Joining Forces for Community Impact

Each year we gather our 90+ staff to connect, reflect, and strategize, strengthening bonds between our two offices and finding inspiration in our shared purpose. As we gathered in Portland this summer, we also included a day of service to help increase health and well-being in our community.

In alignment with our vision – empowering communities to assure health & well-being for all – we offered our services to 12 non-profit entities in the Portland area. We split our office up into groups of 7 to 9 people per organization, and our staff spent time educating themselves before venturing on to the non-profit.

We asked that all of our staff ask themselves the following questions during their time volunteering:

  • How is this service propelling us to our vision?
  • What challenges are evident?
  • What gives you hope?

We also documented our time spent with these organizations through video, hand sketches, still photos, music, and poetry. Every group gave a presentation to share their experience with the entire office.

As individuals, professionals, and a design team, we were awed and humbled by the people and organizations we helped. This work is never done, and we look forward to engaging with these and other non-profits in the future.

It is our desire to help create healthy and sustainable places in all that we do. We hope you will also find inspiration in one of these groups to make a difference in the community.

via Niki Lesko

Mahlum’s Portland office was recognized again in 2017 with a Sustainability at Work GOLD certification by the city of Portland. You can find our profile and sustainable office strategies at under Mahlum | Architects, Engineers, and Designers.

In our ongoing commitment to community, Mahlum continues advocacy for design of homeless shelters that not only provide safe shelter but enhance resident feelings of security and well-being. Beginning in 2011, Mahlum selected Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV) as the recipient of pro bono architectural services. WSCADV’s goal was not to create a building, rather to create design guidelines for shelters serving women seeking to break the cycle of violence in their lives and their children’s lives.

As part of the process, we engaged with diverse WSCADV stakeholders, listened and studied intently, and then endeavored to translate challenges and issues into a range of possible design strategies that span the continuum from redecorate to rethink. In particular, we:

  • Reviewed and assisted in analyzing data from focus groups and interviews with domestic violence survivors (both women and children), shelter advocates and managers regarding experiences of a variety of shelter environments;
  • Complemented focus groups with first-hand observation during several shelter visits;
  • Facilitated “Think Tanks” that brought together people with a variety of perspectives and expertise to generate intensive conversation, critique progress, and brainstorm where projects might go.


More About the Website

The product of this year-long collaboration is an interactive, tool -– Building Dignity: Design Strategies for Domestic Violence Shelter – which assists advocates, shelter staff, fundraisers, and the design community to improve the quality of life for survivors and their families, within the state and throughout the country. Building Dignity is an opportunity to illustrate how our problem solving skills, as architects, can serve those who might not normally seek us out (even if it’s not a building that’s needed). We aspire to show, through the design and collaboration process, how domestic violence housing programs can shape the built environment to reflect and complement their mission and values. Thoughtful design can help empower parents, support children’s needs, and facilitate healing. It can help survivors rebuild a sense of dignity and allow staff to focus on providing survivor-centered advocacy.

via JoAnn Wilcox

This study, Planning and Building Healthy Communities for Mental Health: Method, findings and reflections from a recent integrative study, published in the Journal of Urban Design and Mental Health Edition 3, concluded that there is a need for more empathic engagement by designers and managers to their task, where they ‘put themselves in the shoes’ of residents to create environments that accurately meet health needs and ensure uptake is actually achieve.

It also suggests a critical and much needed follow-up question: Just why is it that we seem to lack these necessary levels of engagement in our city building processes, ultimately to the detriment of the well being of us all as city residents, users, and practitioners?

via PJ Bauser

We’re getting ready to start some work where we’ll be investigating new clinic models for a clinician’s group that is used to some traditional spatial and work organizations.

I think this article offers a great reminder that we need to first observe how the care givers actually work and what they are trying to accomplish so that we can understand their requests and work together to develop solutions that support their actual needs.

Check it out.


via PJ Bauser

From a surprising number of “hunting and gathering” trips to the need for quiet spaces for phone calls, interior designer Carolyn Fleetwood Blake shares her takeaways from shadowing a nurse for a day. This article, published in Artekna provides useful insights in our healthcare work.

