Meet The Winners: Team SERA Architects The Workplace Wellness Compass

Meet the SERA Architects team: Lobby / Amenity Space category winners with their ‘The Workplace Wellness Compass’ submission. 

Melisa Gruber, Interior Designer, Associate

Carissa Mylin, Workplace Project Designer, Senior Associate

Sarah Yacko, Interior Designer

Brendan Post, AIA, Project Designer, Associate

Walker Holt, Architectural Job Captain

Kaia Thoreson, Interior Designer

To celebrate their win, we asked the SERA Architects team more about their work and the competition: 

WDM: Since the pandemic what have you been up to / what are you working on?

Carissa: Similar to how our submission entry focused on health and wellness, I have been trying to focus on the same thing in my personal life. I’ve been running a lot and have picked up a new Pilates hobby. I’ve spent more time outdoors this summer than any other summer in my life, because nothing indoors is open and I have honestly really enjoyed it. From a work perspective we are currently actively seeking new clients/partners so I’ve been spending most of my time working on BD outreach. If you are interested in hearing more about our competition entry or capabilities as a design team, we welcome the opportunity to connect with you!

Sarah: Professionally and personally I have been working on maintaining momentum. With the challenges that have emerged due to the pandemic and societal unrest, I have kept my sights on the notion of moving forward with an enhanced sense of intention and clarity of purpose. In doing so, I’ve been able to help wrap up a few projects moving into construction administration, submit a proposal that led to an interview, and collaborate with other team members to prepare tools that will allow us to better serve our clients. In my personal life, I have not missed an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of my natural surroundings during summer and have further involved myself in activities and organizations that aim to enhance my community at large.

Kaia: Since the pandemic I have been working with clients to modify their workplace designs for return to office strategy. I have found there is no one size fits all for what that return looks like, adding further nuance to our workplace design playbook. At home I have resurrected some of the artistic outlets that fell by the wayside in the pre-pandemic world including painting, clay jewelry design, and cooking.

Walker: Our clients are also focused on what is next for their workspaces, so we’ve been working on a variety of studies to help re envision what the future of their workspaces look like with client specific goals and collaboration in mind.

Melisa: Staying connected with others as much as possible virtually and spending at least one meal a week supporting my favorite small restaurant businesses when I can with take out.

Brendan: I’ve had the good fortune to stay fairly busy working on interesting projects while working remotely and finding an enjoyable balance of work and play. In addition to this competition entry and some billable work, I had a good deal of fun co-creating a new intranet page for the SERA Workplace Studio and co-authoring a blog series all about finding silver linings in this pandemic. (I guess I’ll have to add a post about winning pandemic-inspired competitions.) Outside of work, my family and I have been taking lots of walks and bike rides, swimming and paddling in our nearby river, and cooking out constantly.

WDM: What did you enjoy most about the competition process?

Carissa: My colleagues are some of the most creative, inspiring, and motivated people I know. In this isolating, WFH environment, it was refreshing to spend time flexing conceptual muscles and big ideas with my team.  I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work with all of them.

Sarah: What I enjoyed most about the competition process was the chance to better know my workmates. While we did have some interaction in the office to collaborate in the highly valued but more traditional pen-to-paper manner, most of the work done for the competition took place while working from home. Because it was more difficult to do quick check-ins, which in a previous life were sometimes done by simply overhearing a conversation, team members needed to dive deeper into their thought processes to make sure everyone’s tasks and responsibilities were completely clear before we parted ways. This allowed for greater trust among team members and pushed for more thorough communication skills that are sometimes lacking with us creative types. Working from home also naturally allowed for a bit more personal invasiveness especially as dogs attempted to take over the conversation and cats tried to do a face-swap with their human.

Kaia: What I enjoyed most about this competition was the exploration of what we need as human beings to find balance in our lives. I found myself thinking about balance in a nostalgic way, remembering childhood activities such as climbing on structures at recess. This thinking transformed the (A)live space from a place we would typically think to be purely physical into something that also nurtures our mind and spirit. I love that every space we designed has a primary emphasis on one of our wellness values, while incorporating other wellness values as secondary elements not relegated to their own space.

Walker: Working collaboratively with a large team for the first time since the onset of the pandemic.

Melisa: The opportunity to exercise our creative minds and come together to solve a current problem and how it can adapted to respond in the future. Also, the chance to create a gathering space that could be adaptable, but didn’t take away from the experience and social engagement of what we remember and love about restaurants before the pandemic.

Brendan: We kicked off the competition by meeting at the office for the first time in months (be-masked and reasonably distanced of course). After a productive charrette and ideation session, it was clear to me what I missed most about working in a studio environment. That successful in-person collaboration became a source of inspiration for what we thought the future of workplace might look like.

