Today we had the pleasure of speaking with Catherine Truman, CEO and Founder of Catherine Truman Architects. Together we talked about her career path, growth, and working together with clients.
*Header image credit: Catherine Truman, Catherine Truman Architects
Full Podcast Transcript
Hi, this is Grace Mase, we're very fortunate to have Catherine Truman of Catherine Truman Architects. She is the CEO, and Founder of Catherine Truman Architects. Welcome, Catherine.
Hi good to talk with you.
Well, I’ve known Catherine for 20 plus years, and to be honest, since we were in graduate school, I always admired her. I have tremendous respect for you. One, you're a phenomenal designer. You have such a good sense of design and also you engage with the problem you're trying to solve and bring out the human side of design. And not only is it visually and aesthetically beautiful, it's also very functional. You started your company a few years ago, and I'm really excited to get to talk with you because, as a woman leader in this dynamic environment, there's got to be interesting stories behind your career. So share with us how you got started.
So I kind of came to architecture through a bit of a, it wasn't super meandering, but it definitely wasn't as linear as a lot of other people. I kind of started out thinking I might do math and physics and ended up in architectural history. I took a small detour into architectural history and theory and realized academia wasn't my thing. Worked in New York City for a couple of years, and finally ended up realizing that what all of those things were converging on doing was that I really found this love of architecture in architectural history, when I was in school, but I couldn't really quite figure out how to act on that.
I didn't know how to draw, I had taken a bunch of drawing classes, and I was always horrible. You know, there's always that thing “oh, you're supposed to be good at math” and when people say “I wanted to be an architect”, but I couldn't draw but I was really good at math. And it was like, nothing to do with anything I do. But I kinda believe that at the time, and I couldn't, I was horrible at drawing so I never thought I could actually be an architect.
So you know, having done all these other kinds of random things, like architecture adjacent things, I decided that “Okay, I'm going to get myself one more try at this”. I was living in New York so I was like, “I'm going to take a sketch pad and a bunch of pencils and I'm going to go to the Metropolitan Museum. I'm gonna sit down in front of something, and I'm going to draw, and if I can't teach myself how to draw then I'm going to go to business school.” I had already taken the GMAT, or whatever it was for that. So I went up there and spent an afternoon sitting in front of this Greek sculpture and I figured out how to draw. I drew the proportions of ankles to knees a little bit short at the end of it all, but it worked. At that point, I was like “Okay, right, I can go to architecture school”. That was sort of when I finally realized what I was supposed to be doing. So I ended up finally at 26, applying to architecture school and going to Yale with you, a couple of years later. So that was kind of the start as a background. As far as where I am now. I started this firm six and a half years ago, which I have a lot of trouble believing it was six and a half years ago. It feels like way less time in some ways and way more in other ways. I started working for a firm in Boston and Bay Architects. Ann was, she started her firm back in the 80s and I think it was, as a sole practitioner female architecture firm, as one of the few around. There were other women that we’re partnered up with people, but she was doing it solo. She was incredibly well respected in the industry from the get-go. So I started in 1999 to work with her. I figured I can do it for three or four or five years, and then figure what to do next. And of course, 15 years later, I was still there. So when it was time to move on, she was incredibly supportive of me and has been a real champion and mentor for me, and very helpful in it. So when I finally said to her after 15 years that it was time for me to do my own thing, she was like “Great, you're making a great decision. I will support you every step of the way. I'll help you get started. What can I do to help?” It's been amazing, six and a half years ago.
So you said you realized it was time to move on? What was that moment? Who was that feeling that said, “Yeah, Catherine, I think you're ready. Let's do it”. Because after 15 years of working for a firm, it's very comfortable. And sounds like she was a fantastic mentor. It’s hard to walk away from that kind of setup.
Yeah, I definitely took a couple of years figuring out what I was going to do. And I kind of joke that I knew something had to change. I had this kind of metaphorical list of options out there. And I ended up starting my own firm. What I kind of jokingly say is “I had crossed everything else off the list and the only thing left was to start your own firm.” But I knew something had to change.
I had gone from a very very junior person to very senior. I was a senior associate but I was not a principal. It became clear that there wasn't a principal track available for me at that point. There was a plan in place and it didn’t evolve me.
Part of that was because after being there for about three years, the firm does not do residential work, the firm does large, large scale important cultural and institutional works. They do a lot of work with the big universities, embassies, and you know, the Smithsonian Museum, they're working for these kinds of institutions. But somehow, I had ended up starting to do these residential projects, which were large scale and really interesting, but going in a different direction. So I wasn't really following that path either. So it was clear that there wasn't really a principal track there for me.
I'm not even sure it would have been the right step for me. Having started so young, there was, I'm not going to say there was like a mother-daughter relationship because there's too much baggage associated with that, but there was. At a certain point, you're never going to be equal with somebody that you started that junior from and I would want to have been in a position where I would have felt more like an equal and less like constantly a protege. So I kind of knew that even if that had been available, it wouldn't have been what I would have really wanted to do. So I thought about it, well should I go off and do something with somebody else. Is there another firm I should join? I thought pretty seriously about leaving the industry and going into some other kind of architecture adjacent profession. And I spent a couple of years probably talking to other people about either joining their firms or partnering up with people. But it was never like the right fit. Like trying to find a husband vs. dating just for the sake of dating. Ultimately, I decided, I'm just going to do it. I'm not going to wait to find somebody. I'm not going to go to another firm, even if it's one where there's like a partner track. Still, you're going in with somebody else who's already established, like, you're still always going in not fully equal. So the only way to kind of do that was really just starting my own, myself.
