Remodels By, For, and With Women

How did I become so invested in empowering women to be strong leaders in their own home improvement projects?

As a young female architect, I’ve faced skepticism and dismissal from male colleagues and contractors throughout my career. But over many years and many projects I’ve learned to push back confidently and achieve the results I believe in. Not everyone has the luxury of building this confidence over time, especially women homeowners who may only go through one or two remodels in their lifetime.

Better Remodels (For Everyone) with a Master Plan

I created the Master Plan method as a direct response to my experience in residential architecture.

I designed the process to help anyone, but especially women, quickly build the confidence and clarity needed to lead their remodeling projects effectively.

The benefits of this method extend to homeowners of all backgrounds, genders, and levels of experience. Because the process isn’t about gender – it’s about empowering you to communicate your design vision clearly.

A few years ago, I recorded an episode titled “Smash the Patriarchy: Take the Lead on Your Remodel Like a Woman” (Episode 603). It offers practical strategies for leading confidently in the face of gender biases. These strategies include preparing yourself before the remodel, playing to your strengths, building a reliable support network, and trusting your instincts to discern good advice from pushy recommendations.

A recent opportunity to pitch for a small business grant from an organization called Doyenne, which supports women-owned businesses got me focused on the why of Mid Mod Midwest. I spent time reflecting on my journey as a woman in architecture and my mission to help others achieve their goals.

One of the joys of residential architecture is working directly with homeowners. It’s incredibly rewarding to collaborate with you, transforming your living spaces to reflect your dreams and lifestyles. I cherish the opportunity to help you confidently lead your remodel.

My background as a woman in Design

A license isn’t required for residential practice in Wisconsin. But I chose to become a licensed architect because I knew that as a woman in this male dominated field, I would need the cred that came with a license.

The path to becoming a licensed architect is demanding and the profession often requires long hours and sacrifices, making it tough for those with families. Women face unique challenges and biases, leading to a significant gender gap in the field. I was one of a handful of women in my architecture program and only two of us made it to graduation.

Once I left school, I had the opportunity to work for a number of wonderful firms and gain really unique experience in high-end remodeling and sustainable building. I was working on exactly the kinds of projects I had hoped. But certain core beliefs and assumptions were threaded through every project. In fact, through the whole industry. Architects were seen as creative geniuses who could create the “right” solutions for a client with little exploration of how the clients live in their homes. They had ideas ready to work into a project, regardless of whether those ideas would work for how the clients lived. Many clients were very happy with the process and we designed really gorgeous solutions.

Women (everyone) need a better way to practice architecture

But my reservations about this way of practicing grew over time. I wanted to be a more effective advocate for my clients. I didn’t want to just dictate designs; I wanted to listen and understand my clients’ needs. My goal was to bridge the gap between the architect’s expertise and the homeowner’s vision.

The “Starchitect” dynamic erases clients needs and more often than not in residential architecture those clients are women. It reinforces a top-down, male dominated perspective that there are experts who know what’s right, what’s beautiful, what’s “best” for your home better than you – the end user.

And sure, architects are experts in structure and aesthetics and residential vernacular.

But many of our most revered and famous architects are also notoriously bad at creating liveable, functional homes. (Yes, I’m looking at your kitchens, Frank Lloyd Wright!)

Listening Makes Design Better

One key takeaway from my journey is the importance of listening. And very specifically listening to the person/people who will be using the spaces…more than half the time those people are women.

Residential architecture is unique because architects are hired by the people who will live in the homes they design. We should be asking questions, understanding our clients’ lifestyles, and offering options that align with their needs. My passion for empowering homeowners led to the creation of the Master Plan method. It’s about providing you with the tools and confidence to lead your remodel effectively.

In Today’s Episode You’ll Hear:

  • Why women’s voices are missing from residential architecture. 
  • How the “starchitect” dynamic disempowers homeowners. 
  • Why listening is the most important skill an architect can develop. 

