Sheila Cahnman has been with HOK only 5 years, but during her tenure here she has become a major contributor.
Her expertise in healthcare architecture has furthered HOK’s practice in that market and her extensive writing and lecturing has brought a rigor to projects.
One of Chicago’s Group Vice Presidents, Sheila has left an indelible mark on every project she’s been a part of. Her work revolves around people, their environment, and the role design can play in bettering people’s lives.
Outside of the office, Sheila is an avid gardener, yoga practicer, and active mom. Her ability to balance her career and life are enviable qualities that have served as an example to many women; myself included. She has been active in the AIA and a participant in the AIA Women’s Leadership Summit where she promotes the role women play in architecture today.
Q: How did you decide to become an architect?
In 8th Grade, I participated in a class project to design all aspects of an ideal city. I led the effort for the master planning and became enthralled with urban design. For college, I enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s “Design of the Environment” undergrad major thinking I was going to be a city planner and plan new cities. From summer jobs I learned that most of the design work actually was assigned to architects. Also, that there were few new cities in the US to be planned! I really had not known any architects up to that time, especially no women architects. My Basic Design professor, Stanislawa Novicki (who had worked with Le Corbusier) encouraged me to study architecture and was my first mentor. I changed my emphasis and stayed at Penn to get a master’s in architecture.
Q: What do you do when you’re not at HOK?
In my free time, I am the mother of three children: Lily (20), Jacob (18) and Eva (15). Though they are very busy on their own, I spend a significant amount of time on Facebook monitoring their comings and goings! I also cook and garden and do yoga and walking every weekend to reduce stress. I joined my first Board this year for a wonderful senior citizen facility. In the summer you’ll find me at the Wilmette beach!
Q: You’ve come up through the architecture field and found your niche in Healthcare design. Why healthcare and what does it offer you that general architecture does not?
In grad school, I was always attracted to studios with projects that had complicated programs dealing with complicated interactions. My master‘s thesis was “Congregate Housing for the Elderly”. I started working in healthcare unintentionally with Hansen Lind Meyer, since it was my only job offer. I enjoy creating architecture that is socially responsible and can literally affect the health and wellbeing of those who are in the spaces. I love the complexity of healthcare – each department has very different requirements and interactions with each other. Healthcare is always changing too – delivery of care, economics and medical advances all require different solutions every year. It is very demanding..but rewarding.
Q: As a woman who travels a lot for work, what tips would you have to help others manage the balance between work travel and home time?
Each person needs to find their own balance. I only began to travel extensively the last five years at HOK, after my children were a bit older. When my children were very young, I worked part time for five years. My husband has been the “at home parent” the last ten years which has provided a lot more flexibility in my schedule. I wish I could travel less and still do large and exciting projects!
Life is a long, winding road and it is not necessary to do all your achievements at once. There will hopefully be time to fit everything you want to accomplish in. We are in this profession for the long haul!
Q: Are you where you thought you’d be?
The goal of my first ten years was to become a licensed architect and try to keep in the profession while raising young children. The second ten years, my goal was to become a Principal on my own terms. The third ten years my goal was to become a national leader in the design / planning of healthcare facilities. I am a bit shocked that I actually have met all these goals! I am still formulating my goals for the next ten years, but I would like to mentor the next generation of healthcare planners and expand our knowledge of the effect of planning decisions on the quality of life for patients, caregivers and families.