Member Spotlight: Interview with Jennifer Kretschmer, AIA, NCARB, LEED Green Assoc.

Jennifer Kretschmer, AIA, NCARB, LEED Green Associate, founded J. Kretschmer Architect in 2003, specializing in single family and multi-family residential projects under 10,000 square feet.

Her firm has been a virtual office since 2008 which she has operated primarily from her home in the Silicon Valley area of California with workers located all over the United States.

Jennifer was a speaker at the AIA’19 Conference on Architecture and 2019 CRAN Symposium bringing valued information, inspiration and training to architects on operating a virtual office with remote workers. Awarded AIA National Associate Member of the Year, 2002. She is the founding CRAN chairperson of the AIA Silicon Valley (2016-2019, 2022) and the 2020 AIASVC Vice President and 2021 AIASVC President. She serves on AIACA Practice Management Committee and AIA Practice Management Knowledge Community.

What sparked your interest in becoming an architect?

There were several instances in my youth that sparked my interest in architecture. The one I remember the most was on a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium shortly after it opened. I was enthralled with the adaptive reuse of the building from a canning facility to an aquarium. My dad was also a woodworker and had taught me to use tools and make wooden toys. I helped him fix things around the house and was sometimes assigned to work in the crawlspace or attic. I loved it.

What skills have you developed in your architectural journey that you have been able to apply into other aspects of your life?

Learning the process of problem solving and breaking a project into steps helped me by instilling order.

What are the kind of projects that you currently work on?

I am currently focusing on residential projects. Primarily single family residential, ADUs and small multifamily. I have one senior housing project that I brought Architects FORA onboard as a partner.

What is the most interesting aspect of your job?

Helping people. Residential clients have goals and wants, but they don’t know how to accomplish them and they don’t have the experience of design. I enjoy hearing clients glee when their home comes together and it is everything they dreamed it would be.

How do you think the architecture profession can improve equity and diversity?

It starts with better public outreach and teaching the public what we do. Most do not understand what we do and therefore cannot imagine themselves or their children working in our field. We need to be better in sharing the current diversity of our practicing architects so that our youth can see themselves in us. Educators, starting with elementary schools, need to stop discouraging youth from entering the architecture profession because of their own perceptions. There were many fields I considered as a youth, but I was discouraged from entering nearly all of them. When I chose architecture, I became stubborn and stopped listening to those who told me that I could never do it. I was lucky that my parents supported me in my pursuit even though no one in my family practiced architecture. So, starting with supporting youth and introducing them to architecture as part of early education curriculum is the best way to improve equity and diversity.

What ways do you think women leadership can be better supported by AIA other than WIA?

Women are supported in the AIA. And we are supported now more than ever in the past. It’s our responsibility to show up and take our place at the leadership table. I feel far more supported in our profession by the AIA than in other aspects of my life. I believe that it is through the AIA where we can make a difference and encourage the next generation.

What is your advice for emerging professionals especially for women in architecture?

Emerging professionals need to be brave and to stop questioning their own validity. There will always be those who will not like you. Ignore those, they are not worth your time or thoughts and move on to those who will support you. This may mean leaving the job you currently have, starting your own practice, or finding an alternate career path. I made my own path because I wanted a better life.

How does having an AIA networking set you apart from other design professionals?

The network of people that I have met through the AIA have taught me more than I learned in school or from any employer. I am able to seek out the answers to challenges I come across in my work through the camaraderie in the AIA. I have found many members willing to share their experiences that have helped me get through technical, social and political issues. As a small firm owner, the value obtained from engaging with architects outside my own company is extremely valuable. You have been practicing for about 19+ years.

What are your thoughts for professionals looking to start their own architectural firm?

Actually, I have owned my current firm for 19 years. I’ve been practicing much longer. I joined the AIASVC in 1993 as a student scholarship winner. Starting your own architectural firm is something that should be considered with careful thought. Architects are generally not trained in the aspects of running a business. Before I started my practice, I went back to school and took accounting and business law classes. I read the Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice (again). I also learned marketing. Running a successful and thriving business takes time away from design and working on projects. Nearly 60% of my time today is devoted to the business side of my practice. I love it and that’s why I do it. If I just wanted to design, I would have stayed working for someone else.

What was your most challenging project so far in your practice? Can you elaborate on the experience?

Every project has a little new challenge. But I have never had any that I would call “challenging.” What has been challenging are the clients. Since much of my work has been residential, I work with clients who are at their best and their worst. It’s a very personal experience with great personal and financial stakes for them. I had one client early in owning my firm that taught me that I need to focus more on the people and less on the project prior to signing any contract for architectural services.

What does it take to run a successful practice apart from being a good designer? what advice would you give that is not typically taught in architecture school?

To run a solvent and successful practice takes an entrepreneur. It requires understanding profit and loss statements, insurance, human resources management and legal issues, KPIs, taxes, marketing, client management, business plans, and so much more. Owners of firms do not get to do much design or production work. They may lead the design process and point the team in the correct direction, take the responsibility for performance and get the glory of client satisfaction or design awards but if they are not an entrepreneur then profits and paying competitive wages will not be possible.

How has the pandemic changed the way you work as a team?

My team has been remote since 2008, so the pandemic didn’t change anything for us. We did teach our clients how to work with us remotely and now have improved processes in place that have allowed us to expand working with clients all over the world. We still prefer our projects to be local. But what I define as local before the pandemic, which was the 3 closest counties, have now expanded to 7 Bay Area counties.

Interviewed by Madhubala Ayyamperumal, Assoc. AIA, WELL AP, LEED AP BD+C

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