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Resources to remodel by / with / for women

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Read the Full Episode Transcript

Let’s talk about planning remodels by, with, for women. I created the mid-century Master Plan method specifically to empower women to be strong leaders in their own remodels everyone else, keep listening, this is for you too. But as a young female designer, even now as a licensed architect, I have often experienced skepticism and dismissal by male colleagues and contractors and carrying out my design work.

Over time, I’ve built the well-researched certainty about my design decisions that helps me push back and achieve the results I believe in or sometimes collaborate with confidence to make designs even better. But I know that this challenge I’ve worked through is compounded many fold. For women homeowners who don’t have the time to build confidence over many years and many projects. Most mid mount Midwest clients will only complete one or maybe two renovations in their lifetime. So you need a process to help instill that confidence quickly to feel ready from the start.

Hey there, welcome back to mid mod remodel. This is the show about updating MCM homes, helping you match a mid-century home to your modern life. I’m your host Della Hansmann. Architect and mid-century ranch enthusiast, you’re listening to Episode 1402.

Now it is pretty much a constant in the remodeling space that women feel like their questions are dismissed by contractors. My clients are asked when will your husband be home to follow up with that quote, and they struggle to feel like leaders in their own home improvement projects. So I created the Master Plan method, in part to help women homeowners develop the background information, the personal competence and the detailed clearer vision of their design that they need in order to explain what they want to a team of builders and have that vision realized. Now of course, the benefits of the method are not limited to women.

These confidence building steps work to help homeowners of every age, gender and experience level create and communicate their design vision simply and effectively. A few years ago, I recorded an episode called smash the patriarchy take the lead on your remodel like a woman. And that one has a number of strategies listed that you can use to lead confidently even in the face of the patriarchy. That’s episode 603, if you’re curious.

And I’ll remind you again, right here, it remains good advice for anyone planning remodel, no matter their identity. But the key points of that were to prepare yourself before your remodel. So you could lead with confidence to play to your own strengths. Find one area of the house plan, color theory, dimensions, history of your house, whatever you want to lean into, to feel really informed in. And then spread out your expertise as you go on.

And to build a squad to ask for advice from people you trust to give you clear, helpful, non-pushy information. And finally, to use your lifetime BS detector and trust your feelings to find out when people are giving you good advice and when they are trying to push you around. That’s all things you can take with you as you go forward. If you’re looking for more practical advice, that’s the episode for you.

But today I wanted to share some of my experience in working with for and as a woman in the profession of architecture, and particularly a woman who helps people plan wonderful remodels for their homes. This came up for me recently when I put together a pitch for a small business grant earlier this summer, which was really fun and gave me an interesting reason to step back and look at the why of what we do at mid Midwest.

For anyone else out there running a small business. You get lost in the day to day concerns, planning for next quarter putting out fires today and generally just doing the work that takes up so much of your mental energy. So it’s a big switch to think back to why you created your business in the first place and ask yourself some of these basic questions. It also happened that the organization I was pitching the grant to is doyenne, which is a mission driven organization that helps women running small businesses to find investment and the support they need to grow.

So I wanted to talk to them a little bit about my journey as a young woman in architecture and about the work I do to help other women around me to execute on their goals. But then I really started to wonder if I had ever properly explained any of this to you the people that I talked to you the most about what it is that we’re doing all the time. So I thought I would spend some time on the podcast to go a little deeper into some of the whys that are behind this business. This week, I’m going to talk about being a woman in architecture and the nearly unique joy of being a residential architect such that so many of my clients are also women.

Next week, I’m going to talk about my not so secret sustainability mission, otherwise known as how to keep your Mid-century home out of the landfill. And then in the third episode, we’re going to talk about our business model, why we use a fixed price for our master plans and how that masterplan model and the fixed price design model benefits both my team and how I believe it’s the best outcome for our clients as well. So all of that is coming up. As always, you’ll find show notes with links to the references I’m making and an outline of the conversation transcript in fact, on the website at midmod-midwest.com/ 1402.

