1. My Aha Moment: Connecting Health to How We Design

    As part of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Health Leaders Network, I was asked to write an essay responding to the question: When did you first realize that there is a connection between human health and the built environment? Was there a particular “aha” moment or project that you worked on? How did social or health equity play a role in your experience?

    In 2013, our firm was selected to work on The Rose, an affordable housing project in Minneapolis, Minnesota, using the International Living Future Institute’s (ILFI) Living Building Challenge (LBC) as an organizing framework. Along with the clients Aeon and Hope Community, we aspired for the project to become LBC certified. Due to cost and operational barriers, we ultimately realized that while we would not be able to achieve LBC certification for the project, we could use the LBC petals as a guideline. As we reviewed the individual petals, healthy materials, energy efficiency, and health and happiness easily rose to the top and guided our design.

    My “aha” moment occurred when I realized how little we knew then about the impact products we commonly specify for our buildings have on human health. Even today, knowledge about the chemicals we use regularly in construction is severely lacking, and products are grossly under-regulated.

    The following statistics from Rebecca Stamm, senior researcher at Healthy Building Network (HBN) (which are covered in the Healthy Building Network’s HomeFree Materials Matter free educational course) awakened me to the fact that we are potentially slowly poisoning ourselves through the products we put into our buildings. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) chemical inventory lists approximately 86,000 chemicals registered for commercial use—including those used in consumer products. When introduced in 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) listed 62,000 chemicals assumed to be safe. Not tested or confirmed as safe, these chemicals were generally assumed to be safe.

    • Only a few hundred chemicals have been required to be tested by the EPA for human health impacts, which means only an estimated 1% of the known TSCA listed chemicals have been tested to prove or disprove causation of human health impacts.
    • Only nine chemicals or chemical groups have been partially restricted in use, including asbestos, formaldehyde, PCB’s (polychlorinated bisphenols), dioxin, CFC’s (chlorofluorocarbons), hexavalent chromium, lead, mercury, and radon.

    Those nine partially restricted chemicals or chemical groups comprise less than 0.01% of all known chemicals in the EPA inventory. That’s a rather small tally.

    Individual efforts, university research, and some municipalities and states have begun to slowly fill the chasm in knowledge and regulation of material chemicals. The Green Science Policy Institute has created an eye-opening video series that outlines the understood and unregulated threats to our health from specific classes of chemicals commonly used in construction materials and other consumer products (e.g., PFAS, antimicrobials, flame retardants, bisphenols, certain solvents, and certain metals).

    To reduce the potential for contacting harmful chemicals, MSR Design has worked diligently to actively address the threat of toxic chemicals in our projects by using ILFI’s Red List and Declare label program, as well as other tools to better understand what chemicals are in the products we specify. To help make sense of the myriad information out there about this topic, the firm created a simple screening system for our office’s materials library to remove products that do not comply with our standards for building product transparency and to vet product chemical composition. MSR Design’s Sustainable Materials Action Packet can be downloaded from our Generative Impacts page. We support ILFI’s work to create healthier and more sustainable affordable housing, Healthy Building Network’s policy advocacy for better regulation and awareness of what we build with, and the educational outreach provided by Parsons School of Design’s Healthy Materials Lab. As a result of our focus on materials health, our new 510 Marquette studio became the first constructed space in Minnesota to achieve LBC Petal certification, including for the materials petal.

    I firmly believe that we all benefit by designing and constructing healthier buildings. My hope is that we designers can one day soon quantify the quality-of-life improvements and even the potential extension to a person’s natural life span by better understanding the correlation between living, learning, working, and recreating and healthy environments, rather than accepting the status quo. With time, I am confident that we will find that a healthy built environment provides tangible improvements to life span, quality of life, and well-being.

  2. MSR Design Contributes to the Development of the Metropolis Climate Toolkit for Interior Design

    MSR Design is one of 13 design firms that participated in the Metropolis Sustainability Hackathon, a series of workshops with design experts that culminated in the Metropolis Climate Toolkit for Interior Design, which Metropolis launched on August 31st.

    With extreme weather events and wildfires raging around the world in 2021, the crisis is hitting closer to home than ever before. Pollution and environmental degradation take an inequitable toll. For example, as an outcome of segregation, redlining, and other discriminatory practices, according to a New York Times article by Linda Villarosa, Black Americans today are still 75% more likely to reside in neighborhoods and communities adjacent to manufacturing sites that produce hazardous waste. The climate crisis is both a health and equity issue. Interior designers have a special role to play in the fight to lower the amount of greenhouse gases we put in the atmosphere and reduce the toxic chemistry we design into our spaces. The Metropolis Climate Toolkit for Interior Design provides a starting point for the interior design industry to make the right decisions and help avert climate catastrophe.

