Now 100 percent female owned, Reifsteck Reid principals hope change is coming to architecture

After Jhane and Elsa Reifsteck purchased their father's former firm at the beginning of 2022 along with two longtime employees, Bridgett Wakefield and Kristen Fanning, the firm is now in

Now 100 percent female owned, Reifsteck Reid principals hope change is coming to architecture

CHAMPAIGN -- In the fifth grade, Elsa Reifsteck's class was assigned a project that asked students to build a model of a city structure.For most kids, that meant building gaudy structures that had no resemblance to the real world. Not so for the daughter of an architect. 'All of the other students made these extravagant cities,' she said, 'and when I had my dad help me, he said, 'No, it has to be to scale.' The buildings were like an inch tall, whereas other kids' were super tall and crazy. It was very practical, I think.

It could have actually been built.' As kids, Elsa and her sister, Jhane, both remember looking up as they entered buildings, examining the structures and noticing things those who didn't have an architect for a father might not have.They attended groundbreakings of many kinds, watching as people thanked their dad, Chuck Reifsteck, who owned Reifsteck Reid & Company Architects.Two decades after that elementary school project, the Reifstecks sit at desks in their father's former office after they -- along with with two longtime employees, architect Bridgett Wakefield and interior designer Kristen Fanning -- purchased the company at the beginning of 2022.Jhane works on marketing materials and corresponding with clients, among other responsibilities. Elsa works to design some of the 15 to 20 projects the company has going on at a given time, including many at the University of Illinois.Leaning on one wall sits a blueprint of the Washington Cathedral in the nation's capital, a relic of the office's former occupant and the sisters' lifelong association with architecture.Jhane bought the framed poster for her father on an eighth-grade trip. 'That's the type of thing you buy when your father's an architect,' Jhane said with a laugh.The purchase of the company was a monumental one.

The firm is now 100 percent female-owned, a rarity in a field in which only 24 percent of licensed architects are women, according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. 'As a young woman, you always want to be respected in meetings, and you are always a little unsure if people are going to take you seriously, not only because you're a woman, but because you're young,' Jhane said. 'I think it's great to show that we're a capable firm and we're women-owned. '* * *For Elsa and Jhane, the appreciation for architecture came early in their life, even if their paths to the firm were far different. Jhane, who is five years older than her sister, worked for the firm on and off since the eighth grade, mainly helping with receptionist duties.Instead of following in her father's footsteps, though, she went on to pursue a career in broadcast journalism, earning a journalism degree from the UI before working for WICD 15, a central Illinois news station.After working on both early-morning and late-night shows, though, she began looking for a job with steady hours. Eight years ago, she decided to join the firm, working as its business and marketing manager.While Jhane was outspoken and confident, Elsa, both sisters say, grew up with both an artistic and mathematical mind.

After earning her master's degree from the UI, she began working at her father's firm.Right away, she fit in. 'Sometimes you have people that come in that, everybody fights to have them be on their project, everybody wants them because they get it right away,' Wakefield said. 'You can tell them something once, and then they apply it properly somewhere else. 'And she's also extremely creative.

And she was always the one that everybody wanted. So, it's not just a daughter. She was the right person to come into this position. 'At 30 and 35, Elsa and Jhane know they're relatively unseasoned.

Wakefield and Fanning's involvement has been invaluable in that respect.After growing up the daughter of an engineer, Wakefield earned her master's in architecture from the UI in 1998. Four years later, she began working for Reifsteck Reid.After taking an interest in children in college, including writing her master's thesis on designing classrooms based on the differences in children of each age, she began leading the firm's increasing number of school projects in recent years.While earning her master's degree from Illinois State in interior design, Fanning began working at Reifsteck Reid in 2001, primarily as a receptionist.Her knowledge of the drafting software the company used gave her the ability to provide input in other areas. 'I was like, 'I've got to get my foot in the door,'' she said.

'And I kind of pushed myself into more of a drafting position and just kind of worked my way up. 'Wakefield and Fanning developed into such dependable, seasoned employees that Chuck Reifsteck eventually offered them a small portion of the company. And when he decided to give up the reins last year, the combination of talent and experience between the four new principals made him confident he could hand over his company to them. 'They were doing a lot of the work when I was around,' he said. 'One of the reasons I got out was, you see your worth diminished as more and more people do what's required to get a project out the door. '* * *While they're still imbalanced, demographics in the field of architecture are steadily changing. According to the NCARB, 46 percent of the prospective architects testing for their certification in 2021 were women.

Jhane hopes the existence of firms like Reifsteck Reid lead to more change in the industry. 'It's refreshing to see more women taking on ownership and project management-type roles,' she said.Being female-owned does help the firm in tangible ways. In contracting engineers and architects, University of Illinois trustees set a goal of using at least 30 percent minority- and female-owned businesses, which has already helped the company bring in more business, Elsa said.But it also comes with its difficulties. When she stepped into her new role with the firm in January, Elsa was also preparing for a new role at home.

She was seven months' pregnant with her first child. 'I was worried that people would judge me, not only because I'm a woman, but also because I'm pregnant, and you can't help but wonder if they feel differently about you,' said Elsa, whose husband is a freelance architect who stays home with the couple's daughter during the day. 'So, you have to overcome that. I've heard that many women drop out of the workforce, and I don't blame them, because it's really difficult after you have a child. I think it's cool that women can have children and deal with all that comes with that and still be great at their jobs.' In years to come, she hopes a firm like Reifsteck Reid won't be so unique. 'I think we can easily connect with other women, we're great listeners, and I just don't see any difference (in terms of ability),' she said.

'I think it will absolutely change.'