Revolutions in digital tools and technology are rapidly changing the landscape of many different industries across the globe. One of the latest innovations in digital technology is the widespread use of Artificial Intelligence, or AI. Two Ankrom Moisan architects, Michael Great and Ramin Rezvani – Director of Design Strategy and Senior Project Designer, respectively – have recently begun to incorporate AI software into their design process, receiving encouraging results.
Before the advent of Artificial Intelligence software, precedent images sourced from Pinterest or similar could be used to establish the initial aesthetic direction of a project. Because not every feature of an image would be relevant for a certain project, these images were often cropped and/or collaged together, leading to unnecessary confusion if clients became attached to specific features in precedent images that were never intended to be a part of the final design. AI-generated images have the potential to circumvent that issue, providing inspiration imagery that is specific to a particular place, project, client and design.
Example of an AI-generated precedent image.
Recently, Michael and Ramin have been using AI to create precedent imagery for their projects. In their experience, renderings created by AI software such as Midjourney assist in streamlining the design process and ensuring that clients are on the same page as designers when it comes to project design and direction.
For many, Artificial Intelligence still represents an enigmatic, complicated technology of the future, reserved for the plots of science fiction movies. However, recent developments in technology have made AI and its uses more widespread and accessible than ever. To explain how AI can be utilized to generate unique outcomes and facilitate a cohesive design language for a project, Michael and Ramin sat down to answer some questions about how Midjourney is integrated into the projects they work on and to dispel common misconceptions about the technology.
Michael and Ramin together in the Portland office.
Q: When did you begin incorporating AI into your approach to project design? Why was this something you decided to do?
Our adoption of AI software has aligned with the technology’s continual improvement. Initially when we started experimenting with architectural imagery, it was giving us broad stroke building concept imagery. These were by no means a “design” but it got Ramin and I thinking, ‘Oh, this technology might be evolving to a place where we could utilize it more in the design process, let’s trial this a bit and see what we can get out of it.’
Part of my interest there is that historically architects have used precedent imagery to describe things that don’t exist yet, or to get clients aligned to what the design intent might be? Language doesn’t often get us to a full understanding. So, I think architects have always used imagery, whether that’s precedent imagery or rough sketches to just get alignment about the direction of a project aesthetically. Both Ramin and I have always thought it was strange that in this process you are often using existing buildings to convey new ideas. I think the advantage of using Midjourney and AI is that we can accomplish the same general task of conceptual alignment but show clients unique imagery that is specific to their project, place and aesthetic.
We just started playing around with Midjourney when it came out. It was really exciting and interesting, and we had no idea what it was, or what it could do, or how powerful it was the first couple of times we were testing it out. Then we tried to make it do something specific, and that’s where it started getting fascinating, because it’s potentially a huge shortcut for certain things- especially with generating concept imagery.
We kind of hit a wall with a project where we wanted to be able to quickly visually convey something that didn’t exist. We had some loose ideas influenced by some projects that only exist at a completely different scale than what we were looking at. We thought ‘let’s see if we can figure out how to combine all of these ideas and generate imagery to illustrate to the client where we are going with this.’ Through that process, getting imagery close to what we were trying to do was mind-blowing.
Final project design renders created by Michael and Ramin that were influenced by AI imagery.
Q: Ramin, you’ve said that AI is “like a paintbrush or any creative tool, you just need to figure out how to use it,” and Michael, that “it’s a language. You have to learn it, just like any software.” How did you both go about learning to use these tools, and how long did it take you to learn the language, so-to-speak?
I don’t know how far we actually are on that journey, and I think we have a long way to go. There are a ton of resources out there, though, in terms of helping you learn the language through prompt editing. But this is moving so fast that there is now software that will do your prompts for you. You can just add in a few descriptive words, and it’ll fill in the rest, writing it in the way that the AI software wants to see it. Every time you use it, the more you use it, you learn something about what the output is. The more trial and error you go through, the faster you get at getting to an image you can use.
You have to think differently about the words you are using to get the imagery desired. It’s a shift in how you think since you have to use fewer words to get your idea across. You must be specific and pointed while still giving the software enough information. From that standpoint, I feel like the faster you can get your mind into that mode of thinking, the better off you will be as AI continues to develop, because the premise of utilizing language to direct output will only accelerate from here.
What we all have to adapt to and learn is how to use language to describe what we want machines to do. But even that is probably a couple years from being obsolete. There seems to be an updated version of Midjourney every month that’s substantially better than the last. Even since we last talked, they’ve come out with reverse-prompt capability. So instead of putting a text prompt and getting an image, you can do the opposite, dropping in an image and getting a prompt. By doing so you can start to understand the language in reverse because you’re dropping in an image and the AI is telling you what it sees in text.
I’ve been using it a lot, trying to figure out how to create very specific imagery. Like Michael said, it’s a lot of trial and error. To be able to get usable images, it has definitely required a shift in the way that I think due to the way that the prompts work. I’ve been approaching it almost like a science experiment, changing the prompts slightly with each iteration to see what I get back visually with each update. But also, it’s not like you can master it because it’s changing so rapidly. The next versions will likely have a completely different interface, so the way that you write prompts will likely change too.
Q: Can you walk me through the typical steps of using Midjourney to create precedent imagery?
The process right now that we’ve been utilizing is that we’re trying to plug it in to an existing process. On a lot of our projects, we start by charette-ing and brainstorming, trying to develop a cohesive concept. AI software like Midjourney increases the speed at which we can reach solutions, because we’re not all going in different design directions.
What we’ve tried to do initially is take the guiding design principles for a project and feed those words into the AI to see what kind of visual representation it would create with our initial thoughts. So again, trying to accelerate the process a bit and get to visuals through words that we’ve already talked about or discussed to create alignment on design direction. As the technology evolves, there will be other ways for us to utilize it, maybe in final renderings, for instance. But right now, I think coming up with precedent imagery is the best use of it.
Visual breakdown of how guiding design principles and text prompts are used to generate new precedent imagery renderings with AI software.
Q: [You’ve] said that clients often don’t know what to make of design renderings when they learn that they were created by AI. What are some common misconceptions or misunderstandings about Artificial Intelligence that you’ve encountered since you began using it?
The most common misconception that Ramin and I have run into is that the AI-created images are just precedent imagery pulled from the internet. You have to explain that it’s not a search engine, it’s not finding an existing image on the web. Often, I have to describe what it does in shorthand for people to understand it.
One of the things I noticed right away was people asking ‘doesn’t this take the creative process out of architecture now that you have this image designed by AI?’ At least for the time being, I don’t feel that way. As a design team, you still have to generate the foundational ideas and coax the AI to output something that aligns with your goals and vision. It’s a quick way to get the team on the same page and discover interesting emergent qualities from concept intersections that you may not have discovered on your own. In our current workflow AI produced visuals are intended to draw from and quickly study a whole bunch of different ideas to curate the most interesting aspects of each, based on what we asked the software to do.
Q: Do you have any fears surrounding the use of AI or the rate at which it is evolving, a la Terminator’s Skynet?
Like any new technology, it absolutely has the ability to be used in various ways. I mean, there’s no way around that. I think there’s many applications of AI that could be negative, primarily in terms of its ability to manipulate people. But in terms of what we do, there’s not much risk if you understand it’s just one tool out of many that we can use. It’s not like Midjourney will actually produce architecture. It produces ideas that a designer still has to understand, edit, and synthesize into a project’s end design.
It’s hard to tell right now what is going to change and how much it will change. I’m definitely concerned about it, not just for the field of architecture, but for humans. In general, I feel like no technology has advanced this quickly before and it will continue to accelerate. There are just so many unknowns but I’m sure we will quickly see AI implementation in daily life. I think that we’ll know a lot more in the next five years or so.
AI process design results, highlighting the Midjourney-generated concept renderings that Michael and Ramin synthesized and incorporated into the initial massing render for a project.
Q: With the rapid speed at which AI changes and evolves, how do you envision the future of AI as it relates to architecture? What about the future of architecture as it relates to AI?
