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May 14, 2020

Portland design firm uses its PPP loan to keep workers busy while helping Oregon parks

  • Knot had some projects put on hold, so it redirected some of its staff to do pro bono design.
    Special to the Journal

    Image courtesy of Knot [enlarge]
    As parks in Oregon reopen, such as Smith Rock State Park, design firm Knot is seeking to help the state with plans to manage visitors while observing social distancing.

    As the coronavirus pandemic worsened this spring, many Northwest design and construction firms faced an unprecedented event that challenged leaders to make tough decisions.

    With some construction plans in jeopardy, the health crisis has forced firms to ask difficult questions about how to maintain staff levels in a time of economic uncertainty.

    For the design firm Knot, the pandemic may have a silver lining. As some projects are put on hold during the crisis, Knot has seized the opportunity to give back to the community through offering pro bono services.

    A mid-sized Portland design firm that specializes in experiential graphic design, landscape architecture and ecological analysis, Knot received a loan from the federal government this spring, under the Paycheck Protection Program.

    The loan program, part of the government's Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, offers recipients a financial incentive to keep its employees on the payroll for eight weeks, after which the loan will be forgiven.

    Although the program has drawn criticism by businesses that were overlooked during the first round of funding in March, Knot secured the loan early and elected to take a novel approach to how it gets used.

    The loan program, according to Knot owner and principal Marilee Hanks, is a way to “hold structure in place,” meaning that Knot's design teams can maintain their workload and stay on the payroll by redirecting their creative efforts toward the good of the community.

    Like most firms before the coronavirus pandemic, Knot was fully staffed and had local, national and international design projects lined up for the foreseeable future. Hanks said the prospect of breaking up design teams was not an option.

    “There is so much effort that goes into recruiting and training,” said Hanks. “It's an emotional investment to keep a team cohesive. There is a continuity of knowledge that you want to hold together.”

    With the loan secured this spring, Hanks and her leadership team asked the Knot staff to pitch projects for which team members would spend their time.

    “We collectively reviewed ideas that would fit within this time frame and fit an unmet need, while tapping into our professional expertise and leveraging that to maximize a community benefit,” she said.

    From a list of 25 potential projects that designers could dedicate their time to in the next two months, Knot whittled that number down to several projects that approximately eight of its design staff will work on this spring and early summer.

    One pro bono project that Knot is pursuing is for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, to help formulate a plan to make the reopening of state parks proceed safely.

    Hanks said her design team aims to leverage their recent experience in developing a capacity assessment — which analyzes visitor traffic patterns and projections — for Central Oregon's Smith Rock State Park. Knot's expertise will offer a way to help Oregon Parks and Recreation with its plans to reopen other parks throughout Oregon. New state park assessments by Knot would factor in coronavirus-related social distancing requirements.

    Knot's analytical models would help the state decide how to manage visitor capacity and provide access to resources at its parks without jeopardizing the health of visitors, Hanks said.

    “Our data models can help us understand what the capacity is for public parks,” she said. “State and local governments have been thrown into this chaotic position of seeing potentially less money to deal with these tremendous areas of park management and they have been asked to take on something that doesn't fall within their standard methods for park management.”

    Hanks said the goal for her team is to “engage quickly with our local municipalities and get the challenges solved,” as the summer months approach and parks will again be frequented with visitors who must observe social distancing rules. “People have to know how they can go back to parks without putting themselves and their neighbors at high risk,” she said.

    Knot will also direct its resources toward helping the homeless. When the coronavirus lockdown hit in March, Knot heard from one of its clients — the Portland Art Museum — that Knot's work to design a signage and wayfinding program for an expansion plan would be put on hold.

    With Knot's art museum design team already in place, Hanks decided to redirect their efforts to help the architecture, civil engineering and planning firm Otak repurpose the former Multnomah County Wapato Jail into a recovery and wellness center for the homeless. Knot will donate its wayfinding and placemaking design services to help revamp the jail into the Bybee Lakes Hope Center.

    Since the facility is a jail, it was not designed to be “legible” — or easily navigable — from a wayfinding perspective, Hanks said. Knot's challenge will be to help Otak find ways to make Wapato Jail a functional and attractive space for its new use, by designing a signage/wayfinding program and placemaking features.

    “We need to find a way to work with the physical spaces that we have,” she said, referring to the jail design. “We're looking forward to exploring designs that makes this space feel like home.”

    With Knot designers working from home, Hanks said staying connected with clients and community is more important than ever. Keeping designers busy for the next several months — as the country and world grapple with the new paradigm of working through a pandemic — is critical to maintain continuity in her firm, she said.

    “It really helps to be out there engaging with people,” Hanks said. “It gives us an advantage to remain connected with each other. We feel strongly that we need to do something that converts the Paycheck Protection Plan investment into really meaningful projects that serve the community good.”

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