Managing director of Holst Architecture (Portland, OR), a women-owned architecture firm that is devoted to turning the ordinary into the extraordinary.
By Liisa Andreassen
Strand is a leading force behind the day-to-day operations of the firm. She’s a skilled detailer and exceptional communicator with the ability to clarify sophisticated design strategies for her clients.
“[Our founders] started with small projects that were mostly renovations and interiors,” Strand says. “Over time, the projects grew larger in scale and our reputation spread in the region as a design firm that can do a lot with a little. Our ability to make the ordinary extraordinary has been in our DNA since the beginning.”
A conversation with Renée Strand.
The Zweig Letter: Congrats on being named the Firm of the Year in 2020 by AIA Northwest and Pacific Regions. On the website it says your “submission demonstrated commitment to the profession and to the community.” Can you give me some highlights of how that was communicated in the submission?
Renée Strand: We were thrilled to be recognized for our hard work. In addition to our design portfolio, we focused our submission on our commitments to the profession through four lenses: Our community, equity and diversity, sustainable design, and the next generation. One could argue that all four of these categories are inextricably linked, however it takes intention to make sure we nurture all these aspects of our practice. We decided early on that what mattered most to us as owners was creating a place where, together, we all get to create architecture that people love in a supportive and inclusive environment. How we work deeply affects the work we produce together, so we have put just as much focus on our process as we do our product. This is a key to ensuring we’re doing work that feeds our souls, helps our community, and ensures enduring success into our future.
TZL: How do you anticipate COVID-19 permanently impacting your firm’s policy on telecommuting?
RS: To do the best work, we’re always evolving how we collaborate – whether through our studio space, methods of design representation, tools for documentation, and now location/communication platforms. I cherish the office culture we have at Holst and although we’re all making it work from home, many of us have been missing the aspect of creative work that is fueled by proximity and camaraderie, the energy that comes from being around the beautiful messiness of design process and materials. I do hope that we’re able to take the best parts of this remote work experience and carry those forward into the post-COVID work environment. I look forward to when we’re primarily back in the same workplace, hopefully with some newfound flexibility tested after this last year at home.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
RS: I shift fluidly between the two throughout each day, and there’s a lot of overlap based on how we collaborate in the practice. Generally, it’s 50/50. I spend time behind the scenes with overall project staffing, leading our PM group and working closely with our business director. I love the human side of owning a business and am constantly learning more about the business of design.
TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?
RS: In this last year of working from home, it’s become more blurred and interwoven as I’m sure it has for so many. I have two sons and I have taken a fair number of calls with my elementary schooler logged in next to me or a sleeping toddler resting slightly off camera. It’s a new reality that has both perks and challenges.
TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
RS: I think it’s critical to understand your values as a team – and overall to align the work with those values. Personally, I’ve found being a self-starter, and a generally inquisitive and open-minded person to be my strongest skills in practice. I appreciate how Angela Duckworth defines the concept of grit as the “passionate pursuit of long-term goals” – that’s certainly a personal characteristic that has helped me along the way. Starting out, I wish I understood that while project type, program, and site are all important, good clients are everything.
TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?
RS: I love that you asked this, and I hope we’re all asking each other the same question in the AEC industry and taking action around JEDI work. At Holst, we’re currently focusing on equity education within the firm, critical evaluation of our own hiring practices, and working to improve our community engagement processes. I’m personally interested in improving the pipeline in the architecture profession. I volunteer with a couple of groups here in Portland, including AFO’s Architects in Schools which focuses on elementary school architecture education. Architects and designers in our firm have also been participating in student mentorship programs, career fairs, and internship programs with the goal of improving diversity and inclusion in the profession. We need to see more architects of color moving into leadership roles, and more women as lead designers in this field.
TZL: I see that there are four owners at Holst. Can you give me a little backstory on how you all got together to form Holst and the origin of the firm’s name?
RS: Holst was originally founded in 1992 by John Holmes and Jeff Stuhr. They met while working at another architect’s office and saw an opportunity to combine their talents – they also fused their last names together to form Holst. They started with small projects that were mostly renovations and interiors. Over time, the projects grew larger in scale and our reputation spread in the region as a design firm that can do a lot with a little. Our ability to make the ordinary extraordinary has been in our DNA since the beginning. In 2016, John and Jeff decided it was time to hand the baton to me and my other partners – Kim Wilson, Kevin Valk, and Dave Otte. We purchased the business and are now proudly one of the largest, women-owned architecture firms in Oregon.
As for our new generation of owners, Kevin was one of Holst’s first employees, and has spent the last 24 years honing skills that have made him our design director. Kim joined soon after Kevin in 1999, and quickly cemented herself as our technical master. She’s evolved into being both our quality director and the president of Holst. Dave joined in 2005 and as development director has helped to grow our markets and push our focus into the realm of design for social impact. Finally, I am the rookie, celebrating a decade at Holst this year. I’m managing director of our studio and principal-in-charge for a number of our larger projects. We each bring our own specific talents to the practice, which provides a balance that allows us to tackle our work holistically.
TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?
RS: A commitment to social justice for our communities is intrinsic to our belief that everyone deserves good design. This belief guides the work we do and how we do it. We have a generous and community-minded group at Holst, and so I would say we all get most excited about benefits that allow us time to give back. Holst is committed to ongoing outreach programs throughout the region including the 1+ program, and we provide employees paid volunteer time as well as opportunities for pro bono work.
TZL: Have you had a particular mentor who has guided you – in school, in your career, or in general? Who were they and how did they help?
RS: I do. I have a circle of a dozen women in Portland who I consider to be the strongest guides in my career. We’ve been getting together for about 15 years and started meeting monthly as a “book club” back in 2006 before any of us had children. At its inception, we actually did read the same books, but the group quickly evolved into a support network of professionals, all of us working mothers meeting monthly; they’ve absolutely been my career guides. When I started working in Portland, there were very few females in leadership positions, and because we all know “you can’t be what you can’t see” I really looked to these women more than any traditional architect mentor. We’ve all since navigated tricky career dynamics and worked to move into leadership roles primarily in the architecture, planning, and construction industries.
We’ve been advocates and inspiration for each other in an industry that is short on female role models. They have all given me some of the most valuable, and most honest advice over the years.
TZL: How many years of experience – or large enough book of business – is enough to become a principal in your firm? Are you naming principals in their 20s or 30s?
RS: I was in my 30s, so yes, it is definitely possible.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?
RS: Do good work.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
RS: In general, we focus on the long game – we listen to and invest in our employees. We have crafted a comprehensive paid family leave policy, dramatically opened up our design process and moved into a new studio space to better facilitate collaboration in the last few years. This past year, we’ve focused on learning what we’re all passionate about and using that lens for career support, empowerment, and business development. Transparency and willingness to evolve are also important, and in this last year compassion has been paramount.