    Industry experts in design, construction, and manufacturing—including MSR Design interior designers Veronica McCracken, CID, Emily Gross, NCIDQ, and Lauren Gardner—participated in a three-month-long hackathon to identify where we can make the biggest difference with interior design. They helped define 20 key strategies where the industry can improve and evolve. Each strategy contains multiple suggestions and guidelines, with links to tools, resources, and further reading.

    “Coming together with experts from organizations across the country gave us a real sense of hope,” says Veronica. “It’s encouraging to know that interior designers are passionate about reversing climate change and conscious of the human health impacts of our designs, even though it can be daunting to tackle and apply to our practice. The Metropolis Climate Toolkit for Interior Design will guide all designers to make better choices and design with the Earth’s future in mind.”

    As a result of MSR Design contributing resources to the climate toolkit, Metropolis editor in chief Avinash Rajagopal interviewed MSR Design architect Simona Fischer, AIA, as part of the Metropolis ProductLIVE! marathon broadcast in June, during which she outlined MSR Design’s Sustainable Materials Action Packet and Sustainability Metrics Drawing Set Template. Created by MSR Design, these key resources are referenced throughout the climate toolkit, including as resources for low-carbon design and finding hotspots for carbon emissions, setting up a screening process for all materials and products, developing an internal rating system, on-boarding new team members and new employees, and sharing crucial information with peers and stakeholders.

    Simona states, “As architects, we only start making truly sustainable buildings after we become students of building materials; their life cycles; and who they touch, support, and shelter. The supply chains and effects on human health are messy and complex, but also tangible and real. It is crucial that designers take ownership of these impacts and find real solutions.”

  3. MSR Design becomes a WBENC-Certified Women’s Business Enterprise

    The Women’s Business Development Center-Midwest (WBDC-Midwest), a regional certifying partner of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), has certified MSR Design as a Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE). WBENC is the nation’s largest third-party certifier of businesses owned and operated by women. To be certified by WBENC, women owners must have at least 51% ownership, unrestricted control of the business, a demonstrated management of day-to-day operations, and a proportionate investment of capital or expertise. The meticulous certification process involves an in-depth review of the business and site inspection. WBENC has validated that MSR Design is 62% owned, controlled, managed, and led by women.

    “According to the AIA Firm Survey Report 2020, only 21% of firm leaders in the architecture profession in the United States are women. We are proud of the evolution of our practice, which was founded by three men and is now majority women-owned and led,” says MSR Design CEO Traci Engel Lesneski, CID, LEED AP, Associate AIA. “Women make up half our staff. We received the highest Just label score (4 out of 4) on gender pay equity. As a practice focused on creating inspiring, sustainable, human-centric places, we understand that incorporating diverse perspectives into our projects brings value to our clients and their communities. This certification demonstrates our full commitment to this approach.”

    WBENC-Certified WBEs gain access to a vast network of support, including targeted business opportunities, increased visibility in corporate and government supply chains, education and development programs to spur growth and increase capacity, and networking and mentorship opportunities.

    MSR Design principal Paul Mellblom, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C, states, “I am thrilled that we are now a WBENC-Certified WBE. This accomplishment reflects our firm’s current and future leadership, especially the success of our CEO and president Traci Engel Lesneski, who has worked tirelessly to bring excellence to everything she touches.”

    “When those shaping the built environment better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve and diverse perspectives are incorporated into design, everyone benefits,” explains Traci. “We are committed to leading the change in our profession and, in the process, building more just and equitable communities.”

  4. MSR Design’s 510 Marquette studio becomes the first Minnesota project to achieve Living Building Challenge Petal Certification

    MSR Design’s 510 Marquette studio project has earned Living Building Challenge (LBC) 3.1 Petal Certification through the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) for the materials, equity, and beauty petals. The first project in Minnesota to receive LBC Petal Certification, the studio is designed to leave as small an impact on the environment as possible and to support human health and well-being. A rigorous green building certification program and sustainable design framework that visualizes the ideal for the built environment, LBC is organized into seven performance areas called petals. Each petal is further sub-divided into imperatives, which address specific issues through detailed requirements. All of the LBC certifications are based on 12 months of actual performance, rather than design predictions.

    Describing the design process guiding the project, MSR Design project manager and senior associate Rhys MacPherson says, “Our new studio home represents new collaborative ways of thinking, a deeper level of commitment to human health and well-being, and an interconnected village approach to innovation and imagining a new future for all of us.”

