NEXT Voices: Jessica Gardenhire: Architect – Seeking Wellness in Architecture

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The following article is a guest blog post from our dear friend Adam Denais, who is an active contributor to the NEXT Architects Facebook Group. He originally wrote this post for the group, which he let me publish as a guest article. Feel free to send this blog post to your friends and coworkers.

Adam Thumbnail NEXT Voices: Jessica Gardenhire: Architect – Seeking Wellness in Architecture NEXT Architects

Jessica Gardenhire


Jessica, please share with us your story and what you are passionate about.

Most people would agree that my most defining characteristic is my enthusiasm and charismatic personality. But at the core of my being is a driven, passionate young woman who has always had a fascination with problem solving and creative thinking. I am a Midwestern native, went to school in upstate New York at Cornell University, and have been working and living in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 5 years.

My biggest passions within the architecture profession have evolved quite a bit since gaining professional experience. As a student, while most of my classmates wanted to gain entry level design positions, my biggest concern was learning whether architecture was the right fit for me after five years of very stressful curriculum. I am so thankful to say my first job came with mentorship from my principal that was irreplaceable by granting me opportunities to explore the profession. My happy place architecturally is when I work closely with the designer to translate an idea into a planning proposal, helping with entitlement presentations, and developing SD and DD phases where all of the problem solving is so fluid, allowing creativity and public speaking. That is admittedly a hard space to occupy- the middle ground between creative conceptual design and detail oriented CD production. I hope to gain more professional exposure through design in the next few years in order to determine a path and specialty while I can still claim the ability to explore granted to a young architect.

Outside of day to day work, environmentalism is a huge passion of mine, including equitable design in urban planning, as well as diversity within the profession. I myself am an African American woman architect, which are few and far between. I am thankful to be at a position in my career to be able to finally give back and analyze what ignited my passions to pursue architecture in order to begin giving back to younger future leaders.

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How do you know when a company you work at supports your health and success?

I would say- it is tricky. There are many architectural recruiters who can talk the talk to allude to a healthy workspace, which may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I have been growing and evolving each year to learn how to trust my intuition since my gut is almost always correct. All of us can sense when something seems off, and I will admit in the earliest years of my career, I ignored that gut feeling and stayed at companies that may not have been the right fit. As I gain more experience, I am learning how company cultures and styles vary in order to gain a broader perspective to set my expectations of a healthy workspace. It is an evolving journey.

My first job out of college, I knew immediately that I could trust my future boss who was interviewing me. The largest cues were her calm nature, her open-hearted ability to answer some of my questions with her own personal experiences, and her warmth. I accepted the job offer, office unseen, and moved from Ohio to California to start working. I am happy to say to this day, I can call her a mentor, and my intuition was right. I used a similar approach interviewing at other companies, being upfront about my expectations for a lifestyle. I knew at some large firms, if the response was immediately justifying unreasonable deadlines, lack of diversity, or overtime being part of the trade, the job was not for me. I was very assertive in my last company interview; asking them questions regarding diversity since I had challenges with that in the past. I really believe reading their reactions helped see if my passions and expectations aligned with company culture.

There will always be tension with coworkers and not everyone in a company can be your friend. Fresh out of college I did not know how to properly set up boundaries and eschew those kinds of personalities. With experience I truly feel equipped to continue my journey by defining my boundaries in a workspace and fostering a healthy space for myself. For example- I always made it clear that I needed to attend my weekly yoga and meditation classes on Tuesday evenings because it was my non- negotiable self care time. That day I would never work late. Coworkers will always prioritize deadlines and the immediate, neglecting my Tuesday evening yoga appointment, but I had empowered myself to advocate that rule and stick to it. I can always walk away, and remember that long term, one week of overtime is acceptable, but it can easily turn into weeks, months, and then a lifestyle. A sign of a company supporting my success is respecting that time for myself when I remind them that I do need to walk away. Good managers remember we are all human and will not let their team burn out.

What career moves have you made to better your health or success?

I would say I made two major career moves – one for my success, one for my health.

My move to California was absolutely a career move for success. Graduating in 2014 and being from a rust belt city, I was unable to have any internships in college. That was mostly due to being unable to afford rent in a city where there were jobs, such as New York City, without family to live with. Upon graduation, 2014 was the first year that the hiring really kicked into high gear after the 2008 recession. It was a huge leap of faith to move across the country to Silicon Valley. I had only visited California once. I knew no one there. And I was scared to do it all alone. End of the day, I truly am thankful for friends, family and mentors who helped me make the decision to take my only job offer out of college and move to a part of America where my resume could build in a way I could never imagine. I am so thankful for the big names I was able to get on my resume as an aloof college grad. Google, Facebook, Apple, Roche, Gilead are all companies I was able to build for, usually on the developer side, but nonetheless, I would not have the financial success nor the confidence at such a young age to tackle huge projects if not for that leap of faith – moving to the most expensive area of America alone to risk a huge career step.

My second largest career move so far was leaving that aforementioned first company to gain new experiences, diversify my resume, and also take a step for my mental health. The burden of leaving a first job, especially one willing to promote me and give me opportunities as a young professional that many older peers did not have access to, was very difficult. I stayed at the company long past my happiness due to the opportunities and my fear that another company would not recognize my talent and potential. I was scared to leave a comfortable job which even expressed huge leadership prospects in my future. With a very heavy heart, I moved to my current job after 6 years at the company.

