Behind the Build: Interview with Melissa Joerg, Associate, Project Manager at MBH Architects

Representation matters, especially in a traditionally male-dominated field like construction. And in order for us to promote diversity and inclusion—and ultimately build a more robust workforce—we must champion youth engagement and create supportive work environments. 

Melissa Joerg, Associate, Project Manager at MBH Architects, recognizes the importance of providing role models and learning opportunities. With firsthand experience as a woman in AEC, she’s a strong advocate not just for diversity but also for engaging younger generations in meaningful and impactful ways.

We recently had a conversation with Melissa to discuss her career journey and experience working at MBH Architects. 

Check out what she has to say below. 

Tell me a little bit about MBH Architects and what you specialize in.

MBH Architects is made up of five offices across two continents, fostering a diverse and culturally rich environment. Our team is composed of individuals hailing from various backgrounds, cultures, and countries, each offering unique perspectives and insights. Collectively, we form a dynamic and expansive group of professionals dedicated to excellence in architectural practice.

Specializing in a range of sectors, our team excels in delivering exceptional design solutions across diverse industries. From retail and restaurant projects to luxury retail establishments, bio labs, housing, and modular construction initiatives. 

Walk us through your career and what led you to becoming Associate, Project Manager?

I spent the majority of my childhood abroad, eventually coming back to the States and finishing my education in Massachusetts. I lived in the Boston area and decided to go to college in the city. With so many colleges and universities in a small area, I had ample opportunities to meet and interact with different people.

While in school, I worked at an architectural firm that focused on K-12 and public housing. While the work may not have been glamorous, it was rewarding. The majority of the work involved roof replacements, facade painting, and brick building renovations. 

Remaining in Boston post-graduation, I transitioned to another firm focusing on larger-scale housing initiatives, collaborating with entities such as the Cambridge Housing Authority. At the time, we were also working with universities like Harvard and MIT. Much of my time—at least with the university projects—was focused on interior renovation projects for faculty buildings such as housing, faculty rooms, or offices. 

This work helped me create a foundation of what an everyday, well-rounded architect would need to know. I learned how to organize sets, write specs, and communicate with vendors, owners, and owner reps. This was also when I learned how to problem-solve.

Fast-forward several years, I moved to New York City, where I continued to work with a focus on housing, specifically working with NYCHA and other city-affiliated authorities. This work also felt meaningful. We worked primarily on post-Sandy recovery projects, which ranged from full renovations, historical preservation, and new ground-up facilities for communities hardest hit by climate change. Buzzwords like FEMA, base flood elevations, and Appendix G became part of our vocabulary. 

I’m very proud of the work I completed during this time. This work helped everyday people. Sure, it’s not like I worked on a Renzo Piano project that advanced us culturally, but it had a real impact for our community in NYC. This was one of the first moments in my career I realized I wanted to focus my time on moving the needle forward and do my part in providing safe housing to as many people as possible. 

What is your proudest accomplishment in your career at MBH Architects? Why?

Being featured at the AU keynote in 2023 was a pretty amazing experience! It was a privilege to have one of our collaborative projects showcased alongside our partners, an opportunity that left an indelible mark on our team at MBH Architects. Engaging with the Autodesk community provided invaluable insights into an aspect of the industry that is often unseen. I also had the chance to witness the intricacies of film production and documentation processes firsthand.

I’m proud our team at MBH has, in the last three years, had the opportunity to successfully deliver 1300 residential units. This monumental accomplishment underscores our commitment to excellence and the power of collaboration, particularly in our partnership with Factory-OS, which proved instrumental in realizing our shared vision.

My personal journey toward licensure has been a humbling endeavor. For a while, I thought licensure wasn’t part of my future. Now with two exams remaining before becoming a licensed architect in California, this achievement is finally within reach. 

What are the biggest challenges you face in your role? How does technology help you overcome those challenges?

For housing specifically, navigating the intricate landscape of long development timelines and multifaceted programming requirements poses significant challenges, not only in meeting client objectives for project feasibility but also in navigating the political dynamics inherent in these projects.

Regrettably, affordable housing often carries negative connotations and can spark polarizing debates within certain communities and neighborhoods. Navigating projects that may already be emotionally charged is inherently difficult despite the technological tools at one’s disposal. 

However, new technologies are emerging and becoming a vital part of how we address complex projects. In a landscape where clients are inundated with competing priorities, time constraints, and budgetary concerns, the ability to streamline processes and deliver solutions is crucial. 

For our team, applications like Forma have revolutionized our workflow. While traditional methods involving Revit, CAD, Excel, and 3D massing necessitated weeks of analysis to render a verdict on-site feasibility, Forma empowers us to expedite this process, often within a matter of hours. This accelerated turnaround time allows us to provide clients with prompt assessments, offering insights into the viability of potential projects.

In an industry where speed and precision reign supreme, embracing advancements in technology enables us to uphold the highest standards of excellence while navigating the evolving landscape of housing development.

How has partnering with Autodesk helped make your projects more successful?

Being involved in the developmental stages of emerging tools has significantly contributed to our success as a team. A prime illustration of this collaborative process is evident in our early engagement with Forma, particularly during our collaboration with Factory-OS on the Phoenix project. 