I think that AI continues a theme that has remained consistent throughout the last 100 years in terms of how architecture utilizes technology. Usually, it’s used to speed up the design process. One thing about architecture that’s so different from a lot of other professions is that it still relies on artistry, but there’s always a ‘hurry-up’ type of attitude, we are often pushed to develop designs and drawings faster and faster because of project economics. So, we’re always looking for tools to speed up the process. In addition, architecture is a broad profession. There are people doing wildly different things in the profession their whole career, and I think that could get streamlined.
Outside of Midjourney, there’s a whole slew of AI implementations using other design and construction software that’s meant to speed up how fast we can produce a construction set with fewer people. I think inevitably, that’s where architecture has always gone. 100 years ago, it took 40 people in a room, drawing a set for a high-rise tower by hand. I think in the future, a 40-story tower can probably be designed and drawn by two people. Eventually, the industry will get to a point where one or two people can accomplish that same task in half the time it takes now.
I would say that right now, as designers, we are not spending enough time understanding the place, the people using the building, and the environment surrounding a project. We’re rushing through a lot of those elements to get projects built, so I think where you end up by incorporating AI into that process is more thoughtful buildings, because we don’t have to spend as much time crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s. We can actually think about the project and the building rather than drawing it, and to me, that’s pretty exciting. Architecture can’t do anything but get better through this process. I don’t think anything gets worse. It just gets better.
In my mind, there’s no doubt that any areas of inefficiency in the architectural process right now, some of which will be resolved using AI. It’s going to accelerate and amplify the amount that an individual can do by themselves, so I think it’ll take fewer people to do the same amount of work.
I think it will allow us to study way more aspects of a project quickly and, like Michael said, make projects significantly better by understanding more of the site’s parameters. It feels like an amplification to me now, but who knows what will happen in six months?
AI-rendered precedent imagery from other projects.
Compared to other Pacific Northwest architecture firms, Ankrom Moisan is a pacesetter in terms of integrating Artificial Intelligence and other digital tools. Few competitors use AI, if at all. International firms, though, tend to use AI software for design-based research. However you cut it, the digital tools of imagined sci-fi futures are closer than it seems, and may, in fact, already be here. It’s a massive paradigm shift that will take some time to get used to, but the good news is that when the AI overlords take over, we will already know how to deal with them.
By Jack Cochran, Marketing Coordinator
Dignified Healing Spaces
Does design have the power to enhance dignity?
Many of us have the privilege to go about our daily lives unaware of the powerful role the built environment plays in supporting our feeling of being celebrated and respected. As architects and designers, we must place inhabitants’ dignity at the forefront of our design priorities. Our work has the power to create spaces that have far reaching and lasting impacts. Few places need this perspective more than spaces that serve predominantly underserved, underrepresented, or socially stigmatized communities.
To start, what is dignity?
Dignity is the right of a person to be treated ethically as well as being valued and respected for who they are. For healthcare professionals dignified care means recognizing and honoring patients’ capacities and ambitions. While patient dignity is a core tenant of healthcare staff training, it is also critically important to consider the role of the built environment to support dignity for both patients and staff.
Dignity can be defined by four main factors:
Respect – Respect includes self-respect, respect for others, respect for peoples’ privacy, and conﬁdentiality.
Autonomy – Autonomy includes having choices, being able to make decisions, rights, needs, and independence.
Empowerment – Empowerment includes feelings of being important and valuable, self-esteem or self-worth, and pride.
Communication – Communication includes clear information, language, intuitive wayfinding and directional cues, and privacy.
Here are five considerations for designing dignified environments:
1. Design as a Beacon – Too often, mental health and treatment program facilities exist in hidden spaces kept out of sight from the public. We aim to create spaces which bring a sense of pride to those who enter. By considering each step of the end-user experience, from the street approach to the quality of finishes, we aim to thoughtfully apply design aesthetics to create a welcoming facility from the very earliest interactions. Welcoming patients, clinicians, and the community into a space that is beautifully designed to support the specific needs and identity of the users is a meaningful way to communicate the intrinsic value of the patients and clients within those spaces.
In initial design discussions, Compass Health requested a sense of grandeur within their new facility located in Everett, Washington. After years of making do with an aging building, the goal for their Phase II building, housing both inpatient and outpatient behavioral healthcare, was to create a space that anyone would feel proud to enter. The stigma of mental health treatment was stripped away by prioritizing a grand, double-height entry and foyer that highlights exterior garden space. The exterior finishes were selected to be warm and welcoming.
Compass Health’s Phase II: The entry design uses scale, richly colored materials, and nature to evoke a warm welcome to all who enter.
2. The Power of Choice – In design, when we do not acknowledge the vast spectrum of human needs, we strip away the ability to exercise autonomy and control over our surroundings. Design that is mindful of autonomy, considers a variety of mental states, capabilities, traumas, and preferences to create dynamic spaces which allow people to choose the experience that fits their needs best in that moment. Avoiding the stress of being in an uncomfortable space allows patients and clients to receive care while in the best possible mindset. It also reduces negative associations that may become barriers for seeking care in the future. In many cases, mental health, housing, or medical facilities unintentionally strip away the opportunities for personal choice due to logistics and procedures, but thoughtful communication with providers allows designers to construct opportunities for choice and autonomy within even the highest acuity patient types.
The design team on the Alameda Senior Respite and Primary Care Facility acknowledged the importance of choice and autonomy in the design of the new 30,000 sq. ft. facility serving Alameda County in California. The design, which creates permanent supportive housing for an aging subset of the local homeless population, thoughtfully addresses the need for individual choice by completely rethinking the approach to lighting design throughout the building. Acknowledging the impact of harsh or bright lighting, uncomfortable lighting when resting, or a lack of lighting when trying to read and relax, the design team prioritized indirect lighting throughout all patient spaces, designed hallways outside of bedrooms to dim to the lowest levels allowed by code during quiet hours, and coordinated a wall sconce with controls at each bedside for residents. These simple, yet impactful, solutions allow residents to have autonomy over their surroundings in a way many of us would take for granted.
3. Safety over Security – We deserve to feel safe in our environments, and increasingly, facilities are moving towards providing a friendly face at entry points to help visitors feel welcome in lieu of uniformed security, which can be particularly traumatizing for many populations. Through collaboration with staff and clinicians, we can facilitate safety by designing clear pathways of visibility for observation and engagement that does not feel intrusive. Doing so allows visitors and residents to maintain their sense of independence and autonomy while remaining safe. Intentionally designed spaces which focus on relationship building increase the safety of patients while also increasing the likelihood of positive experiences and returns for subsequent care in the future.
The inpatient floors for Compass Health were laid out around a central nurse station allowing care teams to maintain a direct line of sight to all patient spaces, including the outdoor patient areas. Whereas other facilities require patients to be accompanied by a staff member to outdoor or group spaces, the clear paths of visibility allow patients to move from space to space unaccompanied, fostering independence while ensuring staff are aware of any interactions which may require their attention. Similarly, opportunities for passive observation in outpatient areas allow for easy circulation and a friendly face at various reception desks to assist first-time visitors and clients, as well as to foster connection with staff in various areas throughout the lobbies.
Compass Health Phase II: The building massing prioritized sightlines for the on-unit nursing and care team from the earliest diagrams (left). Interior design focused on maintaining the connection between staff and patients (right).
4. Whole Person Healing – If we consider the physical, mental, emotional, and social determinates of health in the design and programming process, we can create transformational facilities that help bolster the entire community. By creating space for additional programs and prominently locating basic needs near entries, each visitor can easily access support. Furthermore, designing medical care with counseling and housing opportunities provides a holistic approach to wellness that caters to a vast spectrum of needs, removing the barriers of care that occur when visiting many different facilities for the same services. Integrating community spaces into our designs allows additional social needs to be met that may not be related to specific medical needs, while inviting the community into spaces shared by diverse populations humanizes the experience of those seeking treatment in those spaces.