To kick off, let’s talk a little bit about the profession of architecture. Architecture, like so many professional disciplines isn’t always the easiest place to be a woman. And hello, the patriarchy hurts everyone. What that means is that it isn’t always the easiest place to be a person. It’s first, a bit of a challenging profession to get into. There are a number of complex branching and interrelated ways to get a professional degree. Then unlike being a doctor or lawyer, you don’t get your license and begin to become a professional immense immediately after your graduate degree.

You need to find a job and work in the field for a number of years before you can begin to get your licensing process underway. Some firms and employers support the study for exams, seven exams when I took them, I think it’s different now and make it easier to accumulate the right experience hours that you need. Others just ignore you and hope you’ll do it on your own, and others hope you won’t get your license, so you’ll stay cheaper as an employee. Speaking of which, the traditional industry of architecture is built on the backs of low paid overworked, intern labor, earning your place in the profession by long days hunched over a drafting table has been the name of the game since the start.

And to a certain extent, we bring it on ourselves. Because to become an architect is to be obsessive it is to be someone who is never finished thinking about the design that’s living in your head right now. It is to be someone who’s constantly imagining the future of architecture with a capital A as they work. And it’s the reason that I was making notes for this episode at 7am on a Friday morning at the dog park. But it’s also inherently exploitative money and acclaim rise to the person at the top of an architecture firm always have the starchitect, even while the greatest number of hours are put in by drafters and intern architects working at the bottom of the organizational chart.

So what’s the point of that story? Well, hopefully you find it interesting. But also, as with so many professions, that rocky beginning is sometimes easier on people who have a life partner who’s fully invested in supporting you and your work and everything else, you need to keep your life going as a human being with a possible family. It’s easier to put in those long hours, when you’ve got to help me also contributing to the family coffers, and probably making the food and doing the dishes. It’s particularly a challenging environment to have a family into.

And I’ll tell you from my anecdotal experience as a single childless woman, but my friends who have managed to couple up and have kids while we were coming up as licensed architects are superheroes who have done it against all the odds with a grace, I can’t even begin to express my admiration for but with very little help from our profession at large. And while potential employers and the people around you are providing as little support as possible, they’re simultaneously always wondering, are you worth the investment they need to make in you? Or are you going to mommy track yourself right out of the business? Are you going to become a full partner in the business? Or will our society demand that you pay your dues in a way that will pull you back from architecture from the firm you want to belong to? The difficulty of this has never shocked me.

Disappointed? Sure, but I’m a STEM subjects girly from way back. I love to read literature in history or my relaxation spots. But even in high school, I leaned into physics, I joined the robotics team, the president of the Sci Fi club. I’m a general science nerd extraordinaire, and I was also often the loan girl in those places. When our robotics team sponsored by a local machinist shop would go on the weekends. And after school to fabricate the robots, we competed with. Our team volunteer supervisor who worked there didn’t bother to take down the girlie mags pin to the walls in the shop. He regularly described the machine part is good enough for the girls we go out with, and I regularly said nothing.

In college I was definitely in the minority in the School of Engineering, but it breathed a sigh of relief when I got to grad school, and finally had more women than men in my master’s program that’s actually not common in the professional programs at large. But I could see how many more of my male colleagues were already partners and fathers, and yet how little it seemed to determine how much time they spent in studio as compared to the few women I knew who were already married and parents and how between they’re trying to lug bulky plastic car seat carriers with them to studio and balance the time between feedings and pumping things and getting their design work done. They really were challenged.

By the time we graduated, only one of them was still in class. And as it happened her partner was also an aspiring architect who had been to a more rigorous five year undergrad program and then straight into the profession, so he was able to understand the amount of time it was necessary for her to put in at the drafting table during school. They have since formed to their own firm where they can control their own hours and parent more equally around their design work. I see you rather than list a bunch more reasons why women drop out between getting their master’s degree and attaining their license or share any more personal anecdotes.

