How I Became a Partner: An Architect’s Journey

WJW Architects' Heidi Wang shares the compelling story of her path to senior housing and health-care design.

This Women’s History Month, in celebration of female leaders in the multifamily industry, Multi-Housing News is sharing the voice of several women with stand-out achievements in their field.

Heidi Wang is a partner at WJW Architects, a studio that has a human-centric, research-based approach to health care, senior housing and affordable housing design, with more than 50 percent of employees identifying as women. Wang opened up about her personal history with architecture and health-care design, sharing some very personal narratives that shaped her path. From being mistaken for her boss’ secretary, to how she became partner at one of the top architecture studios in Chicago. Here’s her story.

LISTEN TO: Women in Multifamily Construction—Building a Career

What was the path that led you to the field of architecture and, more particularly, health design?

Heidi Wang, Partner, WJW Architects

Heidi Wang, Partner, WJW Architects. Image courtesy of WJW Architects

Wang: I was exposed to building and construction from a very early age, as my father owned his own hardwood flooring installation business. I accompanied him to job sites quite often and would help with measuring and other small tasks. These trips with my dad gave me the opportunity to explore a variety of homes, which sparked a larger interest in buildings and design.

In college, I started out in interior design but soon realized that I wanted to expand beyond working just on the interiors of buildings. My real interest in health design came out of two concurrent events in my personal and professional life.

Professionally, shortly after beginning to work at WJW, I had the opportunity to work on a large-scale renovation of an existing skilled nursing community. The owner wanted to transform the original ’50s-era medical model skilled nursing building into a state-of-the-art, resident-focused care center. Through this work, I was able to apply my love of research and critical thinking into a large-scale design problem, while also learning about how the building environment can impact health and wellbeing.

Personally, at the same time that I was embedded in those investigations, I was also seeing firsthand the impact of the environment on physical and mental wellbeing. My father had been struggling with early onset Alzheimer’s since my undergraduate years and by the time I had started at WJW, his physical condition had deteriorated significantly. These overlapping experiences cemented my interest and passion for health design, and specifically as it relates to the residential environment.

In the past few decades, women have pushed boundaries and reached unprecedented performances in architecture. Do you have any personal heroes that inspired you?

Wang: I had a few female mentors early on in my career path who really inspired me to pursue architecture. In particular, there was a woman at the University of Wisconsin Hospital who was a staff architect there while I was working at the Medical School, prior to starting graduate school. She encouraged me very strongly to pursue my MArch and showed through her own example that it was possible to have a leadership position as a female architect, and to also have a successful and fulfilling family life.

I was also fortunate to have several strong male mentors and allies who pushed me to continue in my architectural education and career, and stuck up for me when I encountered challenges due to my gender. Very early on in my professional life, I had a situation where a client thought that I was my boss’ secretary and referred to me as such. That boss took the time to correct the client and explain that I was not a secretary and was, in fact, the project designer. Hearing him stand up for me to a client really had an impact on me and gave me the confidence to continue to assert myself and grow into a leadership position.  

Tell us a little bit about your history at the firm, as well as the studio’s main profile and objectives.

Wang: I joined the firm in 2007, right after graduating with my MArch from UIC. I was recruited to the firm by my professor at the time, who was also the founding partner at WJW. He had been a strong mentor to me during my graduate school years, and I jumped at the chance to join his firm as the mission strongly aligned with the kind of work I was interested in.

At the time, there were several women working in the office, however no women partners or managers. During my early years at the firm, we continued to pretty equally hire men and women—which at that time made us a fairly unique firm. As the firm grew, we continued to have a strong female representation, eventually hitting the 50/50 mark for male/female employees.

I was the first woman in the firm to be promoted to senior leadership level as an associate partner and then eventually became the first female partner in 2017. Since that time, three more women in the firm have been promoted to associate level, representing 75 percent of associates.

We have been successful in attracting and retaining top female talent for a few reasons. I believe the most important reason is that young women just starting out need to see a firm in which women are represented at all levels, so they can visualize their own path for advancement. We have also been successful at retaining women, particularly as they begin to grow their families, by providing family leave and flexible work arrangements.