Plus, a lot of other things were involved with this. 2008 had really had an impact on me in terms of what I saw happening to the profession, and to kind of analyze what happened to our potential architects in general. I was lucky enough to keep my job. But it was rare, there were a lot of people who didn't keep their jobs. I felt a part of it was because I was still young and nimble to still know how to work all the computer programs and still be able to draft. I was client-facing, so I had my own clients that were still bringing in money. So I was kind of perfectly positioned. I saw a lot of people at a more senior level, who weren't like on the boards, as they say, who were doing business development or whatever, who weren’t able to stay where they were because they weren’t really literally in the trenches.
I sort of felt that I had to position myself, I was 40 odd years old at the time. I wanted to position myself so that I would have more control over weathering the next crisis. And here we are. I was trying to figure out how I should position myself for the next 10 or 15 years. That was part of it. Knowing that if I became a senior level cog in a larger wheel, I may not survive, thrive, the next go around to recessions. So here we are. I also knew that I was, I think when I left, I'm 52 now and so I left at 46 I guess. I sort of felt like, if I got too close to 50, it was going to be too late to do it. It’s not that it's too late that you can't, it's just that the timeframe on the endeavor becomes less realistic. It takes time to build a firm. It's not something you can just like launch and it's instantly successful. You have to get projects, you have to do projects, you have to publish projects. So if you start looking at the time horizon, you know that you don't have as long a time horizon to do stuff. So I was sort of like, I'll just go now. I'll just jump in.
Well, I mean, clearly you made the right decision. Just looking at it. All those magazines cover. your projects and competition highlights. You have done a phenomenal job for yourself and establishing your firm. A part of me always knew you will be that person. You will be the leader able to thrive in these kinds of situations and find a way to just shine. Over and over. You just never seem to let things to get you down. You always find a way to say “Here's an opportunity. What can I do more?”. The fact that you're being nimble and able to figure out very strategically “Here's my runway, what can I do now to build this up?” And make quick decisions. I think that's all the quality of good leaders. Given where we are right now.
This conversation would have been so different a month ago.
Well, what happened a month ago?
Oh, I don't know, like last month in a different world.
Absolutely. It was definitely a different world last month, even just weeks ago. But you seem very calm. You seem very well, always seem composed, and you are able to figure things out. Even with the storm, the rain outside, you are still able to say “I got this”, and you always crank things out.
I'm serious. I always admired you. Watching your career and now establishing your own firm, and coming out and leading this effort. Seeing your project over and over, from different publications just plaster your work, and they're just beautiful. Stunning work. The detail is so exquisite.
So given where you are, as you talked about what you experienced and the struggles that you went through in your head. You're 46 and deciding what to do, what's your next move? How to navigate that? What’s your career path?. And now being the leader, owner, having a staff. How do you mentor them? How do you work with them? How do you help them to navigate through their career path?
Right, that's a kind of complicated question. And it's really about a whole bunch of different individuals that I work with. So sometimes I think the only thing I can really do to mentor is just continuing to show up. And be like, “Well, I'm doing this. So somebody else could do it.” I mean, I'm not doing anything that isn't being done by other people. It’s not like I’m the first woman to own a small firm. I think sometimes it's just like, you know, 90% of success is just showing up. It’s just to keep showing up and hopefully, that's good.
I think on a more specific level. I think it's very individual. I think it's a lot about teaching people. I try when I'm sitting down with my staff too, first of all, ask them like, “Okay, tell me if you know this already. But also tell me like, if you don't.” If I ask you what is a face frame cabinet versus a full over like a cabinet, you know what I'm talking about? If they say yes, and then I often will say, “well then sketch it for me” And that's when you realize they don't. Then I teach them so that they can be productive. Probably the only time I actually really ever felt like it was any actual like, mentoring. I had one woman who was working with me. She was great. She was actually trained as an interior designer. She's doing a lot of millwork and shop drawings and stuff with me. Then we had that project finished. And then I put her on to another project where I was asking her to create millwork drawings and she was really struggling, and I was under a lot of stress about a whole bunch of other stuff. So I didn't spend as much time with her trying to get through all these details. She was getting frustrated and I was getting frustrated. So one day she sent me this email, she said, “I just think I'm gonna leave. I don't really think this is working out the way I thought it was gonna work out.” So I was like “All right, Wait. Hang on. Before you do that, let's talk.” So I sat down with her and was like, “What's going on?” We have this great heart to heart where she said, “I just don't feel like I'm doing a very good job”. And I was like, “Well, let's talk about why you feel like that? How do we solve this problem?” And I had to admit, like culpability in the fact that she felt like she wasn’t doing a good job. Because I wasn't spending the time with her to really make sure that she understood what I was asking her to do. So I asked how do we make this work better for you? So we changed the job description that she was doing and she's still here. She's great. It really took a real heart to heart. And I don't know what it was. Because I've had other people where I haven't bothered to go after them and say why? And with her, I was just like, things have been so good for a while. So I don't know if it's a very good answer to this question.
