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Alumni News: AJ Breneman


Why did you chose the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design? What drew you to architecture and design?

Like many high school graduates, I was looking for a reputable and affordable state school. On top of that, the school also needed an accredited 5-year architecture program. I also wanted to find a school where I could make a life for myself after graduation, primarily so I would never have to move again. I had my small list of schools to check out. During my search, I was notified I had received a full scholarship opportunity in my hometown. Coincidentally, the scholarship donor was a UH alum who had nothing but wonderful things to share about the university. After visiting campus, and spending time in the city, I knew UH was a good fit for me.

Ever since middle school, I knew I wanted to be an architect. My dad was an engineer, so my interest piqued early on around the planning and problem-solving aspects of his career. I, however, wanted more control over the aesthetics of his work. All throughout my schooling, he was more interested in understanding how the MEP systems of one of my projects worked, rather than what it actually looked like! Despite our varied interests, he was my biggest cheerleader.

What was your career path after graduation?

My 5thyear design studio professor, Jeffrey Brown, offered me a design position in his firm. I started at Powers Brown Architecture the Monday after graduation. I interned under two senior designers and Brown for a few years. Being a member of such a small design team allowed me the opportunity to work on a variety of project types, and also interact with clients early in my career. As the firm, design team, and workload grew, so did my experience. I soon became a Senior Project Designer, eventually taking over management of our design studio. I served in that role for 9 of my 13 years with the firm. By the middle of last year, I transitioned out of the day-to-day design studio responsibilities to move into my current role as a Principal at the firm.

What does a typical day look like in your job?  Do you have a particular design philosophy?

A typical day?! That’s tough to describe…how about a typical week? A week for me would consist of the following tasks, in no particular order, and some repeating multiple times: internal meetings with design team, reviewing drawings, attending client meetings, client management, attending networking/marketing events, seeking out project opportunities and responding to Requests For Proposals, fee writing, and sometimes, drawing – all of this on top of doing the behind-the-scenes work with my partners that is necessary to run a successful business.

What is one accomplishment of your career that you are particularly proud of? How do you feel that the college prepared you for this?

Serving as the lead designer for the Daikin campus in Waller is something I am most proud of. It is a 4.3 million sq. ft. office, conferencing center, and manufacturing and distribution facility. It was the largest project our firm had ever worked on. I collaborated with different teams within the client’s organization to determine what their needs were and could ultimately look like. Learning how to be a team member, and then how to lead a team, was a valuable skill I was able to develop in design studio.

What does it mean to you to be the first woman principal at your firm in Houston?

It is definitely an honor. The makeup of our profession has changed so much, even since I began my career – and not just for women. I am proud to say our leadership team, across all of our offices, is evidence of that.

What is a valuable lesson that you learned during your time at the UH Hines College of Architecture and Design?  

This might sound insignificant, but time-management was a valuable lesson I learned as a student. When you are in a design studio, you don’t just have an assignment to complete before the next class. You have a project that is due at the end of the semester. That sounds like a long time, and most people do 75% of the work in the last week leading up to jury. For the first few juries, this was my strategy. I hated it. Presenting your project when you look horrible and haven’t slept in days is the worst feeling. I quickly learned how to breakdown a design problem into manageable pieces that I could complete over the course of the semester, all the while balancing a full course load and working retail.

What is a piece of advice you would give to current architecture and design students? More specifically, how would you encourage women entering the field of architecture? 

If I could have done anything different, I would have been more involved in the profession while I was still in school. I would encourage students to apply for a summer internship at a local firm and look into student opportunities within the local AIA. Go outside of your school and start building your network! You never know who you are going to meet and what opportunities may be out there.

For women pursuing architecture, or any career for that matter, know that you CAN do it all. I am a wife, a mother to 2 young boys, and an architect. Being a woman hasn’t been a hindrance for me. I would also suggest that if you ever find yourself in a situation where you are made to feel like it is a hindrance, move on. Part of being successful is finding the right fit between yourself and who you work for. There are so many different types of jobs and firms within the bandwidth of architecture that no one should have to settle for feeling less-than or undervalued. KNOW YOUR WORTH!