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Architect makes historical mark

Jennifer Ahrens is so passionate about her work as an architect that she recently bought half-ownership in the company for which she works, Bero Architecture PLLC, and now shares the title of co-partner.

Bero Architecture has a strong reputation throughout New York for its work preserving and rehabilitating older buildings. That skill aligns perfectly with Ahrens’ personal and professional interest in historical architecture. There is not anything else she would rather do.

“I love my job, I really do,” she says. “It’s crazy, but I can talk about this stuff forever. Fortunately, I work with people who also love what we do.”

As an architect and preservation consultant, Ahrens evaluates buildings, makes recommendations for repairs and provides estimates regarding cost and the time required to complete each project. She has a deep knowledge of what she calls “archaic materials,” such as slate roofing and copper flashing, that are not used often in modern construction.

“Design work on older buildings is challenging because we try to make the building evolve to meet the needs of the owner, but we also want to be respectful of the materials and history we encounter,” she says. “We need to meet modern codes, but we also want to preserve the building’s character and sense of place. I find it challenging and exciting.”

An Italian awakening

A 1989 graduate of the Rush-Henrietta Central School District, Ahrens grew up knowing which career she did not want to pursue.

“My whole family consists of educators, so I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher,” she says, with a laugh. “I was in my junior year of high school when an architect came in as part of a career day. I had always been fascinated by designs and buildings. I said, ‘Wow, he takes pictures and he walks through buildings. That sounds like a really neat job.’

With strong skills in math and science, Ahrens started building a portfolio.

“The process is somewhat different now because everything is so computer-based,” she says, “but back then we were really drawing, creating actual art.”

While in college and studying abroad in Florence, Italy, Ahrens began to appreciate the importance of architecture in everyday life.

“I discovered that buildings do make up the fabric of a place, and I came to realize how important they are in our lives,” she recalls. “They provide a texture to the environment and it does affect how you feel. I realized I wanted to work on older buildings.

“Maintaining them and preserving them is important, not only on this level, which is psychological, but it also environmentally is the right thing to do. These buildings were built to be durable and they were meant to last.”

Ahrens received her bachelor’s degree in architecture from Syracuse University in 1996. She soon joined Bero Architecture, then left in 2001 for some out-of-state life adventures, living in Illinois and Washington. She returned to Rochester in 2010 to the Certified Women’s Business Enterprise firm she now co-owns.

Founded in 1976 by John Bero, Bero Architecture has two owners and six employees.

The company declined to disclose its revenues. The number of projects they take on varies from year to year, depending on how big or small those projects are.

“We do feel strongly that we don’t take on more work than we can manage in an effective, detailed manner,” Ahrens says.

Ahrens is dedicated, personable and smart, says Virginia Searl, her partner at Bero Architecture.

“Jennifer understands what our clients need and want, transforming ideas into something that can be implemented by contractors who must make them reality,” she says. “She is very organized, a trait I admire and one to which I aspire. She is also kind, generous and a great parent to her two children. I am delighted and fortunate to have her as a business partner and lucky to have her as a friend.”

Ahrens frequently works on the road, traveling to meet with customers, and she sometimes can be found in the most unexpected places.

“You will often find me on the roof with roofing contractors, touching the materials and trying to understand how they do it,” she says. “That just makes us better architects. We have a firm belief that we are working with craftspeople, and that is how we view them.

“It’s amazing what some of these people can do. Today, we met with the person who is the high bid on one of our projects, and he’s an amazing problem-solver. We want to be in on the problem-solving.”

In May, Ahrens visited Cornell University in Ithaca to discuss her work on Sage Hall, a onetime dormitory for women built in 1872. Today, the building continues to get heavy use while serving as home to the Graduate School of Management.

Her experience and expertise was an asset when the college needed the historical building’s exterior doors assessed.

“I first went in and did an evaluation of the existing condition for the doors to determine if the doors and door hardware should be replaced,” Ahrens says. “We ended up replacing four of the six main doors. One was original to the building. We discovered that by researching archival photos that Cornell University has and reviewing the original building drawings. We are putting mahogany doors on that are much more like those found originally on the building.”

The Ithaca Landmark Preservation Commission will review the proposed changes to the historic building, and then the contractor who won the bid will be able to proceed. Plans call for the work to start in July and be finished by the end of August.

Another historic building, St. James Episcopal Church in Skaneateles, Onondaga County, also has benefited from Ahrens’ expertise, as well as her “delightful and easygoing personality,” says Becky Coerper, church rector.

“We have completed three of four phases in the scope of the entire project, and the fourth phase is slated for groundbreaking (this summer),” she says. “The construction and renovation thus far is phenomenal. It met and surpassed our design goals both in form and function.

“Local residents and visitors have been awed by the beauty of the work, and parishioners—who have the greatest stake in the outcome of changes like this—have been universally thrilled with the beautiful and respectful way in which the renovations and improvements blend with the original character of the building.”

Old books, old buildings

Ahrens, 46, lives in Brighton with her children, Sarah 15, and John, 11. She is engaged to Rich Oxley, a local computer consultant, and the couple is to marry this summer.

“He’s not into old buildings at all,” she acknowledges.

As a working mother, she understands full well the delicate balancing act required to get everything done at work and at home.

“My kids are at the age where I am driving them and watching them,” she says. “My daughter and son both love to play sports. She is in club volleyball and softball, and my son plays soccer and baseball. Right now, my life is buildings and baseball.”

In her free time, Ahrens enjoys walking her dog, Finn, a 14-month-old golden feist, at Durand-Eastman Park, near Oxley’s home. This physical activity, along with vegetable gardening, exercises her body and her busy mind. She also loves to spend time reading  fiction; Richard Russo and Alice Sebold are two of her favorite authors.

“I love classics, like anything by Charlotte Bronte, too,” she says. “I like to mix it up.”

Unlike some avid readers, who read a book once and never revisit it, Ahrens is fond of picking up an old favorite again. As with her architectural work, reading gives her an opportunity to visit another time and place.

“I reread the same books because I savor them,” she says. “When I really like an author, I can reread everything they have written.”

Still, it seems Ahrens would rather be working than reading, letting her true passion for historical preservation shine. Breathing new life into older buildings allows her to fully appreciate the stark contrast between majestic workmanship done in the past and modern construction.

“Everything today is dictated by the construction schedule and money, and it’s almost as if buildings are disposable,” she says. “Back in the day, they didn’t build like that.”

Travis Anderson is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

 Jennifer Ahrens

Title: Partner and Architect, Bero Architecture PLLC

Age: 46
Education: Syracuse University, bachelor’s degree in architecture, 1996

Family: fiance, Rich Oxley; children, Sarah, 15, and John, 11

Residence: Brighton

Hobbies: Walking her dog, reading fiction, vegetable gardening

Quote: “We want to be in on the problem-solving.”

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

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