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Weinzapfel Shares Outlook on Design, Practice

Event: Public Lecture Series: Beyond the AIA Firm Award: an Evening with Jane Weinzapfel
Location: Center for Architecture, 06.16.08
Speaker: Jane Weinzapfel, FAIA — Principal, Leers Weinzapfel Associates
Organizer: AIANY Women in Architecture (WIA) Committee
Sponsors: Champion: Studio Daniel Libeskind; Supporters: Gensler; Humanscale; James McCullar & Associates; Friends: Costas Kondylis & Partners; Forest City Ratner Companies; Frank Williams & Associates; Hugo S. Subotovsky A.I.A. Architects; Mancini Duffy; Magnusson Architecture and Planning; Rawlings Architects; RicciGreene Associates; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Syska Hennessy Group; Trespa North America; Universal Contracting Group

University of Pennsylvania Gateway Complex, Philadelphia, PA.

©Peter Aaron/Esto

Leers Weinzapfel Associates, the first women-owned architecture firm to be awarded the AIA Firm Award in 2007, is guided by two goals: to create architecture that has improves the public realm, and to encourage an inclusive, collaborative workplace that fosters individual growth. Founded in 1982 by Andrea Leers, FAIA, and Jane Weinzapfel, FAIA, the firm has produced award-laden work in its 26 years, including many seemingly unglamorous infrastructure projects. The University of Pennsylvania Gateway Complex houses a giant chiller plant yet forms a landmark that echoes curves of a nearby river and roads. The Princeton University Chilled Water Plant incorporates translucent and fritted glass to bring natural light into equipment floors. Both projects show how the firm solves complex, technically demanding design problems with tailor-made responses. This has led to community and civic projects, as well as campus work for institutions such as the University of Cincinnati, Harvard University, and Smith College.

With some 35 employees, the firm is set up in an open office environment with the principals sitting among the staff. Every year the staff goes on a design retreat to one of the buildings the firm designed, where they reflect on recent work as well as the business’s future. The firm values every employee’s ideas, and makes an effort to understand each individual’s role in the design process, according to Weinzapfel. She feels it is important for designers to find their voice — especially for women architects. She and Leers asked clients and friends how they were perceived, and was surprised to find that they were perceived as women first. That said, they argue it’s good for institutions to have women in roles of leadership, and collaboration relies on the inclusion of many different voices.

As for work/life balance challenges, the firm believes that a full life indeed matters. Weinzapfel took two-and-a-half years away from the practice to start a family, and Leers continues to teach at architecture schools. It is a priority to allow women employees, including key leaders, the option of flexible schedules, and to encourage and support men to be just as involved in raising their children.

Weinzapfel was one of the first two women architecture students to graduate from the University of Arizona. She pays tribute for her and Leer’s spelling success to their upbringing. “We grew up with a voice at the dining table,” she said.