Bettina Mehnert, courtesy of PBN
Bettina Mehnert’s story in Hawaii began when she arrived from her native Germany, a trained architect carrying two suitcases — one full of books — and speaking no English. Now, 28 years later — nearly to the day — she is CEO of Architects Hawaii Ltd., the largest architecture firm in the state, and was recently one of 149 architects in the United States and one of two from Hawaii —Glenn Mason of Mason Architects, son of PBN founder George Mason was the other — to be named a fellow by the American Institute of Architects, one of the highest honors in the profession. Mehnert’s firm also received a high honor this year, winning an award for retail store design from the International Council of Shopping Centers for its design of the Walgreens flagship store in Honolulu. Mehnert, who also has a background in information technology, first worked to helped move the firm into digital design and in 2013 moved the firm’s operations from two floors at the American Savings Bank Tower at Bishop Square to the penthouse of the makai tower at Pacific Guardian Center. These days, she’s also working on a project a little closer to her Kailua home — Alexander & Baldwin’s redevelopment of the former Macy’s building there into a restaurant and retail complex called the Lau Hala Shops. Mehnert recently sat down with PBN to discuss her work.
How important to the firm was the Walgreens award? It was a global award. What makes this project such a wonderful story is that the client came to us and wanted a contemporary, culturally relevant structure and he wanted a flagship store, which for Walgreens meant something really different. It’s not your regular Walgreens, it’s this special building. It’s a modern interpretation of a canoe hale. Any award is appreciated; it’s a validation of having done something right. Is there meaning to Hawaii? It’s interesting to think along those lines because there has been so much discussion among our industry … media coverage on the architectural profession speaking up and saying wait, why do we have these big national, international designers swoop into town and why can’t we, meaning architects in Hawaii, do that work? I think global awards like this show everyone we have the design talent in Hawaii. We can do it. One does not have to bring in a big international name to design a building to make it successful.
Why did the firm move after 40 years in a building it had designed — to another building designed by the firm? I had to renegotiate the lease; the lease negotiation didn’t quite go the way I expected it to go, which then triggered me going back to my partners explaining where we were and basically suggesting to go look at other properties. For a tenant, it was a wonderful time to look for office space. At that time, we opened a discussion about who we are. It was fantastic. We opened it up to the entire office. We brought lunch in and we asked everybody what’s important to us, if we could do it all new, what would it be, and fantastic concepts came out of that. Ohana was one, the contemporary feel was one. Collaborative space — we were on two floors in the old space and the one thing we didn’t want was to be on two floors again. Here we have to floors but on the other floor, it’s just a big space, there are no workstations. We have a shower. We wanted people to be able to bike to work. We have bike storage, we have surfboard storage. Because we’re in Hawaii, we have the view of the ocean. If somebody wants to go at lunch or wants to come in, with flex time, a little later in the morning because they want to catch that swell, we want them to do that. We have a nap room, it’s also for nursing mothers. We have a full kitchen. That community building, you see it come out in those types of amenities. It’s important, also, for all of us to be on one floor. When you go around you’ll see that nobody has an office.
What projects are you involved with? I have the nonprofit work. They are such feel-good projects. I feel so grateful to be associated with a firm that has selected that vehicle to contribute … to make a difference, because it’s not just fixing a problem, it is enabling the nonprofit to do more and there’s so much that feels so good about that. It’s 1 percent of our work effort, so 1 percent of everybody’s time.
What are you working on right now? We are doing Aloha United Way’s office renovation. We just did the Boys & Girls Club gym. But the most involvement I’ve had is on Lau Hala Shops. That’s been an incredibly fun project for an amazingly, in a good sense, sensible and considerate client. There is just no other way of putting that. I really enjoy that relationship. Those types of projects, they automatically are special, but then they become almost lifetime projects. When you get to work with the client that gets it, that dynamic has been so rewarding. [With] this client, making the decision to not tear down the building, which, in some ways, would have been much easier. But they decided not to do that, because it is more sustainable, because culturally it is much more sensible, because it is keeping a piece of Kailua.
Do you have a favorite project? One of my favorite projects this firm has done is Symphony [Honolulu] and Velocity [JN Auto Group’s project on the ground floor]. I love the look of Symphony, the high-rise, and then Velocity. It’s really innovative. I think it’s going to have the most impact when everyone is there. What I just like is how contemporary it is. The space just feels good.