Mara Baum has spent her career fighting for sustainable design—but her path to advocacy happened by chance. “During my senior year in college, I decided on a whim to sign up for a graduate-level course on environmental factors,” she says.

There, she learned the positive impact design could have on the world, and the rest is history. Today, as sustainable design leader for HOK’s healthcare practice (San Francisco), she sees most projects taking one of two paths to sustainability: either aiming to push the envelope or pursuing general best practices. “While the latter are a world ahead of where we were 10 years ago, I’ve also observed a lot of complacency,” she says. “It’s not that people don’t care about sustainability, it’s that they think they’re already doing it well.”

However, Baum adds that designing for a healthy and sustainable future is an evolving process. “Working in this position allows me to help move healthcare institutions in a positive direction. I’m lucky to have incredible clients who give me hope for the future,” she says.

What drew you to a career in healthcare design?

I’ve always been interested in the relationship between human health and the built environment, and I’ve always enjoyed large, complex projects. About a dozen years ago, I realized that healthcare design allowed me to pursue both of those interests. For most of that time, healthcare was the only sector in which I could talk about health and wellness and not be laughed out of the room.

What do you like best about working in this sector?

We face complex problems without easy, “silver bullet” answers. Our work has a profound impact on people’s lives every day.

What would you still like to see happen for sustainable healthcare design? 

I’d like to see us accelerate our focus on the impact we have on human health—and not just for the individuals within our facilities but also those living in nearby communities and beyond. The very buildings that are designed to treat cancer are also made of materials that are known and probable carcinogens. They use a disproportionate amount of energy to help patients heal. And the electricity that hospitals use usually comes from power plants, often plants that increase asthma rates in adjacent communities. I’d like to see the healthcare design industry better address holistic health impacts of our buildings and infrastructure.

Favorite …

Quote: “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”—Frank Lloyd Wright

Band/musical artist: U2 and Beethoven.

Color: Green (is that cliché?).

Guilty pleasure: Sleep.

Movie character: Rey from “Star Wars” (Episodes VII and VIII). She’s a great character in her own right, but I have a special fondness for her because several months before “The Force Awakens” came out, we named my daughter Reya, after my grandfather (Ray).

App/website: NY Times and NYT Cooking. That’s the East Coaster in me coming out.

Snack when you travel: Pretzels with mini packets of honey almond butter. (I pack a lot of snacks. A normal adult could live for a week out of my backpack.)

 Ice cream flavor: Strawberry. I’m the weirdo who hates chocolate.

Sport: Gymnastics.

Team: Pittsburgh Steelers.

Book: I should probably have a stunning, intellectual answer for this, but I currently spend a lot of time with Mo Willems’ “Elephant and Piggie” series. They are brilliant.

City to visit: Paris. I have family in France and spent enough time there as a child that now it feels like going home (plus, it’s Paris).

Outside the office, you’ll likely find me…

Wrangling children. I also teach online courses for the Boston Architectural College Sustainable Design Institute. I’ve always loved teaching and found that I’m pretty good at explaining technically complex topics to both general and academic audiences. I believe that sharing my passion for health and sustainability will help foster a stronger, more effective design industry.

Favorite weekend activity

Camping. I’ve discovered that the Japanese concept of “nature bathing” really does reduce my stress levels and helps me to be a more balanced, happier person. We have great opportunities for this in California, with the Pacific coast and giant redwoods nearby.

Three words that describe your design aesthetic

  1. clean
  2. green (vegetated)
  3. timeless

Dog or cat?

None of the above. I am mystified by “pet people.”

Coffee or tea?

All the above.

Morning person or night owl?

Morning. Ten-years-ago-Mara would be appalled to hear me say that.

Beer, wine, or liquor?

Beer. Preferably an intense IPA from a local microbrewery or nanobrewery.

Fiction or nonfiction?

Yes, please.

Window or aisle seat?

Window. I want to see the world and have control over the window shade. (Ha! I’m writing this now from a window seat.)


Baum served as sustainable design leader on the Ventura County Medical Center Hospital replacement wing in Ventura, Calif., which recently received LEED for Healthcare Silver certification. (Credit: Lawrence Anderson)