Sustainability is the reason that Yoni Melchert, 39, decided to become an architect when she was 14 years old.
Melchert grew up poor in a family of six in Moses Lake, Wash. She didn’t have store-bought clothes until she started sixth grade, and Melchert learned how to cook, can food, and to sew.
“We had to grow all of our own food and preserve our own food,” she says. “I learned very early you should pay attention and not be thoughtless about how we do do things.”
That self-sufficiency shaped Melchert and compelled her to find ways to reduce waste. She went on to get a bachelor’s and master’s in architecture at the University of Idaho, studying sustainable architectural design, and she did her master’s thesis on the Fresh Kills landfill in New York, at the time the largest landfill in the world. She chose to research the subject of mining and re-using landfill construction waste because she knows construction is one of the human activities with the largest impact on the environment.
“It consumes the most resources, the most electricity, water … it’s really important to do it well and be smart about it,” she says. “If you have a poor design, you’re going to waste materials. And if you didn’t do a good job with the function of the building, they’re just going to tear it down, truck it to the landfill, and dump it there.”
Melchert went on to work as a construction project manager in Afghanistan as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Afghanistan met her need for a challenge, and her need to contribute to society.
“My job was to get schools built, hospitals built, housing built – basically anything they needed to get themselves up and running it. How can you not support it?” she says. “Everyone was on the same team, working toward the same goal, and there because they wanted to be.”
In 2008, she was part of a team that won the national Design Team of the Year award for a LEED Gold certified barracks project at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash. In 2009, she designed the first LEED-certified medical office building in Idaho, the Mulvaney medical office building at Saint Alphonsus Health System in Boise.
Now she works as an architect at St. Luke’s Health System in Boise, where one of her favorite recent projects was designing the Labor and Delivery Butterfly Room, a space for grieving families whose baby has died during or after childbirth. The work “struck me as the perfect vehicle for her talent,” writes Rebekah Cudé of the University of Idaho. “She used her personal awareness of the needs of parents who are grieving the loss of a newborn (based on the experiences of her friends and coworkers) to drive the design. And she used her big heart and solid professional relationships to coordinate the donation of time and materials to the project.”
Melchert loves architecture because it’s a combination of art and science.
“It’s always changing,” she says. “It allows for personal expression which I love. It’s art, but you can use it, and I have a very practical side to me. And there is something amazing about contributing to your community – the longevity of it.”
In a perfect world, she’d also find a way to make sure that no child ever goes hungry. She volunteers at the Idaho Foodbank, and she’s thinking of solutions to the nation’s hunger problem.
“What I am doing right now is I have to understand how the system works,” she says. “Then I will be able to figure it out.”
Most memorable airplane trip: “My most memorable airplane trip was as part of a school trip in third grade. A local pilot offered to take our class up in his prop plane to see the local area (Moses Lake, Washington). It was so loud on the plane that my classmates and I couldn’t speak to each other. I spent most of the flight with my face pressed up against the window as the plane flew above farm fields, water, and the city.”