The ability to engage in constructive dialogue during the developmental phase is key in refining the functionality of tools like Forma. While some suggestions may push the boundaries of feasibility, these discussions shape the trajectory of product development. Our team needs a tool to emulate an intuitive process and have it be like we’re simply sketching on trace paper. Software like Revit may be complex, yet it’s been refined to a point where it has become an extension of our pencil and trace paper. 

Forma changes everything. It has become an extension of our creative process—a digital canvas where concepts can be articulated, problems can be dissected, and solutions can be swiftly devised.

From a documentation perspective, the integration of Autodesk Construction Cloud has transformed our workflow. Over the past four years, especially during the onset of lockdown, our reliance on Autodesk Construction Cloud has become essential. With Autodesk Construction Cloud, essential project information is readily accessible, eliminating the need for cumbersome paperwork while ensuring comprehensive records are maintained effortlessly. Autodesk Construction Cloud has become an integral component of our toolkit, enhancing efficiency and bolstering our capacity to deliver exceptional results.

When you think about the future, what are your plans to advance innovation and productivity at MBH Architects?

At MBH, we prioritize investment in our staff as a fundamental strategy for enhancing our collective capabilities. While technological advancements, applications, and streamlined processes undoubtedly play crucial roles, the efficacy of these tools hinges on the proficiency of our workforce. Recognizing this imperative, we have established a dedicated team within the firm tasked with fostering technological proficiency among our staff. This team not only promotes the adoption of innovative technologies but also facilitates comprehensive training initiatives aimed at equipping our team members with the requisite skills to leverage these tools effectively.

Our commitment to staff development extends beyond technological proficiency to encompass a strong emphasis on sustainability practices. Within our organization, we have dedicated teams focused on promoting sustainable methodologies and integrating them seamlessly into our projects. By embedding sustainable practices into our projects from inception, we cultivate a culture where sustainability becomes intrinsic to our design ethos. Over time, this approach fosters a cumulative momentum, with each project serving as a catalyst for further innovation and progress.

The overarching goal is to instill best practices and sustainable workflows throughout our organization, ensuring that they become ingrained as standard operating procedures. Through robust training, mentorship, and a steadfast commitment to excellence, we empower our staff to not only meet but exceed the evolving demands of our industry. By nurturing a culture of continuous learning and innovation, we position ourselves to deliver projects that not only meet the highest standards of quality but also embody our firm’s core values of sustainability and excellence.

Representation is critical to building a more inclusive industry. When was the first time you saw yourself represented in the construction industry, and what impact did that have on you?

Life felt challenging as a 19/20-year-old juggling school, work in architecture, and learning to navigate the world as an “adult.” I was so eager to be a valuable part of the team that not knowing the answer to anything work-related was terrifying. The joke’s on past me, I knew nothing in those first years. My own insecurities made meetings difficult, and meetings in construction trailers were enough to create an internal panic. 

Reflecting on my tenure at a previous firm, I encountered challenges in interacting with one of the principals, a woman whose personality intimidated me. In hindsight, I recognize that my apprehension stemmed more from my own insecurities rather than any inherent unapproachability on her part.

Seeing her as a leader interacting with clients and contractors made me think, “If she can do it, I can do it.” I realized that I just had to deal with it being scary.

Another takeaway from that was if you expose your team to as much as you possibly can within a controlled environment, it helps them feel like they can take on anything. Now, what we do is expose our team to what we can. That way, when they need to do a task or represent the firm on their own, it feels less intimidating. Exposing the team to different scenarios and environments helps remove anxiety or that “scary” factor so they can focus on showing up at their best.

Leadership is also essential. This is particularly true for representation—it’s not just me who leads by example; other women on the team do the same. 

What are some of the most important and actionable steps that firms and business leaders can take to improve diversity and inclusion holistically at their companies?

At MBH, our US offices volunteer through local ACE mentorship programs. I find those programs significant because they allow high school students to talk to an “everyday person” in our industry. Again, it’s all about representation. If they see someone who looks like they do in the industry, maybe they’re more willing to sacrifice and go through school and the rigor to get through the profession. 

We also have a longstanding relationship with philanthropic organizations like the Good Tidings Foundation in our California office. 

Those are actionable items that we’re doing. From a leadership standpoint, some years ago, MBH started an initiative turned internal committee called JEDI Task Force, which stands for Justice, Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Task Force.

What this group does is focus our attention on things like ACE mentorship conferences we might be able to attend or maybe attend Studio Pinups at a local university. This group is there as a resource, which has proved to be important for us as a firm.

What advice would you give to the next generation of men and women entering and preparing for the future of the industry?

Don’t underestimate the power of incremental learning. Everything seems so insurmountable when you think you have to learn hundreds of years of industry knowledge all in one short spurt of time. That’s not how anyone learns, and that’s certainly not how anyone is successful. 

So what we do, again, as a studio, is we encourage people to take 15 minutes to read an article, 30 minutes to listen to a podcast, or attend free webinars. Even if you’re just listening in the background, some of that knowledge will be imparted to you. 

No one learns in a vacuum, especially in architecture. So start asking questions and start talking to people in the industry before you even go to college. 

Kelsee Campbell

As a Senior Customer Advocacy Program Manager at Autodesk, Kelsee has the privilege of working with Autodesk customers to champion their stories on the Digital Builder Blog. Kelsee strives to create an engaging experience that amplifies customer perspectives, fostering a sense of community and connection.