What my house taught me

As an architect, it’s kind of interesting to me that I have learned several major life lessons from a
house. This structure was our family home for eight years. We bought it less than a year after relocating to Cleveland, OH from Phoenix, AZ in order to be closer to my ailing parents. Just the fact that we had relocated at all meant staring down some of my biggest fears, saying goodbye to a city we loved, good friends and professional opportunities, resigning from boards and commissions. So, I thought I’d done it. Made my big leap. But the house had more lessons in store for us. It seemed a pleasant enough house, cheerful and light-filled, with a big backyard and an attached garage. Built in 1942, it was a “newer” home for the community. But we passed it up, citing the too small kitchen and dining room. Only after looking for several more weeks and finding nothing did we come back to it after we noticed that its owners, long moved away, had decided to cut the asking price for their vacant house significantly. We bought it conditionally, with every intention of putting on an addition, adding central air, and on. Fast forward eight years, no addition or central air and we were faced with the need to relocate for work after spending several months unemployed. We put the house for sale in the worst possible market, it sat empty for a year, was broken into by a copper pipe scavenger, and finally became a rental. Two years after moving away, I think I have finally learned the final lesson I needed and am willing to let it go. This is a huge step for me because I want to at least break even, but know that whatever it costs me to be free of this house, it will be nothing compared to the cost of continuing to own it. What a great metaphor for all the things we hold on to in our lives. We are afraid of losing things we think we should want, but in truth offer us very little value.

Lesson one: Never, ever settle
We had become weary of looking. I let the fact that the house was “OK” and cheap due to the price cut lure me into saying yes to something when my gut had originally said no. I passed up the house the first time because it really wasn’t what we were looking for. Instead of having faith that we would find a great house, I almost felt obligated as an architect to transform this one. We had completely remodeled our home in Phoenix, I reasoned, so why not this one? Well, for starters, the level of addition we would have needed to undertake was not financially worth it, and even if we could have done it, we would still not have had the home we really wanted. While there are many life situations that require a little extra effort on our part, there is a difference between the effort to make a good thing great and the effort to improve something that even after being improved will never be what you want. We do this not just with homes, but with our jobs, even relationships. When you invest your energy in the “good enough” opportunity, you stop being open to receive the amazing one.

Lesson two: Place yourself in situations that bring you joy
Parts of this house just downright irritated me. I shudder to think about how much negativity I carried around. Every time I had to carefully open the dining room door to avoid hitting a chair or maneuver around the too small kitchen or deal with the lack of counter space in the bathroom, it annoyed me, if even on a subconscious level. Even though we bought new high end appliances and decorated and painted, everything about the home’s limitations subliminally said to me that my life had limits, had lack, had need. I might have realized it sooner if the situation with my ailing parents, raising two small children and having a stressful and demanding job had not been looming so large in my life. Given all those things, my home needed to be a positive affirmation and regenerative environment, and yet it was only reinforcing all of the other stress. What things in your life are you “putting up” with that are actually draining you? The things in your life should feed you and affirm not only the person you are, but the one you wish to become. Choose wisely.

Lesson three: Know when to walk away
When the time came to put the house up for sale, I knew the market was bad. While I was willing to price the house aggressively, it was important for me to be able to at least break even from the sale. Although it would have been well below comps, one realtor I talked to suggested pricing the house at about $2000 higher than we owed on it to really make it move. I chose the realtor who suggested that we list at only $15,000 below our original purchase price instead (that the house had lost that much of its original value considering all of the improvements we made was shocking enough). I had tapped out all of my savings and was fearful of getting into debt. Two months in, we dropped the price another $10,000 and still nothing. I was hemorrhaging money. Debt, the thing I had been so afraid of, began to pile up. It was not sustainable to have two households, especially when one of them was vacant. Finally, a year into this ordeal, we were able to get renters, which covered the cost of our mortgage. However, it’s hard to manage a property in a city far from where you live and our maintenance costs for their months in the house have exceeded that of the entire eight years we lived there. Operating from that place of fear, I considered my self lucky we at least had the mortgage covered. What I now realize is that even if we had sold the house at a $10,000 loss and had to be in debt in order to pay off the outstanding portion of our loan, we would have been so much further ahead financially. What seemed like practical and sensible thinking was really fear in disguise. Fear costs you so much more than the risk of losing. It traps you in a situations where you can never win.