WDM: It’s been a little while since you submitted, how have your ideas evolved since you submitted them?

Carissa: The world is a really tough place right now. Pandemic aside, as a community we are very divided and collectively experiencing this trauma. Currently in Oregon and California, we are also experiencing devastating wildfires. These circumstances have made it very challenging to focus on design. What has evolved the most for me is the deep pull for togetherness during challenging times and how much we rely on each other for both grieving and healing. I cannot wait to put COVID behind us and get back to a shared space with my colleagues where we can be together to design, create, inspire each other, learn from each other and take the rest of the lessons we’re learning this year. We have a huge opportunity to focus on how to use design as a catalyst to begin to tackle the challenges and heal the scars that will be left from this catastrophe.

Sarah: In all honesty, we ran out of time. While I think we communicated the core of our ideas and delivered a cohesive and thought-provoking submission, the loose ends that were relevant but not necessary to the submission still sneak their way into my dreams. Aside from the ends that would make the picture all the more complete, I feel proud of our submission because of the viability of the solution. We didn’t make an attempt to reinvent the wheel, but rather realign and enhance it. I am excited to bring our ideas to fruition on future projects but a lot more moving parts than just the wheel need to work together. A category that we did not submit for was proposing a new change management process, and I think this will be key for not only bringing people back to work, but keeping people motivated to go into the office because they will be getting more out of it than the bare minimum process of clocking in, completing tasks, and clocking out.

Kaia: This space is intentionally designed with a shift in workplace values away from profit to people and their varied needs. This way of designing naturally lends itself to evolve with the needs of people. For me the designs and ideas have evolved from being “the solution” into “a solution”.

Walker: The long-term impacts of the pandemic have only become more clear since TNWE competition wrapped up. Solutions that may have been conceived as temporary could likely end up as permanent. The opportunities for conceptualizing fundamental changes to working culture will continue to multiply as long as the pandemic draws out.

Melisa: During this time, it’s amazing to see small retail spaces and restaurants adapt by bringing their indoor experiences outside and give the opportunity to create natural social interactions without feeling compromised on safety. I’ve been thinking how we can expand the idea of enhancing our indoor and outdoor connection further and how we can make the indoor environment feel safe again. Natural air flow next to windows and considering how restaurant density can continually adapt between fixed and flexible furniture is constantly on my mind as I continue to read how businesses are adapting to the new norm.

Brendan: I believe if we were to begin the competition today, we would certainly add some acknowledgement of the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion. I strongly feel that design and architecture can play a significant role in promoting equality and collaboration while celebrating the unique cultural backgrounds and personal histories that make our shared human experience so interesting. Furthermore, it is clear that a sense of inclusion and equity can have a profound effect on the mental and spiritual health of people. So I believe that’s one area of human wellbeing that could have added additional meaning to our entry.

Check out their full submission:

SERA Architects: Here’s the good news: There has never been a better time to fundamentally rethink our relationship to our work and our work environment. In fact, you may have noticed, it’s already happening. But what will drive this new relationship? We believe that positive, meaningful change will be defined by a new understanding of and emphasis on health, wellness and personal empowerment, and that the office building can be the catalyst for this change.

As designers, we all work in an aspirational mode fueled by optimism—envisioning the spaces we de- sign utilized and enjoyed to their highest purpose. But in the United States, many office workers suffer a lack of physical activity that can lead to lassitude and burnout. We intend to address these conditions through a new Workplace Wellness Compass (WWC).

The WWC is a collection of spaces, concepts and technologies that can be used on their own to reinforce focused, positive transformation of health and wellbeing within a workforce or building population. Or, when combined and deeply integrated into the early design or retrofit of a building, can fundamentally transform the user experience, establishing new rituals and patterns of activity that will make workers smarter, more resilient and happier.

This compass promotes individual and collective wellbeing in the three pillars of human nature: Mental Engagement, Physical Fitness and Spiritual Fulfillment. Each tool is assessed through the lens of six key values: Discovery; Purification; Ownership; Productivity; Fitness; and Fulfillment. Each tool generally falls into one of the three areas but is supported to some degree by each of the key values. The tools can therefore be deployed in a targeted intervention. (For example, if a company is looking to increase mental acuity and job satisfaction, they could begin by implementing a space that emphasizes Mental Engagement and Spiritual Fulfillment.)

The real power of the WWC will come from its early integration into a building’s design. But, as a kit of parts, it is adaptable enough to be used in many different scales of project. For the purposes of this com- petition entry, we have focused on the Ground Level of a proposed West Coast mass timber office build- ing. Though the Compass suggests circulation patterns and program elements that may at first seem foreign, this illustrated strategies support the ultimate goal of enacting positive, permanent changes in the behavior, attitudes and daily rituals of building occupants.

Click on an image to see it full size. 


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