From painting to architecture

Dec 19, 2016

Nancy Ruddy is a big reason why the firm she cofounded, CetraRuddy, continues to grow and evolve, and can solve complex problems.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

It all started in 1987 in the living room of husband and wife John Cetra and Nancy Ruddy. What began as a two-person outfit now has 100 people and a portfolio that includes projects in New York and India, and clients like JPMorgan Chase and Vornado Realty Trust.

Based in Manhattan, CetraRuddy (Best Firm #8 Architecture for 2016), specializes in housing, from subsidized to luxury living. Ruddy, the firm’s managing principal and executive director of interior design, reflects on what she and husband Cetra have built over the years.

A conversation with Nancy Ruddy.

The Zweig Letter: Tell me a little about your path to get here?

Nancy Ruddy: A native of New Jersey, I started out as a painting major in college, before discovering a passion for art history, which I studied at New York University. After earning a degree in architectural history from NYU, I planned to get a master’s degree in art history from Harvard, but also had an interest in architecture. When I realized that I could combine my love of art and architecture, I decided to become an architect. I was a little late to the game and City College of New York in Manhattan was the only architecture school that would consider taking me that late. As fate would have it, I met my soon-to-be husband and partner there. Post-graduation, we both went on to work at national as well as small and local firms before starting our own in 1987. We have very different skills, but similar world views about what is important in architecture and a practice. We started as a two-person firm. Today, we have more than 100.

TZL: What is important to you as a firm?

NR: We want to serve our community. We have a special interest in housing – from subsidized to luxury living. We like to focus on solving issues around how people live and to create spaces to serve those unique needs.

TZL: How have you seen CetraRuddy evolve over the years?

NR: Our project diversity, complexity, and project size has changed. We work on about 75 percent housing now and are also active in educational pursuits. Our projects range from 5,000 to 1.5 million square feet. We’ve matured. We’re able to solve more complex problems. For 26 years, John and I were the sole partners. We’ve added two partners (both people have been with us for about 10 years), and have an executive committee of 10 people. This has broadened our leadership base.

TZL: What are your key strengths?

NR: Architecture and design is not like what’s represented in the book, Fountainhead. It’s a collaborative game. I’m good at team building and communicating project visions. I work based on a client mission and then develop the program and keep the needs and goals focused. I can translate to the team and provide a road map for design. I zoom in on the essence of the project and set the overall project tone. I ensure we all have a shared goal. I also enjoy mentoring staff and encouraging growth and innovation. I love to see someone who reaches greater heights. It’s not at all political or ego-driven, either. It’s important to see people as individuals with personal goals and aspirations. We try to maintain a very familial atmosphere and celebrate private lives as well as professional. People need to be able to see their daughter’s dance recital.

TZL: What’s been a top challenge in running the firm?

NR: Six years ago we started to do work on an international level. We’re a very hands-on firm so distance was a challenge. How would we maintain that closeness working on projects in places likes Saudi Arabia, India, and England? Our solution was to locate partners in those local communities and to make them part of the team. They are able to help us tap into local traditions and culture as well as building codes. We want to make sure we are designing buildings that relate to how people live there, not here. We wanted boots on the ground, so to speak. We also have no problem jumping on a plane quickly and rely a lot on Skype and Go-to Meeting. It’s important to see reactions on people’s faces.

TZL: What’s something that makes you proud?

NR: Seventy-five percent of our work is repeat business.

TZL: What’s your vision for the future?

NR: We’ve been talking about this a lot lately. In April of next year, we’ll be celebrating 30 years in business. That’s a wonderful landmark. What to do for the next 20 years? We’re not retiring; they usually take architects out feet first. We’d like to give back more. In addition to maintaining our core business, we’d like to focus on new forms of quality housing for people who need access. We also want to focus on innovation and sustainability, while being socially responsible. Doing more pro-bono work is on the front burner. A home should nurture and we want to help people feel good about themselves.

TZL: What’s a recent project that’s especially close to your heart?

NR: The Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. It’s the first spiritual space we’ve ever done. Sixteen architects were interviewed, but we got the job. We discussed the opportunity for the congregation to define who they were through the space and the ability to create a spiritual home for them to pray, celebrate and educate. We took a true journey with the client. It was wonderful. The building is 53,000 square feet and features many symbolic references that include five ribbons of glass that represent the five books of the Torah.

TZL: What sets your firm apart from others?

NR: Our partners are very hands-on. All partners spend about 85 percent of their time on actual projects. We create an intimate client experience.

TZL: Any exciting news to share?

NR: We’re working on three K-12 schools in India. In June, the first phase opened. It has 2,500 students.

TZL: Do you have kids?

NR: We have one daughter, Andrea. She is studying human rights and social justice in law school.

TZL: What’s something not many people know about you?

NR: I still like to draw – charcoal and ink – mostly. And when I travel, I enjoy hunting down stone quarries and finding new materials.

TZL: Do you have a dream vacation?

NR: Bhutan, a Buddhist civilization in the Himalayas. Being a city girl, the culture sounds amazing.

TZL: What’s the last book you read?

NR: The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. It’s about a journey through the mountains of Tibet. I’m starting to sound very granola, but I really am very urban.

TZL: Who’s a leader you admire?

NR: My husband. He’s wanted to be an architect since he was 8. He’s a pure designer and so committed to solving problems. We share an office that’s about 30-by-18 feet and I see magic happen daily. We have an amazing respect for each other.

TZL: What activities do you enjoy outside of work?

NR: Visiting art museums, biking, cooking, reading, and being with friends and family.

TZL: What’s your favorite lunch?

NR: I’d love to have a three-hour lunch on the lawn of our cottage in Duchess County. It would consist of some locally-made mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes from the garden, olive oil from Italy, crusty bread, and a good red wine.

About Zweig Group

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