I learned from that experience that the burden I put on myself was not mine to bear. It was not my company, and I could not internalize that guilt and fear of letting others down. I was not promised a high up position. I was not a stake owner in the company. One of the principals helped me realize that my happiness mattered more than me being their employee, and has kept true to his promise to stay in touch. Having close relationships with the principals really did help with my mentorship and anxiety of leaving. Now I have gained experience in a totally different architecture type, have learned brand new skills sets, and know I can always return to my original firm. The crippling anxiety of feeling tied to my job to an extreme is gone, even at my new job. I of course still keep in touch with old coworkers. As one of them said – I may have lost 150 coworkers, but I gained 150 friends.

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While we come to architecture from a place of passion, we can admit as an industry, it’s not the best profession for mental health. How have you come to cope with the stress and demands for constant greatness while maintaining a healthy relationship with the profession?

It may be evident already – but I clearly struggle with perfectionism and high expectations on myself. I can overwork myself to death if I do not step back and set limits. I cannot say that I have the formula to battle the stress of this profession figured out. However, I have come a far way in learning to set boundaries and expectations. I had to be very clear about those boundaries from the beginning of my professional career due to personal needs after a college experience that was frankly unhealthy and physically deteriorating. I came into the industry immediately knowing that I medically cannot handle that much stress, and college taught me that.

As a working professional, my biggest tool is being very open with communicating with my managers. I am thankfully a great public speaker, communicator, and people person. I gained a lot of those skills serving in my church since childhood, learning emotional intelligence and how to be a kind communicator. That skillset has led to upper management valuing my input. I often get astronomical amounts of work piled on me since I tend to deliver on everything given to me. Every job I have had, that is perceived as a passion, but I am really doing it from a survival standpoint. I have had to demand a phone call with my managers to let them know I am overwhelmed. Each time they are shocked to learn that since I am excellent at putting up a facade. As a high performer, I know my body’s cues that it is breaking down. At the end of my day, my health is my responsibility. I have to fight for it.

I believe the whole nation is facing burnout during the work from home schedule that is about to hit the one year mark. I know so many colleagues who had deadlines at the end of February and we all feel this gloom and exhaustion. I just spoke with my manager very candidly after finishing one deadline and immediately being put on another deadline. I was at a breaking point and I made it very clear how I can best serve the team, and what is missing from that formula. I will admit- I risked a lot speaking so frankly about needing a moment of calm in my life when there are layoffs in my company. However, the reward was that I expressed my needs, and they were met. My team is going to try clearer communication methods which allow me to thrive a bit better. Upper management truly wants to know what millennials are thinking, so that they can have more retention. If you have the confidence and relationship to speak to your manager so intimately – do it. You never get what you don’t ask for. And if any company continues to overwork me after expressing my needs, that is an answer in itself.

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What is NEXT for you? What’s your big dream?

I have so many dreams right now, and my first step is getting organized. The biggest goals I have post licensure are centered around gaining experience to help me find my role in the profession. My first step was joining the AIA and NOMA boards. I have always known that fostering diversity in the profession is a huge calling of mine, even since high school, so my roles in both organizations reflect that. I would also like to consider LEED certification as well as re-learn some software to enter a competition. One thing at a time! It all depends on my schedule.

And I would like to pause, since this community of NEXT architects is so diverse, and admit that I am afraid to give my all to diversity pursuits. As an African American, I am exhausted by all of the lip service regarding diversity and the false efforts. However, my presence in organizations so far has proven that I can see through false facades or perceive when people truly want to make change. I only joined organizations with trusted colleagues who I knew personally already- people I knew were allies that would protect my spirit versus drain it. I would never encourage BIPOC professionals to overextend themselves on an EDI committee out of obligation. We did not create this problem, so don’t force a passion that may become a burden. These roles feel right to me, so I am going to use it as a space to grow and learn how to run organizations, organize events, and gain experience.

Other long term dreams include aspiring to a place of financial comfort so I can pursue side passions. I am sure leaving California one day will be part of that dream, so I am so thankful to be part of the NEXT architects community, with kind, supportive architects sprinkled all over the nation. I am very excited to learn what opportunities licensure brings me (I just finished November 2020), and happy to be inspired by all of you!

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Any other thoughts you want to share? Where can people connect with you?

Please feel free to follow me on Facebook, Instagram or linked in. I will admit – I am terrible at keeping up with linked in. I’d be very curious how other millennial architects feel about linked in- it feels like digital homework to me with disingenuous architecture recruitments. It is a goal of mine post- licensure to design a website, so maybe someone reading this can reach out and inspire me. I can also be reached at my personal email, which I will not make public, but reach out via messenger and we can start a conversation there! Below are my social media links.

Thank you to Adam and the NEXT Architects community for allowing me to share my story and for making the space for such a wonderful group of people.


Michael Riscica

Michael Riscica is a Licensed Architect, Founder and Head Coach of the ARE Boot Camp Coaching Program & Online Study Group.

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