    Materials Petal
    Achieving the materials petal required meeting the ILFI Red List free, embodied carbon footprint, responsible industry advocacy, living economy sourcing, and net positive waste imperatives, among others. The materials palette builds on existing elements in the space: traces of historic travertine floors, brick walls and piers along the exterior, and fireproofing-clad columns and ceiling structure. To reduce the carbon footprint, the design team created a minimal palette of intervening materials. In the year leading up to the project, we developed a new set of materials library entry criteria and developed a guide to share our goals with product reps. Using the Red List and other expert guidance, our entry criteria guide, which can be requested on our Generative Impacts web page, requires  that all products on our shelves carry transparency documentation and are free of Red List chemicals.

    Equity Petal
    Examples of the imperatives required to meet for the equity petal include human scale + humane places, universal access to nature + place, equitable investment, and Just organization participation. Equitable access to daylight and amenities drives the spatial organization, with a central black box that contains acoustically private spaces for focus and collaboration. MSR Design is the only Minnesota architecture firm to have a Just 2.0 label. Participating in the program helps us nurture a culture that values diversity, equity, and inclusion.

    Beauty Petal
    Examples of the required beauty petal imperatives include beauty + spirit and inspiration + education. As with MSR Design’s other transformative adaptive reuse projects, the studio’s beauty arises from an authentic continuity between the space’s history and future. We commissioned an art installation for the front area of the studio. The selected artist Alexandra Peyton-Levine found inspiration in the materials story of the space, harvesting construction waste to interweave with dried flowers and foliage for her biophilic sculpture.

    “In the design of our new studio, we sought to demonstrate that design excellence is both performative and beautiful,” says MSR Design CEO Traci Lesneski. “Achieving petal certification for our own workplace represents our firm’s commitment to creating a just, sustainable world through our practice and projects and the leadership we seek to exemplify in our profession.”

    Check out the full case study on the ILFI website here.

  5. MSR Design principal Dagmara Larsen wins national AIA Young Architects Award

    One of 20 architects across the country (and one of only two Minnesota architects) to receive a national American Institute of Architects (AIA) Young Architects Award this year, MSR Design principal Dagmara Larsen, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, is being recognized for her commitment to designing equitable, sustainable, and human-centric, award-winning projects for a wide range of organizations and individual clients.  The AIA Young Architects Award honors individuals who have demonstrated exceptional leadership and made significant contributions to the architecture profession early in their careers.

    Promoted to MSR Design firm principal in 2019, Dagmara champions an integrated design approach on every project. She believes that an architect needs to evaluate each project through different lenses in order to bridge aspirational, programmatic, and performative goals as part of the design solution. An example of this holistic approach in her work includes the transformation of Madison Public Library’s Central Library in Madison, Wisconsin (certified LEED Gold). Dagmara is committed to design excellence and achieving project success in terms identified by individual users, as exemplified in the Tulsa City-County Library Central Library renovation project, winner of an AIA/ALA Library Building Award, and Haverford College Visual Culture, Arts, and Media (VCAM) Building, winner of an AIA CAE Education Facility Design Award of Excellence and AIA Minnesota Honor Award.

    In her letter nominating Dagmara for the AIA Young Architects Award, AIA Minnesota president Karen Lu, AIA, NOMA, states “Over the past several years, Dagmara has become well known in our community as a champion for design excellence, particularly in the form of regenerative and inclusive design.” Karen continues, “Dagmara leads by example in her day-to-day practice, her professional work, and her many volunteer commitments.”

    This year’s jury included John Castellana, FAIA, TMP Architecture, Inc., Bloomfield Hills, Michigan; Frances Halsband, FAIA, Kliment Halsband Architects, New York, New York; Peter Kuttner, FAIA , CambridgeSeven, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Ivenue Love-Stanley, FAIA, Stanley Love-Stanley, Atlanta, Georgia; Ryan McEnroe, AIA, Quinn Evans, Washington, DC; and Chris-Annmarie Spencer, AIA, NOMA, Wheeler Kearns Architects, Chicago, Illinois. The award recipients will be recognized at the annual AIA Conference on Architecture in June.

  6. AIA elevates MSR Design principal Paul Mellblom into its College of Fellows

    The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has announced that it has elevated 102 members to the AIA College of Fellows, including MSR Design principal Paul C.N. Mellblom, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C. The honor is awarded to members who have made significant contributions to the architecture profession. The fellowship program elevates architects who have achieved a standard of excellence in the profession and made a significant contribution to architecture and society on a national level. Only three percent of AIA members have this distinction.