The core tenant of Central City Concern’s Blackburn Center is to “help people’s health through comfort, community, and safety.” The center, which serves people experiencing homelessness, poverty, and addiction in the Portland, Oregon area also aims to create a supportive housing project which incorporates mental and physical health resources under the same roof. The design carefully integrates a complex series of support systems that begin on the ground floor with commons area, teaching kitchen, pharmacy, and community services. Moving up a floor, the medical clinic supports the housing residents onsite. Housing includes palliative care, two floors of single room occupancy housing, and a floor of apartments for permanent housing, which supports people nearly ready to live on their own. The design aesthetics and function aim to create a fulfilling and enriching home-like experience that bolsters residents in all aspects of health and wellness, truly treating the whole person.
5. Nature as Medicine – Biophilia states that we, as humans, are part of nature and are inherently attracted to, and supported by, natural environments. Using nature as a tool to promote healing and wellness is a key part of providing users with the respect and dignity they deserve. Many at-risk populations receive care and housing in aging spaces that do not receive quality daylight, and access to outdoors is deemed too unsafe and difficult to monitor. By incorporating nature connections such as views, natural materials, fresh air, and plants into the requirements for healing spaces, we ultimately acknowledge the humanity of the occupants within a space. Whether they are patients, residents, visitors, or staff, everybody benefits from contact with nature through positive distractions, lowered blood pressure, increased resilience to environmental stressors, and the benefit of aligning our sense of time and place with the observable natural rhythms of the world around us.
Early on in Compass Health’s design process, the importance of fresh air and contact with nature was identified by the client and design team. As a result, the earliest building massing schemes explored how to bring nature as far into the building as possible. The resulting form for the inpatient floors is two separate wings positioned beside deeply cut rooftop gardens with a central connection space that serves as the primary gathering and dining area for the inpatient population. Each of the two floors of inpatient treatment have access to dedicated outdoor garden spaces that are designed to allow residents to move freely between interior living spaces and outdoor areas. Beyond the patient outdoor spaces are extensive green roofs which are visible from interior spaces in the public, staff, and patient spaces. This impactful design decision will support the healing and restorative vision of Compass Health’s mission to treat the whole person.
Compass Health Phase II: Both inpatient floors provide residents, staff, and visitors views of nature by utilizing the space between buildings for extensive green roofs.
Why design for dignity?
By implementing these five strategies, designers can create spaces that honor the core aspects of dignity by respecting each visitor and their unique place in the world, supporting their autonomy through choice, empower occupants as they move through the space, and ultimately communicate equitably inhabitants. The resulting designs are spaces which can be as meaningful as they are beautiful while actively participating in the health and growth of our communities.
By Ashlee Washington, Senior Associate
Indoor / Outdoor Air Quality
The Do GOOD / Be WELL scholarship encourages Ankrom Moisan employees to research an open-ended topic of their choosing and share the practical results of their findings with the firm, industry, and community at large. The scholarship, started in 2017, is sponsored in memory of former AM employee Carolyn Forsyth, an inspirational leader and unyielding force for change. Intended to honor her legacy of sustainability, equity, innovation, advocacy, education, and leadership, the DGBW scholarship elevates and empowers new and inspiring ideas within Ankrom Moisan and the broader field of architecture, pushing us all, as the name implies, to do good and be well.
As the recipient of the 2022 Do GOOD / Be WELL scholarship, Cara Godwin encouraged Ankrom Moisan employees to not only learn about air quality but to measure their own. Cara implemented a program that provided home air kits, consisting of a HEPA filter and an air sensor, to be checked out and taken home.
By using air sensors that provided a real-time air quality score, participants were able to better understand how opening windows, cooking, and running exhaust fans impact indoor air quality. The program also encouraged people to be Citizen Scientists by gathering data in their own respective environments and automatically sharing it to the Purple Air network map in real time, increasing the pool of scientific knowledge that design decisions can be made from.
Kaiterra Egg air sensor utilized in Cara’s research study.
The (Overlooked) Importance of Air Quality
Designers of the built environment are deeply familiar with energy scores and water scores, but air quality has been less defined and is often left unconsidered—Cara hopes to change that.
Cara has lived in the Methow Valley for twelve years now, an area which often deals with wildfire smoke. Cara and her husband had indoor air quality at the front of their minds when they built their home in 2011. Their son has had respiratory issues since birth and asthma since just before his second birthday, which led the pair to learn more about indoor and outdoor air quality. “We are a ‘Clean Air Methow Ambassador,’ we have been interviewed on a podcast, interviewed by a health reporter, and often my son’s photo and story are used in discussions about air quality,” Cara stated. “This scholarship seemed like a natural way to share this information with coworkers and hopefully have a positive impact on future building designs.”
The Godwins: Cara, her husband, and her son.
Even if you have not personally noticed issues with air quality, you are likely being affected by air pollutants. More and more research talks about PM2.5 – fine inhalable particles with diameters that are 2.5 micrometers or smaller – and their long-term effect on our lungs. PM2.5 sources include chemical exhaust from industries and automobiles, wildfire smoke, pollen, dust, and hundreds of other chemicals. EPA and other clean air groups are focusing on education for people to understand air scores and sources. This study helps expand those efforts.
The Findings from the Air Sensors
The most common response from kit recipients was about cooking. It is uncommon for range hoods to be used every time a cooktop is utilized, though that is the recommendation. After receiving their results, many participants noted they will use the hood more often. One participant noted that their charcoal recirculating exhaust fan was not adequate on its own and required a window to be open for proper ventilation.
Another finding was that pets do not seem to have a negative impact on air quality. Running the HEPA filter had noticeable positive impacts for participants with seasonal allergies and asthma.
In a survey filled out after using test kits at home for a few weeks, participants were asked what they might do differently in future designs after receiving their own personal air quality scores. Several responded by advocating for electric cooking over gas. A few mentioned advocating for operable windows and making operable windows open further. There is a desire to avoid using charcoal recirculating fans for kitchen exhaust. Others mentioned trying to design for air changes above code minimum and running the whole house exhaust longer.
Awair air monitor in use.
Swapping Cooktops to Improve Air Quality
During this time, Cara was looking into replacing her propane cooktop with an electric induction range and took the opportunity to tie her search in with her research proposal, using the information gathered from the use of the HEPA filter and air sensor to guide her purchase decision, and sharing the results with the firm. This choice was supported by Cara’s experiences with indoor air quality monitors, as they have demonstrated that cooking has the greatest impact on air quality in a home. Cara swapped out her propane cooktop for a gas one, as well as her exhaust hood in hopes that a quieter exhaust hood would be used more. Finding the right induction range was the tricky part. The options seem limited, and costs vary greatly.
Her research found that the difference in cost is dependent on the size of the magnet, and that the size of the magnet, or burner, should match the size of the pan being used. This is because a pan too large for a burner will not heat up efficiently, and food will not be evenly cooked. The main obstacle in sourcing a new cooktop was related to finding black appliances, which have even fewer options. In the end, Cara switched to black stainless steel. For the exhaust hood, quieter options require an 8” exhaust duct. Cara’s pre-existing duct was only 6”, meaning it was not feasible to replace the exhaust duct in the roof assembly, so the new hood is only slightly better in terms of noise level.
For the actual experience with induction cooking, Cara states that “it has been a real pleasure to cook with. The cooking is more even, and water does boil as fast as everyone says. There is also peace of mind with all the recent news of harmful chemicals coming from gas cooktops.” The original concern with the propane cooktop had to do with CO2 levels rising during seasonal times of wildfire smoke when fresh air is closed off, but the benefits of an induction range have expanded to all year round. Cara recommends induction over gas to anyone building new construction, and in her case, with someone with respiratory issues in the house, switching is a great option.
Cara’s new black stainless steel induction range with hood.
Applying the Research to our Designs
If you have not experienced it yourself, you probably know someone who has had to alter their plans or take medication due to allergies to pets, perfume, or wildfire smoke. At Ankrom Moisan, we talk about designing for all users and that should include designing for respiratory sensitivities.
