Employee Spotlight: Architect Mickela Pallares

Published Oct. 18, 2016
Sacramento District architect Mickela Pallares works at her desk Oct. 14, 2016.

Sacramento District architect Mickela Pallares works at her desk Oct. 14, 2016.

Please introduce yourself:

I was born and raised in San Jose, California. I graduated in 2009 from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a Bachelor of Architecture, a Minor in Sustainable Environments, and a Minor in Ethnic Studies. I’m an architect in the Architectural Design Section and the District’s subject matter expert for sustainable design. I’m also the chairperson for the Sacramento District Employee Council, which is an all-volunteer program that communicates employee concerns and ideas to district leadership.


Tell us a little about your day-to-day job functions...

Most days, I design buildings for the Army and Air Force. This includes creating floor plans, elevations, sections, and details. I choose materials for the building exterior that fit the climate and location and meet the Department of Defense’s durability and sustainability requirements. In addition to construction drawings, I prepare technical specifications, code and life safety analyses, and Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, or LEED, certification documentation.

Occasionally, I review the work of others for technical soundness and overall quality. Sometimes that is the work of other Corps architects but it’s also for private firms we hire to do a job. These quality control and quality assurance reviews are important. A fresh pair of eyes can potentially catch errors or conflicts the original designer might have overlooked.

Lastly, as a subject matter expert in sustainable design, I assist design teams with interpreting DoD sustainability policy and incorporating those requirements (including LEED) into their projects.


What do you like most about working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers?

There’s not an expectation that I work more than 40 hours a week, which allows me to enjoy my time at home with my family and not constantly be “plugged in.” In private architecture firms, it’s common for architects to work 12+ hours a day, including weekends. As I got closer to graduation, and especially after I completed an internship at a private firm in San Francisco, the prospect of working such long hours did not appeal to me, and I was actually considering a different career path. Luckily I found the Corps!

There’s definitely a sense of stability and security that I wouldn’t have at a private firm either. When the recession started, I knew several people who were switched to part time or let go entirely because their firm just didn’t have enough work to go around. Here in the Corps, we didn’t experience that. Even when local work is slow, we can help with other projects across the globe or for different missions.


What is one of the most interesting projects you’ve worked on?

I served as the lead architect on a project to provide barracks, child care facility and dining hall for women in the Afghan National Air Force. It was one of several Corps projects to help integrate women into Afghanistan’s military and police forces.

Half of the design team was in Sacramento while the other half was in Seattle. The project manager and technical lead were in Kansas City. And if we needed additional information about site conditions or use requirements then we asked our counterparts in Afghanistan (who are 12 hours ahead of Sacramento!). It was challenging at times but we knew that from the beginning, so we all made the effort to proactively communicate.

The most interesting challenge was designing a building for a culture and a religion that I had no familiarity with. One of my colleagues is Muslim and was a great resource for how building features would need to be arranged, how features and spaces would be used, and why. Not only did I have to provide sleeping quarters and restrooms for 50 people, but I had to account for how these spaces would also be used for prayer and other customary practices.

It was great to design a facility to be used by women who are now being accepted into a career path not previously open to them.


What do you like most about your job?

I really like supporting the military. Both my husband and I have family and friends who have served in the military. I’ve also gotten to know a few Soldiers who have rotated through our district as part of their career paths. Each one of those people, including ones I meet in passing, is a constant reminder to me that those in the military are everyday people. They have families, they have mortgages, and they have dreams--the same as everyone else.  If something I design gives even one of them a little bit more comfort or a bit more pride in their job, then that’s what I want to keep doing.


What advice would you give to a new employee?

Ask questions! Shadow more senior staff. Review previous projects. Do whatever works best for you in order to experience all those processes and regulations. When I first started with the Corps, I asked a lot of questions. Even now, if I’m assigned to a project with a facility type I’ve never done before, I ask those who have done that and learn from them. For example, I’m currently working on the renovation of a cafeteria kitchen. I’ve never done a commercial kitchen before, but one of the architects in my office has. So I ask him a lot of questions, and also a lot of questions of the staff that will be working in the kitchen when it’s done. There’s always going to be someone one more knowledgeable than you on any given subject, and asking for their help or their input doesn’t reflect poorly on you – it means you’re willing to seek out the answers. Even as an SME in this district, I know there are people in other districts and at headquarters who have better knowledge on certain topics than I do. I’m constantly communicating with those individuals.


What three traits define you?

Responsibility, dedication and loyalty.


What are three things most people don’t know about you?

1.      I hate making phone calls. I have no problem talking to someone in person, but for some reason reaching out to someone by phone makes me really anxious.

2. Most people have a tough time pronouncing my name.  But the name my mom originally wanted for me was Xochitl, which is the Nahuatl word for flower.  Following Mexican tradition, where the first born is named after the father, I was ultimately was named after my dad, Michael.  My mom still wanted to get the flower name in, so she picked my middle name, Teresa, after St. Therese of Lisieux, whose nickname was “The Little Flower”.

3.      I was an officer on the national board of my sorority for eight years. The most important position I held was national president for three years. And I helped establish five new undergraduate chapters at universities in California and Nevada.


What do you like to do in your spare time? Favorite thing to do in Sacramento?

Favorite thing to do is travel. My four greatest passions are history, culture, food and architecture. And travelling lets me indulge in all of them. Every chance I get to explore something or somewhere new, I’ll take it: cathedrals in Spain, canyons in Utah, food in New Orleans, castles in Ireland, museums in San Francisco… I love it all!

When I’m not able to travel, reading historical fiction and non-fiction lets me explore from home. I’ve started listening to a lot of podcasts on history, science and current social issues for the same reason.

Ever since I became a homeowner, I’ve gotten into gardening. Watching the plants that I take care of grow and bloom each year is pretty exciting. Same for my veggie garden.

My husband and I enjoy trying new local restaurants and breweries. We’re big believers in supporting local and homegrown businesses. Whether for date night, Sunday brunch or happy hour, we like trying new local places.


Top 3 personal highlights?

1.      Living in Rome, Italy;

2.      Day of my wedding;

3.      I’m saving this last one for whatever the future may hold!