Born in Philadelphia, Esherick apprenticed with his uncle Wharton Esherick, an artist and furniture-maker, later receiving a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1937. He moved to San Francisco the following year where he worked for structural engineer Walter Steilberg and subsequently architect Gardner Dailey. Esherick served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and opened his own architectural firm in San Francisco in 1946. His early work was primarily residential, advancing Gardner Dailey and William Wurster’s expression of what came to be known as the Bay Area Tradition. In 1950 Esherick hired Lawrence Halprin to design a garden at his residence, which led to future collaborations. They worked together on numerous residential projects in the 1950s and 1960s, including the Ackerman residence at Greenwood Common in Berkeley and the McIntyre residence in Hillsborough. Halprin and Esherick also collaborated on Stevenson College at the University of California at Santa Cruz (1965-1966) and The Sea Ranch, where Esherick designed a store and demonstration houses (1965-1967). In 1961 Esherick worked with Thomas Church on the Thompson residence in Modesto. His firm became Joseph Esherick & Associates in 1963, and Esherick Homsey Dodge & Davis (EHDD) in 1972. He established an independent consulting firm in the early 1980s, and served on the Professional Consulting Group for The Sea Ranch for twenty years following the original design. Esherick continued working as the senior design principal at EHDD until his death.
Esherick taught at the University of California at Berkeley from 1952 to 1985, serving as the chair of the Department of Architecture from 1976 to 1982. He was elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1965, and was awarded the AIA Gold Medal in 1989. Esherick passed away in San Francisco at the age of 83.