As a child, Bernadette Reyes McDermott stared up at the “cool” buildings of Walt Disney World and wondered who built them. This curiosity led to an architecture degree and subsequent career in design, general construction, and preconstruction, culminating in McDermott’s current role with Public Storage as its vice president of architecture and design. Now, she’s been tasked with driving the company’s rebranding effort, which leverages consistency and sustainability across 2,700 properties in 39 states.
A passion for environmentalism has long been a core value for McDermott. “I was that kid who picked up plastic on the beach because a turtle or bird might choke,” she says. Driven by interests in math, science, history, and drawing, McDermott earned her BArch in architecture as well as a BA in political science, followed by a number of certifications to accompany her architectural education—including DBIA and LEED certifications well before sustainability became mainstream.
In her late 20s and early 30s, McDermott was tasked with managing high-volume, large-budget projects like the Los Angeles Federal Courthouse and Hall of Justice, both in Los Angeles, and the New Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California, among many others. “Those big projects set the stage for the kind of person I wanted to be as a leader and manager,” she says.
With the help of various mentors, McDermott also learned to stand up for herself in an industry where young Hispanic women were rarely given the professional respect they were due. She says one mentor likes to ask, “Does what you do every day make you happy? If so, do it.” He also encourages the VP to be her “straight shooter self” and live authentically. “I’ve learned that by being myself and being straightforward helps me in the long run. I think that’s why I’ve earned respect from colleagues and industry partners and enjoyed lifelong relationships.”
When Public Storage hired McDermott in 2017, she initially focused on restructuring the team and streamlining processes. But soon she was asked what she would do differently—it was a question that ultimately catapulted the company into a seismic shift.
“I could have thrown out any pie-in-the sky idea, but I really came back to the fundamentals: how do we refresh our brand and connect our properties?” McDermott recalls. At the time, Public Storage was completing about 20 new projects a year, but since the company was also growing organically from acquisition, properties on the same block could look completely different.
McDermott was concerned that Public Storage’s new developments would “cannibalize our older portfolio,” she says. Her solution was to develop a kit of parts that looked the same but could modularize according to different sizes of office footprints and property needs through furniture and workstations. After beta testing revealed that targeted markets were already yielding higher returns, Public Storage dived into a full portfolio rebrand, dubbed “Property of Tomorrow,” scheduled for completion in 2025.
Because Public Storage owns and operates all its properties, McDermott’s team first aimed to streamline its prototype specifications. In parallel, there was an opportunity to start incorporating and leverage more sustainable best practices into the properties, both old and new. The company has a mission of maintaining a geographically diverse portfolio with low environmental impacts and adheres to it by outdoing itself year after year. For instance, in 2020 it reduced its carbon and water consumption and waste production by 12 percent from the year prior.
McDermott and her team have increased green efforts through means such as solar panel power installation and LED lighting conversion as well as the installation of cool roofs aimed to reduce its “heat island” effect to help reflect the solar heat gain into the building. Irrigation was another concern. Operational costs were high due to the high water consumption required to properly maintain lawns and non-native plants. McDermott and her team developed design guidelines that maximized the use of more ecologically friendly plants from local environments.
As the refit reduced maintenance costs, the company became, as McDermott puts it, “better stewards of the environment.” Plus, she adds, “it provided a nice curb appeal.”
McDermott has far more on her plate than the rebranding and sustainability initiatives—at the core of her work is finding ways to guide her team, especially as they work together to complete high-profile projects during the COVID-19 pandemic. The VP regularly pondered how to empower team members within a remote environment without micromanaging.
To stimulate organic creative discussions, she leverages software like Bluebeam, Microsoft Teams, RingCentral, and OneDrive; she also discovered the value of “touchpoints.” As a self-described people person, McDermott implemented virtual coffee breaks online for her team to bond, simulating the kind of off-work conversations they had previously enjoyed in office. Such day-to-day connections bring value, she explains, because they foster camaraderie. “When you’re in crunch mode working on high-volume projects with pressing deadlines, your team has to feel a connection to the work and to the team to drive its importance.”
But as Public Storage grows, it is faced with a ubiquitous challenge—the dwindling hiring pool. Since 2008, there has been a downturn of people entering the build professions. As a result, there are less industry recruits today, and those who would have been primed for middle management are simply missing. “I have more work and not enough people applying for work,” McDermott says, adding she is literally competing with her husband, who is also in the construction business, for the same talent.
Perhaps that’s why McDermott is passionate about helping both women and minorities rise in her industry. Among the organizations she has addressed are the AIA, Women in Construction, and Girls Inc. McDermott is the daughter of working-class Guatemalan parents and has enjoyed a white-collar education, and she is particularly dismayed by the high dropout rate among female students in underserved communities. After hosting a talk at a local high school in South Los Angeles, a teacher told McDermott that her students were shocked to see a woman in her profession.
Determined to challenge this stereotype, McDermott gave an address at the National Association of Minority Constructors, providing tips on how to present oneself, navigate business, and become a better vendor. The need, she says, is great, even when it comes to starting with basics. But “they are learning the ropes with little support.”
As McDermott continues to steward Public Storage’s massive rebranding, she has been working on her own home additions. Nine months into the first lockdown in Los Angeles, the VP and her husband became first-time parents. Partnership is key. “My husband works in the morning and I work in the evening,” she says. “He takes care of bath time and bedtime, and I use any rare alone time to make dinner, play with our dogs, or work out. It’s one of the few times I am able to focus on something without thinking about work.”
For the VP, all the teamwork has definitely paid off—during one week in 2021, Public Storage won three awards from the career platform Comparably: Best Company Outlook, Best Operations Teams, and Best Workplaces Los Angeles.
But the VP is not surprised. “I truly believe I have the best team. There is pride in what we do, and that should be acknowledged,” McDermott says. “But for me, a successful team is not only for the people I manage but everyone who works for me—vendors, suppliers, contractors. Now that’s a successful project.”