This study will hopefully help influence future building designs to take user sensitivities into account, and therefore create buildings that are a haven from pollutants and irritants during times of poor outdoor air quality. And in times of good outdoor air quality, our spaces should reduce known contributors to poor indoor air quality.
One example of how we can design more inclusively is to consider air quality and pet allergies. Many residential communities today allow dogs but that can exclude people with allergies from living there—unless the air quality improves and the building, as well as furnishing, is designed to minimize pet dander. Our designers, armed with the findings from Cara’s research, can also advocate for features that will benefit everyone such as electric induction ranges, quieter exhaust hoods and operable kitchen windows
Though indoor and outdoor air quality is a consideration that is often forgotten, Cara’s DGBW research program illustrates the importance of bringing all aspects of wellness into a building’s design, and redefines how we explore beyond, changing what designing for inclusiveness can mean.
By Cara Godwin, Practice Manager
Employee Spotlight: May Au
It seems that May Au was destined to be an artist. Her sketches appear in the firm’s “AM is Sketchy” Teams channel to the delight of many, inspiring her coworkers to embrace their creative side and see things from a new perspective.
Architect and artist May Au poses atop Ankrom Moisan’s Portland office.
This began as a result of the recurring Thursday drawing classes, the products of which are shared on the AM is Sketchy channel. May received enthusiastic feedback from her colleagues, who wanted to know more about her process. “A couple of people were interested in learning how I draw,” May said. Roberta Pennington asked May if she would share her process with the firm, and although May was hesitant at first, she eventually agreed, but not before deciding to spruce up her presentation. “I thought it would be kind of boring if I just drew on live,” May explained. “I thought that during this precious lunch hour, people would probably want to draw more than watching me, so I thought ‘I should speed that up in Procreate and record the process.’” Even her management team took notice of May’s art; Ryan Miyahira asked May to share her sketching process at a team meeting. Luckily, she already had recordings of her sketching process from a trip she took to Nice, France. May paired her time lapse videos with narration and music recorded by her husband and Emily Bear, respectively. The videos were shared on the company’s Teams channels, catching the attention of many, and causing May to be nominated for an employee spotlight feature.
May was drawn (pardon the pun) to painting in kindergarten, when she took note of artwork hanging on the walls of her classroom and aspired to learn how to draw and paint when she grew up. Her older sister encouraged this newfound passion, singing May original songs such as “I’m a Little Painter,” which she particularly loved.
In college and at the beginning of her career as an architect, May attended live drawing sessions to draw models, and would often check out books on the sketches of her favorite artists – Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, and Rembrandt – from the school library when she was supposed to be studying. These habits strengthened her eye for detail, a trait which she would rely on in her work as an architect. She explained the connection between her sketches and architectural work, saying “in general, architects must detail projects out quite a bit. We need to be efficient, and we don’t want to do the work incorrectly, so you always have to check yourself and ask, ‘am I doing it in the right way?’.”
May’s sketches of various buildings in France, Japan, and Hong Kong.
This work ethic overlaps with May’s artistic process in the sense that her sketches begin with ‘bigger picture’ concepts, like lines and shapes, and gradually moves towards finer details, though she often takes a step back to ensure that both the bigger picture and smaller intricacies are balanced and in harmony. She applies this process to all projects she undertakes, explaining, “If somebody gives you a task or big issue, it’s helpful to break them down into steps to tackle them one by one, rather than being overwhelmed by it. After you finish, always stand back and question the work, then you’ll find your own mistakes without other people telling you.”
May’s sketch of Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Hong Kong.
Illustration is not the only artistic talent that May holds. Before becoming an architect, she made and sold pottery. May disclosed, “I couldn’t make a living out of pottery, so my sister suggested that I look into architecture. I thought ‘ohh, that’s so different because clay is so soft and so flexible, and architecture is not.” Though she no longer makes pottery, her love for the craft remains. May views herself as more of a potter than an architect. “I don’t [do pottery] anymore, I get addicted to it,” she jokes. “I cannot stop. A few days ago, I found a pottery studio in my neighborhood. I was too excited; I couldn’t fall asleep.” In addition to her past as a potter, May has taken classes on Chinese calligraphy and oil pastel painting throughout her architecture career, and illustrates cartoons for her church’s newsletter.
One of her dreams was to become a rendering artist, however, since rendering is no longer done by hand, May pivoted to learn more about detailing, a decision which brought her – at the suggestion of a friend – here, to Ankrom Moisan. May saw this opportunity as a way to build a solid foundation in the field of architecture, as well as a chance to be exposed to a more diverse range of projects than previous positions she had held.
May says that she has learned to be more efficient, as well as the art of detailing, since starting at Ankrom. “I’m very thankful to mentors like Sean Scott, James Lucking, and David Dahl that really helped with my detailing,” May said. “Without them, I wouldn’t be able to do much, or wouldn’t be able to [detail] correctly.” She believes that her attitude has changed too. “I’ve learned to be more patient. Patient of my own growth,” she reflected.
A watercolor painting of an alleyway in Nice, France, completed by May in 2022.
Though she primarily works on residential projects, May’s favorite type of work are cultural buildings “that are for public use,” she says. “Residential buildings are what we do, and they’re my second favorite type of architecture since we eat and live in those buildings every day.”
As an architect, May is inspired by the ability to “explore the possibilities in a space and to be creative and not necessarily stuck with what we see, but to come up with many different ideas.” As for her art, she finds that her creative impulse is sparked by the mood and the lighting in the composition of an image. While there is not a single subject May does not enjoy drawing, she wants to improve her portraits, since they can be so challenging. “It takes a lot of work. If I can draw people’s emotions, and capture that [essence] where it’s like ‘that person looks like that person,’ I’d be happy,” she explains.
May has plenty of sage advice for young professionals who are just starting out in the field of architecture and interior design. She stresses patience with oneself and self-confidence. “People blossom at different stages, so don’t be too impatient with yourself,” she says. “Learn to be humble, but at the same time, learn to be a leader. Know your own strengths. Know what kind of path you want to go down, and fight for it. Don’t let other people decide what you can do.” May also acknowledges the virtue of tenacity, stating “we have to fail before we succeed.” As a final piece of wisdom, May offers, “be able to learn to embrace the details, not just ideas,” a philosophy that she clearly lives by, evidenced by her beautifully detailed illustrations.
By Jack Cochran, Marketing Coordinator
Where are the Women? (2 of 2)
[This is part two of a series highlighting the 2022 Do GOOD / Be WELL scholarship project researched by Amanda Lunger, Elisa Zenk, and Stephanie Hollar. Read more about how this project came to be in part one, here.]
Backed by Ankrom Moisan’s Do GOOD / Be WELL research scholarship and galvanized by a noticeable lack of women in architecture, Amanda Lunger, Elisa Zenk, and Stephanie Hollar set out to determine why women are not at the forefront of the field, and what can be done to get them there.
Elisa Zenk, Stephanie Holler, and Amanda Lunger in the Portland office’s design library.
Amanda, Elisa, and Stephanie did this by administering all-office surveys, holding conversations with women in the field of architecture, evaluating their own individual experiences at Ankrom Moisan, and conducting case-studies that observed the structure and operation style of women-led architecture firms. The all-office survey contained twenty-two questions and was answered by 158 participants, both male and female. As for the conversations with women in architecture, fourteen of those women were current AM employees, and ten of them former AM employees.
What these conversations, surveys, and case studies revealed was eye-opening, but not out of left field. A substantial disparity exists between men and women’s experiences in the architecture industry. This article will highlight the primary problems afflicting women in architecture and provide methods for both firms and individuals to combat and overcome them.