I’ll just throw out a few statistics. All the women make up more than half of the members of this country. Only 42% of students in accredited architecture degree programs are women. Women stay in architecture proportionately at least for a few years, we make up 40% of young professionals taking the licensing exams and submitting experience hours but as our careers go on, women aren’t there. Only 15% of licensed architects registered with the AIA are women. Full disclosure, I am not a member or even though I am a licensed architect, I think the AIA is dodgy and focuses on the wrong things. So that might be part of it. But that’s not all. The Bureau of Labor Statistics which counts both intern architects and licensed architects together still records only 25% of architects, people in working in the field as women and women make up only 17% of reported heads and partners and firms.

In our recognition, only two of 39 awarded Pritzker prizes that’s our architecture Nobel in history have been granted to women, and that includes one who was recognized in combination with her male partner and does not include a woman who was famously an equal partner with her husband who was awarded the Pritzker and of all the AIA Gold Medals, only one out of 69 has gone to a woman posthumously to Julia Morgan, by the way. Needless to say, it’s a challenge. And the challenges we face are not limited to the four walls of our own architecture from offices either. Any woman will rapidly learn as she goes out to the jobsite, to supervise a project that she has to speak three times as loudly to be heard, if she can be heard at all by generations of older contractors who are not used to having women on site. Bless their hearts.

Then there’s the entire construction industry, suppliers, an entire male dominated field that does not make a lot of room for women to join the party. Visiting job sites in grad school, I was non joyfully reunited with the same girlie mags and calendars pinned to the wall in foreman trailers, and as a young female designer and taking my first years in the business, I routinely had my experience and expertise dismissed by contractors who just wanted to do it the way we always have. And sometimes they did, ignoring their legally binding contract documents in the process.

As much as I have loved working for every small architecture firm I’ve chosen, and has chosen to invest in me, there were always days when I got sick of being told what to design on behalf of clients that I had spoken to more by older male bosses, who simply felt that they knew what design would be best in this situation. For me, my entire decision to become a licensed architect – years of extra effort, late night study and expenses – came from the fact that I am a woman. In Wisconsin where I knew I would eventually practice, it’s not actually necessary to have a license in architecture to design remodels or even new residential construction.

But I knew I wanted that extra accreditation as a bulwark against other people’s dismissal or disbelief. I knew I wanted to get my message across. And I wanted to spread the word as widely as I could about my beliefs, I would need the professional backup as much as I could muster. But I didn’t just want to be a licensed architect so that I could dictate design to other people from on high. I didn’t want to become a carbon copy of my past bosses telling clients what would be good for them. I wanted to be listened to so that I could be a more effective advocate for my clients, which wasn’t something I was always able to do in my career before founding the Midwest.

I can still remember very clearly the day I decided to quit my last job just thinking about it fills me with a spike of adrenaline, emotions I was feeling at the time. I liked so many things about that job. And I’m not here to badmouth it. It was an amazing opportunity to work on beautiful projects in a city I love with a team of creative thinkers who are both excellent in the art and craft of design, and fun to hang out with in our office every day. I learned so much working at that firm, and I got to design gorgeous, delightful projects. Plus, I ran their blog for years. So I got to think about honing my communication skills. And it gave me a reason to continuously research both design and the city of Chicago to bring together new and fun views of both to people who happen on our website.

But still, I knew when I had to leave that job, and I knew what the year before I actually packed up and moved away from Chicago. The decision was crystal clear and came in a moment. During a casual four person design charrette on a Tuesday night, we had a new residential remodel project on the boards, and several of us had gone over to the house and measured it before to document its original quirky construction and a truly heinous 1990s era remodel. It was an absolutely common Chicago two story Greystone style home a sort of a detached row house. Now houses like this are organized linearly, there’s usually an off center entry with a vestibule and stairs on one side, a larger formal living room on the other. And then smaller rooms at the middle and back of the house. The kitchen was attacked on addition made slightly more roomy, but it is still a very claustrophobic kitchen. Our design brief was to push the entire back of the house out by 15 to 20 feet to make room for a more open plan kitchen and a casual family room with an expanded owner’s bedroom above.

