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Women of Impact 2018

Owner, Principal, Dietz and Company Architects

She’s Long Had Designs on Building a Stronger Community

Photo by Dani Fine Photography

The course was titled “Architects as Leaders.”

Kerry Dietz taught it at UMass Amherst, her alma mater, several years ago. This was a one-off of sorts, she told BusinessWest, adding that there was a critical mass of students interested in this material — which amounted to insight and instruction not on how to design structures, but rather on how architects could and should become leaders within their communities — and circumstances haven’t permitted her to teach it again.

But while that class is no longer in the catalog, ‘architect as leader’ has been a course of action for Dietz — and those who have come to work for her over the past 30 years or so. It’s a phrase that defines her career more than any building or office interior she’s designed, and it explains, better than any other three-word phrase we can find, why she is a Woman of Impact.

Examples of this mindset abound — from her time spent on the Springfield Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals to her company’s involvement with several area nonprofits, from Revitalize CDC to Habitat for Humanity, to her decision to locate her growing company in Union Station at a time when that massive project was fairly desperate to land a high-profile tenant.

And then, there was the company’s 30th birthday party.

Rather than celebrate with a cake or maybe lunch on the town, the employees at Dietz & Company, as a group, decided to use that occasion to give back within the community, in a big way.

She took that number 30, added three more zeroes, and put a dollar sign at the front. And then, she and her team set about finding appropriate ways to bestow that amount on members of the community.

“She has also been an inspiration to me personally in promoting and supporting social-issue programs that support food and housing for the homeless, veterans’ housing, and health and scholarship funding for low-income students and families.”

Throughout the course of the year, a cookout was hosted by Dietz & Company staff for veterans of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, and a monetary donation was made to assist with the home’s Veteran’s History video project. Also, a monetary donation was made and staff members volunteered their time to help make repairs to the home of a low-income Springfield resident as part of Revitalize CDC’s Green-n-Fit Neighborhood Rebuild. And $25,000 worth of materials and projects were funded for Springfield teachers through a competition in which initiative and impact were honored for educators going the extra mile to help and encourage the success of their students.

It was Dietz’s concept, but it was a company-wide effort.

“I basically said, ‘here’s my idea — the broad stroke,’” she recalled. “And people ran with it. As a company, we figured out who we wanted to support, and they (team members) did all the organizing. All you have to do sometimes is say, ‘let’s do it.’”

But Dietz has never waited for round-number anniversaries to become active and get herself — and her firm — involved. And in doing so, she has become not only an employer, but an inspirational leader, role model to those in this profession, and mentor.

“Kerry has committed her life to promoting women in the practice of architecture by promoting a fair work environment in her firm and as a leader in the Massachusetts architectural and business community,” said Kevin Riordon, an architect at Dietz. “She has also been an inspiration to me personally in promoting and supporting social-issue programs that support food and housing for the homeless, veterans’ housing, and health and scholarship funding for low-income students and families.”

While doing all that work within the community, Dietz has established herself within the field of architecture, one long dominated by men. She owns one of the largest firms in the region, and has carved out several strong niches, especially in affordable housing and education.

It is this combination of excellence in her field and career-long designs on finding ways to strengthen the community that has placed her in the inaugural class of Women of Impact.

From the Ground Up

Deitz traced the ‘architects as leaders’ concept — as a college course but also the M.O. for her career — to a summit she attended in the early ’80s that was hosted by the American Institute of Architects.

It was memorable because it was not what she was expecting.

“It wasn’t about how to be a good supervisor or how to do marketing and make more money — it wasn’t that kind of thing,” she recalled. “Instead, it was about our place in the political world and within the community — what do you have to offer?”

Kerry Dietz, right, presents a donation to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke as part of her company’s 30th anniversary celebration. Several staff members are in the background.

Kerry Dietz, right, presents a donation to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke as part of her company’s 30th anniversary celebration. Several staff members are in the background.

And because of their training and the collaborative nature of their work, architects have quite a bit to offer, whether they fully understand that or not, she went on.

“If lawyers think they can run the world, and captains of industry think they can run the world, well … how about architects?” she asked rhetorically. “We receive an incredible amount of training on how to take a whole bunch of dissimilar thoughts and ideas and listen to a whole group of people, and pull it all together and create a building. And even before that, a vision of a building; it’s all really about listening to people and synthesizing all that.

“These are core skills the world needs,” she went on, adding that a commitment to putting these skills to work has guided her firm, not only in its design efforts, but within the community as well. And it’s been that way pretty much since she got into this business more than 40 years ago.

Our story starts in Ohio, where Dietz grew up and later attended Kent State University, majoring in architecture. She was one of just four women in a class of 150.

“Kerry is an outstanding example of what it means to be a community-oriented businesswoman. She is an extremely positive influence and role model for young professionals and the next generation of architects.”