No, I think it is. Because you were vulnerable, you knew there would be answers that you may not be happy with. But you were vulnerable enough to let her work through with you and found that you also needed to adjust your ways of working together with her. Your willingness to say, “Alright, I want to figure out how to make it work” and her vulnerability. It's a kind of partnership. It takes a leader to say “What's going on, let's talk about. Why is it not working?” and asking those hard questions to be able to work through those emotions. Most people on the professional front tried to have that facade. And say “We got this. This is A, B, & C, very objective.” But in reality, when we work together as human to human, there's some emotional touch. Sometimes we don't think that those are the moments that can make a huge impact. Connecting with each other at an emotional level.
It's totally true. I'm really glad I went and said to her “Wait, hang up before you do that, let's talk about it first.” You know, it worked well. I have to admit, I think I've tried that in the past with people and it hasn't taken like this. One thing that I feel good about this particular situation is that we figured out where the problem was, changed the job description and it was fine. Whereas, every other time I've tried to solve a problem or somebody whose work wasn't improving. I've never been able to make that work before. Maybe that's the reason I feel like that was a good mentor situation, where I figured out how to help somebody and advance their skillset
Yes, and bring the best out of that person.The reason why I'm asking you this question it’s because of my personal experience with you. In my first year, you were a third-year student. I remember the day before my first project, you swing by my desk and ask how I was doing. You didn't have to. For me, you were like, CATHERINE TRUMAN and I was this lonely first-year student. It was my first project and I thought I wasn’t doing a good job. I was done. I thought I needed to go home. I was ready to pack up and you came to me and gave me feedback, and said that I needed to stay. That really made an impact on me.
And I'm glad you told me that because I would have missed out on my first-year initiation. You were kind enough to let me know that, but you didn't tell me what to do, you just kind of led me into that decision and made suggestions for me to have that experience.
That’s why I asked. For me, you were always a phenomenal leader. For that level of engagement with you then and throughout the rest of the year. Like I said I admire you. You're very methodical. You're very personal. You think about things that impact the other person. The reality is, would it have benefitted you to come to talk to me? Absolutely not. That was a first-year student and you were third. But you did it anyway. You possess that kind of emotional intelligence to extend your hand even though you didn't have to. And to me emotionally connecting helped me to navigate through that first-year graduate school, which can be confusing. It was overwhelming for me. And having that experience really made a big difference for the remaining 3 years.
So thank you for being there for me, and help me to go through that. I always think of you as a great leader. When I think about leaders, I think about you. What things you do, and how you made me feel, and that was what made a big difference.
You're making me blush. Another thing I would say that I try to do with people here, partly because it's a small studio, but I try to be really open when I screw up. I just try to be pretty open about stuff in general. Whether or not it's like managerial or financial or whatever. Like when we got fired from a job where the husband had hired me and I'd never met the wife. And we had a couple of meetings. And then she got this interior designer on board. And they decided they didn't want me and so I was politely asked to leave the job. It was kind of mortifying and embarrassing. I don't think it's the first time that's ever happened to an architect, it's certainly not the last time. But when that happened, I had to be really upfront with my staff and be like, “Well, so that job isn't gonna happen anymore, and here's why. It was embarrassing to be like, we weren't fired for cause or anything, we were asked not to work.” I am open with them about the downside of this stuff, and when I make mistakes. Or about that time when we had a little project that I kind of was rushing through for a longtime client. We were super busy, and I just kind of rushed through doing it. And the shop drawings came in, and I missed something. So they built this piece of cabinetry, and it was the wrong dimension. The order was passed. And I had to basically own up to the fact that I had rushed through this thing and made the stupid mistake. And now it's going to cost $10,000 to fix this piece of cabinetry. And I think it's important that they also see when I screw up, because one of the things that I really, I tell everybody that works for me, like everybody makes mistakes, I make mistakes. I want you to know I make mistakes. But what I try not to do is make the same mistake twice. I'm more than happy to explain why something is wrong and teach you what's the problem, maybe a second time. But if I start seeing the same stupid mistakes over and over again, that's when I really lose it because I don't have the time to sit and do that. I feel like in order to have any weight and authority to say “no, you're wrong”, I have to be able to admit that I am wrong and tell why that happens so that they can learn from that as well.
That's important because it's shown again, vulnerability. Also, showing that you are human and that we all make mistakes, but to recognize a mistake and learn from it and avoid making the same mistake over again. End of day, people you hire are professional, and that’s what their expected to do, to be professional.