My boss roamed through the office that morning and said, How about everybody take a stab at that kitchen layout Brynn three versions of what we could do to a design meeting at the end of the day, and we’ll have a look. I’ve been engaged in another task when he said that so I didn’t get around to it until midafternoon. And then I rapidly found myself stuck. What did I really know about these people?

My boss had met them in the introductory should they hire us meeting but hadn’t really given us any more information on who they were as people. I’d seen when we measured that they had two kids who seemed to be in elementary or middle school. But that’s all I knew. Were they cooks? Did both parents work full time? How old were those kids? What activities did either one of the family pursue that might require specific storage or needs or layout? How did they like to hang out in their home?

I let it rattle around in my head as I came up with a few things that I thought would fit in the space and brought three designs that I wasn’t wild about the meeting, feeling flustered by the process and frustrated that I hadn’t been able to put more specificity into my proposals. As we put our drawings on the table, I immediately piped up, asking for more information about what kind of kitchen we were going to create before we could really evaluate everyone’s ideas on the table. To me, this seemed like an absolute necessity, and probably just an oversight on my boss’s part that we hadn’t done it yet. He was busy or forgot. But he said, No, he didn’t really know himself. He didn’t know much about the family or their lifestyle. But it didn’t matter. He said clearly, it didn’t matter. We were going to design the right kitchen for this space. So let’s get on with the project.

I was flabbergasted. I think I completely zoned out for a minute. He’d said it was such confidence, such sincerity, such decisiveness. There wasn’t any room to dig further. He hadn’t asked the client any questions about their new hope for their new home. He didn’t think it mattered. He didn’t believe we needed to know anything at all about these people in order to design a remodel for their home. You know that phrase, not my circus, not my monkeys. Well, I really did feel like the monkeys didn’t belong to me, but I would certainly be their wrangler for the next several months. The detailing on this project was going to fall to me once we had the initial layout locked in. But the circus wasn’t mine. It wasn’t my architecture firm. I walked home that night in a daze. I think it was the last thing we did that day.

And thank God! Because I knew right then and there that I had just made a decision to try not to stay in Chicago after my sister, then my roommate finished med school and moved back or away to wherever she was going for her residency. I would use that timeline as my clean break. It would be the right time. And it would be time for me to find a job where the people around me were interested in listening to what our clients had to say about the lives they hope to lead in their homes before we began our design process.

Now, look, I don’t tell the story to villainize my boss. And we actually had quite a few clients at that firm who believed what he believed who came to us so that a certified design professional would design for them the right house for their house, they were often very hands off clients. And I hope they liked what they got. Although I also had front row seats for a system that backfired more than once resulting in either expensive, late changes to design multiple redesigns, or result that the clients weren’t overtly delighted with. Sometimes it didn’t really seem to matter that we had to extensively redesign because our clients were often very high end and not particularly budget sensitive. And the projects were universally gorgeous portfolio worthy every time just absolutely lovely, a stereotypical architect’s dream to create.

And yet, I struggled with it. My first job in architecture was also with a visionary, again, at a firm I loved with a boss I admired and enjoyed working with that gave me so much creative license and room to grow. But I found myself working in an environment that prized the ideas of the designer over the will of the homeowner, not in an overt way. In that office, we did actually have a little intake questionnaire, yes, formalized by me, where we would get some of the basic lifestyle information from our clients, did they find themselves to be fundamentally tidy or messy? How many people cooked at a time in the kitchen? Did they like to host or was the house largely for people that lived in it?