Amanda, Elisa, and Stephanie identified 6 key issues:
- An Unclear Path to Leadership
- Pay Disparity
- Balancing Motherhood and a Career
- The Road to Licensure
- Feeling Out of Place
While these findings may paint architecture as a lopsided and unfair industry, the good news is that there are many ideas and suggestions for how to boost equity and support women in architecture. Some of the ideas, presented at the 2022 AIA Women’s Leadership Summit in San Jose, California, which Amanda, Elisa, and Stephanie attended, range from celebrating the successes of other women, reminding individuals to ask for help when needed and remembering that it’s okay to say no, to making time to mentor younger women, and delegating and sharing opportunities with other colleagues. Some suggestions are as simple as taking ten minutes at the beginning of every meeting to create a psychological safety zone, so that everyone feels like they belong at the table and can express themselves without fear of rejection.
Jennifer Sobieraj Sanin, Elisa Zenk, Stephanie Hollar, Mariah Kiersey, and Amanda Lunger at the 2022 AIA Women’s Leadership Summit.
Additionally, Amanda, Elisa, and Stephanie have provided their own insights for how Ankrom Moisan, and other architecture firms, can remedy the gap between men and women in the field. Other potential solutions suggested by a variety of sources—from interviews with women in the field and from solutions other firms have implemented—synthesized through Amanda, Elisa, and Stephanie’s research will be interwoven with the six key issues they identified.
An Unclear Path to Leadership
Leadership is a common goal for both men and women in architecture. 70% of the people surveyed by Amanda, Elisa, and Stephanie stated that they would like to be in a leadership position. Unfortunately, women seemed to feel that goal was out of reach. One employee surveyed responded that they “truly wish to hold a leadership position someday but have zero expectations that they would ever make it into [one].” Another answered that a leadership role was desirable but seemed like “you are inundated with paperwork and peopling and are no longer a part of the design of architecture.” The desire to still be a part of hands-on design processes may be a factor in forgoing the pursuit of leadership roles, but it is not the sole reason leadership can feel out of reach to female architects.
This dashing of expectations may be attributed to the observation that the path to leadership roles is less than clear for women in architecture. 35% of women felt that they didn’t understand the path to leadership at Ankrom Moisan, whereas only 20% of men felt that the road to leadership was beyond their grasp. There were some other survey respondents, however, who saw this lack of clarity regarding career advancement as a challenge, stating “I have no one to look up to that looks like me. So, I’ve decided to become that person – a leader.”
Survey results highlighting an unclear path to leadership positions.
One reason the ladder to success might appear so esoteric is that a lack of evaluations and constructive feedback can work as a barrier against career growth and advancement. Luckily, through their research, Amanda, Elisa, and Stephanie were able to gather ideas for how to break down this barrier and make the path to leadership clearer. These suggestions range from designing strategic plans like PEP employee evaluations and check-ins for developing staff into leadership roles and standardizing them across teams, to adding peer reviews to the evaluation process for a broader spectrum of feedback.
Taking these suggestions to heart, Ankrom Moisan’s Career Pathways Program establishes resources for employees to understand the path to leadership, making it the most significant action item to come from Amanda, Elisa, and Stephanie’s research. Another key solution that emerged from this project was the hiring younger staff for employees to mentor and lead, thus creating ‘inward facing’ roles for many of the architects that desire to hold a leadership position and providing younger hires with mentors that they can look up to and learn from.
When employees take on additional work and responsibilities beyond their regular role, they become overworked and have little energy left for their regular duties. Adding newer, younger staff to architecture teams would also help solve the burnout problem, which is primarily caused by a staff shortage. Unfortunately, it seems that burnout happens to women at a disproportionate rate. 46% of women have felt overwhelmed by their responsibilities at work, which is drastically more than the 29% of men who feel that way.
Survey results related to staffing, workload, and burnout.
The feeling of being overcome by professional obligations often prevents employees from wanting to advance in their career, as well, as that advancement presumably comes with even more responsibility. One survey response elucidated, “I enjoy working with the people and the clients we have, but not always having the resources to staff a project can lead to burn out, make it hard to want to be involved in any initiatives, and really leads to questioning what it means to [want] to advance.” Some of the solutions suggested by Amanda, Elisa, and Stephanie to combat this are to focus on hiring and retaining emerging professionals, ensuring that employees who feel overwhelmed have the opportunity to move to less demanding projects with lighter workloads, and designing strategies to ensure that staff are not spread too thin, or constantly in ‘survival mode.’
It’s common for employees who take on extra work to receive a pay raise with their new responsibilities. This is not always the case, though, and sometimes individuals must negotiate to secure an increase in their salary. Yet again, this is an area that is not entirely equitable. In fact, negotiations have the largest discrepancy in attitude between men and women in architecture. 46% of women surveyed admitted that they do not feel comfortable asking for a raise or a promotion, which compared to male respondents’ 11%, is eyebrow-raising. One discerning observation that reveals why this is the case indicated that “women typically ask for a raise after they’ve [proven] that they’ve done something, but men ask for a raise in anticipation that they’re being asked to do something.” Ultimately, this means that women may be doing more work for less reward than their male counterparts, as they feel they must go above and beyond before they are entitled to additional compensation.
Survey results related to negotiations.
Another component to this issue is pay transparency. Not knowing the pay range for a position when entering negotiation can set a person up to settle for less than they deserve. Additionally, a lack of transparency can prevent people from wanting to negotiate in the first place. As one survey respondent put it, “I haven’t been super confident, and I didn’t want to come across as pushy. I also didn’t do it because I wasn’t aware what other firms offer.” A potential solution for this, it seems, is offering confidence and negotiation workshops for women while proactively checking in on pay and role satisfaction, ensuring that companies are candid about the salary ranges for all their positions prior to negotiations. A case study observing Jeanne Gang’s Studio Gang found that knowing the baseline salary for any given position is key for enacting change, for yourself and others.
Because pay has been ranked as the second most important aspect of an individual’s career in an AMA office-wide survey, just after work-life balance, being transparent about salary ranges is crucial for both recruiting and retaining employees. It’s known that staff who feel that they’re being paid below the market value are 49.7% more likely to search for a new job within the next six months in comparison to employees who feel they are compensated at or above the market rate (Payscale). While about a quarter of both men and women were unsatisfied with their earnings, there were 27% more women than men who felt that the pay range for their role was not clear enough. Proposed solutions for ensuring pay ranges are as transparent as possible include conducting regular pay audits to identify and correct inequities, publishing pay ranges for each role, and communicating with staff about how those ranges are determined.
Outreach is another method to secure the place of women in architecture that great strides can be made in. By talking with female architecture students, conversations can be started around fair wages and negotiation, so that the next generation of women architects are already equipped to face the challenges of the industry. Additionally, encouraging employees to take part in programs such as Architects in Schools, ACE Mentorship, and the Boys and Girls club can expose more youth to the field of architecture, ensuring that its future is bright, and that burnout no longer holds back staff from doing their best work.
Balancing Motherhood and a Career
One area that undoubtedly impacts women and their careers more than their male counterparts is having children. Of the surveyed employees, half of the men who responded did not believe that having kids impacted their careers, while only 30% of women could say the same.
Graphic representations of the impact childbirth has on the careers of women.
Often, female architects start families at crucial career pinch points. If they choose to have children, it is not uncommon to return from maternity leave and be denied the same level of responsibility that they had previously held for years. The professional uncertainty tied to having children can mean that working women have to choose between one or the other. Some women try to juggle both motherhood and advancing a professional career but find that “being a mom and an architect, [it can feel] like both suffered.” Others draw a line, declaring that they are “not willing to sacrifice [their] personal or family time in order to advance [their] career.” Still, it’s hard not to feel like they are missing opportunities male counterparts don’t have to give up.
Illustration of how children come at a pinch point for many women’s careers.
There are ways to counter this feeling, though. Firms can provide better parental relief, for both men and women, normalizing child-rearing as the responsibility of both parents, rather than the sole responsibility of a mother. Promoting flexible work schedules can also help parents look after their children without sacrificing their career. Finally, firms can subsidize childcare, reducing the need for mothers to have to choose between their kids and their careers. At MOYA Design Partners, a childcare stipend is included as part of the work benefits project. Another case study found that Architects FORA, a 100% women-owned firm, is staffed completely remotely to provide as much flexibility as possible for employees with families. Whether children are young or old, this surely makes a difference in balancing professional obligations and a healthy home life.