    One of four AIA Minnesota members elevated to fellowship this year, Paul was nominated under Object Five, recognizing architects who have made notable contributions to the public through alternative careers or volunteer work with organizations not directly connected to the built environment. Paul’s focus on historically underserved people has improved lives in dozens of neighborhoods through tenacious, consistent leadership in volunteer service—and by bringing design excellence to nonprofit and pro bono clients.

    In his letter nominating Paul for elevation to the AIA College of Fellows, Alliiance principal Thomas Hysell, FAIA, states, “Paul has challenged himself and others to deal proactively with issues of inequity through his practice and, even more so, in his volunteer leadership—especially in the design of affordable housing.” Thomas continues, “Through Paul’s admirable and extensive efforts, he has brought the best of what our profession has to offer to the greater community. He is truly a citizen architect.”

    The fifth MSR Design principal to be elevated to the AIA College of Fellows, Paul joins the firm’s other AIA fellows: founders Thomas Meyer, FAIA, Jeffrey Scherer, FAIA, and Garth Rockcastle, FAIA, and former firm president Jack Poling, FAIA.

    This year’s Jury of Fellows included chair Nancy Rogo Trainer, FAIA, Drexel University; Mary Johnston, FAIA, Johnston Architects, LLC; Rebecca Lewis, FAIA, DSGW Architects; Steven Spurlock, FAIA, Quinn Evans Architects; RK Stewart, FAIA, RK Stewart Consultants; Allison Williams, FAIA, AGWms_studio; and Anna Wu, FAIA, University of North Carolina.

  7. MSR Design’s 510 Marquette studio wins an AIA Minnesota Honor Award

    AIA Minnesota has honored seven projects with 2020 AIA Minnesota Honor Awards, including MSR Design’s 510 Marquette studio. Announced at the AIA Minnesota Virtual Awards Celebration, the Honor Awards recognize outstanding built projects by AIA Minnesota members that practice professionally in Minnesota. New this year, the program evaluated submissions according to the AIA Framework for Design Excellence, in alignment with the national AIA Architecture Awards.

    The 30th project in the firm’s history to receive an AIA Minnesota Honor Award, the 510 Marquette studio is designed to leave as small an impact on the environment as possible with a focus human health and well-being. Located on the second floor of a downtown Minneapolis building constructed in 1925, MSR Design’s studio builds on irregular traces of the past and simple lines introduced by the design transformation. Equitable access to daylight and amenities drives the spatial organization, with a central black box that contains acoustically private spaces for focus and collaboration. The project also features an enhanced HVAC system designed for occupant health and comfort, which meets industry recommendations for pandemic-ready spaces. The design team designed the project to achieve Living Building Challenge (LBC) petal certification for the materials, beauty, and equity petals (certification is currently pending).

    The AIA Minnesota Honor Awards jury lauded the MSR Design 510 Marquette studio in the categories of Design for Energy, Design for Well-Being, Design for Resources, and Design for Change. According to AIA Minnesota, “The jury was impressed by this ultra-sustainable workplace . . . and felt it was a great example of sustainable corporate design.” The jurors’ comments during the AIA Minnesota Virtual Awards Celebration can be heard here.

    Three internationally renowned architects (Andrea Love, AIA, principal with Payette; Patricia Rhee, FAIA, partner with Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects; and Barry Alan Yoakum, FAIA, principal with Archimania) evaluated 59 projects for this year’s AIA Minnesota Honor Awards program.

  8. MSR Design becomes the first Minnesota architecture firm to attain a Just 2.0 label

    As part of MSR Design’s focus on sustainability, equity, and designing for generative impacts, we are participating in ILFI’s Just 2.0 label disclosure tool program. A nutrition label for socially just and equitable organizations, Just provides a transparency platform for organizations to disclose their operations, including how they treat their employees and where they make financial and community investments. Through the Just program, ILFI calls for all organizations to accept social responsibility by publicly declaring and showcasing their social justice and equity policies and practices.

    “Continual improvement is something we strive for in every part of our practice,” says MSR Design CEO Traci Lesneski. “The Just 2.0 program offered an opportunity for us to step back and critically assess how we’re doing and to identify areas where we organically do the right thing but with intention could have more meaningful impact.”

    Currently, MSR Design is the only Minnesota architecture firm and one of two organizations located in the state to have a Just 2.0 label. Participating in the program helps us nurture a culture that values diversity, equity, and inclusion. It also provides a compliance pathway and credit toward Living Building Challenge (LBC) petal certification of our new 510 Marquette studio space, which we applied for in December 2020, pursuing the materials, equity, and beauty petals.

    “Considering the improvements to the Just label with version 2.0, in combination with our pursuit of LBC petal certification for our new office space, we decided it was the right time to enroll in the program,” says MSR Design CFO Doug Franzwa. He continues, “We embrace the transparency of the label. The spirit of the program aligns well with the value we place on equity and being good stewards of our community.”