As an interesting anecdote, I was actually offered the partner position at my first performance review after returning from maternity leave just a month prior. I was quite shocked at the time as I wasn’t expecting it, but it also reinforced for me that my male partners still valued me as an employee and colleague, and that I would be able to continue to advance in my career despite my new and changing personal obligations.

Which are some of your recent projects that you are particularly proud of?

Wang: One recently completed project that I’m very proud to have been a part of is the Tiger Senior Apartments project located in Paris, Ill. It is an adaptive reuse of a historic high school and provides housing for 40 seniors. This project transformed the former Paris High School into affordable apartments for local seniors and also preserved a very beloved local building that had been one of the centers of community life for over 100 years.

The gym space was retained and now serves to house a variety of community events such as Christmas parties and potluck dinners. It also preserved and restored the existing historic infrastructure that otherwise would have been demolished.

The building incorporates many sustainable design features and achieved a Silver rating through the National Green Building Certification building. Residents who currently live there report having the lowest energy bills they’ve ever had in their life.

Another project that I’m thrilled to be working on that is in the early schematic design phase is a health and wellness center located on an existing senior living campus. The Mildred Wiley Wellness Hub in Chicago is centered around food and health, and will feature an exterior garden area, indoor greenhouses and horticulture center, classroom space for health and wellness programs, as well as a commercial kitchen and demonstration kitchen to support healthy eating education and local food entrepreneurs.

Renovations and adaptive-reuse projects are becoming more popular, especially in the wake of the pandemic. What are some of the latest trends in residential redevelopment?

Wang: This is a great question, and we are certainly seeing more interest in adaptive-reuse projects for senior living. Adaptive-reuse projects are one way that we can address the issues of affordability and the desire for community integration.

Reviving a historic building can offer an opportunity to create a senior living community in the heart of an existing community that is well-connected and that may also offer larger living or amenity spaces while still providing a level of affordability. While these projects have their challenges financially due to needing a substantial amount of renovation or even a full gut rehab, they also afford some financial relief through the reuse of the existing building structure and may offer an opportunity for additional funding through the use of historic tax credits.

We currently have several adaptive-reuse projects in our pipeline. Historic schools are the most typical building we see being targeted for redevelopment into senior housing, but we have also worked on former hospitals and even a former tuberculosis sanatorium.

How did the pandemic influence the course of senior living facilities?

Wang: In the early days of the pandemic, the senior living industry was in crisis mode, working hard to contain outbreaks and keep residents and staff safe. As the pandemic wore on, we saw our clients pivoting a bit to also re-focus on the emotional and social health of residents, looking for ways to allow for safe interactions with friends and families at their existing buildings.

We also happened to be working on design drawings for a few larger-scale senior living communities right as the pandemic was beginning. For those projects, our team worked closely with the owner team and received input from their staff at existing buildings to evaluate the designs with the new lens of safety and social distancing. As a result, those buildings were able to more seamlessly integrate things like outdoor visiting areas, separate entries, sanitation stations, and more distributed common areas serving smaller households.

The pandemic also served to strengthen the importance of design elements that were already part of our approach to senior living: the inclusion of a variety of outdoor spaces, strong visual connections between indoor and outdoor spaces, opportunities for a variety of social interactions a different scales, and the inclusion of daylight and natural materials within all areas of the community.

In your experience, what are the greatest challenges in senior housing design nowadays?

Wang: There are several challenges in this field, and one of the most pressing is affordability, particularly in the middle-market area. There is a severe lack of options for seniors who are not at the highest income levels but also have too much money to qualify for income-restricted communities. Developing a building for that target group is also extremely difficult given the high cost of land and construction, and the need to compete in the marketplace with other high-end, amenity-rich communities.

Another challenge in senior housing design is attracting younger residents and the Baby Boomer generation. This generation, just now entering their middle ’70s, has very different expectations for their retirement years, and we as designers will need to think about how to alter the design approach and amenities offered in order to attract this savvier group of seniors, while also still providing affordable options.

We are seeing a much higher focus on creating new senior communities that are integrated into the larger community, located closer to city centers and within walking distance of a variety of amenities. In many cities, however, given the scarcity of land and high costs, the only project types that are financially feasible are the high-end luxury living communities which then price out a large segment of potential residents.

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