Architecture Job Fulfills Longtime Dream for Braganza Design’s Gross

By Stacey Wiedower

Wendy Gross was in the sixth grade when she first knew she wanted to be an architect.

Wendy Gross is a partner and principal in braganza design/Group, a Memphis architecture and planning firm.

(Photo Courtesy of braganza design/Group)

At the time, her parents were in the market for a new house, and every Sunday she’d ride around neighborhoods with them, rambling through half-constructed homes and attending open houses.

“When we’d get back home, my parents would be discussing the houses, arguing, ‘Oh, this house has this, that house was on that street,’ and I’d say, ‘No, it was like this,’” Gross said. “I could draw all the houses we’d visited.”

Her dad recognized that Gross had a gift and nurtured his daughter’s aspirations – even guiding her to Mississippi State University’s strong architecture program despite the fact he was a staunch Ole Miss fan, she said with a laugh. Fast forward a couple decades, and 2012 finds Gross a partner and principal in braganza design/Group, a Memphis full-service architecture and planning firm formed by the late architect Claude Braganza, who began his career in Memphis in 1961. Gross co-owns the business with architect Chris Norton.

Historically, Gross’ firm has completed educational and industrial projects for clients that include Memphis City Schools, Shelby County Schools and the Catholic Diocese of Memphis. The practice also has a history of design-build work in the industrial sector, and it’s done work for several companies that make building products.

More recently, braganza design/Group has branched into sports and recreation, completing projects like the revamped Elma Roane Fieldhouse at the University of Memphis and the Mid-South Ice House ice arena in Olive Branch.

“The recreation side is starting to come full circle here,” Gross said.

For her, though, it’s the planning side of her work – regardless of project type – that gets her going.

“I’m kind of the big-picture girl,” she said. “I like to see the master plan and the flow of spaces and the way spaces merge and interact. My partner is more focused on the details, like how things are assembled. That helps our partnership, that one of us is more detail-oriented and one of us is focused on the big picture. I really enjoy planning and solving the owners’ problems.”

Along with her work in the field, Gross spends her time as an advocate for the field of architecture. For three years, she’s served as director of Women in Architecture, an affiliate group of American Institute of Architects Memphis.

“Every year, there seem to be more and more women coming out of architecture school,” she said. “In 1998, about 25 percent of my class was female, and that was a large number for that time. Now it’s approaching 40 percent easily. How do we mentor these girls into the job to help them become licensed and to help them become business owners and project managers?”

It’s a mission she’s passionate about, and through WIA, she’s led projects that include a day camp for Girl Scouts, who spend a day at the AIA office learning about the field, doing hands-on projects and ultimately earning an architecture badge. The next camp, open to Girl Scouts in grades four to six, takes place Saturday, Oct. 20. WIA recently hosted Books-Chocolate, a fundraiser for the U of M architecture and design library. And quarterly, it hosts educational and philanthropic events for members. In 2013-2014, the group plans to start a series of dinner clubs aimed at raising money for various nonprofits.

Looking back on what she’s achieved so far in her field, Gross is grateful for that early start that led her down the path of doing something she loves.

“I’d never developed another dream,” she said. “When I got to school, I panicked a little – I said, ‘What if it doesn’t work out?’ But I was good at art and I was good at math. It’s what my brain was built for.”

Owning a business and being a principal in a firm at her young age goes beyond the dreams Gross had for herself, and she’s grateful for that too.

“It wasn’t on my radar to happen,” she said. “Things lined up for me without my even planning them. You do the work beforehand and the plans happen naturally, but I can’t say I ever had a vision board or timeline that said, ‘I’m going to be an architect at this age and a principal at this age.’”

The economic downturn that coincided with Gross and Norton’s purchase of braganza design/Group wasn’t on the vision board, either. But Gross said she and Norton now feel they’ve been tested – and they hope they’ve survived the worst.

“Our business is definitely on the upswing,” she said. “2011 was a really good year for us, and 2012 hasn’t disappointed. Hopefully there are better things to come in 2013 and 2014.”