    The Just label documents our level of performance in six different areas: diversity and inclusion, equity, employee health, employee benefits, stewardship, and purchasing and supply chain. We have achieved the highest score (level 4) in several subcategories. For example, in the engagement subcategory under diversity and inclusion, a level 4 score requires that at least 70% of employees are engaged, based on a firm engagement survey. MSR Design exceeded this goal with an 80% engagement score. In the equity area, we achieved a level 4 score in three subcategories: full-time employment, pay-scale equity, and gender pay equity. For employee health, we scored a level 4 for well-being, and for stewardship, we achieved a level 4 for charitable giving by exceeding the goal of donating 3% of our net profits to charitable organizations.

    Doug states, “I’m particularly proud of MSR Design’s high rankings in the equity and employee health categories. And I look forward to using our current label as a benchmark to continuously improve upon in future renewals of the label.” Given the transparency of the Just label and biannual renewal requirement, the program provides a clear path for continual growth with clear metrics and goals to meet and measure our progress. The process has helped us develop an intentional path toward social justice, equity, and inclusive design that we can share with the world.

    “The label isn’t an end-game—it’s an ongoing process,” Traci adds. “It’s gratifying to know that MSR Design is the first Minnesota firm in our profession to have a Just 2.0 label. We were the first Minnesota firm to sign onto the AIA 2030 Challenge in 2007. Both programs are about accountability and transparency, and we are proud to lead by example.”


  9. MSR Design announces two new associates

    Emilie Kopp, Associate AIA
    “Emilie is becoming an influential designer in the firm, taking on complicated projects and getting involved in our pro bono and affordable housing work. As a member of the AIA Minnesota Culture Change Initiative Committee and ambassador for MSR Design’s initiatives around equity, diversity, and inclusion, she focuses on ensuring that our projects benefit the individual residents and neighborhoods they are designed for. I truly enjoy working with Emilie. She challenges us to do better in our work, she’s creative, and she has a very good design sensibility. She is a positive, delightful colleague, and I am thrilled that she is part of MSR Design.”
    —Paul Mellblom, Principal, MSR Design

    Lauren Gardner
    “A passionate and talented designer, Lauren has played an essential role in developing MSR Design’s healthy materials initiative. Her enthusiasm for responsible design that positively impacts our lives is infectious, and her contributions extend beyond project work and our practice. Lauren is currently associate vice president of advocacy for the IIDA Northland Chapter and an active participant in other local nonprofit organizations. We are delighted to have Lauren be an important part of MSR Design and congratulate her on her promotion to associate.”
    —Dagmara Larsen, Principal, MSR Design

  10. MSR Design promotes Kristilyn Vercruysse to senior associate

    MSR Design is pleased to announce the promotion of Kristilyn Vercruysse, AIA, LEED AP, to senior associate. MSR Design CEO and principal Traci Lesneski, CID, IIDA, LEED AP, Associate AIA, states, “As natural leaders, MSR Design senior associates contribute not only to individual projects, but also to the success of our practice. Kristilyn has deep passion for the making of architecture and dedication to honing her craft and the processes that improve our project work. This passion and her ability to shepherd a project to success—by every definition—inspire confidence in our teams and clients.”

    For Kristilyn, the best projects combine her two passions: rehabilitating existing buildings and creating designs that support and anticipate the needs of the ever-evolving library. She has served as project manager or project architect for a wide mix of award-winning projects, including the transformation of the Tulsa City-County Central Library, winner of an American Institute of Architects (AIA)/American Library Association (ALA) Library Building Award, and the Urban Outfitters Corporate Campus in Philadelphia’s historic Navy Yard, winner of a national AIA Honor Award, among other national honors.

    “Kristilyn is one of those leaders who diligently moves all aspects of her work forward to great outcomes,” says MSR Design principal Matthew Kruntorád. He continues, “She combines intense professionalism with an engaging and bright personality. Kristilyn’s gift of listening perceptively and translating what she has heard into quality work benefits MSR Design, our clients, and the world around us.”

    “Over the course of 15 years, MSR Design’s dedicated, inspiring team of designers and the innovative projects we have worked on together have helped me grow tremendously,” states Kristilyn. “I am excited and honored to be able to contribute to firm leadership as a senior associate and look forward to continuing to advance forward-thinking design together to make a more equitable world.”

    “While tenacious in her pursuit of excellence, Kristilyn brings innate joy and good cheer to every interaction,” says Traci. “She’s an absolute pleasure to work with. I am so proud and pleased to welcome her as a new MSR Design senior associate.”