Still, my boss was a visionary, he would walk the site and come back bursting with ideas, filling out a book with creative and dramatic little sketches. His philosophy was to come up with a design so cool, the client would have to say yes to it. And he, as many of us architects do, always had a few ideas in his back pocket that he wanted to find a project for and was willing to push on to a client that was a near enough fit given the opportunity. So where does that leave us? How is this a story about women and design for and with women as clients?

There are too many assumptions, both by architects and by people who hire them, that the architect will tell you the right thing to do, and then you should do it, regardless of how that feels to you. I think that architects are certainly experts, and we specialize in particular types of buildings, we will rapidly accumulate multiples than dozens and hundreds of examples of that typology. We know what’s worked in the past and what hasn’t. We spend our days and often our nights thinking about why. And in some disciplines of architecture, the architect actually speaks more for the end user of the building than perhaps anyone else. When a committee hires an architect to design a new public building. That committee is often not the end user of the building. And so they need the architecture firm to think about the people who will actually use it for them.

But residential architecture is different. We are hired by the people who will live in our buildings. And yet our professional education and training does not emphasize listening to those end users about what we should do for them, or perhaps more accurately, about what possibilities we should offer them. I have so many reasons that I love working in residential architecture. I get to work with existing buildings that are beauty For, I get to know the design solutions I come up with will have a real impact on the day to day lives of my clients. And then there are the clients.

I love you. I have gotten to work on some great projects both with men leading a project solo and with couples where the male partner took the lead and are ready to remodel program. We often get couples who sign up and go through the whole program together showing up in tandem on every zoom call and doing their design homework side by side and I love that too. Oh, seriously. Sidebar. If you can’t have a marriage counselor on call during a remodel, you should at least do the ready to remodel program dream phase together. It is a miracle for cleaning up misconceptions before they can happen. I get to work with often other women at a much higher rate than I ever did in my past career. It’s a delight and a thrill that has led to several fun friendships popping up.

And as I said at the top of the episode, I developed the masterplan methods specifically with other women in mind, I wanted to find a new way to help women to help all homeowners leading a remodel for the first time to really lead and have that leadership be based in not just willfulness. But in confidence in knowing what is going to be most important to you as you live in the house. I wanted a new way to make that happen. And so over the past six years, I’ve turned that desire that desire for a new way into a process the Master Plan method to identify what matters most to quickly assess homes to set a clean, timeless style that won’t be trendy to offer options that can be weighed to gain confidence and tune a budget. And then to create a clear set of documents that set up for a clean communication between a contractor or a streamlined set of DIY home improvement projects.

My very first proto masterplan project came about because of what I was hearing from my little sister about her friend’s first home purchase, it sounded to me like she was about to get bullied by her contractor. So I jumped in to give her some of what she would need to call her own shots. Being a woman in architecture these days for me is a pretty great thing. And I hope to make the process of being a woman or anyone navigating the home remodeling space a little easier, a little simpler, a little more empowered. Nothing thrills me more than checking back in on my past clients are ready to remodel students. And hearing that they have used their master plans to form strong relationships with good contractors and push back when necessary to make their dream homes happen.

If you feel like you would like to work with a woman architect, or just to work with someone who has built an entire career around the idea of listening to what their clients want to say, and asking the right questions to find out what kind of homes people want to live in, then you might want to work with mid Midwest. And you can do that by hiring us to prepare a mid-century master gland for you, or by joining the ready to remodel program, which is by the way right now in the middle of a remod squad. So we’re doing weekly Monday night calls now through the first week in October, and then we’ll go back to our monthly schedule of always being on hand to answer your questions as we go.

In the meantime, though, I hope you’ll just give a little bit of thought to what it means to live a more human centered life to push back on patriarchal ideas about there being a right and authoritative a decisive way to do something and open up the possibility of listening to people yourself included and asking what’s the right way for you in whatever you’re doing, but particularly if you’re going to be paying and living in the drywall dust for remodel? It’s a great question that I love getting to answer for people.

All right, catch you next week when we’ll talk about how to make your remodel more sustainable by using some of the same methods and philosophies.

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