I think the biggest challenge that I have with that, too, is that I am not an educational institution. I am not in business, to teach you stuff. I teach you stuff so that you can work for me so that we can run a business, make clients happy, and make money. That's hard to do as an architect, the profit margin is really, really long, right. I have found that a lot of younger people don't understand that, which I don't think it's necessarily their fault as individuals. I think a lot of people don't understand what the learning process means in an architecture firm, especially a small one. Every line means something and every line has a financial implication. Every line means something to a builder and every line kind of has a financial implication. I'm happy to teach you about this stuff. But basically, I teach you so that you can learn and that we can advance the cause of this endeavor together, which is ultimately attempting to make a profit. I didn't start this firm so that I can lose money teaching people endlessly over and over again. You have to understand the way that the business end of this works, which is like there are certain things that I can afford to have people learn, even if it's close to your level. Because they need to get done, and the time value of money for me to do them doesn't make a lot of sense. And they're great ways for people to learn stuff. So you can, you know, do a stair section and figure out, you know, how do you make a stair work. And I know, I can whip that out really quickly. But like, you've never sat down and looked at the code before. So here, take this and, you know, read the code, understand how to do it, it's going to take you a day, it would take me an hour, that's fine, I get it. But I don't want every time you draw a stair detail for that, to have to take a day. I want you to take a day, the first time you look at the code, maybe it’s two hours, the next time, and then you should be able to do it as fast. The time value of money for skill sets is about kind of balancing that to the business. But I do think a lot of people come to small firms and think that they're just forced to come to firms in general. And just think that whether you know, they make the same mistake three times, it doesn't matter. Because why would it matter? Like, it totally matters, because every hour that, you know, every hour, you're working, I'm paying you at this rate, there's overhead, there's, you know, I have all of these other expenses. And even though it seems like I'm billing you out at a much higher rate, you know, all of that is calculated to cover rent and electricity, and insurance and taxes and, you know, benefits and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, you know, photography and advertising and publishing. Like there's a budget here, and even though it seems like you know, like, how can she bill me out with this huge amount of money and I get paid so little, it shouldn’t make much much of a difference. It's like, well, it doesn't work that way, you know, there is a carefully calibrated set of economics to it. And it doesn't mean that just because you don't think you're getting paid that lunch, or you know, who does think they're gonna get that much that doesn't cost money to run the office, I don't know if that makes sense.
It does. Especially small firms, the margins are just very tight. And when we work for a large firm, the margin, there's some buffer. And so this kind of instance, mistakes that happen are much more costly, much more visible. And so just because, and also the man power, the hands on deck, they're just not as you can just throw another junior person to whip something else, like, no, we have to get things done. And we have allocated resources to commit to all these projects There's just the error, the margin of error is really little. Right, and I and then there is, of course, a lot.
I definitely try and be pretty open about you know, when an invoice comes in for my professional liability insurance, and it's like x x x, thousands of dollars, you know, how much is rent, it's, you know, how much is, you know, every photoshoot is you know, basically $3,000 for the photographer plus, all the lost time that you know, me and whoever else from here is going to go do. So like basically every photoshoot is like, you know, somewhere between five and $10,000 that they understand that all of that outlay of costs is wrapped in, it's not like all they do is pay salaries.
Even nowadays with Coronavirus prices, these kinds of situations, there's obviously the beginning of the situation where everyone started working for home, getting things set up, communicating through the virtual setup, again, that there's a cost that people don't think about,
Like, it's much easier to work. The thing that's been the biggest challenge right now with this is trying to work with junior staff. Senior staff can work pretty autonomously. And like, if you're where I tend to think of people are like, are they a one hour person? A two hour, three, or four-hour person? Like how frequently do you have to check in with them? And if it's a kind of person, you have to check with them once an hour once, every two hours? You know, can they go all day when all you need to do at the end of the day is be like so how far did you get with x and like, let me take a look at it when you're ready. Like they're those people. But there, this whole work from home thing is totally fine for people like that. It's a much bigger challenge for staff where you have to, the way that we're working in the same space, where you'll have to check in more frequently, simply a harder thing to do because you don't realize how frequently it's just, I'll turn around and be like, Hey, can you just quickly show me how far you've gotten on that drawing? Or can you like, would you mind grabbing all the samples that we have from that last meeting and putting them all out so we can take a quick look through them or whatever? And without that, I don't know how I'm going to navigate that one. Like how am I going to work like doing interior finishes and helping and working with junior staff on figuring out all the finishes for something when they're not here to look at them with me.
Well, I'm confident you'll figure it out.
But the other is also, I mean, the financial cost of this thing is, it's crazy.
So, are you able to or there are municipal funds grants? Are you guys able to apply? Or is there any financial support from the government?
Well, I feel like yes, there, they say there's going to be. Right now, I feel like I told my staff this the other day, I don't know probably the last week or that I don't remember the day of the week it is anymore. I felt like this whole situation was like having a whole second job. Just trying to figure out what's going on, I get all these emails from different, you know, from my bank, my accountant, I'm on all these different listservs, which I didn't even realize I was on, because most of the time, I think I just ignore them. My HR consultants, my past HR consultants, you know, others I don't know, this bombardment of information, that basically also changes every four hours, right? And, you know, what's the status of this loan? Or that grant or this thing? And are you going to qualify for this? And, you know, you get all this information from all these different people. And it's 90% of it's the same, but some of it's new and some of it's different, and some of it's changing.