The Road to Licensure
Motherhood is not the only thing that can set back a woman’s career. Licensure also serves as a roadblock on the path to leadership, especially for women. Although 61% of male architects are licensed, only 40% of women are. Employees that spoke to Amanda, Elisa, and Stephanie stated that “becoming licensed has been a daunting task.” Though supervisors can be supportive, encouraging employees to take the Architecture Registration Examination, “trying to excel with work responsibilities, office initiatives, and activities leaves little time for work-life balance, finding time to study for the ARE’s, and general decompression from it all.”
A healthy work-life balance is integral to both quality of work and quality of life. It’s necessary to protect this balance without penalizing employees who forgo studies and examinations that occur outside of working hours. Suggested solutions include incorporating ARE study and testing hours into staffing plans, reexamining the requirements to become a principal, and offering greater incentives for passing the Architecture Registration Examination and completing the process licensure. If these steps are undertaken, it’s possible that firms will see more licensed female architects, and women architects in leadership roles.
Feeling Out of Place
Outside of architecture firms, women face even greater challenges. “It’s difficult to be taken seriously as a woman in architecture, especially as a young woman,” one survey response said. “Not so much amongst other architects, but to GCs and consultants I feel like we have to prove our knowledge and worth 100 times over.” Another respondent noted that “it’s really hard when you’re asking someone like me, [a] thirty-something-year-old woman to bring in business. I have nothing to relate to 65-year-old men. How am I supposed to cultivate those relationships and bring in business?”
These challenges often originate from sexist stereotypes and beliefs regarding the kind of work women can do. The best way to put an end to beliefs like this is to train staff, especially men, to be allies to women in their field. It is imperative that men are aware of the challenges that women face in architecture, that way they can advocate for their co-workers in beneficial, productive ways. Firms can also accelerate the implementation of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion strategies, and work with (or continue to work with) women-owned consultant firms to ensure that women in architecture are supported and celebrated.
Of course, it must be acknowledged that none of these issues stand alone. Many of them intersect in complex ways, preventing women from making the most of their experiences in architecture. For example, having children can prevent female employees from taking the time to complete licensure, which may bar her from working on more projects that could potentially advance her career to the level of leadership. Alternatively, having too much work and being spread too thin can stop her from mentoring younger staff, taking the ARE, or even deciding to have kids. These are tough choices that nobody should have to make; a career and a family should not be mutually exclusive.
What is worth celebrating most, though, is the fact that Ankrom Moisan is already executing many of the ideas recommended by the DEIB Council to fight these issues. Benefits like Flex holidays and remote and hybrid work options allow women with families to devote time to both their career and their children, on their own schedule. Programs such as AM Learn encourage employees to continue their professional growth through educational opportunities like the office’s regular Lunch & Learn sessions. Annual DEI surveys and listening sessions from The Diversity Movement promote conversations around these topics, certifying that everybody’s voice is heard. Do GOOD/Be WELL research projects provide an outlet for investigating critical issues to improve overall company culture.
Furthermore, Ankrom Moisan is committed to establishing clear career pathways, explicit evaluation criteria, and equitable pay transparency for all positions. This initiative led to the creation of the Career Pathways Program, a practical resource which summarizes the relationship between roles and titles in architecture, interior design, and practice services, with the hope of clarifying the pathways for professional development and growth available to Ankrom Moisan employees. Informative charts and diagrams illustrate our disciplines’ roles, role summaries, and evaluation criteria at all levels. All of this goes to ensure that our HOWs are fully embodied, every day.
There may be a lot of challenges when it comes to safeguarding gender parity in architecture, however, what Amanda, Elisa, and Stephanie have done with their Do GOOD/Be WELL research project is confirm that there are plenty of actionable solutions that guarantee the future of architecture is indeed female.
Amanda Lunger, Stephanie Hollar, and Elisa Zenk in the Portland office.
By Jack Cochran, Marketing Coordinator
Where are the Women? (1 of 2)
[This is part one of a series highlighting the 2022 Do GOOD / Be WELL scholarship project researched by Amanda Lunger, Elisa Zenk, and Stephanie Hollar. Read more about their investigation and what they found in part two, here.]
The Do GOOD / Be WELL scholarship encourages Ankrom Moisan employees to research an open-ended topic of their choosing to discover and share the practical results of their findings with the firm, industry, and community at large. The scholarship, started in 2017, is sponsored in memory of former AM employee Carolyn Forsyth, an inspirational leader and unyielding force for change. Intended to honor her legacy of sustainability, equity, innovation, advocacy, education, and leadership, the DGBW scholarship elevates and empowers new and inspiring ideas within Ankrom Moisan and the broader field of architecture, pushing us all, as the name implies, to do good and be well.
For the 2022 Do GOOD / Be WELL scholarship, Amanda Lunger, Elisa Zenk, and Stephanie Hollar ventured to ask: Where are the Women?
Amanda, Elisa, and Stephanie atop Ankrom Moisan’s Portland office.
The idea came to them naturally. During the firm’s 2020 Women’s Day celebration, Elisa noticed that some of the AM statistics shared didn’t seem to tell the whole story. “The women in architecture numbers were getting buried in the celebration of the fact that our office had this large percentage of women,” Elisa explained, “but when we looked into it, most of that percentage was made up of women in the interiors department and various overhead positions.” The real number of women in architecture was not as equitable as it could be. “I think I already knew this intuitively, that women are underrepresented in design roles,” Amanda disclosed, but “once we actually looked at those numbers, that was kind of shocking to me.” Stepping back to all architecture roles, not just design, women only make up 37% of architecture staff nationwide, according to AIA industry data collected in 2019. Amanda, Elisa, and Stephanie all knew that there should be more women in the industry and began to question why that was not the case. They were also interested in solving that problem at our firm, pushing AMA beyond industry trends.
After Amanda, Elisa, and Stephanie discussed this observation, they agreed that they had seen too many brilliant women, presumably on track for leadership, leave the field. “We were talking about these women who were really rockstars in the architecture department who were leaving,” recalled Amanda. “We were speculating as to why the industry seemed to have that problem.” Whatever the cause, it was clear that some women were dissatisfied with their experiences in architecture.
Stephanie recognized that the issue of women in architecture leaving Ankrom Moisan for other opportunities was one that needed a deeper investigation. It was also a problem that affected her directly. “The women who we saw leaving at that time were older than me and in architecture, but then they left. I saw them as people that I was looking up to [that] were mentors and having them leave really created a gap of future women architecture leaders,” she remarked. “It makes you kind of question your own career sometimes. Like if all these other women are leaving, it’s like, OK, what am I doing here? Like what are they finding elsewhere?”
In fields traditionally dominated by men, like architecture, same-sex mentors are paramount to the success of early career women. Female designers are more likely to aspire to career advancement if they see someone like them at the top. This role-modeling is critical for the retention and professional growth of our talented female architects.
The consequences of the lack of female representation in architecture was further emphasized by Amanda, “Being a woman in architecture, I’ve run into a lot of experiences in dealing with colleagues where I felt very misunderstood and kind of lonely as being a gender minority or marginalized gender in this industry. I’ve had personal experiences sitting in a meeting with consultants and some of my project team members, who are all men. At the beginning of the meeting, they’re all talking about working on their cars, or fishing, like these shared hobbies that they have. I had a hard time finding common ground. It was hard to know where to start [building rapport] in some of those cases. I felt like I got overlooked a lot of the time.” Elisa felt similarly, noting how being the only woman in the room “makes it hard to have a voice or feel comfortable having a voice. There’s not always room at the table, even if you’re sitting there.” Elaborating on this idea, Amanda reflected, “I feel like I was always looking for a woman who had been in that position before and could give me advice like how to cope and how to get through it. But those mentors just weren’t there.”
