Paul Mellblom

Principal at MSR

After a four-year stint working in the aerospace industry, Paul Mellblom, 51, made a major career change. He went back to school, earned his architectural degree and moved from Los Angeles to Minneapolis. After working at several firms, he landed at Minneapolis architecture/design firm MSR in 2000 and became a principal in 2007.

Mellblom focuses on affordable housing design and projects for nonprofit organizations. He donates his time to pro bono design efforts and has been active in charitable programs including Rebuilding Together, YouthCARE, Community Shares and Clare Housing. The American Institute of Architects-Minnesota is recognizing Mellblom with its 2013 Minnesota Louis Lundgren Award, which honors volunteerism and leadership.

Q: Where does your passion for design come from?

A: For me, design is most interesting when it's in the service of bringing excellent design to people who otherwise are unlikely to have access to it – so the poor, marginalized and disenfranchised communities.

Q: Can you offer an example?

A: We worked with [affordable housing developer] Project for Pride in Living on the renovation of 13 buildings in the Minneapolis Near North neighborhood. I think a lot of people might have approached it as — we just need to clean them up and be done with it. What excited us is we said, "How do we make really good living environments — with not a lot of money — that support the different populations that will live here in ways that also build community equity?"

Q: How did you accomplish that?

A: With PPL, we rehabbed the buildings and created dignified dwellings that were safe, clean, and bright and shiny, but we also worked on the exterior of the buildings and the grounds and made outdoor places for people to gather. It's about investing in the neighborhood because we believe in the dignity of everybody … And you've made a tangibly positive difference on both the people who live in those buildings and the neighborhood.

Q: Talk about your work as board chair of Clare Housing in Minneapolis, which offers housing for people with HIV or AIDS.

A: When I joined the board I remember feeling that we have to do this. My role was championing the idea and helping push the board to do this project . … I can't tell you how many hours I spent doing site exploration work—driving around the city looking at lots, talking to Realtors, trying to figure out where to house this project."

Q: You also volunteered to lead the restoration of a library in New Orleans severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina, which included adding computer stations.

A: We pro bono renovated a small library in the Upper Ninth Ward adjacent to some of the worst destruction. I remember people saying they still didn't have electricity or Internet access. The fact that we were providing portals to access the outside world was a shiny little resource to them that the neighborhood could come back.

Liz Wolf is an Eagan-based freelance writer. She can be reached at