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Weekend Interview: Buro Happold Managing Director Jennifer Price

This series gets into the heads of the decision-makers of CRE, the people shaping the industry by setting investment strategy, workplace design, diversity initiatives and more.

Jennifer Price is U.S. managing director and partner of Buro Happold, a 2,200-person global engineering and consultancy firm. She joined the firm in June to lead a Seattle-based 12-office region, which has 300 employees.

A passion for diversity and inclusion has been a driving force in her career, which has included senior management positions with GHD, CH2M and AECOM

Buro Happold is best known for its work on New York’s High Line, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, London’s Olympic Park and Stadium, and Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It has stated its intention to double from 2,000 to 4,000 employees globally in the next six years.

The following has been lightly edited for style and clarity.

Buro Happold Managing Director Jennifer Price with her dog, Maile

Bisnow: Baron Rothschild once said the “time to buy is when there’s blood in the streets.” Where is the blood today?

Price: It is such a turbulent time in the social and political world, and the landscape is changing rapidly, every day it seems. Among other world events, I see the current economic instability and recovery from the far-reaching effects of the Covid-19 pandemic as driving forces behind the state of the design, construction and real estate markets. The unpredictable economy has influenced many trends across markets, creating an unstable but potentially innovative moment for cities and organizations, and especially in the architecture, engineering and construction worlds. These are places where Buro Happold excels, so I’m excited to join the firm.

There is a new demand for better, more functional and more sustainable public spaces and commercial and institutional settings. We need more magnetic, livable cities and campuses, and if companies and other organizations are able to keep up with the quickly shifting demands, there are big opportunities for new, interdisciplinary solutions to come out of this moment. 

Bisnow: What is your most controversial CRE opinion and why are you right about it?

Price: Commitment to sustainability in the commercial real estate world leaves much to be desired. Many CRE investors and their project teams have mandates for environmental and social governance, or ESG, but many don't understand how to meet these mandates or may only be paying lip service to these initiatives. There remains a huge need for hands-on, actionable solutions. With a shift toward regenerative and carbon-reducing practices — net-zero and all-electric buildings, for example, or mass timber structures — there is huge potential in construction and real estate to make significant environmental gains while boosting economic output. On the social side, even CRE leaders are just scratching the surface of equity opportunities. Those who are out front are creating better outcomes for clients and communities everywhere. Watch them.

In everything from business operations to engineering innovation to the built environment, CRE strategies can always benefit from a greater focus on ESG initiatives. Buro Happold is working with commercial, institutional and government teams that, like us, value sustainability and equity above all else. Their successes have the widest, most resilient impacts.

Bisnow: If you weren’t in real estate, what path would your career have taken?

Price: I’d love to say professional soccer or ski racing, two longtime passions, but that isn't realistic. Really, it was studying environmental engineering and getting my MBA that set this big adventure in motion. Over the years, I came to see how dedication to diversity and equity would come to define my personal goals, and this would be a defining value even if my career had taken a different track. Outside of running AEC businesses and working with municipalities and public utilities on strategic planning, I’ve been mentoring women and championing the cause of gender equality in business more generally. While women are particularly underrepresented in many CRE and AEC fields, there is also a need for greater representation across a majority of professional industries. I have always been passionate about supporting the cause of gender equality, and I’m confident it would have played a central role in my career no matter what. In more recent years, I’ve been moving along my own anti-racism journey. It takes personal work, and we all have to lean into it and do our own reading and hard work.

Bisnow: If you could make one change to the industry, what would it be?

Price: Let’s all ask a key question: How can the CRE industries do more to support diversity and inclusivity in our work together? Although there have been many improvements, there is still a huge disparity in the representation of women- and minority-led companies, for example. My dream is to see more real estate leaders champion a new culture that emphasizes inclusivity and gives a greater platform to those underrepresented groups. Through work in business operations and strategy but also in consulting and design, I strive to promote this goal by creating programs and establishing different norms for a more equitable professional landscape. In my leadership role at Buro Happold, one of my personal goals is to further the mission of equality and representation, hopefully creating an example that can help make the shift to a more inclusive culture in the wider CRE ecosystem.

Buro Happold's Jennifer Price with her partner, Michael Towillis, on a Seattle Harbor cruise

Bisnow: What is one thing you would do differently from early in your career?

Price: Good question. I think I would have begun my work investing in communities much earlier. While I’ve been in Seattle for a long time, my family is from Detroit and early on developed a soft spot for the reinvention and revitalizing of cities like Detroit. I’m excited because Buro Happold is involved in several massive redevelopments in Detroit right now, millions of square feet, which is gratifying. Another early focus was improving our livable cities, both in terms of mobility and clean urban waterways, which are part of today’s infrastructure bill and related spending. So while I would have looked into these directions sooner, fortunately, they’re on my plate in my new post and will build on my work with municipalities and city leaders.

