This article is in support of National Women in Construction Week, March 5 – 11, 2017. For more information, visit nawic.org. Be sure to catch all five BW features of different women shaping the industry!
Starting her career at Arup as a project engineer, Jen Suerth has worked her way to Vice President of technical services at Pepper Construction in Chicago. There, she provides strategic direction with regards to BIM and virtual design and construction (VDC). “That kind of encompasses a lot of things, including laser scanning, 3D coordination, [and] virtual reality,” she explained. In addition, Suerth advises project teams on constructibility and implementation of strategies.
So while most people “love” technology, Suerth truly loves it. She believes in its ability to change the industry in ways one can’t even think of today. I could go on and on about how devoted Suerth is in leveraging technology in the AEC, but the best way to show her passion is to let her speak for herself.
Was building or designing always something you were passionate in?
Yes. It’s funny, because my mom always says it her fault I went into this industry. My mother’s grandfather was an architect, and he worked for Frank Lloyd Wright, and then one of her uncles was an architect, so it’s definitely in my blood. But even when I was little, I didn’t really play with Barbies, and when I did I was always just designing their house. My favorite Christmas present as a kid was an art set and everything I drew with that art set was buildings, including how they were decorated for Christmas. So I have literally always been obsessed. And then everyone always jokes they’re not surprised I live in the city of Chicago because from the first moment I can remember being in the city, I was always fascinated by the architecture and said, “This is where I want to live and work.” so it’s definitely been something I’ve always loved and wanted to be part of.
How did you get to where you are today?
I always thought I’d be a famous architect. I went to architecture school at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and got my bachelor’s there. I interned at an architecture firm throughout undergrad and they happened to be one of the first firms to use Revit. Most firms were just getting into the CAD world, but I got really fortunate that this smaller, suburban architecture firm was really cutting-edge with technology.
I chose to get my masters in architecture to continue my original goal of being a famous architect. I was really passionate about the technical side of architecture so I did the structures options for my masters at the University of Illinois, which meant I could take any career path. I could go be a structural engineer. I could be an architect. I interned at SOM during grad school and worked in their structural engineering group because I was really leaning towards structural engineering and wanted to explore that side of the industry.
When I graduated with my masters, I joined Arup in Chicago as a structural engineer. They were just newly opening an office in Chicago, and I knew I wanted to work on complicated structures and possibly travel, so it seemed like a really good fit. I worked there for about five years, and then during one of my last years at Arup, I moved out to New York to do construction administration for a Delta terminal at JFK.
While I was out there for the construction I really enjoyed seeing the construction side of things. I thought it was neat seeing how your design comes to life. So when I came back from New York, a general contractor I knew through organizations outside of work approached me about an opportunity to join the construction side of the AEC industry in their technology group.
I really gravitate towards seeing buildings being built, and I construction is a lot of problem-solving and trouble-shooting and all the things I really liked about design. I felt like I could make a bigger impact in the industry going to the construction side. Six months ago Pepper recruited me to join them here. My role is very similar to my previous role, but now it’s a vice president position, leading a team, which allows me to make an even bigger impact in the organization.
What has been your favorite moment working in the AEC element?
Well, first I’ve been really, really fortunate in the places I’ve landed and the projects I’ve worked on. I was interning at SOM when they were working on Burj Khalifa so my first project as a structural engineer was Burj, the world’s tallest building; it was an amazing experience that I’m very grateful to have had. But, I think my favorite part of working in the AEC industry is just watching how this industry is changing and trying things we weren’t doing five years ago, 10 years ago.
What has been the most challenging part working in the industry?
I would say absolutely balance. I can’t even emphasize that enough. I am a workaholic, type-A, perfectionist, and love, love, love our industry. I find everything I surround myself with is related to our industry. I’m on different boards that are associated with our industry, my best friends are in the industry— and I love it — but there obviously needs to be a balance.
Can you explain some projects you’ve really felt lucky to be a part of?
Surprisingly, one of my favorite projects that really helped set my career off was the Accident Fund Headquarters in Lansing, Michigan. It wasn’t one that many people have heard of in Chicago, but it did win a ton of awards, including the AISC’s Presidential Award of Excellence, which, if I remember correctly, the Cowboys Stadium won that award the year before, so pretty awesome. It was an extremely complicated structure, and it was the first project where I was the structural engineer from the very beginning — literally where we’re drawing bubble diagrams on a chalkboard — all the way through the final construction and completion.
An abandoned 1930s power plant turned into the Accidental Fund Headquarters in Lansing, Mich.
Not only was it my first project from start to finish, but we also modeled everything in this project in Revit. We were reviewing everything in 3D. There were no 2D paper shops. This was unheard of at the time. And actually, it still isn’t the industry standard. We’re still reviewing a lot of things in 2D. But that was something that was completely new to the industry, and little did I know that that probably played a factor in my career change in the future.
It was an extremely challenging project — I worked some of the longest hours I’ve ever worked. It was a very fast-paced project, which is why we had to push technology so much. I learned so much. It made me a better designer, and it showed me that even if something’s never been done, if people are willing to do it, give it a go, it can be really successful.
And then the other project wrapped up this past year (before I was at Pepper). It’s the new residence hall with Studio Gang at the University of Chicago. Personally I loved it because it was really changing the landscape of the city in that neighborhood, and more importantly, we were implementing workflows and processes that had never been done in the Midwest — potentially in the country. So I’d say those are two that I hold near and dear to my heart.
What are some things that you have yet to accomplish but hope to in the future?
So, and this is not a cop-out, but I literally want to accomplish something that’s probably not even possible today. I think about my current role in the VDC world with technology and how it didn’t even exist decades ago. Additionally, I thought I was going to be a famous architect, and obviously I’m not doing that right now. You never know where life will take you. I just know there’s so much more I can do, and I want to make sure that I’m doing things that continue to impact the industry and the environment I’m in.
One of the main reasons I came to Pepper is it’s a Chicago-based company. I feel like I haven’t done enough to make a big impact on this city — the city that I love and live in. So whatever I do in life, I want to make sure I’m making a bigger impact on the world, and an impact on Chicago, and do something that probably doesn’t exist today.
What do you feel could be done to get more women to join the industry?
I think the first things are just promoting other women, working together, and being present around other women. I think women tend to have the biggest impact on other women, good or bad. You know, a big factor in my decision to work at Arup was that a woman was leading the office. I really wanted to experience what it was like because I knew there was a potential that I would never see that again. There weren’t many women in principal positions at the time, and although there are more now, there’s still not as many as men. As I continue to move up, I’m hoping to show women “you can do this” and bring them up with me because a lot of women tend to leave the industry or stay status one position when there is no need for that. And I don’t think it always has to be women mentoring one another. I had a male mentor — all of his children were daughters, and maybe that was a factor — but he was very supportive of women in the industry, and understood that there might be different ways to communicate with women versus men and so on. So I think really just supporting women, mentoring them and show them that there are other opportunities will help encourage them to join and stay in the industry.