The answer is obvious, it’s personal. Over the course of my relatively short career, I’ve had the opportunity to work on a range of residential projects from small renovations to large upper crust homes. Along the way, I’ve worked on commercial projects and even dabbled in some urban planning. Sure they were great for my resume and came with a bigger benefits package, but they lacked the humanity that residential work is guaranteed to come with.
I’ve had the honor to collaborate with wonderful people over the years. I’m fascinated by their stories and I hope to tell those stories through my work. It’s not the overall style of the house that does the job; that’s the curb appeal. The stories are carried through in the details - the kegerator, the built-in pet accessories, the doors that give cats their freedom, the concrete floors to withstand skateboarding ollies, the niches that house heirloom furniture, and the closets specifically built for luggage of the frequent flyer club. These are what tell the story of these unique characters and their daily lives.
There’s a sweetness to the way our Clients describe their needs for living with their little ones (human, feline and canine). There’s the outdoor shower for dad and the boys to wash off their basketball residue before re-entering the house, the closed riser stairs so the family dog cannot fall through, the sensory deprivation space for the child with special needs, the whole house vacuum to keep the cat hair under control, the built-in stage for the ballet performances, the lighting system that creates a pathway for the kids to find mommy and daddy in the middle of the night, and the large kitchen island for grandma to keep an endless buffet out for her 5 grandchildren as they go to and fro. These aren’t items you would find in a production house to suit generic needs for a target customer base. These are specific qualities of a home to suit the specific needs of specific people.
My favorite experience was with Ms. Melba. She had recently lost her home in a natural disaster and our team had the task of building her a new one...in 3 months. When we were going through paint color selections, she chose “Eye of the Tiger”. Me: “You mean for an accent wall?” Ms. Melba, “No, all of it, the living room, kitchen and down the whole hallway. I’ll put purple in the bathroom.” I admit, I was hesitant, but when she moved in, that orange color created an amazing backdrop to her beautiful dark skin tone. That’s the moment when I realized a home can affect how you look, it doesn’t just make you happy, it makes you radiant. When designing a home, consider yourself in that color, form and scale. It should fit you like a couture garment.
Ms. Melba also taught me that it’s not solely about the aesthetics of the end product, but how the end user feels in it. Her house was completed within a very tight timeframe and when I looked at it, I saw the visible flashing and gap-toothed battens. When she looked at it she told me, “I love it, it’s beautiful, it’s perfect. Thank you.” That’s when I knew I wanted to dedicate my career to this. In his op ed for the the New York Times, Steven Bingler wrote, “We’ve taught generations of architects to speak out as artists, but we haven’t taught them how to listen.” This single wonderful woman in the middle of a post-Katrina New Orleans taught me to start listening.
Jen Lo is a Gator/Longhorn alumnus, mother of a threenager and single-serving-size dessert enthusiast.