Designing Resilient Spaces and Rethinking Strategies with Elvira Muñoz
This weeks interview is with Elvira Muñoz. Elvira is the Director of Interior Design and Studio Lead for the EMEA region at AECOM. And the Director of the Master in Strategic Design at IE School of Architecture and Design.
In this interview Elvira Muñoz shares her thoughts and ideas on the challenges and opportunities in times of the current crisis. She believes that this is the moment to redesign the existing spaces and buildings in order to design resilient spaces that adapt to the unforeseen future of disruption and change.
Enjoy the interview!
Could you tell us a little about your background?
I discovered my passion for the fine arts early on, together with ballet and other dancing disciplines. But before shifting into that direction I studied 3 years of Agricultural Engineering, because I love nature and growing and nurturing things.
After these studies I became a dance teacher and started exploring the possibilities of redefining my professional life and discovered Interior Design, which appealed to me because it unifies creativity and graphic communication, with some technical disciplines (not too many, I had had enough of those in my engineering years!), focused on providing a service to people which, I understood, required communication skills, empathy, and humbleness: Interior Designers are a tool at the service of the client, translating its dreams and expectations into livable places that reflect their personality.
After a few years of independent practice and living abroad (The US, Italy), in the year 1998 I joined DEGW in Madrid. Soon I discovered that having a research, benchmark and interaction with client’s methodology allowed me to be a better designer: “Research, Strategy, Design” or “Design for Change” were the 2 mottos of DEGW which I deeply believed in.
The moment I discovered that this was the place where I belonged, they discovered my abilities and was appointed director of ID. Then became a shareholder and partner in 2003 and have remained loyal to the group and its beliefs during the crisis and our acquisition by AECOM. Since 2019 I am Director of Interior Design and Studio Lead for the EMEA region.
I have also been teaching at the Master in Strategic Design at IE since the year 2013 and was appointed its director in 2019. As you can read, 2019 was my year!
You are the Director of EMIA Interior Design Practice Leader at AECOM. What are the common problems and challenges of your clients and how does your consulting unit help to solve them?
The constantly rapidly changing situations and the continuous challenges pose always a big challenge on everyone. Taking decisions that are relevant and meaningful and not just doing what others do, but later, is always the key.
In relationship with Real Estate, the decisions always imply an important investment not only in the rental or acquisition of square meters, but also in technology and equipment.
Since the real estate market is focused on the developers, land owners and landlords, and not in the tenants and end users, those decisions prove themselves quite difficult.
We need to understand the sector our client is in, how fast changing it is, how change ready their organization is, how much they understand the impact of implementing what they say are their expectations and helping them articulate their dreams.
That is common everywhere in the world. In our case, since we operate in such a vast and diverse region, the challenges are constant and everchanging.
But that is what makes the job dynamic and fun: our projects are not rocket science, but understanding our different types of clients and delivering their aspirations and dreams anywhere in EMEA, on time and on budget… that is thrilling and makes you learn each day.
What are your thoughts on digitalization and the workspace, especially in current times of COVID-19. How will this affect the future of the workspace?
My key messages are these:
We have already been confined 2 months and we are all:
1. Experiencing the impact of our interior spaces in our Mental and Physical Health.
Health and well-being need to be considered wholly, including: intellectual, physiological, social, material & spiritual, mental & emotional well being.
The result of designing for all aspects of well being is larger than the sum of its parts. At MSD we will teach you how to design focusing on well being holistically.
Remember: people with ill mental health take 62% longer to do tasks
2. Acknowledging that we have adapted to situations we couldn’t have predicted thanks to being RESILIENT.
Resilience is the key attribute to get through confinement. (Resilience: the ability to absorb a shock and recover the previous condition or come out better).
Our future spaces will need to be more resilient, providing us with solutions for unforeseen crises, like the one we are experiencing.
3. We are all longing to “go back to normal” by which we mean, being physically with our teams, even though we are being able to work remotely, stay engaged, and build TRUST in the distance.
Humans need social contact to grow, learn, stay engaged, blossom,..This implies having a physical space that provides identity and sense of belonging.
Organizations will need to re design all their workspaces to provide a sense of belonging: office space, virtual spaces, home office spaces.
4. Aware of the impact of our human actions on the ENVIRONMENT: Cities’ air is cleaner; the oceans’ and the rivers’ waters are transparent, acoustic pollution has decreased…
Do we really want to go back to normal, exactly as it was before? No, we need to take this opportunity to redesign our culture, our behavior, the use of the natural resources.
We need to design from the inside out: from our the mentally and physically healthy interiors to the outside; to reflect the new more respectful culture on the outside shape of our buildings, streets, cities…
5. Acknowledge that we value the physical space more and understand that INTERIORS are critical for our mental health and wellbeing.
