Meeting the Microgrant Recipients: Part I

Announcement | October 28, 2020

The Research Microgrant Program supports small, focused research projects proposed by CRTKL employees by investing $50,000 to support research projects across the firm. The microgrants recipients, selected from a pool of 34 total applicants, were awarded for their excellence by a global expert jury from academia and the design industry.  These individuals and teams will spend the next four months investigating their research topic, supported by internal mentors, the Research Fellows and guided by curriculum sessions led by the expert jurors.

Microgrants are an opportunity for us to develop new knowledge that covers a broad research agenda. The program is meant to be a safe space to ideate, fail safely and directly implement findings into our projects, business or culture. We are looking for the next big idea, insight or small adjustment that enables us to change the way we think.

Today, we’re talking to Cat Heard, Abe Desooky, and team Julie Mendoza/Mario Sanchez about their research projects and the road ahead.

Cat Heard: What biases exist in the 2015 International Building Code and what is their effect on the United States AEC industry?



Abe Desooky: Do decommissioned cruise ships have the power to transform into affordable housing?




Julie Mendoza/Mario Sanchez: How can the use of telemedicine in underserved communities improve access to high-quality specialized care?




Tell me about how you came to choose your MicroGrant topic.

CH: I first found out about researching bias in the building codes at an AIA Seattle Code Committee meeting. Given the recent attention to social justice, some members have reflected on what they bring to the table and how we can actively work toward true equity–which led to ideas of looking into the building codes. We know other codes regulating the built environment have been riddled with injustice and bias (zoning and land-use codes), but a comprehensive view into the IBC (most commonly used and adopted code in the United States) hasn’t been done yet.

AD: This topic stems from my growing interest in cruise shipbreaking, large scale recycling initiatives and oceanic architecture. I had read about the challenges of amphibious architecture before formulating the research question, and it led me to think about cruise ships in a new light. Conversations with mentors and leaders within the Miami office helped me to further imagine the potential of the concept.

JM/MS: The Dallas healthcare team has been conducting a series of interviews with hospitals and healthcare systems to understand their response to COVID-19. Through this research, we’ve observed the need to physically reduce access to healthcare facilities and instead focus on facilitating better care remotely. As the use of telemedicine is skyrocketing, there’s a good chance that underserved communities may be left behind in this transformation due to lack of resources and access.

Why do you think this topic is important to CRTKL? To the industry?

CH: As designers, we shape the built environment. At CallisonRTKL, we’ve made a commitment toward making more inclusive, attractive spaces that people enjoy spending time in. We can do our best to create these spaces, but if the building code doesn’t allow it, we’re at a stalemate. We need to look at the rulebook for design and ensure that the foundation on which we build is as level as possible to allow for the greatest growth.

AD: Architects and engineers are working towards a future of aggressively waterproofed architecture to combat sea level rise and storm damage. Perhaps this research can introduce a different approach where architecture can incorporate water as a protagonist to the design/experience– rather than an inhibiting force.

JM/MS: The limited access to quality care in underserved communities (urban centers or rural towns) is a serious problem: both for the sick and elderly in those communities and the healthcare system as a whole.  With limited access to quality preventative care and treatments of chronic or acute illnesses, the healthcare systems become strained and patients may choose to wait for care– becoming more complicated to treat or cure.  As designers, researchers and innovators, we have the responsibility to shape environments to promote healthy communities. Through this research, we have an opportunity to facilitate better care, improve population wellness and promote health equity.  

Why do you think programs like this are important to have at our firm?

CH: The world is changing rapidly, and to keep up it’s no longer enough to attend seminars and events touting the newest thought research in the industry. Providing this thought leadership will position CRTKL to be truly innovative and lead the industry in the next wave of design and innovation.

AD: Research microgrants encourage firm members to talk to each other, to listen to the world at large and to engage future users while thinking about their needs; this pushes us to continue challenging what we already know.

JM/MS: CRTKL is a robust design practice with expertise in healthcare, technology and urban planning.  Taking on a program like this allows our expertise to be put towards a common good of increasing the quality of public health.  It also helps us better understand the people we serve through design and have a greater impact in our communities.

Who do you think will be impacted by this research?

CH: I think that depends on what is discovered in the research. Bias is a hard, broad topic to cover, and I recognize that as a cis-gendered, white, female, I am no authority. My hope is that this research will lead to conversations in the AEC industry, particularly among those who review and update our building codes, about how our building codes are formed, have evolved and potentially need to evolve.

AD: Beyond the AEC industry, this type of housing can be advantageous to young professionals, retiring adults and higher education students/faculty.

The reciprocity of those affected is crucial to note; not only those who are rent stressed, but also developers looking for innovative real estate investment may find potential for profit in recycling these ships.

There is also possibility for the shipbreaking industry to redefine itself from just a decomposition and supply business model to a renovation and deployment business model– enhancing the lives of workers and the laborious process of recycling these massive ships.

JM/MS: This research has the potential to improve access to healthcare and wellness for everyone– especially those who live in “health deserts”, are mobility impaired or have schedules that make it difficult for them to access care. It will also help those with chronic diseases be better connected and informed with their health and has the potential to shift the paradigm of care from treatment of illness to preventive medicine. While our specific focus is to understand the needs of urban underserved communities, this research has the opportunity to be generalized and applied to rural and disconnected communities throughout the world.