The exodus of women from established architecture firms becomes even more lamentable once one recognizes that the leadership positions and characteristics women tend to embrace are critical for the future success of the firm; roles and traits such as “inspiration, participative decision-making, setting expectations and rewards, people development, and role modeling” (McKinsey, 2018). Simply put, a workplace with more women is a workplace with more creativity, productivity, and profitability (MIT News, 2014). The lack of women in architecture is intrinsically detrimental to everyone in the industry.
The healthcare team working together in the Seattle office.
Amanda, Elisa, and Stephanie’s interest in what happened to these women came at the right time. It was about a week before applications for the Do GOOD / Be WELL scholarships were due, and after their initial conversation, Amanda thought, “maybe we should turn this into a research project, that way we have time set aside to really look at it. I mean, nobody else was doing this research, so it kind of felt like, well, if we don’t do it, who’s going to?” The group quickly put together an application and submitted it before the April 2nd deadline, a date shared with Carolyn Forsyth’s birthday.
Many of the data points collected during the project’s research were gathered from conversations with women architects about their professional experiences, career goals, the tools that helped them succeed, and what they thought firms could do better to support their growth. Additional observations came from personal experience, while other statistics were sourced from the AIA. The bulk of Amanda, Elisa, and Stephanie’s AMA-specific statistics originated from a firm-wide survey they conducted, which gathered responses from 158 participants, both male and female.
Graphs illustrating the research project’s interview and survey process.
Stephanie disclosed that the study they conducted was designed to provide “specific points that we could apply here at Ankrom to help [combat the disappearance of women from architecture].” The idea was that by identifying the roadblocks that women face when advancing in their careers, they will be able to more confidently advocate for themselves and the resources they need to grow as professionals. The research is an important first step in Ankrom Moisan’s journey to bringing gender parity to the architecture department and increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the firm overall.
The particulars of the information found, and conclusions presented to Ankrom Moisan by Amanda, Elisa, and Stephanie in their Do GOOD / Be WELL scholarship project can be read in part two of this blog series, found here.
By Jack Cochran, Marketing Coordinator
Interiors Innovator Karen Bowery Retires After 40 Years with Firm
After 40 years of setting the standard for how architecture and interior design intersect, Karen Bowery, Executive Vice President and Director of Interiors of Ankrom Moisan, is retiring from the firm and her role in The Society on February 28, 2023. Her decision is based on the feeling that it’s time to turn over the reins to a new generation so she can enjoy the next chapter of her life.
Karen Bowery atop the Portland office.
Karen is a real Portland trailblazer. She’s been an integral part of Ankrom Moisan since its founding and a visionary in interior design throughout her career, launching the interiors group when the firm first started in 1983. She’s been at the table since the beginning, creating space for women in architecture and interior design. In the early 1990s when Ankrom Moisan established a Board of Directors, Karen was one of the original four members.
In 2016, Karen launched The Society to focus exclusively on interior design for the hospitality industry. In six short years, The Society has secured a coveted spot on the “shortlist” for the most prestigious hotel brands in the world – Hyatt, Hilton, Mariott, and the International Hospitality Group (IHG) – and is a three-time international award nominee.
At the forefront of interior design for her entire career, Karen was one of just ten students to have graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s Interior Design Program in 1978, when interior design as a field was in its infancy. She has been a true leader for interior design, forging her own path without a roadmap and going on to influence the practice on a monumental scale.
Karen, circa 1980.
Building Ankrom Moisan’s Interiors division from the ground up, she pioneered the field’s best practices and laid the foundation for today’s designers and interiors teams to flourish. Her unwavering attention to the lifestyle and behavior patterns of the end user, combined with her keen understanding of consumer trends and future-focused insights, has cultivated a reputation for the firm as having one of the best Interiors groups in the country.
“We design experiences, we design spaces, and we design points of view,” says Michael Stueve, Ankrom Moisan principal. “Karen’s greatest design has been Ankrom Moisan’s Interiors department. She designed it, envisioned and made a plan for it, and then she became the ‘general contractor’ and built it. Many in the industry look at the Interiors division model Karen created here and how it operates. From my perspective, the biggest impact she’s had is in innovating a new sort of Interiors team model.”
Karen has also been a leader in understanding how data helps inform design. She established the firm’s research department, which feeds into the firm’s emphasis on user experience. She has always been driven by the idea of intent: when guests walk into a space, she believes they should feel like they are meant to be there, that it is a place that defines them, supports their unique perspective, and honors their lived experience. This speaks to Karen’s expertise as a leader, as well. She has always been there for her team, ensuring that everyone feels supported, heard, and like they belong.
Dave Heater, Karen, and Tom Moisan in 2016.
“What Karen created with her dedication and hard work in unparalleled,” adds Dave Heater, Ankrom Moisan president. “This includes what she’s built and how deeply she cares about the company and the people she has hired and helped nurture in their careers.”
Under her leadership at both Ankrom Moisan and The Society, Karen and her teams have received numerous awards from the American Institute of Architecture, and the International Interior Design Association Oregon and Pacific Northwest chapters, along with Gold Key Awards for Excellence in Hospitality Design, TopID Awards from The Hospitality Industry Network, Senior Housing News Architecture & Design Awards, DJC Oregon Top Projects Awards, and Environments for Aging Design Showcase Awards, among others. Additionally, The Society has ranked on Interior Design Magazine’s Top 100 Rising Giants list for the past two years.
Karen’s vision for the Interiors team has always been to “be the best.” She’s fostered an entrepreneurial drive which allowed her team to seek and take new directions, and under her direction many employees have become the “firsts” in their role. Karen’s involvement with the interiors team extends beyond her role as founder and executive vice president. Karen is a mentor and a friend to all who have worked with her. Her leadership, courage, work ethic, vision, and laughter have been a guiding light to many of her teammates and will be dearly missed once she is gone.
Karen at an Ankrom Moisan Happy Hour in 2022.
Leah Wheary Brown, Vice President of Interior Design Strategy, stresses Karen’s impact, stating “One of Karen’s lasting influences that she fought for from day one is how she helped move our profession from being viewed merely as decorators, into having a seat at the table as an integral part of the overall project design process.”
Though she has had many highs throughout her career, some of Karen’s legacy-defining milestones – aside from her work founding the Interiors department and The Society, her advocacy for environmental sustainability, and her achievements representing women in architecture and interior design – include spearheading the interior design for the projects located on Macadam Avenue. Originally designed for renowned developer John Gray, Ankrom Moisan made this property its first long-term headquarters in 1985. Over the following decade, Karen and the firm worked with Gray on several projects that came to characterize the Macadam area of Portland, including the celebrated Water Tower at Johns Landing.
Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, Washington, also holds a special place for both Karen and Ankrom Moisan. From the groundbreaking, through renovations, updates, and new additions, Karen and the firm played a key role in helping to shape this iconic Pacific Northwest resort and surrounding property. As Ankrom Moisan’s first hotel project, it was also the launching pad for Karen’s focus on the hospitality industry.
Additionally, working with developers like John Carroll and Homer Williams, Karen was instrumental in the transition of Portland’s Pearl District from abandoned railyards and warehouses to vibrant neighborhoods. Karen created a unit customization program and pushed for staffing the sales offices of Pearl District projects with Ankrom Moisan designers to help buyers customize their units, a practice that was previously unused, but which has now become the norm. Following the success of Portland’s Pearl District, Karen helped broaden the firm’s focus toward other forms of housing, in particular for the growing market of senior housing.
When Ankrom Moisan relocated its founding office in 2016 to 38 Davis in the Old Town area of downtown Portland, Karen led the project team in designing this new space to directly reflect the firm’s mission, values, culture, and identity.
Suffice to say, Karen’s impact on Ankrom Moisan is felt not only through the spaces we inhabit that she designed and the practices we follow that she created, but also through the connections she’s made and the lessons she has taught us, whether those are lessons in overcoming obstacles or in remembering to have fun with the process. According to Interior Designer Katie Lyslo, Karen “has taught [her] to take design seriously, but [to] still have fun doing so.” Looking back at her portfolio, it’s evident that Karen has had a lot of fun over the course of her career.
