One woman’s decades-long journey into leadership

How a trailblazer effortlessly navigates the complexities of large-scale projects

While collaborating with our client on the design of the Louis A. Simpson and Kimberly K. Querrey Biomedical Research Center for Northwestern University—a massive state-of-the-art facility housing labs and laboratory support for over 200 principal investigators and 1,450 researchers—the color blue became a topic of friendly debate. “The dean insisted he wanted blue glass because he liked the glass on another building in Chicago,” says Bonnie Humphrey, the university’s Director of Design. “Only that glass—which was also the glass we were planning to use on our research center—isn’t actually blue.”

So Bridget Lesniak, a Managing Principal in our Chicago studio who led the design team on the project, rented a limo and took the dean and other key decision makers to the building to compare the glass for themselves. Once they saw the sample glass next to the building’s facade, “the dean admitted it wasn’t really blue,” Humphrey remembers. “Bridget just had a great way of creatively navigating a potentially difficult situation while remaining warm and personable.” Adds Lesniak: “It’s always great to have a client that really wants good design and respects what we do.”

At 624,700 square feet, the Simpson Querrey Biomedical Research Center is the largest building—and arguably one of the most important—at the Feinberg School of Medicine. It was also the first time Lesniak and members of her hand-picked team had designed a double skin façade, adding further complexity a building that features a separate curved façade on its opposite side. “That’s the joy of the job, tackling a problem you haven’t before,” she says. “The bigger and more complicated, the better.”

Successfully navigating such challenges offers the ultimate reward: satisfied clients. “I love the façade and views toward the lake from the inside,” Humphrey says. “It’s just a beautiful composition.”

Lesniak points out: “At the ribbon cutting ceremony, when the dean talked about the advancements that science has brought to human health, I was on the verge of tears. That was one of the highlights of my career.”

The transparent lobby seamlessly connects Simpson Querrey to the Lurie Research Building and is the very visible heart of research on the medical campus.
“The key is understanding what organizations value. You have to know what they need to make their decisions.”

—Bridget Lesniak, Principal

A Diverse Skillset

Over her tenure, Lesniak has worked on projects across just about every practice area. The secret to her diverse resume, she says, is listening to her clients. “I’m able to bring all my experience from other projects to them.”

With over two decades of that experience, Lesniak has become a leader within the firm. Since joining in 1999, she’s been elevated to Principal. Her big break was managing the design of a complex Los Angeles courthouse. While the project ultimately didn’t get built due to a lack of federal government funding, it charted the course for Lesniak’s success in the decades to come. She’s spent much of that time collaborating with celebrated Perkins&Will architects Ralph Johnson and Jerry Johnson.

“It’s really about mutual respect. I respect their talent and I think Ralph and Jerry respect what I bring to projects,” Lesniak says. “Everyone who comes to Perkins&Will does so because they love design. That’s why I came here—to work on projects that have a high level of design excellence.”

To date, she has overseen more than $1 billion in built work, from healthcare to corporate and commercial interiors. “The key is understanding what organizations value,” she points out. “You have to know what they need to make their decisions.”

The Chicago native is known for her project management skills both inside the firm and out. “Bridget was fabulous at navigating the various constituencies and developing the consensus needed to move on,” Humphrey says. “She managed and respected her design team while translating our needs to them. She spoke both languages.”

Lesniak believes this language fluency comes down to two things: forming the right in-house team, and always looking forward. “I’m the person who says, ‘Here’s where we have to be and here’s how we get there. It’s that leadership that gets us over the finish line, and that’s what I bring to those really large projects.”

The Louis A. Simpson and Kimberly K. Querrey Biomedical Research Center for Northwestern University in Chicago provided a challenge with its technical infrastructure needs to support research, connect to adjacent research buildings, and have the capacity for vertical expansion.
Once completed, Elements Labs will feature four research levels atop an amenity floor and underground parking levels.

Today, she is working on Element Labs, a commercial laboratory building for the University Research Park, an affiliate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, consisting of four research levels on top of an amenity floor and underground parking. It’s the type of big, complex, multifunctional project that her name has become synonymous with.

“She’s got a great Midwestern temperament,” says Paul Muench, Director of Real Estate for the University Research Park. “And she helped me negotiate with the designers and structural people. Sometimes I wanted the Cadillac but needed the Buick, and she helped get me there.”

Once a project is underway, Lesniak’s team divides and conquers duties as she oversees the larger strategy. In fact, she gives credit to her team for her ability to stay organized. “Our science and technology projects are very complicated,” she says. “You need a big team on them because it’s inevitable that a whole set of challenges you haven’t personally dealt with before are going to come up.”

“She conducts the band,” says Muench. “It’s very harmonious.”

“Bridget just provides that balance every project needs. She’s amazing to work with.”

—Bonnie Humphrey, Director of Design, Northwestern University

Further Trailblazing

Though Lesniak’s reputation in the industry has blossomed thanks to her hard work and strong results, shifting social climates—both at the firm and around the world—have positioned her as somewhat of a trailblazer.

“Before joining Perkins&Will, I never had a woman as a mentor because there were almost no women in that professional position. And I never worked for anybody senior to me in architecture who was a woman until Gina Berndt became the Managing Director of the Chicago studio in 2013.”

The architecture industry and the culture that defines it have changed a lot over her tenure, she says. Indeed, across the industry, a growing number of women are being elevated to leadership positions where they can instill real change. “It’s completely different from when I was starting out, so that’s obviously a good and important step forward,” she says.

Now, Lesniak is looking at how else she can advance architecture and design, whether that’s by continuing to push sustainability; further championing Living Design; or achieving social equity between project teams, clients, and the surrounding community.

That includes giving credit where it is due. “Architecture is really a team sport; I lean on people all the time,” she says. “There’s a whole host of people backing up design talent that I hope know how much their efforts are appreciated.”

They appreciate her, too.

“Bridget just provides that balance every project needs,” Humphrey says. “She’s amazing to work with.”

Lesniak reviewing a drawing during construction of the Biomedical Research Center.