Bisnow: As a leader, how do you decide who is worth mentoring and who is simply not a good fit?

Price: My experience as a mentor is strongly focused on supporting women and other underrepresented groups. My leadership strengths help me to uplift female entrepreneurs in the business and to create new opportunities for women and other underrepresented groups. In my new role as U.S. managing director and partner at Buro Happold, it has been exciting to collaborate on new initiatives for equity, and it has been inspiring to take part as a mentor in the firm’s push for women in leadership. 

And I’ve seen what has happened to women in various fields — including my own mother, a math major and early computer coder — who were sidelined because they lacked mentors in their upper ranks. In this new role, my goal is to make it a better space for the women coming up behind me. Following in my mother’s example, I endeavor to be both a mentor and role model for women who face unique challenges and roadblocks in their careers in a male-dominated field.

Bisnow: What are your thoughts on the metaverse? Does it have any relevance for CRE?

Price: Yes, it has real relevance for CRE, though maybe not as much as an investment opportunity or a virtual replacement for actual real estate. It will intertwine as a marketing tool, as a place for people who take their avatars seriously, and as a test bed for innovation. The metaverse seems unlikely to replace real-life interactions, but over time, it opens doors to transformation opportunities that really matter.

The fact is, technology moves so much faster than CRE. If we ignore the metaverse, we risk missing opportunities created with new, cutting-edge tools. I believe firmly in digitization: In five to 10 years, a lot of what we do will be automated, and generative design will advance real estate solutions. Buro Happold has been focused on using building information modeling and virtual simulations to test and implement innovations in sustainability and radically unique buildings, like the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. These applications could be even more valuable in the metaverse. Our modeling of people flow has led to breakthroughs in fan experiences in new soccer venues like London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, for example, applying game engines to simulate possible scenarios. Our centralized, open-source codebase, using the Building Habitat object Model, creates a global resource and super-fast delivery of CRE solutions. Imagine these ideas applied on the scale of the metaverse.

Buro Happold Managing Director Jennifer Price

Bisnow: What do you see as the lasting impacts of the pandemic on CRE? 

Price: One of the biggest shifts caused by the pandemic is recognition that healthy spaces make for healthy people. This has created a whole new perspective on how to cultivate our relationship with both the built and natural environments. I’m excited to be working with an expert global team of consultants and engineers focused entirely on how to design airports, museums, workplaces, schools, labs, hospitals, retail centers and more that are ready for monkeypox or whatever may be coming our way.

Even more so, Buro Happold’s work on livable cities and livable communities got a huge boost from meeting pandemic challenges. After Covid reshaped our lives, we still ended up needing real, physical connection. We haven’t replaced that community concept, so the goal now is to make our cities and communities more livable and vital.

The renewed focus on healthy buildings and spaces has been an exciting shift to see. With a public newly focused on well-being and integrated design, commercial real estate continues to get better and better. This is especially true in cities, where the pandemic was the most disruptive to communities. I think the pandemic has caused an acceleration in this area, especially in urban centers. 

Bisnow: As you know, there is a massive conversation underway regarding advancing more people of color and women into the C-suite. What are you doing to address those voices and that movement within your own organization?

Price: Representation matters, and I’m excited to be part of the push for greater equity and diversity in our industry. It has been a theme in my career, and in this new leadership role, I’ll continue the firm’s success in fighting for new opportunities for talented women and minority professionals. This will further the larger movement for equity in commercial real estate and construction, one step at a time. At Buro Happold, we are setting new benchmarks with respect to diversity, including gender diversity in the male-dominated fields of engineering and for overall cultural diversity, inclusion and justice. 

I’ve been on an anti-racism journey for years. It takes personal commitment, and we all have to lean into it and do our own reading and hard work. We have to be able to listen to experts in areas where we aren’t experts. We have to set metrics and meet agreed targets, eventually creating a new working norm. We’ll see success when we have diverse teams at all levels bringing best solutions to projects and clients. Inspired by the women leaders before me, I want to help blaze that path. 

Bisnow: So, this is the weekend interview. What’s your typical weekend routine?

Price: In my spare time, when not driving my three boys around Seattle, I am an avid skier and hiker and still play soccer whenever I have the chance. The weekends might require a bit of homework, of course, and some time with my nonprofit boards at Futurewise and Leadership Tomorrow. But weekends need to be a time for recharging and reflecting, and there’s no better place than outdoors in the Cascades or the Olympic Range, or in view of Mount Rainier, which inspires me every time I look at it.