Ask the Architect: Melanie Jacobsen Cox


The new head of healthcare at HLM, Melanie Jacobsen Cox, answers ADF’s questions on what makes her tick

What made you want to become an architect?

I have construction in my blood through my grandfather and dad, but my subject strengths at school – English, Art and Maths – lent themselves well to the industry in terms of communication, design and rational function. My dad was initially hesitant about me working in what he saw as a male dominated workplace, but I’m glad I persisted and thankfully, I’ve seldom found being the only female in the room or around the table an issue.

What do you like about it most now?

I’m really enjoying the new role at HLM. Having worked mainly in technical delivery of healthcare projects, I now feel that the door has blown wide open, and I’m enjoying having the mindspace to look at the bigger picture of healthcare architecture strategically as well as meeting and having conversations with people who really care about society and communities living their best, healthiest lives.

What is the hardest part of working in healthcare?

The timescales and the funding structure often places projects under pressure from day one. It’s so important to hit the ground running and bring agile healthcare design onto paper quickly. This is set against the context of obtaining the detailed brief from clinicians who are often re-evaluating the services that they provide, which can evolve right up until the day of handing over a building. All of this requires time for digesting and thinking about the best and most flexible solution, and often time is of the essence.

One of the hardest, but most essential things, is to ask the right questions at the right time. Thankfully, HLM has developed the Thoughtful Toolkit which does exactly this and we are looking at how this dovetails to maximum effect with our stakeholder engagement process.

What do you most enjoy about working in healthcare and education?

I love the crossover with other sectors. From looking at healthier towns and cities in our Asset and Masterplanning to the intricacies of specialist requirements in SEN schools and the Justice sector. I really enjoy having these wider ranging conversations and as global health becomes paramount, taking a simpler holistic view of health and how it is essential across the board.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I’m a great believer in democratic leadership, however the varied roles that an architect encompasses, such as lead designer, means at times this style needs to be adapted to being more authoritative when we need to find direction and solutions to the challenges faced in projects. Regardless, I’m passionate about the dynamics of a team and fostering a culture of psychological safety with mutual trust and empathy. I’m really fortunate to have joined a team where we all have different strengths and expertise that complement and provide excellent stimulus and robust discussions.

Have there been positives as well as negatives from the pandemic?

I think I realised personally that I have tremendous resource to dig deep and keep going, but the flip side to that is understanding that it’s not sustainable in the long term, and that it is so important to take time to reset and re-establish healthy boundaries. Especially in the working from home scenario, where it can be hard to differentiate between working life and home life.

Has it taught you anything new?

That online meetings are wonderful, but also at times no substitute for a face to face meeting.

What is your proudest professional achievement?

I would like to think that I’ve demonstrated to my daughter that it is possible to combine motherhood and a fulfilling career. I hope that from being a working mum she can make an informed decision about what sort of career she wants after education and not feel that wanting to be a mother compromises this in any way. I also feel very honoured to have been allowed to work on projects where I know the end result has had a direct positive impact on people’s lives. If there is one thing that I love about healthcare architecture, it is its ability to transform lives for the better.

What single piece of technology would make an architect’s job easier?

I’m sure every healthcare architect would agree that a piece of software that instantly transforms room data sheets intelligently into C-sheets (room elevations) at the click of a button would be a bonus. There are good elements of this software that we are using, but I’ve made it a goal to look at how we can consistently implement this in our work with greater effectiveness.

Do you believe you need to be a ‘critical friend’ to clients, when it comes to briefs?

As healthcare architects we need to balance the fine line of meeting requirements with best practice and standardisation, along with the idiosyncrasies of individual clinical operational policies, which do vary. Regardless, being collaborative and proactive is by far the most positive and engaging way of working, and ultimately it is about identifying the vision of a programme of work and delivering this as a shared goal.

What has BIM brought to your design work?

I started working with Autodesk Revit from 2010 and was instrumental in making this mainstream in a previous practice. Personally, I’ve loved designing in 3D, but I’m glad that there are others who want to specialise in the BIM management aspect. With repeatable rooms and standardisation elements in healthcare, using BIM is a natural fit and there are definitely efficiencies in using it. I still maintain, however, that it is only as good as the input and my advice to anyone using it for this first time is always that it doesn’t design for us. We still need to do that!

Do you agree with the phrase ‘don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good?’

Yes. Having struggled with perfectionism in the past, my aim is now excellence rather than perfection. I often think that architects are trying to be perfect in a very imperfect world.

Do you have a short-term goal?

A sun-soaked holiday over the summer doing very little for a week or so would be ideal.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for architects in the near future?

Time. Everything is so instantaneous nowadays and there is so much more to be knowledgeable about it can feel overwhelming. I’m often told to slow down, and it’s good advice that I’m going to follow. We all need time to think.