Blima Ehrentreu Leans On Design to Foster Change in CRE

The CEO of The Designers Group works toward a more inclusive design and construction field in more ways than one

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The New York Build Expo recently tapped Blima Ehrentreu, CEO of The Designers Group (TDG), as a women in construction ambassador — for the third time. The move underscores her reputation for promoting diversity in a field that men have traditionally led

Since Ehrentreu founded TDG in 2009, the Toronto-based multidisciplinary interior design firm has grown from solely a focus on residential properties to working with developers throughout the commercial real estate spectrum with new offices in Brooklyn and Miami. In addition to expanding TDG, Ehrentreu has continued to mentor other women looking to also make their mark in the CRE space.

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“The commercial real estate industry is definitely a male-dominated industry, but I am excited about the fact that we are a women-owned firm and leading the change,” Ehrentreu said. “I love that I have the opportunity to mentor other women and really be a part of the change that’s happening.”

TGD has tackled a wide variety of building design projects including partnering with Citadel Care Centers to renovate multiple rehabilitation and nursing facilities along the East Coast such as the Plaza Rehab & Nursing Center in the Bronx. The firms also teamed recently to implement upgrades at P&G Insurance’s office on 61st Street in Brooklyn. 

Aiding other women in the design and construction industries was always one of Ehrentreu’s goals when she launched her company, shortly after earning her master’s in fine arts from the Academy of Arts University in San Francisco. She had previously worked at an architectural firm with the goal of gaining a technical knowledge of what goes into design.

Ehrentreu’s mentoring has evolved since. She has hosted monthly Zoom networking meetups and, last summer, her firm launched what it calls TDG Insider. That encourages people interested in design careers to apply through a website for opportunities to spend a day shadowing members of the firm. 

“We have an incredible program where they get to see the different projects that we’re working on and get to meet with the designers and possibly ask any of them to mentor them and really open it up for people,” Ehrentreu said. “When I was in design school I thought I knew what design was about, but actually working in the industry and being part of so many transformative projects really changed the way I see it and I want people to be able to see that.”

In addition to empowering future female leaders, Ehrentreu is also proud of the diversity of her own team. It’s a workforce of people from different religions, ethnic backgrounds and countries, which she said helps bring more innovation to the table while also creating a more inclusive working environment. Her hiring process focuses heavily on not just skills, but also how candidates can enhance the firm’s culture through their unique backgrounds and perspectives. 

Efforts to improve diversity in design both internally and externally align with Ehrentreu’s initial goal of starting her own firm. That was to help improve the world through design by aspiring for each project to be as impactful as possible for the communities it serves. Ehrentreu said she pursues projects that promote equity such as affordable housing, urgent care centers and modernized education spaces in underserved communities. 

When it comes to designing amenity spaces for multifamily, office and healthcare buildings, Ehrentreu aims to “bring people together,” which took on a whole new meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic with more touchless surfaces and voice activation programs. One of the firm’s main specialities has become hospitality design, which she said is becoming more prevalent in healthcare environments and assisted living facilities.

“I always tell our healthcare clients we want the environment that the patients are in to match the level of care that the patients are receiving so when you walk in people should feel that right away,” Ehrentreu said. “So many of the facilities that we’re working on they have these amazing doctors, but when you walk into the building you don’t feel like that because it’s dilapidated, it’s dreary, and it’s old. So we’ve really approached our healthcare projects from that type of standpoint where when you check in you feel like you’re checking into a hotel.” 

Sustainability design is also becoming a big priority for Ehrentreu as landlords respond to increased demand from CRE investors to incorporate environmental features within their properties.  She said in addition to using sustainable materials for interior projects, the designs are geared toward making sure the improvements are long-lasting without the need for continual upgrades.

Amid challenges TDG has faced in recent years with changes to the CRE industry such as increased remote-working trends for office properties, Ehrentreu says she has always remembered that she entered the construction profession to make a difference through her platform. 

She has launched various charitable initiatives including one in September 2020 called the TDG Furniture Exchange where she matches companies in need of new furnishings with those looking to give items away. The program partnered with DUMBO Movers in New York to move the furniture for free and is in talks with another moving company in Miami about a similar arrangement.

“We’ve been able to help offices, we’ve been able to help people in their homes, and it’s just something that is very special for me to be able to be a part of,” Ehrentreu said of the program. “I do think that design is about making the world a better place and that’s one of the reasons that I chose design as my career. So using our firm as a place to start different charitable initiatives was always something super important to me.”

Andrew Coen can be reached at acoen@commercialobserver.com