Origin Stories: Architect Whitney Kraus On Having Thick Skin And The Small World Of Big Projects
This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.
When Whitney Kraus first entered architecture in 2002, everything seemed so big — the projects, the budgets, the personalities and the list of things she needed to know all seemed intimidating. Now, as director of architecture and planning at Brown Harris Stevens Development Marketing, the commercial real estate world is a lot smaller to her than it seemed almost 20 years ago. Kraus said she can even flip between the design side and the owner’s side of a development with ease.
Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?
Kraus: I have to give credit to my paternal grandfather for my intro to CRE. He ran a vocational training school for construction tradesmen and switched to real estate development later in his career. I grew up hearing about his projects and he would constantly snail-mail me newspaper articles about interesting buildings. I was also fascinated by the home additions and ground-up construction my parents undertook when I was a kid in North Carolina. The first project was a garage when I was about 3 years old, and though I only have vague memories of it, there is photo evidence of my early interest.
Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?
Kraus: My first job was on a construction site the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college. I worked for a construction manager/owner’s rep who was overseeing four general contractors building a 100-acre boarding high school. I worked in the on-site construction trailer and among the many things I learned, I got really good at taping faxes together to make one large architectural drawing for ASIs. It was a wonderful experience and I worked there for three summers. My boss told me he would only pay me minimum wage because what he was really paying me in was experience. He was absolutely correct.
Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role?
Kraus: I have a B.S. in architecture from the University of Michigan, a Master of Architecture from Yale University, LEED certification and am a licensed architect. Architecture school teaches you to think critically, express your ideas clearly and defend your work when it is questioned, which are all very useful life skills. Learning in an environment where you are encouraged to think outside the box taught me that there is almost always a way to achieve your goal; you just have to put in the time and effort to make it happen. My first big role was working at Selldorf Architects. One of my graduate school professors introduced me to the firm and it turned out to be a wonderful connection. I learned so much while working there and am very thankful for the experience.
Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?
Kraus: As an architect, I understand a lot about how to design and build buildings to a budget, but my architectural training did not prepare me for the complexities of the financial side of multifamily real estate development. In my role at BHSDM I’ve learned a lot in the last couple years about loans, lenders, ROIs and the like. If I were back in school, a couple classes on finance would be a smart addition to my coursework.
Bisnow: What were you doing before you got into CRE? Did you bring anything with you from your past career that has helped you thrive in CRE?
Kraus: After graduate school, I worked at Selldorf Architects and then on my own prior to joining BHSDM. Though architecture is a related field to CRE, it’s very different sitting on the design side rather than the owner’s side of the table. I spend my days now being a link between the design, marketing, brokerage and ownership teams. They each have tremendous skill sets and knowledge but don’t always speak the same language. Having been on both sides, I try to bridge the gaps so everyone on the team can work together efficiently to create successful projects.
Bisnow: Can you remember a moment where you felt in over your head or you worried this industry wasn’t for you? Did you ever think about quitting? What changed?
Kraus: As a woman in this industry, I have had many challenging experiences. I am often the only woman at the meeting table or on a construction site, which can be simultaneously empowering and intimidating. I have had to work diligently to have my voice heard in a traditionally male profession. I never entertained quitting. The stubborn streak in me has always been determined to push through the challenges rather than be defeated by them.
Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?
Kraus: When I first started working in New York City, everything seemed big — the city itself, the number of people, the construction costs of projects, the list of things to learn. More than a dozen years in, I’ve adjusted my baseline for what’s big. Now I have no trouble discussing a $400M project sellout or giving someone directions from Midtown to Gowanus. I’ve also learned that the NYC design industry is a very small world. Everyone knows each other and is happy to make connections, which helps make a big city feel more manageable.
Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE?
Kraus: My first boss had a huge influence on me. He trusted that even though I had very little experience, I was smart and eager to learn. He often threw me into the deep end with new tasks but always gave me the tools to stay afloat. I learned by figuring things out and getting my hands dirty, sometimes literally dirty given the mud on-site. One of the partners at Selldorf Architects was also a wonderful mentor. She is a very talented architect and not only taught me a lot about the profession and design but also gave me the best constructive criticism of my career. It was hard to hear sometimes but I carry the lessons I learned from her with me every day.
Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?
Kraus: Years ago, it was pointed out to me that I had a tendency to react negatively when big changes were made late in the life cycle of a project. I was focused on all the time and effort that had gone into the project and how much it would take to make the changes. My boss told me to relax and realize that I am part of a larger team — it’s not on my shoulders alone to get things done. She said, “I can’t really explain how it happens, but somehow things work out most of the time and you just have to trust the team.” The critique was spot on and I’m much better at rolling with the punches now.
Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?
Kraus: This is not an industry for the faint of heart. You have to have a thick skin, a lot of initiative and be able to work with a wide variety of people. It takes a huge team of people to get buildings built. Understanding your role on the team and how to add value is what can make or break your success.
Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?
Kraus: I am very proud and thankful for how my career has turned out to date and I don’t have many regrets. I’d definitely tell my younger self to sleep more during school. If I had to totally start over in a different field, I’ve always been curious about medicine and would maybe pursue that.