both residents and staff in mental health facilities about the importance of having a place where resident belongings can be safely stored when they are in the emergency department (ED). While most facilities have a central storage room, this made residents nervous. Knowing this allowed us to design a safe space for belongings in the treatment room, making residents much more comfortable that their belongings, which may be all they own, will be safe. In another listening session, our design team heard that many residents associated the colors blue and white with clinical, rather than calming environments, partly because of their common use across mental health spaces. Understanding their perspective, rather than assuming, helped us to make easy, meaningful decisions to dislodge those associations.

A Room of One’s Own

Therapeutic housing has to serve so many purposes—meeting basic human needs, providing access to vital services, helping to create communities of healing—that the only way to successfully approach this kind of project is with an open heart and an open mind. By truly listening to residents, these spaces have the power to help them create new possibilities, improved health outcomes, and above all encourage a successful transition to permanent housing.

On Culture-Building: BWBR Goes Beyond Employee Engagement

Low workplace engagement is a challenge that business leaders and human resources professionals have grappled with for the last several years. According to Gallup, just 32% of U.S. employees report being engaged in their work—a number that was rising prior to the pandemic, but has since been on the decline. As the AEC industry, and our firm in particular, finds itself in a significant growth period, measuring engagement and employee experience is a key component to building a healthy, thriving culture. It’s a way of listening and taking actions that address systemic drivers that may be enabling inequities, low morale, work overload, unmanaged stress, and in some cases burnout.

For the last four years, BWBR has conducted an annual engagement survey to gain insights into our team’s attitudes, opinions, and outlooks on their careers and employee experiences, allowing us to act in areas where our staff may feel limited. Survey results have been consistently positive and useful indicators of how healthy our culture is growing. For example, our 2023 total engagement level hit a high of 82%, over 2.5 times the national average, and 98% of employees would recommend working at BWBR.

Engaged employees feel positive about their workplace—a win-win for both organizations and staff, as engaged teams are productive, innovative, loyal, and help a firm achieve its goals. However, surveys aren’t an all-encompassing solution for improving engagement. In fact, they’re only the first step to gaining the insights that allow our firm to take action to maintain a consistent positive employee experience.

Starting Strong and Being Curious

Even when asking the right questions and taking the right follow-up steps, engagement doesn’t occur without our staff feeling like they belong with purpose, meaning, and connection. This coupled with our clear mission and shared values helps sustain a supportive culture. At BWBR, this means giving workers the autonomy to work flexibly anywhere they choose, supporting professional and personal development, offering competitive wages, and providing skill-building for equity and mental health.

Still, our survey data gave us clues that there may be something else to consider. When we zeroed into groups and segments of our staff, the story changed—we realized overall engagement measures were just one piece of a bigger picture of data. We wondered whether employees could be engaged, yet not feel fulfilled. We flipped our thinking and asked: Who was not only giving energy to our culture by being engaged, but also getting energy from it in return? Our new goal is to use our data to inform not only engagement actions, but to inform how we can help more of our staff thrive.

Inspired by Microsoft’s efforts measuring employee thriving, we’ve implemented an approach that similarly utilizes our engagement data with four key components: people, pay, purpose, pride. We call this our “thrive index,” and we use it to measure how many employees are most likely energized by our culture. After all, shouldn’t a culture recharge and much as charge? At BWBR, we believe a sustainable healthy culture does this. At present, 60% of our staff are thriving, with an additional 28% nearly approaching thriving status.

Thriving Defined

Although BWBR’s goal of measuring thriving is still in very early stages, our mission continues to include deep commitment to the development of our staff. Our thrive index is measuring staff fulfilment based on these objectives:

People is defined by an overall sense of belonging at work, which inclusivity is a critical foundation for fostering, allowing employees to bring their most authentic selves to work. 98% of employees agreed that BWBR is an equitable workplace, and with equity integrated into our everyday business practices, we’ve seen attitudes like “my voice is heard” and “I belong at BWBR” rise to 87% and 93%. And even though our staff work from a variety of locations, 97% feel socially connected and say their teammates have their backs.

Pay is a component that is simple in definition, though absolutely critical to employee fulfilment. Of course, in order to thrive at work, employees must be paid adequately to maintain financial wellbeing. In 2023, 92% of employees reported feeling fairly compensated for their work.

Purpose stems from staff understanding the meaningful impacts of their work through contributions to society, clients, or the company. With purpose infused in day-to-day tasks, employees have increased motivation, job satisfaction, and pride—leading into the final component. At BWBR, 98% of staff say their work gives them meaning.

Pride, the fourth of the key components of thriving, comes from both individual work accomplishments and collective pride in the company. Employees highly recommending their company to others is a strong sign of fulfilment in this area, as well as feeling valued, which was reported by 89% of BWBR staff.

Next Steps

This is only the start of the ways we’re using data to inform how we’re building and sustaining our culture at BWBR. We see these numbers as strong, but we know we have room to improve. We want more staff to thrive, and we want more staff to get energy from their work.

Many factors are at play, one of which is the kind of people who work here and their commitment to our culture—it’s because of them that we’re so optimistic about the future. Our people have always been our firm’s most important asset. As Principal and People and Culture Director Tricia Eiswald says it, “Our people are everything—they power our designs and support our clients, so investing in them is one of the smartest and most important things we can do as a firm.”

With new ways to listen to and measure our employees’ experiences, we can grow our culture in ways that not only work for them and our clients, but that also help staff thrive for the long term.