My first paid job was sweeping construction sites when I was eight years old. My dad designed and built houses on a small island where we lived, so his projects were always a short bike ride away. After school or midday during summers, my sister and I would swing by and beg to help. I enjoyed seeing stairs half built and running from room to room through the framing, before walls were closed off with drywall and filled with wires, plumbing, and insulation. Every stage in the building process had something to wonder at. And helping sweep was a good excuse for spending time watching a project come together. For this, we'd get a dollar, which was enough to buy a trinket at the stationary store on our island's main street.
My dad drafted in a home office, so I also got to watch his ideas unfold. Often he’d ask for input from my sister and I on how we would like to see a playroom or kid’s bedroom take shape. And if he wanted to make a change to the design, he gave us the very special honor of using his electric eraser. So architecture and construction were very much a backdrop of my childhood. Once complete, my mom would sell the house my dad just built, and often, we spent some time living in them too.
Sunday afternoons, we’d visit with my grandparents in a home my grandpa designed and dad built. My grandparents met at Berkeley Architecture School in the 1930’s and went on to lead a successful architecture practice in Southern California. Their style was defined by local materials, natural light, organic shapes, and all the elements of good biophilic design. Even at a young age, I could tell their house felt different. It felt distinctly alive. The walls, light, and art in there were as much a part of our conversations and our company as the people. For example, a column held up a beam dividing their living room from the entryway. It was a curious sculpture with cast faces and fabric at the top and bottom, and a section that you could turn and hear sand move inside. Their front door handle was also a carved wood hand.
When my grandparents passed away, the myriad sculptures, paintings, and pottery they had collected over the years found new homes in the younger generations. Their spirit is shockingly present in every one of these pieces. There was clearly something they identified with in the art they bought. So much of it is striking, beautiful, earthy, and a bit sombre. In the years that followed, my dad and I would dust off their old slide projector and enjoy viewing their meticulously catalogued photographs of architecture in rural Japan. For decades, my grandparents spent a month in Japan every year, soaking in what they could of the Edo period ethos “just enough,” as characterized in Azby Brown’s book by that name.
When I moved into my first home in Berkeley, I hung my grandpa’s homework on my walls. I came to love the A+ penciled next to a particularly loyal study of the Parthenon and a B- next to a less than perfect study of some Greek columns. On my way to downtown Berkeley, I would stop by a park dedicated in their name on campus. It sits nestled in a corner of the new School of Architecture. A few soft wood benches, on permeable pavement and shaded by a small grove of trees. As with the art they collected, this space seems to hold their spirit for me. I went there when I needed to cry or to pray or sometimes to just be.
My career didn’t start off in architecture or construction, but that’s where I found myself pulled, when looking for ways to support the environment more directly with my work. It felt time to dig deep and honor that part of me saying, sustainability and resilience matters and the space where it matters to you is the built environment. Starting to learn the details and modern techniques and tools of green building has very much felt like a homecoming of sorts. My family has always understood the joy and benefits that come from living in buildings with a close relationship to the natural world inside as much as out. And I feel moved to bring this background into the work I do going forward.