Lesson four: Question your assumptions
I had an epiphany the other day. I don’t want to own this house any more. It’s that simple. There is no value to me in being a landlord. I need to let go. I started talking to realtors and learned that the Cleveland market is starting to turn around and that people are actively home shopping again. My fears had caused me to make assumptions about the market, based on the past. Making a fresh inquiry brought me facts. While property values are still abysmal, the market is moving along briskly. I can list this house and I might actually break even or come out just a few thousand dollars ahead on the sale.

I’ve moved on in my life to a great new career in a city I love. No need to be tethered to anything that might limit me. The sales agreement will be my diploma. It’s time for my house to teach a different pupil. Lessons learned!
You don't always have to learn the hard way.  My new book Career Crisis helps you to uncover the fears and assumptions you may be making in your own life so you can unblock them and move forward to what you really want.

The Limiting Beliefs of Architects

As a profession dedicated to making our clients’ vision a reality, we do a lousy job of realizing our
vision for our own careers. Maybe that’s because so few architects have taken the time to have a career vision. They think they do, because they have embraced the thinking of their teachers, mentors, co-workers and friends. It’s a surprisingly pessimistic and monolithic point of view for a profession that prides itself on its creativity. As I was working on my book, and thinking about my career coaching sessions over the last few years, I realized time and again how much of the problem we have in getting fulfillment from our careers comes from limiting beliefs. These beliefs are so deeply a part of our “architect culture” that we don’t even recognize them. I teach people how to realize their passion, and the biggest challenge I encounter when working with them are these experiential lessons which are reinforced throughout our careers unless we break the pattern:

Competition is the path to success
We are primed from our days in the studio during college to compete with one another. To believe that there is a winner, and by default, losers. The RFP and interview process underscore this idea, leading firms to undercut one another in a race to the bottom. This commoditizes our work, which causes the design process and resulting building to have less value to both the client and society as a whole. It is a mindset of lack, believing that there is only so much pie to go around, and we better do whatever it takes to get our piece. It leads us to settle for less than we deserve in terms of compensation and design effort, to focus on bringing service instead of true innovation.
Danger of this belief: you feel your time has no value.
Overcome it by thinking differently about what you do and why. Don’t accept the premise of winners and losers, instead focus on the unexpressed needs you see in the situation and how you are uniquely qualified to meet them.

It’s fame or shame
I recently read an article by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, where he makes the incredibly profound statement, “If you know it will work it isn’t creative.” How many firms actually embrace a culture of experimentation? Even the ones that do have a pretty low threshold for failure. No one thinks that a scientist working in the lab on experiment after experiment, each result building on the knowledge to improve the next experiment is a loser because it may take years, even decades to discover something. But in our “creative” profession, we grovel with our tail between our legs whenever the client or contractor finds fault with us. Paradoxically, we are always looking for the project and opportunity that will be our “big break,” while secretly stewing over the successes of our competition.
Danger of this belief: you are afraid to take risks.
Overcome it by taking a step back from the everyday steps in the process and start to look at the big picture. Ask why not more often and don’t be afraid to have, then fully vet, big ideas.

