Paving the way: Diana Brenner

Mar 13, 2022

Principal at Brenner Design (Indianapolis, IN), an award-winning, woman owned architectural firm that designs and constructs innovative buildings and interior spaces.

By Liisa Andreassen

Brenner is the first woman architect to design a new building on the campus of Purdue University and Ball State University. She is one of only three female Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in the state of Indiana and the only woman ever to be awarded a Torchbearer Award in Architecture from the Indiana Commission for Women.

“When I first started in business and people asked me what I did, I responded, ‘I’m an architect and I own my own firm.’ The next question was always, ‘Do you work out of your home?’ … I felt like they asked that because I was a woman. I don’t believe a man would have been asked that question. I feel proud that I have been able to sustain my practice for 30 years with no partners and have been able to work on high profile projects,” Brenner says. “Hopefully I’ve paved the way for women in this profession.”

A conversation with Diana Brenner.

The Zweig Letter: You started the firm in 1992. What are some of the most significant changes your firm has experienced over the past 30 years?

Diana Brenner: There are three:

  1. Technology. We have had to constantly invest in technology in terms of software and hardware to keep up with changes from CADD to Revit. We started with Revit early on – when it wasn’t fully usable for interior architecture – stopped for a while, then started using it again when it became more prevalent with our clients. We also use billing and procurement software that didn’t exist years ago.
  2. Communication. We use email for most communications, and the Zoom, Teams, and Go To Meeting platforms became most useful during COVID. We are to the point where we don’t need a receptionist because the call volume is so low compared to email.
  3. Work ethic. We’ve seen a definite decline in the work ethic of new hires. It’s difficult to understand why. I always look to see if the candidate worked during high school and/or college. I feel like that is a better indicator of whether they are reliable and responsible and will show up on time and make their work and career a priority.

TZL: You’ve worked on countless projects throughout the years, but are there one or two that really stand out due to challenging circumstances or unusual requests? Please explain.

DB: We have a huge work portfolio. I suppose I’m most proud of the projects that have won design awards. When I first started, I set a goal of winning one per year. We now have 42 awards for our work. When we tell clients that we worked on Mackey Arena, that gives us a great deal of credibility, since most clients have heard of it. Our most recent high-profile project was the design of the Indiana University Football Locker Room. We also worked on the Historic Hoosier Gym renovation, the gym from the movie Hoosiers.

TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?

DB: We pay for disability insurance for all staff. One of my long-term staff needed to make a claim and, fortunately, it was a benefit that she was able to take advantage of. We also pay single coverage health insurance and encourage HSAs and have a 401(k) plan.

TZL: As a woman-owned firm, are there any unique challenges/benefits that your company has experienced? Please explain.

DB: Our greatest challenge as a small firm is also our biggest advantage. Many clients ask for a history of multiple projects in the same project type within the last five years. Clients want to see projects just like the one they are proposing. They don’t care if all of those projects went well or not, they want to see recent quantity, not quality. We may have completed five over our client history, but they are not all recent. As a small firm we are generalists; we specialize in the process of design. It’s the overall design process that determines the outcome; understanding client needs, budgets, and schedule is more important than whether we’ve done five of the same project type in the last five years.

Our greatest advantage is that we’re very experienced in all types of design and construction and we use our expertise and variety of experience to lead clients through a project no matter what the project type is. Many facilities are a blending of different types of spaces and uses. We have seen that happen over time in higher education, hospitality, sports, and housing.

TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?

DB: Finding new work and closing the deal. I have to maintain a constant flow of new work to keep everyone busy.

TZL: Since the firm’s founding, what are some of the accomplishments that you’re most proud of?

DB: When I became licensed, it was always my personal goal to be elevated to the College of Fellows. Most architects don’t get elevated based on their first application. Sometimes it takes three tries. I was elevated based on my first application in 2008 and it was a great honor.

I’m most proud of leading the charge for women in architecture. For our first 20 years, we were the largest 100 percent WBE architectural firm in Indiana. I was the first woman architect to design a building at Purdue University (which was named Mann Hall) and the first woman architect to design a building at Ball State University (Ron & Joan Venderly Football Complex). I also went on to be associate architect on the Mackey Arena Expansion, a $98 million project where we did 45 percent of the work.

Why am I most proud of these things? When I first started in business and people asked me what I did, I responded, “I’m an architect and I own my own firm.” The next question was always, “Do you work out of your home?” I would respond, “No, I have a real office downtown with real employees.” I felt like they asked that because I was a woman. I don’t believe a man would have been asked that question.

I feel proud that I have been able to sustain my practice for 30 years with no partners and have been able to work on high profile projects. Hopefully I’ve paved the way for women in this profession.

TZL: What advice would you give to a woman who wants to start an AEC firm today?

DB: Make sure you love what you do. Being a business owner is hard and you must have the support of your family. Hire slowly and fire fast. Continually learn. Get involved in the community. Don’t take no for an answer. Market constantly and celebrate your successes!

TZL: How has COVID-19 permanently impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting?

DB: We only had one staff member who worked from home. Everyone else stayed in the office the entire time. Our workstations are more than eight feet apart and we kept the office clean. We did modify computers, so that if we needed remote access, it was available. Architecture and interiors are such collaborative disciplines that I think our staff didn’t want to work from home.

TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?

DB: I worked for five years before I hired my husband as office manager. He is now COO and a key person in the firm. I have another business that shares his services. My two sons are involved in that business, which is extremely successful. I’d like to think everything I learned running Brenner Design has helped lead to the success of the second venture.

TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?

DB: I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I wish I would have taken bookkeeping or accounting in college. That would have been helpful. Also, I should have taken marketing classes. Luckily, I’m a fairly good writer and very visual so I’ve been able to create successful marketing materials and proposals.

TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?

DB: I’m very detail oriented. I can multitask and am able to keep on top of a large number of projects and clients. I believe I am fair. I care about our staff and have several who have been with the firm for more than 20 years. I care about my clients and about doing the right thing. Some say I should have been a lawyer when it comes to negotiation. 

Click here to read this week's issue of The Zweig Letter!

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.