Michelle Kaufmann Re-Imagines a Prosporous Future

Michelle Kaufmann has been a pioneer in prefabricated, high-end, net-zero home design and construction, and is no stranger to the last three years of market adversity. She will deliver the keynote address Thursday, November 3, 2011, at ArchEX in Richmond. Here she offers a sampling of the message she will deliver—as an “architect, advocate, optimist”—on “Simplicity: Reinventing Our Practice.”

Many architects strive for simplicity in their designs, and yet forget to think about creating simplicity in their lives and how they work. Our profession is not an easy one.  It requires a lot of knowledge on many things, much communication, and effective coordination. This often translates to long hours with little pay and not as much time with our families and friends as we would like. Many of us also no longer have as much time to design as we want. We can change this, though. We can rethink how we work to maximize efficiencies for the parts that can be repeated so we can have more time to innovate on other parts. Simplicity in our lives should be designed as much as simplicity in our work.

My last eight years have been extremely interesting and intense, and a journey I am quite thankful for—even the dark days. In the end, the process has opened up a whole new world and way of thinking about our work.

The ups and downs

I started my previous company, Michelle Kaufmann Designs, with a mission to make thoughtful, sustainable design affordable, timely, and, therefore, accessible. I chose modular construction as a means to that end and spent years stalking factories to learn how they build, where their efficiencies and possibilities are, and the potentials of mixing existing systems with new materials and approaches.

Over the last half century in the U.S., we have been using innovation in every industry other than home construction to streamline the delivery process. When you also consider that buildings account for more than 50 percent of the energy consumed in the U.S. and produce about that share of our CO2-equivalent emissions, you can draw two conclusions: This is insane, and it is an amazing opportunity for architects. We are needed.

With the first few years of Michelle Kaufmann Designs, I felt that call to action from people all over who were interested in a different model. We had the most amazing clients you could imagine—early adopters who wanted to make the world better and refused to accept the status quo. The demand was there.

Creating the supply, however, was challenging. Existing factories were busy and t ypically didn’t believe our market research. Among more than a dozen manufacturers, we also found a wide range in quality; some of it unacceptable. Eventually, we bought an existing factory and began producing some of our own homes—an amazing learning curve that changed how we thought about designing for an ever-leaner construction process. That really was the best part of having our own factory.

Then, in 2008, came the collapse. Client interest was still there, but money wasn’t. Two factories we were working with went bankrupt after we had paid them. This left us in a horrific financial state, forcing us to close. It was devastating. The following year was the worst of my life. I was like a walking corpse, depressed and in shock. I felt like a failure who could no longer deliver on The Idea.

Calling clients and colleagues to work through the closing process was horrible. Yet those people proved super supportive through the difficulties, even those who were negatively affected themselves, and many whom I had never actually met. There was such a strong sense of community that we were not willing to give up on our ideals and vision. They weren’t reaching out for me so much as the promise that rethinking our profession had offered. The more these letters came in, the more I realized that I couldn’t give up. I just needed to rethink the model.

Another thing I found difficult was to let go of what I had worked so hard to create. As a part of the closing of my previous company, we had to sell our old preconfigured designs. I loved and cared for those designs as though they were a part of my own blood and tissue. I tried consulting with the company that bought them, but it was too difficult. I didn’t agree with things they were changing, so I stopped working with them, which only caused more difficulties.

It was at that point that I really started my next chapter. And I am so thankful now. If I had kept working with the other company as my lifeline, I would have stayed miserable, stuck in a failed business, and would not have moved forward. I don’t think about those designs anymore. I no longer have them in my vocabulary or my head, which gives me more room for the current work and reinventing the future. It’s funny how things work out. Maybe my mother was right all along—that everything happens for a reason.

A new model

In outlining the new model, we had to define our problematic areas. While popularity of the previous company was helpful for educating people, it was also our downfall. We had grown too quickly. In the critical equation for start-ups—1. Define 2. Refine 3. Scale—we only Defined and Scaled. We thought we could Refine during the scaling part. That doesn’t work. Too many things were being entrusted to others.

So the next chapter became much like the designs themselves. This time, it was going to be a small, lean team. It is working with the basic business strategy of doing more with less by having only super smart people on the team. Now I am working with the best four people from our previous firm, and we have no intentions of ever getting larger. We are only working with the best factories (e.g., Blazer Industries), doing only net-zero-energy homes, and limiting quantity to focus on quality.

I spend half my time on these projects and the other half working for a large company coming up with a totally new way we can design and build to dramatically reduce time and cost. I am super excited about this work and can’t wait until it will be launched publicly. I also spend time working with my favorite organizations, including Architecture for Humanity and the Cradle to Cradle Institute.

I am now happier than I have ever been in my life and working on projects that will have a bigger positive impact on our profession and the environment than I ever could have with the previous company. It took my worst nightmare being realized to find out that what I thought was the best thing actually wasn’t.

Leveraging the big box

During this time, I was also fortunate to have spent a day with Yvonne Choinard, the founder of Patagonia. He told me about work he has been doing with Walmart, which on the surface couldn’t be a company more opposite to his own. He believes, however, that working with bottomup companies is good for conceptual proof. But that it takes real scale to make a global difference. If he can help Walmart go to organic foods, for example, then it changes the way the world produces food. I am trying a similar strategy within this current chapter of my career.

It is so exciting to see so many other great companies getting into rethinking construction techniques and design processes to make sustainable buildings accessible to everyone, such as Resolution 4 Architecture, Marmol+Radziner, Project Frog, and Zeta Homes.

While it may be difficult to really believe right now, architects are going to become very, very busy soon. With the projected population increased through 2050, it is estimated that more than a million people are moving to urban environments each week. More buildings, better buildings are essential.

And there is still so much room for reinvention and innovation in our profession. This construction downturn has been a call to action for all of us. Looking to other industries and countries is a huge first step toward re-imagining ourselves and our work. I highly recommend that architects look hard at the product-design and software-design industries for ways to become more efficient.

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