Being provocative means you are smart
No, it likely means you’re an out of touch pompous ass, who’s had a few brilliant ideas. Our “upbringing” as architects tends to reward those who are unconventional just for the sake of being unconventional. Maybe because we buy into that fame or shame mentality so much. The provocateur is usually trying to overcome the conditioned risk adversity by putting so much out there that people will start to feel that they are unenlightened clods trapped in conventional thinking if they shut down the ideas. Unfortunately, this approach only reinforces a negative stereotype and is rooted less in a willingness to help people think differently about their needs than it is about the provocateur’s desire to get attention.
Danger of this belief: solving the problem is not as important to you as making a statement.
Overcome it by investing more insight into your effort. I believe that big ideas are not only important but necessary. However, the idea needs to have relevance to the situation at hand and be tied to solving a problem. Even more important the big idea needs to feel inclusive and allow others on the design or user group team to build upon it.

You can’t get rich and be an architect
Oh, look how hard you’re working, you poor burned out thing. Procrastinating out of exhaustion until the rush of adrenaline at the eleventh hour gives you that flash of brilliance you need to triumphantly complete the task. This reinforces a competitive culture, where burning the candle at both ends is a badge of honor. There is a kind of nobility in being the misunderstood artiste engaged in a valiant fight against the system. The truth: All nighters were a bad idea back in school and they are an even worse idea once you enter the working world. Vision and clarity don’t visit the exhausted. What’s more, if you are working long, crazy hours, you likely are going off on your own instead of collaborating.
Danger of this belief: you believe that individual effort matters more than collaboration
Overcome it by working smarter. Engage your team both in and out of house. If someone else can do a task even 80% as well as you can, it’s worth delegating it to them. Be a mentor and seek out mentors of your own. You don’t have to do this alone, and the end result will be better than if you burn yourself out trying.

Our profession desperately needs to become a lot more introspective. We need to reposition ourselves for the future like we mean it if we want the relevance we so desperately claim to seek. So as you look over these limiting beliefs (and we are all guilty of all of them to some degree), ask yourself, “what’s holding you back?”
For a more in depth look at how you are limiting yourself and strategies to fearlessly pursue the career you really want, check out Career Crisis.  Let me know what you think and how it helps you unbind your creativity.

Homemaking: Urban living meets affordability

Top: the Micro-Unit Prototype
Above: The What's IN team: from back moving left to right: 
Ben Stracco, Mika Gilmore, Lisa Walden, Marcus Hamblin, 
Fred Kramer, B.K. Boley, Tamara Roy, Blake Goodwin, 
Zach Pursley, Ruthie Kuhlman, Meredith Powell, 
Melissa Miranda, Aeron Hodges, Derrick Nickerson, 
Michelle Kim, Quinton Kerns, Dan Connolly, Chris Neukamm.
We take for granted the amenities around us.  We are (mostly) warm, safe and dry, yet often feel discontented with our space, not because it fails to provide for us, but because it fails to enrich us.  Whether it's that cookie cutter subdivision home with its oddball "feature" spaces, the dreary big city walk-up apartment that barely meets any kind of building code or something in between, so few of us have the opportunity to live in a space that really supports how we want to live in it.  But what if the reason our living spaces fail us is because we don't have the right expectations for them?  What if you could throw out everything you thought you knew about how to live in a home and started over?  The subject of my master's thesis at the University of Arizona was the impact of telecommuting on our understanding of the home.  Part of the research I did involved looking at the evolution of our understanding of a home.  Most of us are stuck in a model that comes straight out of the Victorian era, where urban equaled bad and the domestic sphere needed to be clearly separated from the sphere of work.  But we don't live in the Victorian era anymore, so why should our spaces?

What's IN is trying to answer that question.  This exciting urban housing research project includes the Boston design groups ADD Inc and One-In-3 as well as MapLab and local mosaic artists Artaic and has undertaken a study of the demographics and sociographics of urban housing today and proposes ideas on how to best meet the live/work needs of young professionals.  It's a national trend that young college graduates are looking for the urban lifestyle in ever increasing numbers.  So are aging baby boomers.  To the extent that a city can provide the housing they seek, that city can prevent a "brain drain" of young, innovative and educated professionals.  So what stops them?  Affordability and amenity are the two big issues.  This group is attracted to the vibrant, culturally rich and diverse environment found in urban neighborhoods, but not the price tag that necessarily comes with it.  What's IN's solution: the Micro-Unit.

