Q&A with Liz McDonald, Principal of Johnson Nathan Strohe

JNS' project Laurel Cherry Creek is a 12-story luxury condominium community in Cherry Creek North.
Liz McDonald

Liz McDonald, principal at JOHNSON NATHAN STROHE, is a dynamic leader known for designing and delivering spaces that achieve the perfect balance of creativity and practicality. As the firm’s youngest principal, she oversees the firm’s multifamily division, leading projects that are at the forefront of housing trends.

Facts about Liz:

  • Married with two kids (ages 2 & 6)
  • Moved to Colorado in 2006 in search of lots of outdoor adventures and she has not been disappointed.
  • Licensed in Colorado, NCARB Certification

1.  What sparked your interest in architecture?

My uncle was an architect and he first introduced me to the field of architecture at a young age. I was fascinated by this profession which was a beautiful blend of mathematics and art. By the time I was eight years old, I was convinced I had found my calling. Growing up in the Chicagoland area, I was greatly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s residential architecture. Designing a home is a deeply personal task – there are so many considerations and every person/family is different.

2.  What is unique about your approach to architecture?

Listening to the client and understanding who we are designing for is one of the keys to a successful project. Architects often get a bad rap for not listening and having egos. I want to break that stereotype and prove to our clients that we do listen. In addition to understanding who we are designing for, we also need to understand the building’s location. Understanding the site as well as the surrounding neighborhood and community is critical to designing a project that fits seamlessly into its context.

3.  What is your niche/area of expertise?

My career has been primarily focused on the design of residential housing and hospitality projects. While my passion may have originated in single family residential, it quickly grew to include multifamily housing and hospitality design. I love working through the challenges and opportunities that we encounter on large-scale projects. They require such collaboration and coordination with your internal team and consultants. And several years later when you can finally see the project built, it’s incredibly fulfilling. Delayed gratification at its finest!

4. What are some of the most exciting Colorado projects you have been involved with in recent years?

The Maven Hotel at Dairy Block was an exciting project to work on. Placemaking and designing around the greater vision of the block was at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Even after construction of the hotel was complete, I kept telling family and friends that it was only going to get better once the alley and remaining block were completed. It was fulfilling to collaborate with so many partners, who worked hard to bring the vision to life: McWhinney, Grand American, Sage Hospitality, Saunders Construction, SA+R Architects and Crème, to name a few.

Laurel Cherry Creek was another project that stands out to me. It was fun to work on this high-rise luxury condominium project within the context of Cherry Creek. There has been so much development in this area in the last five years, and I felt fortunate to contribute to the neighborhood’s architecture. Having the opportunity to design some very large units while accommodating unique buyer requests was enjoyable as well.

5. What have been some of the biggest challenges in your career and how did you overcome them? 

While in architecture school, it was a pretty even split between men and women within my program. However, out in the professional world, the design/construction industry is still very much a male-dominated industry. Often times, I may be one of the only women on the construction site, and I’ve encountered people who don’t want to trust or listen to what I’m saying solely because of my gender. At first this really bugged me and I felt like I had to constantly prove myself. Over time, I’ve realized I can’t worry about other people’s perceptions or misconceptions. All I can do is focus on doing my job and working collaboratively with the team to get to our end goal.

6. What do you think is the best way the industry can work to promote the inclusion and participation of women in the field?

Encouraging women to take a seat at the table. I’m fortunate enough to work for a firm that values equality in pay and recognizes the value women bring to the design profession. Over 75 percent of our leadership team is made up of women, which is pretty incredible. As a working mother, I can easily see why many women take a step back from their architecture careers when they decide to start a family. Architecture is a demanding profession, certainly not a 9-5 job. I try as much as I can to support other women as they navigate this chapter of their lives, sharing the advice and lessons I’ve learned along the way. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to do both work and raise a family, if that’s what we want.

As a profession, we need to become more flexible in an effort to retain these incredibly talented people. Honestly, the changes we’ve encountered over the last year in response to the COVID pandemic could actually be the fortuitous turning point the industry needed. Our resilient and flexible response has proven it’s possible to be productive and efficient, even if we aren’t sitting in an office the entire day.

7. What advice do you have for emerging professionals in this profession?

My advice to emerging professionals would be to take your Architectural Registration Exams as early as you can in your career. When you are only a few years out of school, your study methods and techniques are still fresh in your mind. I recommend diving in and scheduling several exams one to two months apart. It will force you to start studying knowing you have a deadline a few weeks out, and then another deadline after that. You will only get busier and busier in both your career and your personal
life, so it’s helpful to tackle this milestone early.

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