Spotlight On: Jennifer Christiaansen, Managing Director & Principal, Perkins&Will

Spotlight On: Jennifer Christiaansen, Managing Director & Principal, Perkins&Will

3 min read January 2023 In an interview with Invest:, Jennifer Christiaansen, managing director & principal at Perkins&Will discussed the firm’s commitment to equity and sustainability and how it permeates into its projects. At the same time, she shared new trends in the architecture realm and the importance of data-driven design to fit the client’s needs.

What are the biggest ways in which Perkins&Will has grown over the past year in the Twin Cities region?

We spent some time over the last year clarifying our market sectors. We edited ourselves down to three main pillars within the Minneapolis studio, which are healthcare, higher education and Corporate, Commercial and Civic (CCC). Across the three markets we have design advisory services and expertise in planning & strategies, urban design and landscape architecture, and health education. Because of the clarification of the markets, we’ve been able to focus on growth within them. We have developed stronger relationships with health systems, such as the Mayo Clinic, and a strong partnership with the University of Minnesota. Within our CCC market, we have great relationships with multiple partners, including Land O’Lakes and 3M. We have grown across the board. Additionally, we see a lot of potential in the CCC market in asset repositioning and taking existing infrastructure within the city and reimagining it. We have consistently partnered with real estate folks to help them understand if they can reposition a building and what the ROI can be.  

What role does equity play in company operations?

Our purpose in Minneapolis, which we have begun to communicate into the market as I stepped in as Managing Director, is that as architects and designers we design for the greater good. We believe the two main components of design for the greater good are equity and sustainability. We serve our clients from those two lenses, we create spaces where all people can feel welcome and where they can learn, heal and work. We work to accommodate their needs, while also being deeply focused on sustainability and pushing the limits of what that means. Right now, we are working on net-zero, carbon-neutral buildings. Perkins&Will is a leader in that area within the industry and a lot of that thinking comes out of our Minneapolis studio. 

Equity, in particular, is very important to me. I feel so fortunate to have this role and have the ability to set the tone and create a culture of curiosity and compassion about others for our studio and clients. We see ourselves as a partner to our clients and listen to them and the communities they serve to understand what this space means to them and their heritage. This allows us to properly reflect that. We have made several projects for the LGBTQ+ community, aiding in the process of providing spaces for them to heal in inside clinics. We are currently pursuing a project with the Native American community. For me, it is important to learn how we can serve and design for other groups of people with curiosity and compassion and I work as a leader to model this through understanding of our own mindsets and biases so that we can all do so.

What are the biggest challenges the industry is currently facing and how are Perkins&Will strategizing around them?

I constantly read the information that states how near we might be to a climate disaster, and it feels overwhelming. The reaction to that news can stop people from taking action and freeze them in their tracks. At the studio, we are trying to understand that we must live with the discomfort of knowing it is a huge problem, while also bringing love, joy and innovation into each of our projects. We are finding ways to move beyond the stress and anxiety that exists in our world today and taking steps towards solutions, cherishing the moves we are making. We are currently working on two timber-frame buildings that will be net-zero, so bringing those buildings to life while educating those around us that it is achievable. Moving away from fossil fuels is an important step as Architects, and Perkins&Will is leading the way in our internal operations, our partnerships and in how we support clients who are curious and committed to this. There are a lot of things we can do, and we can give our clients tools, making them feel empowered as part of that change.

What are some new trends you are seeing in the design and architecture industry?

Many of our clients are looking for a lot of data and information before they even begin the design process. Because of the uncertainty that exists about what people need in the workplace, leaders are coming to us seeking data to understand what is right for their business, as well as the needs of their clients and staff. We do all of that even before starting the design process of a project because it can affect square footage, planning and real estate selection. Lisa Pool, Perkins&Will global planning and strategies leader sits here in our Minneapolis studio, and she engages with all our markets to help our clients develop a data-driven and human-centered foundation before we begin the design process.

Once we move into the design phase, a continued trend I’m seeing to mitigate risk is an early engagement of contractors. We are not seeing as many design, bid, built projects, but instead GMP projects where a contractor is involved almost immediately after the design is solidified. That allows us to have quick feedback and improves the communication cycle around costs and design, helping us meet our client’s budget and schedule. Most private clients are asking for a GMP instead of bidding it out.

What is the firm doing to recruit and retain talent amid the current labor shortage?

We are not seeing issues with recruiting, the Perkins&Will reputation of design excellence and human centered design, and our studio’s excellent work and culture speak for itself! In order to support our new and current staff, we are focusing on the idea that we are “Better Together” and finding ways to enjoy one another, build trust and connection while remaining compassionate to everyone’s unique situations. For example, we sponsor free lunches in the studio twice a week, we host social outings and even design tours on our bikes to see some of our projects! We recently had a fall family bonfire with a food truck and bounce house for the kids, and will host a winter party for our staff and their partners in February. party. We are a team, and we are fortunate to work together, and I believe it is something worth celebrating daily. Additionally, we offer competitive benefits to our people, and truly embrace flexibility. We are currently redesigning our studio based on a survey to identify all the issues and opportunities we have.

As mentioned, our studio has a deep bench of talent relative to the scale of the city and Perkins&Will is known as an innovative and supportive place to work. There is a culture of design in the Twin Cities, so I haven’t been having much trouble finding aligned talent! 

What is your outlook for the firm and the architecture industry in the Twin Cities for the next couple of years? 

Our outlook is very strong. We see our studio growing in design excellence through our commitment to our local community complemented with our strong regional and national relationship with other Perkins&Will studios. With the simplification of our studio structure we are laser beam focused on growth in our current markets as well as the expertise and advisory services we offer, and this diversification will support our stability through short term economic turbulence. We hope that a bonding bill will pass in early 2023 to release some projects and we also have been focusing on historic tax credits in terms of asset repositioning and looking at existing building stock. We see an opportunity to work with clients in the region, reimagine and utilize those spaces to overcome any construction slowdown we might see. The life sciences market is one to watch as well, and we are looking towards supporting clients with science & tech and research spaces across our three markets.

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