And so, yeah, like right now, I've applied for some small business loan, that is they call it a loan, but they say it's not going to have to be repaid, they're going to call it a grant. But then there's this other thing called payroll protection. It's supposed to have come out today. But as we started our call, it hadn't. For me, I happen to have a couple of weird situations that may not probably even bother with that one, just because I had a pretty large payroll last year, and then I had two people who gave notice at the beginning of the year to do like, what was going to move abroad, and they had it was going to do a career change. And I had a project on hold due to zoning problems. So at that the person who was stopping that was 1099. So since January, I basically had three people slowly go off of this payroll. Plus, I had two extra people last year, just given the workload, and so I don't think I'm gonna qualify for that, or I don't know, anyways, so there's supposed to be money out there. There are definitely resources to figure it out, too. I mean, there's a small business or small practices network at the BSA, which we had a call the other day, people just trying to sort of figure out what it is and how to navigate it. I think most of us are more worried, in general about not like this week or next week. We're all more worried about six months from now, you know, nine months from now. Because for the most backhaul there were I think there were 20 of us, or 20, or 25 of us on the call and it was ranged from sole practitioners to firms that sort of, you know, 9, 10, 12 people, most people were, to some degree, either completely equally as busy as they'd been before or not a huge amount of difference. But every but and everybody was more worried about, you know when the stuff that I'm doing right now would dry up. So it'll be weird, either one. I was thinking I'd apply for the money right now to try and have it so that I can later keep what I have now in the bank for the future.
Well, there's a lot as a business owner to think about and having this thrown in the middle of the mix. We just finished q1 and now you're moving on to q2, thinking about what's the end of after q2, the life after this Coronavirus, situation, or crisis. And it's hard at the same time to figure out what's in yours, your staff? How do you maintain their morale, their commitment to finish the project at the highest quality it has ever been, while maintaining this attitude, you know, just keep going, we'll do fine. And the economy we have no control, but deep down you know, something potentially may happen six months out as a market dynamic changes.
And unfortunately, I actually have an awkward situation where I have a couple of other people that I have working for me who are on various visas. And as I discovered this week, you can’t put people on h1 visas on half time or cut their salary. Right now, that for me is a much bigger problem, because the logical situation right now for me is to basically put people on halftime work or reduce their pay.
But I can't. So I'm also sort of confronting this problem that I either have to keep somebody completely fully billable at their set current salary rate or let them go, which is like not what you want to do you want to put somebody on, you really want to be able to take somebody and put them on furlough, cut their pay so that you can kind of string out the work or at least be able to kind of afford them. And so I'm also kind of right now facing the fact that I may not be able to keep staff because I can't keep them for like, I look a month out and I can't see any billable work. In this particular case, I can't just put them on furlough and bring it back. I have to, I shouldn’t put that on the air to discover that one. But yeah, that's an extra big challenge, which is frustrating.
Yeah, this uncertainty trying to tread through this, this, or just like mentioned, navigating through these kinds of uncertainties is challenging without some sort of concrete information. You know, at least most of the time, even back in 2008, we kind of can predict because there are some historical patterns that we can project here's what may happen and then the economy will normalize and things will pick up slowly and trending up. But with this, there is such a different set of attributes that are impacting the content, impacting the economy, and so there's not a whole lot of things I can throw from the history of, alright, what does this look like? So I can plot that dot right there, and then this looks like that, and then now I have two lines of where do I see the headlines trending? We don't have that kind of historical data to reference easily. I mean, the earliest we can reference is probably 1918, or something, since we had a war. Even that, the economy was a lot different than what we are today. I mean, we're just kind of going through a shock.
I’m really curious to see how we're gonna come out the other side.
Different note where, so things that you've seen so far, just looking at trends, not so much of the economy, but trends of what people want, when they design, when they come to you and say hey Catherine, we here's a Pinterest board that we put together or whatever inspiration board, and have you seen some sort of trends over the last six years, you've been with your company?
Catherine Truman 37:00
Trends of what people want, or trends of what I wanted to do?
Grace Mase 37:04
Let's start with that, I guess.
Catherine Truman 37:09
Some people have pretty clear ideas about what they like, which is great. Most of the time, sometimes that just means you end up feeling like you're drafting service, which isn't that much fun. But I think when people have a general sense of what they like, and then they're willing, they want to work with an architect to develop that idea. But they're what they're not basically looking for us to draft. They don't know how to draft so they need somebody to draft for them. That's, that's less engaging, but I don't know, it's funny, I feel like people seem to have different individual ideas about what works for them and what doesn't. It's a there's always, you know, yes, I see trends of, you know, big open spaces, and I just like, but I sometimes also feel like that's just what I gravitate to. I don't know if I really have enough data to say that I see trends and with people that I work with, there are enough differences within them. And we do each project is so different. I think when I look at my projects, I can see that there is a kind of overarching similarity with things that I've done. Would I call them trends? Not necessarily. And I don't know that the way that I approach, solving the problems that are presented to me is driven by trying to, like do something that's cool and trendy. Because I can't say like, oh, people all want big open kitchens or people all want giant master bedrooms, and they all want small master bedrooms, because everybody's like, we've got people who've done everything, you know, small lots of small spaces, or have all one big open thing. So like, I don't see one particular trend about how people want to live, I think.
Grace Mase 38:53
What are things that you might want to engage or encourage your clients to think about, like, sustainable design and energy-efficient?