Defined as a single family dwelling unit ranging from 250-300 square feet, the Micro-Unit has stripped living down to its essential elements; bathroom, kitchenette, storage and living/sleeping areas.  Borrowing a page from European and Asian models (and ancient Roman city life for that matter), What's IN offers the larger spaces we have been conditioned to believe we need within our dwellings outside of them in the form of communal social spaces.  This not only allows the units themselves to be more affordable, but fosters the kind of neighborliness that studies show keep our communities safe and vibrant.  Says Quinton Kerns, one of the group's founders, "With minimal/durable use materials we can minimize cost of construction and with the re-imagined unit sizes we can provide more density within a floor than what is currently offered with most market rate units. The Micro-Unit seeks to tackle the ongoing problem of affordability in urban housing coupled with the opportunity to foster a social revival in our local communities."

This is real research- the group conducted polls, looked at product options, studied prefabrication techniques, investigated design precedents from all over the world, and looked at real estate issues.  They also partnered with business and civic leaders to talk about the issues involved in making their concept take off.  What did they learn?  Affordability trumps all.  In perhaps a crushing blow to most designers, futuristic, gadgety, multi-tasking furniture was soundly rejected by the focus group.  Based this information, they determined an ideal unit size (300 sf) and features to include in a prototype microunit, with smart features important to urbanites, including bike storage and casework that could be user-built a la IKEA to save money.  A mockup of the unit was then constructed by the What's IN team.  To get the widest possible range of feedback, the mockup went on tour at prominent Boston venues ABX 2012 at the Boston Convention and Exposition Center, the Atlantic Wharf lobby adjacent to the BSA Space, and The Modern Theater at Suffolk University. The group created a survey to allow mockup viewers to weigh in on how well they think such a living arrangement would or wouldn't work for them, in addition to providing key demographic information to help inform the development of future microunit initiatives.  "The unit has been donated to Suffolk University so that students and faculty can utilize this model to engage the business and academic communities in and around Boston as this movement for approachable living becomes a reality," says Kerns. "What's IN is currently venturing into a deeper research initiative focusing on the social/community impacts for this new housing typology by means of further crowd sourcing, community surveying, community outreach, and a continued discussion with policy makers at City Hall. We are looking at displaying our findings at this year’s ABX 2013 with the ultimate goal of having some solid development in the works by the year’s end." 

The group's Tamara Roy presented What's IN's work to date in late March 2013 at a housing Forum at Suffolk University. Her presentation powerfully illustrates just how much a shortage of affordable housing impacts the city, and the innovative approach to solving this problem that the group developed.  "We believe in the power of tiny things and the Micro-Unit speaks to that idea," says Kerns. "Through our research we found that city dwellers are not only willing to share living, eating, and social areas within their living environments, but they really want these amenities to be more social! And through this call for more social living we are faced with a great opportunity for innovation. Diversity + Density + Interaction = Knowledge Spillover...by the nature of what they are, micro-units foster innovation!"

Key What's IN Players:
Tamara Roy: Senior Associate Principal at ADD Inc and “Mother of the Micro-Unit” in Boston.
Aeron Hodges: Designer at ADD Inc, Co-Founder of the WHATS IN initiative and target demographic of the emerging families.
Quinton Kerns: Designer at ADD Inc, Co-Founder of the WHATS IN initiative and target demographic of the single young professional.
Fred Kramer: President of ADD Inc, Supportive Powerhouse and target demographic of the empty nester.
Chris Neukamm: Designer at ADD Inc, Committee member of WHATS IN
Michelle Kim: Designer at ADD Inc, Committee member of WHATS IN
Dan Connolly: Project Manager at STA, Committee member of WHATS IN and member of ONEin3
Blake Goodwin: Director of Operations for Artaic, Committee member of WHATS IN and member of ONEin3