Jennifer Boezwinkle initially planned on pursuing a career in law by studying English at the University of Michigan. Courtesy Rockford Construction
As an architect, Jennifer Boezwinkle has had a creative, if not winding career path. The executive vice president of Rockford Construction always had an artistic mindset and knew she wanted to be an architect since she was in fourth grade.
She said she would often get bored and restless in class, so the teacher would give her graph paper with which she started drawing her own floor plans.
Deciding she wasn’t particularly gifted artistically, however, Boezwinkle didn’t consider architecture the right career path for her.
“At the time, everything was paper and pen — no computers, none of that kind of stuff — and I didn’t have a strong artistic drawing capability, so I said, ‘I can’t do architecture.’”
Boezwinkle had mapped out her pursuit of a career in law instead, first by studying English at the University of Michigan.
“People who know me would tell you I love to debate, so law seemed like a really great idea,” she said.
Partway through her English degree, Boezwinkle noticed other students within architecture programs. The field was beginning to embrace computers, and it was no longer dependent on one’s drawing capabilities.
Boezwinkle chose to finish her English degree but jumped right back in to pursue a degree in architecture.
“I’ve always been in sort of creative fields, and sometimes when you’re in those fields, you feel like you have the corner on the market of creativity and innovation,” she said.
Boezwinkle served in various capacities in the architecture industry for about two decades. The first part of her career was in traditional architecture, doing everything from design and drafting to project management.
She also dabbled in the business development side of the industry with an eye for the lack of women in the industry. At the time, she said, if there were 100 architects in a room, three of them would have been female.
There was a benefit for her, however, because so many of her clients were ahead of the game in having female leadership. This gave Boezwinkle the opportunity to go to conferences, attend seminars and represent her company, as a woman in an industry where women are “woefully” underrepresented.
Promoting women in architecture still is a serious goal for Boezwinkle, and she said the mission must start earlier. Children are taught early on to have assumptions about things that boys are better suited for than girls.
While both construction and architecture have begun embracing diversity in the workplace, the problem is getting women to realize early on that these are suitable career paths for them.
“Don’t give the girl a hammer. Don’t give the boy a mixing bowl. We still have those gender stereotypes that start at such a young age,” Boezwinkle said.
As Boezwinkle became more focused on business development, her English education came back into play, and she soon became integrated into sales opportunities, marketing departments and leading communication efforts.
“I’m a big proponent of words, and words matter,” Boezwinkle said. “It’s a cool thing to be able to communicate at a really high level but, also, there’s the visual side of me as an architect and how you communicate visually.”
The shifted focus on communications and business development eventually led Boezwinkle to Rockford Construction. She was working for TowerPinkster at the time and knew a number of people at Rockford.
At times, construction can feel like a commoditized industry, Boezwinkle said. Somebody else has created the vision, and the lowest-bidding contractor just has to go and build it. But coming to work for Rockford, she said, showed her all the different ways the company adds value to clients.
“I had been watching Rockford for quite some time, really liked the things that they stood for, saw the exciting things they were working on in the city,” she said. “It appealed to my creative side and my personal desire to get stuff done and see things completed.”
When Boezwinkle officially joined Rockford 6½ years ago, the current headquarters on Grand Rapids’ West Side was under construction, and the neighborhood was pretty quiet compared to how it’s taken off now with the additions of New Holland Brewing’s The Knickerbocker, Butcher’s Union, Bridge Street Market and other projects in Rockford’s portfolio.
Boezwinkle said being able to sit down with Rockford CEO Mike VanGessel and discuss his vision for the West Side and watch it grow up around them has been very fun for her.
While she wasn’t fully involved in the design of Rockford’s headquarters, Boezwinkle said the design of the building was intentional on building the company’s collaborative culture. Everybody’s workspace is on the same floor, which was not the case for the previous building.
“It’s important to be able to walk by each other every single day because the conversation you and I are having as we’re waiting for the coffee is a valuable conversation, and we might not have that conversation if you were working on Floor 2 and I’m working on Floor 3.”
Boezwinkle added Rockford likes a challenge. Its headquarters was built out from an old paint and powder coating facility and required a lot of remediation to turn it from a disused factory into a modern, energy-efficient office building.
Another example from Boezwinkle’s career for communication through design was a renovation of Kalamazoo College’s student union building while she was with TowerPinkster. The historic building had multiple levels and “rabbit trails,” and part of the redesign process was to turn it into a central gathering space.
TowerPinkster removed the center of the building and redesigned it to create a new atrium to allow for more physical connectivity while keeping critical functions, such as food service and the bookstore, in operation without disruption.
“I strongly believe in the power of place to impact what happens there,” Boezwinkle said. “How we work is impacted by the form and the shape and size of this building.”
The MSU Grand Rapids Research Center is another project Boezwinkle had a hand in, this time working for Rockford. How the labs are set up, access to computer systems and other features are all impacting the way researchers work in that building, she said.
Boezwinkle added the research center is probably the project she’s most proud of helping come to fruition; Rockford is now designing Phase 2.
The biggest challenge for Boezwinkle is communicating with clients who may not understand the design function of a building and explaining to them why it matters.
“Why does an architect or somebody in construction care what my business is or what my vision for the future is?” she said. “That’s when you kind of have to come back and explain the value of how that building can impact you positively or negatively.”
The easiest example Boezwinkle gives is homes because everybody can think about design features in their own living space, which can help or inhibit how they function. Her prior English education certainly becomes very valuable in these difficult conversations, she said.
In hindsight, Boezwinkle said every twist and turn has worked out to her benefit. Despite her parents lamenting all the years she spent in college, it all has been a valuable teaching tool.
“My parents were that generation where you found a job either fresh out of high school or college and that was a job you were going to have for 30 to 40 years,” she said. “Now you tell somebody they’re going to have a job for three years, and they look at you funny. I kind of fell in between those two, but never thought the career path would shift as much.”
Now with kids of her own heading off to college, Boezwinkle is looking at an empty nest, but she and her husband, who also is an architect, are looking forward to traveling abroad and experiencing historic places and architecture.
“To go to countries that are centuries and centuries old, there’s a level of architecture that you can’t see in the United States, so those are some things that I’m really excited about, and maybe catching up on my reading,” she said.