Karen at an Ankrom Moisan Holiday Party in 2014.
Karen will turn over leadership of Ankrom Moisan’s Interiors group to Alissa Brandt and Leah Wheary Brown, who have worked alongside her for 22 and 19 years, respectively. Brant and Wheary Brown will build upon Karen’s lasting imprint while cultivating their own vision for the firm.
Alissa Brandt, Karen, and Leah Wheary Brown.
Casey Scalf, a Design Principal and founding member, will become the Director of The Society when Karen retires.
“I’m extremely excited to further the legacy that Karen created,” says Alissa Brandt, Vice President of Interiors. “This is a time of constant change and staying stagnant is not an option. That’s what is most exciting about interior design – it’s never going to be the same, even when you’re working with the same client. There’s always an evolution, and Karen has consistently kept Ankrom Moisan at the forefront.”
“A big part of Karen’s success and legacy is what she’s leaving behind,” Leah reflects. “She has been integral in shaping the interior design industry. Karen helped me learn to think strategically, but to also understand where we need to go in the future to be relevant, to move with evolving changes in the industry, with development, with clients, and with our own practice.”
Karen and Leah in 2011.
“Karen has designed a self-sustaining model and has been the gasoline in the tank for our Interiors team,” says Michael. “When she transitions to the next chapter we’re not going to run out of gas. The energy she has put in is a renewable resource for the department. I’ve heard her say, ‘My greatest purpose is to give people wings to soar.’ I’m going to miss her a ton, she brings so much here, and she has empowered us for the future.”
As Karen begins a new chapter in her life, we would like to wish her well and thank her for all she has accomplished for the firm over the past four decades. The impact she has had on the field of interior design will be lauded for decades to come, and her absence will be painfully noticed.
by Jack Cochran, Marketing Coordinator
Employee Spotlight: Michael Bonn
When designing affordable housing projects, Principal Michael Bonn puts a piece of himself into his work. Sometimes multiple pieces. He goes above and beyond in his endeavors, connecting with clients through the one-of-a-kind furniture and art he designs, which are often surprises, only revealed at the end of construction.
Michael in his home woodshop
Art pieces attached to the walls of a project are usually discussed early on or along the way to ensure clients know what they’re getting. For furniture, Michael works alongside the interiors team during the procurement process, choosing items to design and bring onto the project himself.
Often, Michael makes use of regional features and project characteristics to inform the design of his custom artworks and furnishings. For example, to honor the fact Wy’East Plaza was constructed on Multnomah tribal land and named after the Multnomah people’s title for Mt. Hood, a stylized art wall was installed in the building’s lobby depicting the silhouette of the iconic stratovolcano.
Chairs and art wall designed by Michael and built by Walsh Constuction for Wy’East Plaza
Though it started as a way to preserve and honor trees removed from project sites in a sustainable and creative way, Michael’s furniture pieces have become a tradition in the affordable housing projects he completes. It’s a fun way for him to engage with the projects on a deeper level. It’s also a thoughtful gift for his clients, since the salvaged lumber Michael designs around comes from older, heritage trees found on the property, which are cut down, milled into dimensional lumber, and dried over the course of construction. Giving them a new life as art and home furnishings means they can continue to be enjoyed by those who live there, like at the Orchards at Orenco, where a large cottonwood tree was transformed into wood tile art and a pair of lounge chairs for the project’s foyer, and a sizable beech tree was crafted into a farm-style dining table.
Wood tiles and Cottonwood lobby chairs designed by Michael for Orchards at Orenco
Tactile handwork is a huge part of who Michael is-it’s how he likes to express himself. That’s why he was drawn to architecture in the first place; Michael loves the craft of designing and building things, especially when they have an impact on people’s lives. This is also why he finds affordable housing projects so fulfilling. He believes that elevating people’s lives through quality housing can be foundational to elevating other aspects of their lives. As for the handmade furniture, he sees it as a unique way to provide residents with something tangible that they can interact with.
Table designed by Michael for Orchards at Orenco
Furniture isn’t the only surprise Michael gives his clients. He has a tradition of making holiday gifts for those he has worked with. This year, he crafted twelve small tea boxes from white oak and leather sourced from the Oregon Leather Company, just down the street from the Portland office. The boxes snap closed with a button, and are laser engraved with Ankrom Moisan’s logo. Filled with festive holiday tea, there’s no doubt that Michael’s thoughtfulness is a refreshing perk to working with him.
Custom tea boxes created by Michael for his clients as a holiday gift
Off the clock, Michael’s hands hardly idle, but that doesn’t mean he’s overworked. His woodshop is the sanctuary where he recharges his battery, which makes sense; he’s been working with wood since he was big enough to hold a hammer. He has his dad, who was very generous about letting Michael make a mess in his shop when he was a kid, to thank for that. His longtime passion is evident at home-every room has a piece or two that Michael made himself.
Cedar chandelier designed and built by Michael for his home
Michael’s inclination for building and making a difference led him to Ankrom Moisan back in 1997, right out of school. Because he was so green, he credits AM with teaching him almost everything he’s learned as a professional.
The thing he loves most about Ankrom Moisan, though, is the people. Some of his closest friendships have been forged here over the last 20+ years. He says that these friends are people that support him in all kinds of ways, both professionally and personally. It’s a good thing Michael has such supportive friends at AM; once his house fills up, they may just have to take some of that furniture off his hands.
By Jack Cochran, Marketing Coordinator
Promotions Announcement 2023
Over the past year, we’ve accomplished a lot. From designing seven award-winning interior design & architecture works and completing one of the largest zero-energy affordable housing projects in the Pacific Northwest, to raising over $167,000 for Food Lifeline during the annual A.M. Trivia Night, Ankrom Moisan’s employees have been responsible for a year of immense growth and success.
For Exploring Beyond the Expected, 35 employees throughout our Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle offices received promotions in the last year. These outstanding employees include:
- Alissa Brandt, Vice President of Interiors – Portland
- Leah Wheary Brown, Vice President of Interior Design Strategy – Portland
- Emily Lamunyan, Director of Marketing – Portland
Principal & Director
- Casey Scalf, Director of The Society – Seattle
- Matt Janssen, Architecture – Portland
- Laurie Linville-Gregston, Architecture – Portland
- Michael DiBiase, Architecture – Portland
- Clare Goddard, Interiors – Portland
- Stephanie Hollar, Architecture – Portland
- Nandita Kamath, Architecture – Seattle
- Megan Kim, Architecture – Seattle
- Amanda Lunger, Architecture and Practice – Portland
- Jenny Chapman, Architecture – Seattle
- Scott Crosby, Architecture – Seattle
- Francis Dardis, Architecture – Portland
- John Eidman, Architecture – Portland
- Tania Feliciano, Architecture – Portland
- Cara Godwin, Architecture – Seattle
- Bronson Graff, Architecture – Portland
- Kimberleigh Grimm, Architecture – Seattle
- Rick Heiserman, Architecture and Practice – Portland
- Scott Hopkins, Architecture – San Francisco
- Jason Jones, Architecture – Portland
- John Schupp, Architecture – Portland
- Sean Scott, Architecture – Portland
- Hans Fagerlund, Architecture – Seattle
- Doug Grove, Architecture – Seattle
- Jessica Kirshner, Interiors – Portland
- Michael Lama, Architecture – Seattle
- Keith Larson, Practice – Portland
- Sakura Moriya, Interiors – Portland
- Annabelle Nikolov, Architecture – Seattle
- Melanie Pakingan, Architecture – Seattle
- Christie Thorpe, Interiors – Portland
- Minh-Toan Vu, Junior Systems Administrator – Seattle
For all your hard work, it is our pleasure to say, congratulations. Thank you for being what makes Ankrom Moisan a top design firm and best place to work, not to mention a source of inspiration and community to many. We look forward to witnessing the heights you will reach in 2023.
by Jack Cochran, Marketing Coordinator