Catherine Truman 39:03
Again, I oftentimes work with what they're interested in like if we, you know, we've advocated and certain like, we have a project right now, where we were advocating really hard for a green roof at the beginning of the project, we got taken out for budget, and then the owner came back and said, actually, it would be kind of cool to have a green roof like, okay, that's great, we'll happily add it again. We've had it, we've had a lot of times where we try and advocate for ideas, and then they just get taken out of the budget. I mean, so much stuff that cool gets, you know, it's interesting to do gets taken out of the budgeting process. And it takes a pretty strong-minded owner to say, Yes, I've got to leave the green roof. And even though it's going to be X 10s of thousands of dollars to do it, or I'm definitely going to leave in the geothermal because a lot of the time that stuff gets taken out. I sort of feel like also that the kind of work we do, since a lot of its renovations, a lot of it's like a townhouse renovation or condo renovations or it's an addition to an existing house that we're not necessarily finding the same kinds of, you know, stainable stuff that you see when you might be designing completely brand new ground up. Because we're already like working with existing infrastructure in a condo building, we're already working with existing heating system we're already working with, you know, kind of have to work with what's kind of there oftentimes.
Grace Mase 40:18
And given Boston with so much history, the buildings are much older than many parts of the country, too.
Catherine Truman 40:24
Yeah. And we're more likely to face the challenge, which I swear it's like every other project. And when somebody tells me exactly how to make this work, it's great, insulating historic masonry walls, and three-way old load-bearing masonry walls that you know, have been breathing the way they've been breathing for 150 years. And then you know, you put closed cell spray foam on them, they're gonna change dew point change three cell cycle, and then if you're going to pad them out, but the air gap and then put the insulation outside area, like, I swear, it's like the same conversation all the time about them. And I've gone to whole seminars where basically all the different building scientists get up and say, well, you have to analyze and on a case by case basis, there isn't really like a magic bullet for how to do an insulated masonry wall. That's the conversation, I seem to have a lot more frequently like, can we insulate this? And it's like, well, you can, but you're going to have to give up, you know, four or five inches out of your floor space in order to make it work. So we think, we face more questions like that, like, how do we deal with the windows? And can we replace single-pane windows with an insulated pane glass, if you're in a historic district, good, what's the benefit of doing storms or window restoration? Like I feel like our questions are oftentimes a little less glamorous than putting, you know, solar panels, or geothermal or green roofs. It's fun when we get to do those things which we've done. But I think more frequently, we end up bumping up against you know, we have single pane glazed windows with storms, ugly aluminum storms on the outside, we’re in a historic district. And because of archaic rules for historic districts, they say they have to use a true divided light, which I swear it's like every Historic District, it's just they just don't understand what good windows can do. Now with simulated divided light, they're still stuck in like 1983 on you know what they all think that a simulated divided light is like a stick-on plastic thing and a reality check. There are really beautiful simulated divided lights out there that get like a mandate that you can't use them. It's so frustrating. We'll go through this window conversation, the endless conversation and the endless basically.
Grace Mase 42:25
Wow. Well, that, to me is interesting, because those are not the type of problems that we learn about or figure out. And most of the buildings here in California is much younger than what you see in Boston. So this is really interesting.
Catherine Truman 42:39
We had a similar thing with an old farmhouse where they wanted to make it, it was actually really interesting. It's a net-zero energy project that has solar panels and hybrid sidewalls, triple glazed windows with the original part of the house was like this 1680 old farmhouse. And so it had skinny little walls, like plank walls and timber frame with plank siding. There wasn't any place to put all this insulation. And it had all this like architectural detail on the outside where you know steps and things that you'd see in an old farmhouse and we couldn't lose the timbers on the inside. And yet we knew the outside had to if you just sort of like blew it up and offset it by like the 12 inches it needed, then it would look completely different. So we had to, in some places go outside and some places go inside readjust blinds and like to just to insulate that house with this incredibly complicated puzzle of how do you make something that much bigger, that much thicker, and yet not change the way that say, the windows look in the wall? Because if you put the windows in a different relationship to the plane of the wall that changes the way the old house looks.
Grace Mase 43:42
Extraordinarily fascinating. This is something I find interesting, because when you think about just changing dynamic things, a lot of things that people don't think about, it's like, well, just I want to insulate these kinds of masonry walls. But there's all these implications and has dumbbell effects, how does it impact the rest of other things by moving an inch there, then then it's going to be what's going to happen on the other side. So the art being the architect trying to balance the aesthetics with functionality with a budget and with reality.
Catherine Truman 44:14
It's a Rubik's Cube, all I do is I like solve little problems all day long.
Grace Mase 44:21
So what I'll do is someone who's brand new is coming into this profession and trying to decide well, should I even just what you went through six years ago, should I start my own firm? What type of advice would you give to someone who's new coming in thinking about that point?
Catherine Truman 44:32
Well, it really depends on where they are in their career, but I've had people say, you know, they're two or three years out of school, and they want to start their own firm. And I'm like, well, let's figure let's teach you how to build something first. And one of the things that I find to be the most one of the most valuable things I learned was how to build, like, literally going out and physically building stuff. I mean, we had to build a project at Yale which was great, but honestly, it was like renovating my own apartment with my at that point boyfriend who the best thing he was good for was teaching me how to do construction. But like building cabinetry and like doing construction and understanding how difficult it is how hard it is. So they have respect for the guys in the field, those understanding like how the pieces go together. And I think a lot of times, like the shit hits the fan in this industry on a construction site, right? Like, that's where, if you don't know what's going on, that's where you're gonna bump into problems. It's really easy to draw pretty pictures, it's like, it's super easy to draw pretty pictures, it's super easy to like, figure out how to put some stuff on paper. It's a lot harder to figure out how it goes together. And I think that if I had started earlier, I would have bothered a lot of things but one of the things I wouldn't know much about how to build I also know very well what I don't know how to build like I'm really good at interior detailing, I can work my way around in my sleep and everything, but I'm not as good as on developing detailing. So I know where my weak points are. Because I haven't done as much of that. So I know where to augment. I know exactly in any given project what I need to have somebody with a different skill set. And I know exactly who all those people are. And I know how to use them. I know what I know. And I know what I don't know, right.
