By Julia Gamolina
Jennifer Preston is Partner at SHELTER Stories, a sustainable architectural design practice. Her design process weaves building science, material craft and spatial beauty. Her work is driven by an open-minded rigor, and a respect for nature; the result is lasting sanctuary. In addition to SHELTER, she is a Design Architect for The Laurentia Project where she supports the collaboration of creatives through concept design, topic generation, menu development, equitable facilitation and post-event action.
Prior to founding SHELTER and Laurentia, Jennifer was Senior Associate and Sustainable Design Director at BKSK Architects in New York City. While there, she fostered multiple award-winning projects, twice garnering BKSK a coveted spot on the Architect 50 top sustainability firms in the country. In addition to her design work, Jennifer has recently joined The Equitable Housing and Livability Institute, a grant-funded research group focused on developing responsible housing in emerging cities. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Jennifer talks about designing with consideration and her visions for a sustainable practice, advising young architects to be open and to keep their eyes on the many inspiring practitioners on the rise.
JG: How did your interest in architecture develop?
JP: Growing up, my mother, sister, and I lived with my grandmother in a little town in Colorado called Golden. When you’re a generation removed from the person you’re living with, the space never feels of your time or of your body. I loved growing up in my grandmother’s home, but there was a sense that it wasn’t really ours – I remember always imagining what my own home would look like, and I started building and drawing little plans really early on.
I used to think I became an architect to make my own home, but realize looking back that I wanted to make homes for others – as my career progressed, I wanted to take care of people by making sanctuary spaces for them to inhabit. Also, I had an art professor in high school who had steered me towards architecture. He saw that I could draw and envision things, but that I was a little too obsessive and particular to be an artist [laughs].
How did you end up in New York?
I’m sure a lot of people say this, but there was just a pull. I first came to the edges of New York – I wasn’t quite ready to dive into the biggest city in the country coming from Golden. I came to Connecticut first and worked for an architecture firm there. At a certain point, they were choosing someone to promote to a certain managerial position, and I was up against a colleague of mine, whom I was also dating at the time. Christopher had a five-year degree, and I only had a four-year, so because he was closer to licensure, they picked him, even though we had the same years of experience. It profoundly affected me! It made me realize that I needed to go back to school, and the graduate program at Columbia finally brought me to New York.
What did you first do after Columbia?
I was one of the lucky ladies and gentlemen who graduated at the cusp of the recession, right in 2008. Lehman Brothers crashed that September. During my job search, there was a company that came to Columbia, looking for someone to take over their “High-Performance Research” Department. I went to Boulder for undergrad, and that program ingrains you in sustainability, appreciation for the planet, and resource efficiency. In my early twenties, I rejected all of that, thinking I just wanted to make gorgeous unrestrained architecture, but I just couldn’t wring the values of my undergraduate program out of my body [laughs].
At the end of Columbia, I looked at my portfolio and everything was steering me towards a care for the environments we were building and how we were impacting the future. This high-performance design company felt like it could be a good incubator for me.
When I met you, you were the Director of Sustainability at BKSK. How did this come about?
After about a year at this start-up, an opening at BKSK popped up on Archinect for a sustainable design coordinator. I knew I could do every little bit of it, so I interviewed, connected immediately with the people there, accepted the job and dove right in. Looking back on it now, eight years after that day, my time at BKSK was so fun, because I got to craft the way the firm was incorporating sustainable practices and build my role into something substantial. It’s been a really really good chapter.
How did you grow at BKSK and what did you make the position in sustainability into?
When I first started, my role was about guiding how they were detailing high-performing walls across the firm’s projects. That evolved into how they were calibrating their window specs, and then all other product specifications, which led to looking at their material library and reconfiguring it, which you were involved with! My colleague James Wilson and I did a whole research piece on toxic materials and established “Toxic Tuesdays” [laughs]. Not fair to Tuesday, but people in the office really looked forward to them, to hearing the story of a material, how it’s made, how it impacts the planet, how it impacts the human body, all information that people weren’t really getting back then. We ultimately established a red list in the office which identifies all the toxic materials architects shouldn’t be using.
They promoted me to Associate, and eventually to Senior Associate, and then we really started to dig in. We established what we called an “Early Analysis Protocol” which tackled the very early stages of design, looking at things like daylight autonomy and energy use intensity. The most recent project I did at BKSK was to look at the Integrated Design Process, which is a game-changing AIA contract and ANSI standard that reconfigured the way we assume risk and reward on a project, fundamentally shifting the relationship between owner, architect, and builder. We dug into the integrative design process from our own perspective as a firm and started to shift our approach.
What have you learned during your tenure with BKSK?
I learned that relationships matter more than anything and that listening is a skill that is very difficult and requires practice. I learned this lesson in Lambaye, Senegal, working on a pro-bono project there – a site planning and programming charrette for the village. It’s my heart project for sure and those two days with that community transformed me. There were women and men from the village representing the community, young and old – a very diverse, very equitable group. We had a five-hour meeting – that would never happen in the United States. We do one-hour meetings, sometimes two-hour, but our attention span is not programmed for this kind of generous presence.
One by one, each person spoke, and each person was listened to fully. There were no phones out, no note-taking – just nodding and sometimes audible responses of agreement or disagreement. It took forever, but to the benefit of the project. Everybody spoke and everybody was heard – ideas came and consensus happened. Their only goal was to end up with a building that served the community over a long period of time. That’s something else I don’t really hear much on the projects in the States – there’s not a timeline for a building after it’s built. We don’t yet ask what buildings will do in 100 years, or even ten years. I learned the importance of listening to each other, listening to your community, and also looking at how long a building should serve a place.
