Originally Published: July 2, 2020
She was only touring an intern, but it could’ve been a high-level corporate meeting or a group of industry guests, to see one of Merck’s buildings.
Certainly, Kathryn Gibbs was still delighted to give a tour, especially to show how her company, global pharmaceutical giant Merck, strives to make itself accessible and safe for its employees and guests.
What she didn’t expect was her guest’s reaction.
“As we toured around and she saw our focus rooms and privacy booths, as well as the other ways we promote universal design, she told me that she could work for a company like Merck, even though she has attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and some anxiety issues,” recalls Gibbs, the company’s director of engineering for North America facilities.
It was unexpected, but certainly not unwelcome. Today, Gibbs is working to ensure that key universal design strategies are incorporated on new and renovated projects globally.
“The built environment needs to be inclusive for everyone,” says Gibbs, who works out of the company’s Rahway, New Jersey, facility. “It’s the right thing to do and I’m very proud to see Merck making it a priority.”
A global reach
Merck & Co. Inc. was established in New Jersey in 1891 and operates in more than 140 countries with about 71,000 employees globally.
Merck has a Global Diversity & Inclusion (GD&I) Center of Excellence—led by Celeste Warren, chief diversity officer—which oversees GD&I in all business practices. Merck has a clear strategy and plan of action to drive business impact with diversity and inclusion.
In 2016, Gibbs was asked to join one of the Merck GD&I Ambassador Teams with the goal of providing an engineering and facilities management perspective. She is a member of the Global Disability Inclusion Strategy Council, which recognizes and values the importance of a disability-confident workforce and understands how full inclusion of people with disabilities increases creativity and innovation for its employees, customers, external partners and suppliers.
It was here that Gibbs learned the importance of disability and inclusion—and how she could do her part in making inclusive design better for all.
Making design work
Learning about the principles and guidelines was an epiphany for Gibbs, despite her almost 30 years in project management—and a deep engineering background.
According to the International Labour Organization, there are about 1 billion people globally with a disability, 80% of whom are of working age. Accommodating those needs can also generate economic benefits by increasing the customer base, building loyalty and expanding the labor pool.
“It’s about understanding and the need for continued education,” Gibbs says.
Gibbs was fortunate to partner with Integrated Global Strategies LLC to develop a Universal Design Checklist and Standard for Merck that aligns with the Universal Design Commission Certification. Planning key strategies from the start on a project is key to a successful program, she says.
As Gibbs notes, the standards are often met in small ways—but ones that produce great results.
“This can be about the choice of flooring material and lighting on egress paths, the texture of handrails or having rounded corners on tables,” she says.
For people with visual impairments, using different carpet colors in building areas can help them get around. Using armless chairs can help people with mobility issues get from a wheelchair to a seat, she adds.
It’s these elements and more that Gibbs also hopes will earn Merck projects certification from the Global Universal Design Commission.
“Achieving this certification shows how committed Merck is to global diversity and inclusion,” Gibbs says.
Passing it on
Gibbs, who oversees initial planning discussions with projects, is also spreading the word about universal design—to date, she’s trained about 150 engineers, architects and project managers on how to incorporate the principles.
“It’s about looking for the smallest and simplest details that can make a big difference for people. Everyone needs to realize that not every disability is visible. There are many people who are fearful of disclosing certain medical information because they don’t want to be looked at differently,” she explains.
Long before universal design became a passion and mission, Gibbs had an interest in engineering.
“I just loved design and construction,” she says. “I started taking mechanical drawing in high school.”
Gibbs earned both her bachelor’s and master’s in civil engineering—with an emphasis in construction management—at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and joined Merck as an assistant engineer in 1992.
If you build it
Today, Gibbs touts nearly three decades of project management experience with Merck. She started her career managing lab, utility and office projects. Since then, she’s overseen everything from campus and utility master-planning and workplace strategy to spearheading myriad projects to support Merck’s broader real estate goals, including site and campus consolidation efforts.
In recognition of her accomplishments, Gibbs was recently named one of the 2020 Women of Achievement by the New Jersey Chapter of Professional Women in Construction, an organization committed to supporting and promoting diversity in architecture and engineering. Gibbs will be given the award at an event later this year.
Away from work, Gibbs stays mobile as well. She and her family enjoy cross-country skiing in New Hampshire, as well as spending time in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
Even then, her mind is never far from the jobsite—and how to make it better for everyone.
“I’ve come to realize that none of us know what tomorrow brings, so I love making a difference for people,” Gibbs says, crediting Global Workplace Enterprise Services Vice President Don Watson for his strong support over the years. “Being an engineer is who I am, and building great inclusive environments is what I love to do.”