Grace Mase 46:16
And there are people who can complement those skills.
Catherine Truman 46:19
Yeah. But that's I think one of the most important things you have to know if you're going to do this because you get in so much trouble. If you don't really know what you're doing, as you're dealing with construction, there's just so much at stake when it comes to you know, the money out of it, right. And like someone a builder that I'm working with, told me over lunch a couple, like a year or two ago that he likes to tell clients that you know, you can either spend $1, to change the design on paper and black and white, or you can spend $100 to change it in rough framing, or you can spend $1,000 to change it after finishes are up. I think it's a pretty good visual, that's what he's trying to get people to do is work it out on paper first. People don't like to think that your builder is going to work it out in the field because your builders are not going to work that out, they feel like they can work out some stuff in the field, but they're not going to work out, you know, they're not going to take something from this preliminary design and be able to make all the details work, you have to spend that time upfront. But I think what's really important is understanding that like everywhere said I think earlier and what I tell a lot of the people that I work with is that every line means something right? I want you to know something if you know what that line means. Somebody is gonna think it means something, right? either. Either you're not gonna get what you think you're gonna get, or, you know, a builder is going to look at it and be like, this person doesn't know what they're doing. And in order, I think, from my experience, what helps make you successful is fully understanding exactly what it is and how you're going to build it. Not just making pretty pictures, and so that's like, I was talking to somebody who was pretty fresh out of school who wanted to was like, wanting to start their own firm one day. And I was like, well let’s teach you how to build something first.
Grace Mase 48:13
That is really sage advice because oftentimes, we hear this from the field this contractor feels like, well, this designer or architect can't design or they don't know what they're doing, and as a result, they really reflect poorly on the client.
Catherine Truman 48:27
And the later you go to a client and you end up designing a cabinet, it doesn't have enough space for their dishes like that's not good. And so you have to work on understanding that what everything is in terms of its size, its dimension, and how things go together. And, yeah, it's really important to know the meaning of everything you're drawing and whether or not it's going to work. And I think that's the biggest challenge we face as architects is that, you know, you kind of go into the field. And if your drawings are unclear or, or it's clear, you don't know what you're doing, the builders know, immediately. But one of the things that one place I learned the most was actually on construction sites. And I was really lucky as my first real project when I was at Ann’s office was this amazing historic home in Beacon Hill. And due to a whole series of weird chance, luck, chance things, I took a project and just it became the most amazing project I've ever done. I loved it, a huge renovation restoration project. And I was kind of left to run loose with it. I didn't have any oversight in the office. I just kind of took the ball like I basically took the ball roll by the horns, just ran with it. And like didn't even know what it's doing, I just ran with it. And probably the best way I learned stuff as if I didn't know what I was doing, I owned up to it to the guys in the field. I would be like, I don't know, I don't know how to do that. Can you explain it to me rather than try and cover-up on air? Yeah. I had drawn this I’m sure what was an absolute mess of like some sort of casework thing that was supposed to be like a chair rail like panels and a baseboard. And it was, it was obviously completely a mess because the builder who I still am in touch with was really nice for on the job. So he's like, So what exactly do you want here? And I've kind of looked at him and like this, just totally stare at like, oh, I was like terrified. And he takes up a bunch of pieces of wood on the job site for spoofing of like one buys and stuff like profile moldings and stuff. He's like, so Okay, if you do this, and you do this, and he starts taking these pieces of wood, and he starts putting them together and starts to kind of like, show me what is how these pieces go together. And he's like, so what you've drawn here would be x. But what you've done over here would be y, so which way do you want it? And he wasn't critiquing me, he wasn't telling me you don't know what you're doing. He was teaching me, which is one of the reasons I feel like teaching people what every line means is really important because that's what he did with me. He sat there and showed me how every line that you're drawing means something to you guys in the field. So after that, I just felt like I can learn all this stuff from these guys in the field. Like they're the ones that can really help me become a better architect and explain things about why stuff has to happen some way or why stuff doesn't. And I found in that job that having that dialogue with the builders made them trust me so that when I said no, it has to be this way. Like this is really important, because the end result has to look like this. They respected where I was coming from with that, because I respected all of their skills and would say, Well, I don't know, I don't know how to solve that problem. What would you do, right? To learn from that as well. It's spending time in building sites like the best thing you could do.
Grace Mase 51:43
Yeah, I think I did the same I, when my first job when I worked at Berkeley, that was the advice I got from my, my construction teacher, professor. And I was young out of school, and I do some drawing at best. And I didn't have a lot of construction experience, we build a homeless shelter with 20 bucks. And that was the extent of my building experience. And for a project manager, at that time, was my title, I posted deciding on some many of those decisions for the university. And I really was not I don't think I was equipped to do so. But the best advice she ever shared with me just asked, if you don't know just ask.
