Sharron van der Meulen of ZGF Architects: “A transition to touchless everything”

…A transition to touchless everything. The points of transaction or physical contact, like turning on a bathroom faucet, will all be sensor-based. Activities like bag-drop will be conducted via your smart phone and a self-serve drop off. As part of my series about “developments in the travel industry over the next five years”, I had the […]

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…A transition to touchless everything. The points of transaction or physical contact, like turning on a bathroom faucet, will all be sensor-based. Activities like bag-drop will be conducted via your smart phone and a self-serve drop off.


As part of my series about “developments in the travel industry over the next five years”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharron van der Meulen

As Managing Partner of ZGF’s Portland office, Sharron van der Meulen provides thoughtful and inspiring design leadership, while guiding marketing and interior design for a diverse portfolio of projects including corporate workplaces, law offices, civic and federal institutions, higher education, healthcare, and aviation. Sharron works closely with her clients to articulate their aspirations and develop the program; employing a human-centric design approach to align a project’s vision and goals with the wants and needs of multiple user groups.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was one of those kids that was creative but didn’t know exactly how to equate that to a career path. It began with a love of the art and history and evolved naturally into the study of architecture and design. What kept me interested and intrigued all these years is just how important the role of the built environment is in building community, innovation and creating the best outcomes for people, no matter the market sector.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

In 1999, Turkey experienced a devastating earthquake in Izmit, outside of Istanbul, that killed over 17,000 people, mostly due to collapsing structures. I was working on a project in Turkey and arrived several weeks after the earthquake. One afternoon, while in the client’s office, the entire building started shaking back and forth. People ushered us outside into the middle of street, where I saw people jumping from the second floor to escape the potential collapse of buildings. That experience gave me a new appreciation for the rigorous life safety standards we have in the United States.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of my first projects was an history museum and I was working with Bob Frasca, one of ZGF’s founding partners and my mentor for many years. Bob informed me that I would be making the presentation to the museum director. Without much knowledge of how to present to a board or how to prepare, I launched into a high speed, high octane presentation. It must have been dizzying because the director stopped me mid-stream and asked me in the most polite, formal manner, if I could slow it down so he could try and keep up. Believe me, he had no issues in keeping up. He was a brilliant historian with a laser-quick mind, but he was teaching me a lesson about how to draw out a story and invite the audience on the journey.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?

It’s all about teamwork. You know that saying, “many hands make light work.” Having a unified team, where everyone has a part in meeting deadlines is important to spreading the load and creating balance. When I started out, drawings were done on mylar with ink or pencil and we had an unspoken rule that at the end of the day if there were people still working, no one would leave unless they asked if they could help in any way. Seriously! Today it’s still a good approach to take. Teams become stronger and frankly it’s more satisfying when people share the responsibility.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I’ve been lucky enough to have many mentors, but there is someone that has been a mentor from the very beginning: Bob Packard. Bob was the managing partner of ZGF’s Portland Office for most of my career, and then last year I took on the managing partner role. There are too many stories to list just one, but I can say that Bob teaches everyone to look at the world differently; not to come to conclusions too quickly; and to always seek out more information, be curious and do your research.

Can you share with our readers how have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Today I’m focused on others. Building a stronger ZGF for the future with more talent, more innovation and more diversity. I am especially focused on supporting women in more leadership roles across the firm.

Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the Aviation and Air Travel industries?

Flexibility is a word that is thrown around a lot when you talk about airport design. The one thing that is constant about airports is that they must change over time. As designers, we are focused on looking at every component as a “now and in the future” scenario.

Take the ticket lobby, for example. One of the big questions we are considering is whether we still need a ticket lobby if there are no physical tickets. In the future this space may become a baggage drop-off that doesn’t require personal interaction. In fact, the baggage drop-off may happen offsite entirely, when you leave your home or at your immediate point of arrival at the airport.

Our approach to this space today is to address current needs and ways of travel but build in flexibility to accommodate the inevitable changes of the future.

Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing these innovations?

This might seem obvious, but the pain point is change. Change is hard, especially in a setting like an airport that can already be a high-stress environment. We are working to acknowledge and embrace the natural evolution, or change, of technology and how people will eventually travel in the future.

How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?

It could manifest is several ways. The disappearance of the ticket lobby as we know it today as I referenced above. We are thinking about retail hubs inside airports as inherently flexible spaces that can be converted to support different brands and experiences with relative ease. In the future, maybe retail spaces are less about picking up a good that you then must take with you but selecting a good that is sent to your destination, or back to your home. Retail becomes more immersive and experienced based.

Are there exciting new technologies that are coming out in the next few years that will improve the Air Travel experience? We’d love to learn about what you have heard.

There are a couple of things that I’m excited about. One that is happening now is IoT, or the Internet of Things. This essentially allows internet connectivity across the airport and with the different stakeholders — airlines, TSA, etc. — that allows you as a passenger to both receive and send data about your preferences. This could make your travel more seamless and catered to your preferences throughout your entire experience.

I’m also excited about the possibilities of short distance passenger drone travel. Imagine being in a non-piloted flight, beating the traffic and landing at an intermodal hub, and then continuing on with your flight.

As you know, the Pandemic changed the world as we know it. For the benefit of our readers, can you help spell out a few examples of how the Pandemic has specifically impacted Air Travel?

Passenger well-being has been brought to the forefront. Both airports and airlines have been required to demonstrate to passengers the efforts to make the journey safe, from arrival and security to sitting on the plane. They’ve had to build and earn trust in an entirely new way. Approaches like leaving the middle seat empty are unprecedented moves by airlines but critical to signaling to passengers that their safety is top of mind.

Business travel has been significantly impacted. We’ve seen this within our own firm with colleagues that used to be on a plane several times a week and are now having the same meeting over Teams and Zoom while realizing all the other benefits of less travel. While I have no doubt air travel will come back, I think the ramp up of business travel will be much slower as companies have proven their work can be just as effective virtually with less overall costs.

Can you share five examples of how the Air Travel experience might change over the next few years to address the new realities brought by the Pandemic? If you can, please give an example for each.

  1. A transition to touchless everything. The points of transaction or physical contact, like turning on a bathroom faucet, will all be sensor-based. Activities like bag-drop will be conducted via your smart phone and a self-serve drop off.
  2. Biometric security screening will become the norm. This transition was underway before the pandemic but will further accelerate the need to no longer hand over your passport or ticket. This is will also speed up security screening.Airport design will emphasize healthy materials and nature-based strategies, or biophilic design. This includes things like more plants and using materials like wood. There is well-documented research that shows the real impact on how people react to their surroundings, pulse rates slow and anxiety recedes. These strategies contribute to mitigating their overall stress and feelings of wellbeing.
  3. This might seem obvious, but airports will be better prepared to take action quickly, without delay. There were many lessons learned at the onset of the pandemic around minimizing risk to passengers and employees, introducing new cleaning protocols and coordinating with relevant agencies.
  4. Speaking of, a coordinated response from the various agencies that operate within the airport. Currently, agencies like the FAA, Homeland Security, TSA, and the various airlines have their own approaches and it can look different in each airport. A coordinated response to mask policies, personal distancing and health screenings would ensure passengers can expect the same standards no matter their destination.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Wouldn’t it be great if the airlines came out and made a commitment to flying only electric planes by the year 2030? The benefits to our collective health and the planet’s health would be significant We’re seeing this push across other industries like the auto industry. I hope we all can inspire aviation to follow suite, but it will take the airlines to really push airplane manufacturers into taking the next step to reduce the carbon emissions.

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