When confronted with a design or management problem, Barbara Mullenex reaches for the same tool every time: a lined Leuchtturm notebook.
“Sketching and drawing helps bring out my ideas and helps communicate ideas to other people,” says Mullenex, a managing principal at design firm Perkins Eastman in Washington, D.C. “It’s an effective way to work through design problems—and everything from a table setting for a dinner party to an organizational chart for the office to organizing our summer intern program.”
The last item is particularly close to Mullenex’s heart after many years of guiding, mentoring and collaborating with younger associates.
“I actually like people,” she says with her ready laugh. “If I had a choice between helping you or having a French fry, I’d help you. And I really, really, really like French fries.”
Mullenex, 64, sees herself as a “connector,” eager to link up her contacts all over the world. She’s a great believer in networking as the best way to produce an architect’s lifeblood: new work. A crucial step for young designers, she says, is to join organizations they believe in and that will help their future success.
Mullenex herself serves on the Federal City Council and is a member of the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., and the International Women’s Forum. She has served on the board of the National Symphony Orchestra and is currently vice chair of the Maryland Youth Ballet Board.
For her contributions in management and mentorship, as well as her exceptional designs, ENR MidAtlantic is honoring Mullenex as its 2020 Legacy Award winner. She has led the design and management of several high-profile projects for clients such as Marriott, Global Holdings and the World Bank. Before joining Perkins Eastman in 2013, Mullenex owned her own design firm, OPX, for 26 years.
“I’m a mentor for everybody,” Mullenex says. “Every time I’m in the office or sending out an email and on Zoom, I’m mentoring people around me at every level on the firm’s values and integrity. The official mentor and mentee label can get a little stiff, a little stilted.”
In fact, she has only one official mentee, who lives in New York and calls Mullenex four to five times a year about projects. “I tend to fall too far on the solution side, not the listening,” Mullenex says. “I tell myself, ‘Keep listening before you solve their problem.’”
Karen Gioconda, a senior associate at Perkins Eastman, began working with Mullenex on a Hilton hotel redesign in 2007. Gioconda had joined OPX looking for female leadership and followed Mullenex to Perkins Eastman in 2013. The two have also collaborated on numerous volunteer events.
“Barbara’s very honest and forthcoming, but never in a cruel way,” Gioconda says. “She tries to see the best in everybody else and plays toward their strengths. Even if you aren’t the strongest at construction documents you might be the strongest at coordinating consultants.”
Gioconda recalls a difficult time she had in the past year that affected her productivity and professional relationships. “Barbara told me, ‘I have supported you and I always will support you, but you gotta get your act together, right?’” And Gioconda credits Mullenex’s honest feedback with helping her work to her potential once more.
In the office before the pandemic, Mullenex was a frequent presence, fixing problems and checking in with teams, pen often in hand. “She does still hand sketch, so she’s usually involved in the predesign work or early design work,” Gioconda says. “She’ll roll out some trace on a big table and do all the sketching and predesign work and hand it off to someone.”
Peter Cavaluzzi, a Perkins Eastman principal and board director, met Mullenex while trying to win a commission to design a Brooklyn building for Tishman Speyer. The firm was eager to show off its creativity and knowledge to an important new client.
Mullenex worked with the firm’s young staff to demonstrate the team’s experience and creativity, Cavaluzzi says. “Her wide-ranging knowledge of design and building combined with her warm and joyous persona helped our team to make a strong impression. She helped us to have the confidence to show them that we had what it takes to compete on the main stage.”
She also worked on the construction of Perkins Eastman’s offices in D.C. “She really had to leverage her team to keep the project in the budget,” says Linda Rabbitt, founder and chairman of Rand Construction Corp. “Barbara led each preconstruction meeting with extreme clarity around the pricing goals and negotiated her design team’s desires with respect to the cost of the work. At one point in the job she wrote to us, ‘I know we are crazy, but in spite of that, your team is doing a fantastic job.’”