After earning her master’s in architecture from Michigan State University, she worked for a few firms in Western Mass. before partnering with Phil Burdick and launching a firm that would bear both their names.

While that venture was short-lived, Dietz would go into business for herself, opening Dietz & Company Architects in 1985. It has been a staple in downtown Springfield ever since, growing from three employees to a high of 28 (currently 23).

Over those 34 years, Dietz and her staff have ridden out a number of economic downturns, which are felt in this field perhaps as much, if not more, than any other, and firmly established the firm as a leader in several areas, but especially the commercial, education, and housing realms.

The portfolio of recent projects includes the poker room and restrooms at the $960 million MGM Springfield as well as renovation of 95 State St., MGM’s local headquarters; bankESB’s banking center and corporate headquarters, as well as a number of other projects for that institution; 83 Maple St. in Springfield, the Merrick Phelps House historic preservation project; a new branch for the Bank of Western Massachusetts in Northampton; and many others.

In the education realm, the company has designed the UMass Center at Springfield facilities in Tower Square, the Hoffmann Environmental Center at Berkshire Community College, the King & Scales dormitories at Smith College, and numerous renovations and repair projects at Springfield Technical Community College, among countless others.

And in housing, recent projects include Parsons Village, multi-family housing in Easthampton; Roosevelt Towers, a multi-family project in Cambridge that is still ongoing; and Highland Woods, a multi-family and senior-housing project in Williamstown, among many others.

But while what she and her team have accomplished is certainly significant, it is how Dietz runs her company that sets her apart within the field of architecture — and makes it clear why she is a Woman of Impact.

Drawing Inspiration

And this brings us back to the company’s 30th-anniversary celebration, and also to that class she taught at UMass and the mindset behind it.

“We started reading these stories about how teachers were paying for stuff out of their own pockets and they can’t get tax deductions for it even,” she recalled. “And we thought, ‘what if we could fund some special projects that teachers wanted to do?”

Working in concert with Springfield School Volunteers, Dietz & Company invited teachers to visit a website and propose specific initiatives, listing motivations, goals, and possible outcomes. It was competition, but the company had enough money to fund all the requests.

“We had an awards ceremony at Central High School where we had wine and hors d’oeuvres for the teachers, because they don’t get recognized for all they do,” said Dietz. “And some of them are just amazing in terms of what they’re doing with the limited resources they have.”

The work with Springfield’s teachers, as noted, is just one example of the operating mindset at Deitz & Company, one that is perhaps best summed up in the company’s primary marketing slogan — ‘design that looks good, does good’ — with the supporting line: ‘with a collaborative and dynamic approach, our designs reflect the desire to create exceptional architecture that also serves.’

There is much that goes into those two words ‘good’ and ‘serves’ — everything from a focus on the environment to meeting the needs of the client; from preserving the past to sustainability. But behind it all is that focus on this firm, and especially its founder, being leaders in the community and setting a tone when it comes to giving back.

Indeed, when referring to Dietz, team members consistently use words and phrases like ‘mentor,’ ‘role model,’ and ‘inspiration’ to describe her as well as her approaches to architecture and community involvement.

“Kerry has shown an ongoing desire to give back to the community on many levels, from spearheading design-inspired solutions that serve the community through addressing housing and public-space needs, to a more grassroots-level approach by dedicating personal time and efforts to enrich the lives of others face-to-face,” said Mark Hellen, a project architect with the firm. “She continually teaches her staff and colleagues that there is great importance, and great need, in helping the communities that surround us in as many ways as possible.”

Jason Newman, another project architect, agreed.

“From the perspective of a young professional, Kerry’s drive to educate and develop the next generation of architects is as much present in her company as it is in the classroom,” he said. “She continually creates learning opportunities within the context of our work, and does not punish a mistake made with good intention.

“Our office is an environment of shared learning, equity, and support in all aspects of our operation,” he went on. “In my opinion, Kerry is an outstanding example of what it means to be a community-oriented businesswoman. She is an extremely positive influence and role model for young professionals and the next generation of architects.”

Newman took the class “Architects as Leaders.” He remembers it opening his eyes to the larger responsibilities of all people in business.

“We learned about public engagement, advocacy in local governments, and serving the greater context of the communities in which we work,” he told BusinessWest. “Our assignments throughout the semester included things like attending the local government meeting of our choice and forming conclusions on the social impact of the items on the agenda, good or bad. This class taught us the importance of being aware and participating in the big-picture issues at the forefront of our communities.”

The Bottom Lines

The big picture.

That’s always been what Kerry Dietz has been focused on.

That’s not the company’s bottom line — although she’s focused on that, too. Rather, it’s the health and vitality of the communities in which she lives, works, and designs buildings.

She doesn’t teach “Architects as Leaders” anymore — actually, time doesn’t permit her to do much, if any, teaching these days.

But she still lives by that credo, and so does her firm. And that’s a very solid foundation on which to build.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]