When did you know you wanted to be an architect?
In 9th grade my dad suggested it to me he said, “you’re sort of good at a lot of things, but you’re not really good at one thing. You might make a good architect!” He doesn’t remember saying that but that’s how I remember it. That’s when I thought, that’s exactly what I want to be and I never changed my mind. I was already looking at buildings and thinking of how I would’ve done things differently.
Before that I wanted to be a doctor, lawyer, missionary, paleontologist, archaeologist…
From where do you draw your design inspiration. How do you stay inspired?
I look at everything, books and now online, everything is online. You can get so many images online. I just sort through them instantly—nope, nope, nope, nope, oh, there’s one! I really look at everything and now I have a hard time because there’s so much mediocrity out there. You sometimes have to put blinders on.
Do you find yourself looking at the details of people’s homes when you’re visiting and thinking about how you would do things differently?
Yes, I used to but now I stop myself because it’ll make me crazy. It would be all the time if I let it go. But if someone asks me, I can quickly point out some of the changes they could make to greatly improve their home.
You’ve been practicing in this area for nearly 30 years, what changes have you seen in residential architecture and how has it impacted your business?
Recently it’s gotten so much more professional. People have more access to quality images and there’s so many busy professionals in this area, people don’t have time to mess around with a project and not get the desired results. They go for true design experts now. It used to be that we were in competition with everyone, including general contractors, and they’ve fallen by the wayside.
As a result, the competition has gotten more predictable. The companies that don’t do a good job aren’t part of the game anymore. They can no longer hide.
Was it difficult finding your way through a male dominated industry?
I was oblivious, it just never occurred to me. It didn’t seem that way at all. When I look back on it, I was the only woman in my studio, not in my graduating class but my studio. There were always like 3 women out of 50 men but I didn’t feel like it kept me behind.
You worked in-house for a couple of years early in your career. How did you decide to take a leap of faith and establish your own firm?
I was interning during my fourth year of a five year degree from Virginia Tech and I loved it but also wanted to do things my own way. I decided then I wanted to start my own firm but didn’t know how to do that so I called a relative who had a new home construction firm and asked him a bunch of questions. Coincidentally, he ended up working for us years later. I became totally driven and it seemed audacious enough that it was worth pursuing. I talked to Kelvin (Susan’s husband and co-owner of the firm) about it and he initially thought I was crazy but eventually got on board.
How long did it take you to get started and how did you fund the business?
We started doing decks for neighbors and friends and then a bathroom for a neighbor. An acquaintance was an architect and was doing a set of plans for an addition so we took a look at that and we got the job. And then someone in Alexandria was doing a significant addition and they held a design competition between me and another architect with a modest stipend. It was such an important challenge to me and I won it! And that really started the money flowing. Then we photographed the project and that gave us legitimacy.
With your husband as the co-owner of the firm, how did you manage to find work/life balance while raising a family.
I’m not sure we did! It was a lot of juggling. We didn’t always agree about stuff related to the firm, like when I suggested we needed a copier, a computer or a bookkeeper but those things were important to me and made life easier for us both.
How do you develop new business?
A lot of work comes from former clients and referrals. We make sure clients are happy every step of the project so they come back to us in the future. We’re also really involved in the community. Kelvin is President of the Vienna Rotary and I’m a member of the Vienna Business Association. I love to meet new people and try to do a lot of networking. I’m a member of the National Association of Women Business Owners as well as other local organizations.
Over the past couple of years, we redesigned our website and now get a lot of calls from people finding us on the web and being impressed with our site and project work.
What types of projects do you do and where can we see your work?
We specialize in new custom home design; large-scale renovations and additions; and whole house remodels. A lot of projects start with a kitchen remodel and expand into something bigger. Clients get excited about our ideas and when they see what a difference a professionally designed room can make, they want to redo the whole house!
Our work spans a number Northern Virginia cities and towns—Vienna, McLean, Great Falls, Arlington, Tysons, Oakton, to name a few
Your house in Vienna has become “almost famous”, why is that?
Well, it is on a busy street and it’s striking color—red, so people seem to love it. Maybe the people who don’t like it don’t say anything but I get a lot of compliments when they find out it’s mine. “Oh, I love your house!” “I know that house, that’s my favorite house.” Everybody knows it as “the red house.”
What soft skills do you use on your day to day job?
When I’m meeting with clients it’s almost like being a psychiatrist. Meeting with husband and wife I have to make sure they both feel like they’re being heard and try to respond to both sets of needs. Even if they seem to be in conflict with each other, they’re really not, it just feels that way to them. And I really enjoy that, it’s important for me to meet everybody’s needs architecturally.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
Wow, I don’t feel like I’ve been spending enough time on that! I love to hike, bicycle, everything outdoors, gardening. Being with my kids. Reading. Playing violin and fiddle. I own an historic log cabin on 400 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains that that I moved up the mountainside, restored, and expanded. I rent it out to vacationers which requires strategic and emergency time. And sometimes I get to enjoy it too!
I recently started a Northern Virginia Chapter of www.daysforgirls.org Days for Girls, an international non-profit organization that helps girls and women in third world countries gain access to quality sustainable feminine hygiene products. I was awestruck to learn how difficult it is for girls and women in impoverished countries to manage their periods. They use anything they can find—which doesn’t work, or they sell their bodies in exchange for products. They miss up to one week of school every month, falling so far behind that they drop out and become teen mothers at 14, 15, 16 years old. Menstruation is a taboo subject, and women literally live in fear because of the pervasive atmosphere of ostracism and discrimination. Addressing this issue is a key factor in ending the cycle of poverty for millions of women and communities around the world.
It’s nice to have found a charity that means a lot to me and is something I can establish and someday hand off. It makes you realize you can make a huge difference in women’s lives. We’re having our first meeting this month and I’m incredibly excited to get started. A lot of people came forward at the same time to jumpstart this local organization and it’s wonderful!
What do you consider your biggest professional accomplishment?
I don’t know that I’ve done it yet! I guess starting my firm but it’s been so long ago that I forget what an achievement it is. You take for granted how much you have to learn to succeed in this business—all of the details! There’s a lot to master in the building design and construction industry. It almost feels undervalued.
If you could do anything else in the world, what would it be?
Oh, leading wilderness expeditions! Giving people that experience and pushing my limits. That is so exciting to me!
Susan is a DC Lady
What is one piece of advice you would give to your 24-year-old self?
Plan for fun!
What’s your favorite spot in DC?
I used to work on Pennsylvania Avenue and I loved coming out of the metro and entering my building. It had an 8-story atrium and I felt special coming to work every day. I thought, wow, I get to do this! And the monumental buildings, everything is attractive downtown.
Cupcakes or macarons?
I guess macarons. I’m not as familiar with them and I like to try new things!
What’s on your nightstand?
My ipad, I read myself to sleep
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
Hilary Clinton. I don’t stay in touch with politics, much, but she’s just amazing and so dynamic. How has she done what she’s done as a president’s wife and what is she going to do next?!
What’s next for you?
I want shacks in various locations around the world, (hahaha!), to follow good weather to all of them! Live in and explore little villages, learn about local cultures and make new places feel like home.
Until then, I’m loving being an architect and running my business. And I’m really excited about establishing Days for Girls in Northern Virginia. An organization like this can change the face of the world. It feels so good to be making a difference!
Susan is Social
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