Career by Design
A native of Harrisonburg, Va., and the daughter of a mathematics professor, Mullenex had always been interested in math and science. In high school she had the opportunity to shadow a local architect. “He told me that he had only met one woman architect and that he would not call her a lady,” Mullenex says. “That might have sealed the deal for me!”
She went on to earn a degree in architecture at University of Maryland, College Park, but her thesis review was not a complete success. Mullenex never knew why until she ran into an old thesis adviser two years ago. “He told me, ‘You were doing affordable housing, and that wasn’t what architects did then. You were supposed to do an art museum or something. You were just too frightening, too scary.’”
Mullenex’s determination to design her own future, however, never held her back. She went on to run her own firm, OPX, in Washington, D.C. In the late 1990s, OPX was the associate architect and interior architect for a new Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives headquarters in Washington, D.C. Designed by Moshe Safdie, it was the first federal office building built after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
“You’re trying to build a building ... that doesn’t look like a penitentiary,” Mullenex says. “It had to be an impressive building, it had to show it could follow all the federal security measures to keep our public servants safe, and in 20 years it had to fit a transformed neighborhood.” Construction began right before 9/11 in 2001 and the new Ariel Rios Federal Building helped to revitalize the city’s formerly desolate NoMa (North of Massachusetts Avenue) district.
Despite OPX’s success, Mullenex had always been curious about working for a big firm. In 2013 she had lunch with Doug Smith, whose firm had merged with Perkins Eastman, and Smith asked if OPX would like to do the same. Eager to help lead larger, higher-impact projects with a wider range of talents to tap into across the country, Mullenex decamped in 2013 to Perkins Eastman on her own because her partner at OPX wasn’t interested in merging.
Mullenex joined Perkins Eastman as a studio leader and set to work designing a new city in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Aramco’s Ajyal Community of Excellence, a 4.2-square-mile community, included residential buildings, schools, three types of mosques and office buildings, for a total of 8,500 units. “It was a scale I had never worked at before— the pace was incredible, the project types complex,” Mullenex says.
Currently Mullenex is working on the World Bank office compound in Kampala, Uganda. The complex project aims to represent Uganda’s culture as well as provide appropriate security and meet sustainability and post-COVID-19 workplace goals.
“My career has spanned some incredible changes in our profession—from hand drawings to VR technology, the impact of climate change and the impact of sustainability on the built environment,” Mullenex says.
The Human Factor
One of the highest-impact projects Mullenex has been involved in was Washington D.C.’s Wharf waterfront project, a mile-long stretch along the Washington Channel. The first phase of the project won an Urban Land Institute Award for Excellence in 2019.
Mullenex points to the transformed waterfront as an example of how people will embrace a space in surprising ways. The Wharf has no curbs or gutters, and the cars, bikes and pedestrians use the same streetway, with all this movement controlled by design. But there’s also a cast-iron drainage channel 8 in. wide that extends the length of the Wharf.
“And who uses that?” Mullenex asks. “It’s those guys on electric scooters. And we were very intentional about trying to slow down bike riders and cars by making everything very bumpy, but here’s this little narrow way, and all those little scooters are zooming down there.”
Mullenex tries to never forget the human factor in design. Earlier in her career she worked on designing a lobby for an ambulatory care facility for ill children. Mullenex checked out similar facilities as part of her research and noticed some surprising details. “I would see people come in with small children, and they’d have their sister with them, their sister’s two kids, the mother-in-law—they’d come in packs. The kids are fussy, the parents can’t figure out how to park the car.”
Then she learned that the facility’s designers wanted a huge six-story-high atrium with a skylight on the top. “I’m like, ‘Do you understand what it’s like to be this kid’s mother and come in and have your kid screaming and it’s resonating all over the place?’ You’d want a place to hide,” Mullenex says.
That experience strengthened Mullenex’s own approach to architecture. “I’m much more interested in digging down into what that experience for people is like rather than architecture I want to create for my own edification,” she says. “And having people walk into a space and say, ‘I like it here. I don’t know why, but I like it here’ is really meaningful.”