The key approach is the constant review and re-adaptation of ALL spaces and infrastructures to ensure social distancing and healthy environments:
at home, the workplace, the hospitality sector, the commuting systems…
Including the installations, to allow more fresh air flow cleaner environments. This means RENEWAL and upgrading of all the infrastructures.The new focus is around comfort about perceived safety
What are the recent trends and future developments of workspace design? Could you tell us more about “New Ways of Working”?
The recent trends all need to be reviewed and adapted to this new situation.
Instead of trends, let me suggest thinking about approaches to our staggered return to the office and to a phased redesign:
- I suggest reconsidering FIRST the reasons WHY we need to go back to the office. List the actions and tasks that need to take place physically at the office and with your team. The list will be filled with collaboration, ideas and knowledge sharing tasks, innovation, kicking off projects and social interaction
- The list of tasks that can still be performed individually and remotely will likely be production work, repetitive work, concentration work, confidential work
- Teams, disciplines or projects should then gather and decide frequency of these F2F meetings, length, number of people attending ad type of setting
- Once every team has done the list, the FM team should organize the weekly schedule of F2F gatherings at the office, ensuring a low number of employees simultaneously
- And adapt the office space to the type of settings teams have defined, where possible
After the first month (or 2 months) there should be a review of what works and what doesn’t and improvements need to be implemented.
In the following 3-6 months the workspaces should keep readapting to the new needs.
Analyzing the tasks and actions that need to take place physically at the office and designing accordingly is what the activity based workplace design trend was all about….and it is still valid!
What do you think about the role of architects and designers in society today? How can architects better communicate their value and help to develop a more human centric, resilient and meaningful built environment?
Now that we have realized that our previous formulas are not fully valid any longer, architects and designer need to start re designing and adapting all our physical spaces.
I suggest starting from the inside out: from readapting the interiors of our homes, our workspaces, our social spaces….learn from what works and what doesn’t and open the social conversations about the new cultural trends and its impact on the urban design.
What are the most successful marketing strategies at AECOM that help your firm to attract new clients?
This is a cliché, but staying close to them; rethinking strategies with them, providing solutions thinking out the box and suggesting phased and staggered improvements to their projects.
We sit together with the client and communicate much. I would say it is the time for CO CREATION and joined efforts.
Do you think that consulting work is something that architects should explore more especially in the first phases of projects?
A first phase of consulting for a designer/architect should be as vital as the first conversations are to a great doctor with his/her patient. They don’t jump into conclusions only by seeing them and the results of their analysis and write a recipe. They ask questions, observe, listen, engage, understand, measure to do the diagnosis. And then provide a solution for their situation that is bespoke and adapted to the specific needs of the patient.
This is what consulting does to a project: it brings you closer to your client and then, together you do CO CREATION. (Futher reading: The Social Reactor)
Design is not applying some recipes or formulas that have proved themselves successful before. Nor is it receiving data and requirements and applying them mathematically. It is all about empathy, knowledge sharing and CO CREATION.
You are the Director of the Master in Strategic Design of Spaces. What are the main skills young designers should learn in your opinion?
Teamwork and collaboration, F2F and remote
Communication, verbal and illustrative
Constant updating of knowledge
Love for arts and Nature: if you follow the rules of nature, you cannot of wrong
What are your thoughts on the future of architecture and the built environment? How can it improve, and what are the major opportunities?
This crisis has provided us with a unique opportunity of going leaner and rethinking what we really need and what already exists. For a while I would like to have teams rethinking the future of our buildings, our cities, our streets, our shopping centers….and how to adapt them to our new, healthier and safer needs.
I believe this is the moment to redesign the existing spaces and buildings and providing them with a more meaningful future, designing resilient spaces, that adapt easily to unforeseen future disruptions and changes.
About Elvira Muñoz
Elvira Muñoz joined DEGW (now, Strategy Plus, a strategic business practice within AECOM) in 1998. And has been leading the Consultancy and Design team since 2000.
With her recent client, Telefonica, she was responsible for the consolidation of five business units involving the move of more than 12,000 employees to a new 150.000 m2 campus. While working with Garrigues, the largest law office in Europe with more than 1,000 lawyers, she managed the consultancy and interior design services for the new headquarters. She is currently leading projects for Cisco Systems in Madrid, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Google.
Elvira Muñoz has been actively involved in the development and implementation of “New Ways of Working”. And also been part of the international team for the European Commission supported research project “SANE”. Sustainable Accommodation for the New Economy, which explores the implications of the distributed workplace.
Elvira Muñoz has worked directly with the Secretary General of Universities of the Spanish Ministry of Education for the last four years. To develop, “Social Spaces for Learning”, demonstrating that interstitial and unprogrammed spaces for meeting are crucial in the university learning experience.
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