Vice President Kim Vierheilig: Breaking Barriers in the Architectural Industry

October 13, 2015
Kim Vierheilig

As the sole woman on LAN Associates’ management team, Vice President Kim Vierheilig has won multiple awards for her designs of hotels and schools, and has served on boards for both the Architects League of Northern NJ and the American Institute of Architects. In addition to her design and management responsibilities, Vierheilig also oversees the firm’s marketing and architectural department.

“I have always believed in the power of design to create interesting spaces that inspire and enhance people’s lives,” Vierheilig said. “It is easy to miss the subtlety of how design impacts us. We spend most of our time indoors, therefore the spaces we occupy should be carefully considered. It could be the way natural light streams in through a window or how interior lighting sets a mood or a task or the way color and finishes of the room make you feel, or even as simple as framing a particular view outside your window. The details matter.”

Please, enjoy this Q&A with Kim Vierheilig:

NJBIZ: You’ve been partner and vice president at LAN Associates in Midland Park for nearly two years now. What is it that you love most about your job?

Kim Vierheilig: My job varies from business development and marketing to designing new buildings and troubleshooting construction issues. All of these tasks allow me to use my creativity to implement solutions for my clients and my company, and nothing is more rewarding than knowing my ideas and designs help transform a client’s visions into brick and mortar realities.

NJBIZ: Where have you worked previously and how did those experiences shape the rest of your career?

KV: I started my career at a large architectural firm in New York City. While I enjoyed working as a member of a team on massive international projects, I realized that it was too easy to get stuck working on only one aspect of a project. … (Then, when I worked) with an extremely small firm, I literally made the coffee, answered the phone and designed buildings. Both of these experiences exposed me in different ways to architectural business models.

Coming to LAN Associates seemed like the perfect fit for me. Although we are a mid-size firm, we are small enough that as an architect, I can shape a project from programming through construction administration.

NJBIZ: What would you consider your most valued accomplishments thus far?

KV: I was brought in to take over the management of a high profile, fast track project: creating a presidential suite and associated suites for visiting dignitaries at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C. The design needed to adhere to Georgetown Historical Guidelines, but also had a multitude of other considerations, such as acoustics, security concerns, high profile guest access and more. We were able to complete the project in time for President (Barack) Obama’s inauguration and Oprah Winfrey was our first guest.

NJBIZ: Sounds like a dream project for an architectural firm. What else is on the horizon for LAN Associates?

KV: Short-term goals as a partner are always the same: ensure that the firm has enough client work to retain our talented staff. Long-term, LAN Associates has a 50-year track record of providing quality services to our clients. I would like to build on that quality and pursue larger, more high profile jobs where we can push the limits of design aesthetics and technique.

NJBIZ: Let’s talk about your time at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. What was your focus?

KV: I was a dual major at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, receiving both a Bachelor of Architecture and Master of Science in management. I had always envisioned myself running an architectural firm and wanted to make sure that I knew both proper architectural design and sound business management strategies.

NJBIZ: What was the most important thing you learned during your education?

KV: The power of collaboration. … We often think that design happens in a vacuum with one person at the helm. The truth is that our best work comes from a group of people sharing ideas, respecting each other and pushing the limits of what is possible.

NJBIZ: Seeing as NJIT is a male-dominated university, do you have any advice for young women in middle school, high school and/or college today?

KV: If there is something you are passionate about that you want to pursue as a career, you should follow your dreams. Early on, many people discouraged me from pursuing a career in architecture because I was a woman. It was (a field) deemed only for men and too much hard work, anyway — not at all family-friendly. However, I love design; I love construction; and I knew I wanted a career that met both those passions. A career has to be about more than just a paycheck.

NJBIZ: Is there one thing that younger women still need to remember (or learn) about the gender gap today as it becomes less obvious?

KV: Women and men lead and think in very different ways. It’s important to understand these differences as you manage an organization. Just because you and your male colleague disagree doesn’t mean that you’re not on the same page. Both genders need to learn how to communicate their thoughts and ideas effectively for the good of the project and the client.

NJBIZ: Are there any steps we can take today in order to continue narrowing the gender and pay gap?

KV: I don’t think the gender and pay gap will be realized until more women occupy seats at the owners’ tables. Until then, women have to be confident in themselves and have those hard conversations with their employer about merit-based salary increases.

NJBIZ: Easier said than done. Do you believe the attitudes toward women in your industry have changed since you first started?

KV: When I attended college, there were very few women in attendance. My first full-time job also was at a firm where I was the only woman. So I joined my professional AIA (American Institute of Architects) organization to find female mentors that would understand my challenges and help my professional development.

Today, I find more women in the field and more support for women through organizations and procurement processes that promote women-owned businesses.

NJBIZ: Can you think of a time when a man was being sexist, insulting or condescending and had no idea that he was?

KV: Yes, almost every day. Some of this is a generational divide and some of it comes from being a woman in a male-dominated field. But the most important thing is to learn how to work around any real or perceived sexism and to not let that negativity affect you as a professional or as a person. The good news is, for as many unsupportive individuals you run into, there are twice as many people willing to work with based solely on your abilities.

NJBIZ: Would you say that women are sometimes more critical of female executives than men?

KV: Women executives are in leadership roles that had much harder paths than those women coming out of college today. I think it is easy to judge when you don’t consider what someone had to endure to reach the top of their profession. … In my experience, it’s important to put yourself in another’s shoes before you can think of expressing criticism.

NJBIZ: How is LAN Associates in particular helping to foster women’s growth in the industry?

KV: My office is a participant in the ACE (Architecture, Construction and Engineering) Program with Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. We are always looking for ways to encourage women in their pursuit of architecture and engineering careers.

Additionally, we send our female discipline leaders to the Zweig White Conference for Women in Design and Environmental Professions to help develop their skills and provide support as they grow in leadership roles.

NJBIZ: Is your company also becoming more family- and/or millennial-friendly?

KV: My firm was extremely supportive when I had my child. In the first year after childbirth, I worked from home two days each week. Now, my hours are flexible depending on what activities my son is involved with. … Starting a family in no way altered my career path; I just became more creative in how to get the job done.

At LAN, we have the ability to access our servers from a remote location, which also allows me to stick to deadlines and still be hands-on with collaborative projects.

NJBIZ: That certainly helps, but I’m curious: If you were to break up your average 24-hour weekday into a pie chart, what percentage do you think you devote to work?

KV: I devote about 40 percent of my weekday to work, which includes eight hours at the office and networking or business functions in the evening twice a week. I do my best to totally disconnect from work on the weekends — otherwise, you become too consumed by work and other aspects of your life will suffer.

NJBIZ: How do you manage to maintain a healthy work/life balance?

KV: I always find that stepping away from work for a real vacation helps to recharge your mental batteries and gives you added perspective, both for work and family commitments.

As an architect, I always want to travel to see different places. Taking time to see other cultures and building styles is inspiring and I find it informs my future design work.

Article written by Meg Fry, NJBiz, Breaking Glass Edition. Read the full article here.