Why did you decide to leave BKSK and what are you doing now?
I needed to get my hands on drawings and on my pencils again. Maybe there’s a thing that happens to us at 40, perhaps a turning point in our careers – all I know is that my body was telling me to work on projects at this moment. I’ve done a lot with BKSK and with sustainability, and there’s still a lot more work to do. I’m not turning away from sustainable design at all – in fact I really want to deepen my practice in terms of sustainability.
I’m currently doing things that are exciting to do, which feels like such a privilege and a little bit indulgent. To make that possible, I’ve escaped Brooklyn and relocated myself to the Northern Berkshires, in a town called North Adams. The rent, the access to daylight and sunsets and sunrises, and the pace of this place are all really so good. I am convinced that everybody should take time to sabbat. It’s given me literal space, emotional space, and headspace – god, headspace! What an amazing gift, headspace is.
What are the things you are doing that are exciting to do?
With SHELTER and my partner Pedro Marmolejos, I’m working on a passive house on a lake in New Hampshire, some really fun interventions in SoHo, and a larger project focused on local food and community space. Another piece is a start-up I founded with my colleagues Tristan Roberts, Erin Carraher and James Wilson, called The Laurentia Project. We started it because we were speaking at various “think tank” conferences full of brilliant people trying to solve very complex problems, but the conferences were taking place in spaces that are completely unlike where we are right now, in the Wing. The Wing is just so well thought out – the lighting, the space, the smell even – every piece of atmosphere has been considered here. We weren’t meeting in good space like this – we were meeting in windowless hotel conference rooms, with terrible carpets and really terrible ceilings. Also, I heard people repeating the same issues year after year and felt that nothing was coalescing, nothing was catalyzing, and it was all deeply frustrating.
We’ve decided to rethink conferences and get people to spaces that are gorgeous and thoughtful – not overdone, just considered – to have discussions around food, with just a little bit of facilitation. In order to energize people, you need a more intimate experience, with human exchange, eye contact, and great atmosphere. The Laurentia Project puts on a collection of events – last year we asked attendees to see the poetry in climate change and to celebrate, not fear, the Anthropocene. The dinner was in a gallery in Chelsea surrounded by the work Bryce Guariglia, who makes glorious relief sculptures of glaciers, the exhibit was called “After Nature.” Its also a response to where we are politically right now, and how divided we are on climate change and how politicized the term has become. We’re seeking new ways to develop a shared language in catalytic settings and have already seen the dinners move people into a better headspace.
What has been your general approach to your career?
When I went to grad school, my approach was that I was a sponge. I absorbed everything in. I think that’s what grad school is for, that discovery and absorption and wandering – losing yourself and then putting yourself back together again.
After grad school, the approach was to survive the recession. Just survive, survive, survive. It was hard to watch really smart and talented colleagues struggle to find work, so in surviving, the approach was to say yes to everything. This required a rejection of the architect ego, the “No, I don’t need to go to conferences, and no I don’t need to participate.” Getting involved and being enthusiastic enabled me to take on a really particular piece of work, and I gained in-depth knowledge about how to design with consideration of my impact.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
Learning to say no, which is very hard. In the early part of my career, I said yes to everything – yes, I will be there for that group, yes, I will make that Excel spreadsheet for you, yes, I will create those graphics for free. Granted saying yes led to relationships that I still hold dear, so I think it was the right thing to do in the early parts of my career. As I’m shifting over to managing my own design and consulting practice, I’m finding that it’s more important to say no, unless the opportunity makes you want to say, “Hell yes!” Learning to listen to your personal capacity is really important.
What have been some highlights?
A great gift of my career so far has been finding a community of sustainable design leaders, a nationwide group of folks that have my role in firms across the country. We convene at a retreat every year where we think hard and laugh hard in the absence of ego – the absence of competitive attitudes about, “You can’t have this wisdom because it’s owned by me only.” It’s a real flow of ideas, friendship, and support, and in the rest of the architecture profession, something like this doesn’t really exist. I feel incredibly lucky that I picked this particular segment of the profession and found this particular group of people. They’ve taught me a great deal, and will continue to be a part of my professional life. All architects deserve this kind of community, and women in particular!
I’m also noticing a lot of women this past year are leaving large firms and starting their own practices. I think the election has affected us all, and women are responding by standing up and saying, “I can do this on my own!” The November loss and what happened in the campaign, whether you liked Hillary or not, was intimately brutal. The language directed at her as a female candidate, the disparity between her qualifications compared to his, and then the blame of her loss on her gender…I think 2016 presented the world as it was, and made it very clear to many of us that something needed to change. It’s a wonderful thing to witness how women have responded. It is meaningful, empowering and compelling that the response has been individuals standing up, putting their shoulders back, and getting to work.
What are the biggest challenges that you’ve faced?
As a woman in this industry, I worry that we’re a little big gun-shy about admitting challenges related to gender. It’s a very real thing though, this notion that women have to work twice as hard for less. My challenge has been finding the voice inside me that is a female voice, and finding that there is power and not weakness there. Becoming OK with the things that make me a woman, and seeing them as powerful, has been a good – and long – lesson.
Where do you see yourself in five, ten, twenty years?
I would ask that question at a lot of different junctures, and I’ve finally stopped asking it. It’s best to be open. I know I will be practicing architecture and I will be trying my damnedest to create something for the world that’s good, but I have also learned that sometimes, life just happens. Except in drawings, lines are never straight [laughs]. Nothing is linear – just be open.
For those interested in learning more and getting involved with Students for Senegal who are building community centers, visit https://www.studentsforsenegal.org. The Phase 2 build out of the community that Jennifer worked on is just getting started!