Pro Bono Facilities Master Planning

Impact NW is well on its way to realizing a dream that began in 2014, when Mahlum chose them as the recipient of a pro bono master planning project. Having recently gone through a change of leadership and an intense period of growth and visioning, they wanted to turn attention to their numerous facilities and establish a long-term vision to maximize community benefit.

Impact NW is a broad organization consisting of 8 departments that run 40+ programs spread over 8 primary facilities.

Through a combination of focus meetings with the leadership team, volunteers, clients, and various departments, Mahlum began to understand the organizational complexities and create a series of diagrams to graphically represent each facility, its programs and employees, and where there may be flexibility to better aid collaboration and access to services.

To assure staff input, we held a “journey mapping” workshop, allowing staff to role-play and brainstorm solutions to the five most pressing organizational issues we had been discussing – safety, accessibility of services, collaboration, adaptability, and empowerment. Further, there was opportunity for individuals to give anonymous input about their facilities and workspaces.

Once Mahlum had a clear understanding of the organization and their direction, we worked together on a multi-branched approach to establishing a master facilities plan. This in-depth process was summarized in a report that became the base material for a capital campaign to renovate and further develop strategic properties.

About Impact NW

Impact NW’s mission is to help people prosper through a community of support. By working with schools, businesses, faith communities, other community-based organizations, and governmental agencies, they create a safety net and springboard for community members to improve their quality of life and achieve independence.


In 2013, the AIA Seattle Redesigning the School Lunch Ideas Competition provided a unique opportunity for our office to rethink the school dining experience, transforming an act of pure consumption into an opportunity for social-emotional learning, developing both sympathy and empathy. School dining today has been reduced to an efficient feeding machine—a mechanized transaction focused on meal volumes and seat capacities.

Students eat too fast and consume too many empty calories, in a loud and emotionally charged setting with limited supervision. This out-of-scale environment perpetuates the culture of consumption, enables bullying and disrespectful behavior, and promotes poor eating habits.

Our submittal, “Bite Size” dining breaks down the scale of the cafeteria, and transforms large and impersonal spaces into simple, smaller, more intimate dining rooms distributed throughout the school.

These bite-size spaces seat four tables with seven students each and, when not in use for dining, provide much needed multipurpose breakout spaces to support learning. Students are responsible for retrieving their table’s family-style food cart from the central kitchen and wheeling in back to their cluster, where students serve one another, listen, talk, learn, and clear their plates. This bite-size approach to dining transforms transactional to ritual; out-of-scale to intimate; loud to quiet; and fast to slow.

Day-by-day and bite-by-bite, dining becomes an act of community and learning, naturally resulting in healthy outcomes.


Out of 46 submissions from 16 countries, Mahlum’s submission received an Honorable Mention, and was the only firm from the Pacific Northwest to receive recognition.

JoAnn and Kurt’s article was originally published digitally by Metropolis Magazine, then picked up by Arch Daily.

Why Architects Must Rethink Restroom Design in Schools
By JoAnn Hindmarsh Wilcox and Kurt Haapala

Read article

How to Design School Restrooms for Increased Comfort, Safety, and Gender-Inclusivity

By JoAnn Hindmarsh Wilcox and Kurt Haapala

Read article

All restrooms at our renovation of Grant High School (Portland Public Schools) will be gender inclusive, except for the locker rooms.  KOIN News did a story earlier this year:

Grant High School Plans to Make All Bathrooms Gender-Neutral
KOIN-6 News, Portland

Watch story

Equity & Inclusion

We believe that our facilities must provide equal access to academic, social, and community experiences, and we strive to eliminate the “invisible barriers” that may work against those goals.

Inclusive design transcends barrier-free physical access to buildings and spaces. We support and celebrate environments that give our diverse users a sense of belonging in a safe and welcoming community. Equity is the result of a favorable environment where equal opportunity is allowed for the entire population – allowing individuals to flourish and make meaningful societal contributions.

We consider affordability, culture, race, religion, gender, physical, and cognitive abilities as critical factors to consider when making design and budgetary decisions around the built environment.

One of Mahlum’s inclusive design strategies can be seen in our new gender-neutral restrooms at Grant High School in the Portland Public Schools District. The inclusive design has allowed Grant High School’s facilities to accommodate the same quantity of private toilets in less floor area as traditional, gendered restrooms.