Catherine Truman 52:23
Yeah, that was totally the best advice just ask.
Grace Mase 52:27
Right. And I didn't try to show proof to anybody. I didn’t have anything to prove in the first place. And I didn't need to cover up anything I truly didn't know. And I learned that was the first two years I learned so much on the field talking to the contractors learning what the basic stuff even testing, you know, the concrete then also figure out the I-beam testing on that it was like that was really eye-opening.
Catherine Truman 52:56
Yeah, absolutely. It's yeah, just asking is the best way to learn stuff and just building.
Grace Mase 53:04
Having that experience much. That line means more than just a line. It actually means how it will be constructed and how a family will live in that space.
Catherine Truman 53:14
I don't know when you find yourself at a certain point in your career going like down the rabbit hole of like hinges that you can like, I remember sitting with one client we've been working on our kitchen and we were meeting with the mill worker and looking at the drawings tried already you know to design the thing and he and I went down this rabbit hole about hinge type so this one particular type of cabinet should we be using. Like, well, we could use this you know, we could use a standard European hinge but it will kind of cool what it means to piano hinge there maybe we should use like, you know, or knife hinge. We started going down this whole rabbit hole about whether or not and all this cabinet should have the little extra bling. Should we just have regular butt hinges? Or maybe we should go with an olive knuckle or what if we use a knife so that looks good. And she just was like, I've obviously found two people who care about this kind of thing. I trust you two to figure this out because I've never had. She's like I didn't know you could have a conversation about a hinge. Like oh yeah, we can do it for an hour.
Grace Mase 54:13
But the fun part is for her going through this experience with you guys. And the fact that you guys are so knowledgeable. Imagine her dinner party and someone knows that level of detail. And what a great story she's able to share and how much fun is for her to relive that moment.
Catherine Truman 54:30
Hopefully, she wasn't saying, Oh My God I was paying these two people to sit there and talk about hinges.
Grace Mase 54:34
No most people are all about it, most homeowners, from what I gather is they're so proud of the experience and this so they want to show off their home because their home is represented as a representation of who they are in a physical environment, right.
Catherine Truman 54:49
That's what we aim for.
Grace Mase 54:50
Right, and in a day we all want to be seen we all want to be heard we all want to be acknowledge or accepted and home is another option. You know, renovating your home is another way for a person to collect on one new version of me? And how do I showcase that version of me or the best version of me out there to the world? So, well, Catherine as an architect, you find unique things about you can find something ordinary and convert it into that extraordinary moment. And that's what's so special, it just everything about what you do, all the details, all the projects I've seen in your magazines, it's just that exquisite level detail.
Catherine Truman 56:00
And we must read every single thing like every line means nothing and details are incredibly important. And actually, that's one of the things I kind of, I say, it's when it works, it looks super easy, and it looks really effortless. If you don't notice a lot of time, oftentimes, the most detailing goes into the things that you don't notice at all, because it looks super, super simple. You notice details is when they screw up. Yep. And that's when you really notice that somebody didn't pay attention.
Grace Mase 56:30
And that's what Steve Jobs described. That's his model to his principal. I mean, Steve Jobs, you have to work so hard to simplify it and make it look so easy, but it requires so much work to make it simple.
Catherine Truman 56:45
Yeah, and that's really easy to do. Yeah, it's very hard to make things look really easy, right?
Grace Mase 56:52
I think you've done it, and I'm really proud of what you've done. And to be honest, I can sit here and talk all night. But I also really realize you have many things to do, and I'm grateful that you take the time to speak with us. And you certainly inspire me of all these years, and you continue to inspire me even on this call. I know when other people listen to it, they'll get inspired by you. So how would other people if they want to get in touch with you? How would they get in touch with you?
Catherine Truman 57:23
Well, come to our website, which we are currently revamping, our old one is still open, the new one will come up soon, which is www.truman-architects.com, there is a link there with a little email link, which it says info, it bounces to me. And when we're allowed to walk around back out in the world, our office is in Cambridge. Our website is probably the best all the contact information is on there, and we don't necessarily have a join mailing list or anything like that. But I do have an email list for email blasts, so if you're interested in getting on it, just shoot me an email on the website, I do have a woefully lightly maintained Instagram and Facebook page which one of these days I'll start actually doing more with but I don't do that much with right now. But they are I think it's the Truman arc on Instagram, which is actually mostly filled with travel pictures and art and not so much architecture, and on Facebook, which is also mostly underutilized. But it's only because it's been so busy for the past six and a half years is a good time to do it.
Grace Mase 58:44
Well, that's good. Well, thank you so much. Catherine, you truly are an incredible design professional and architects extraordinaire and also being the thought leader in the industry. And I like I said, I always respect you and admire you and you continue to shine. And I'm really proud to see you continue to grow.
Catherine Truman 59:03
Oh, Thank you so much.
Grace Mase 59:09
Well, thank you so much, Catherine. It's been a pleasure, and we look forward to speaking with you soon.
Catherine Truman 59:16
Thank you so much. It's been a great pleasure.
Grace Mase 59:18
Thank you for listening to this episode of Revivify Podcast, and we'll see you next time.