Last year, BUILD got to know Jared Della Valle at the Reinvention 2011 event in Phoenix, Arizona. Astounded by his bandwidth, professional diversity and architectural accomplishments, they sat down with Jared in Manhattan last summer and talked about the architect-as-developer model and working in the new economy.. Check out the second part of the interview on the BUILD blog.
BUILD: You have master’s degrees in both architecture and construction management from Washington University, you are a licensed architect in the state of New York and also hold a real estate license. What triggered you to tackle such a wide range of professional endeavors?
Jared Della Valle: I can’t say that I’ve had an explicit trajectory—I did carpentry and furniture building in high school, and I have always worked hard. I decided that I wanted to work for a builder, so I found this crazy guy in New York City who was like the architect’s builder. I got his name from Tod Williams, and he built stuff for people like Henry Smith Miller. At the time, he was working for all the good architects.
I was there for five years, and I built some crazy stuff like Ian Schrager’s apartment, a $4.5M renovation done in ten weeks. It was one of those situations where you can only work between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and you can’t do construction any other time, so there’s no missing it. We had a separate millworker in every single room. This was a very high-end, $1,000 per square-foot sort of renovation. It was a great exercise in learning how to build. The more high-end work I did, the more people trusted me; subsequently, I took on more important work and a greater diversity of roles on the jobsite.
What were your first projects like? How did you get off the ground?
I was so young, none of my clients had money. It was small stuff, like working for family members of my business partner at the time, Andy. His sister hired us to do an addition. Or it was work for myself.
In New York City, it’s so hard because everything is an interiors job. To get a new building is impossible. In construction management school, I had to take two business classes. One was just accounting, and the other was how to write a business plan. So I was working at the construction company, and we were starting our own work. We were on our third interiors project, and I was thinking to myself, this is not what I want to do, this is stupid. I don’t want to do interiors, I want to build something here in the city— and I didn’t want to wait.
As an architect, you can’t look for work— people have to find you. You don’t know when someone’s going to renovate. So, I decided that I wasn’t going to wait, and I started spending all my nights looking for real estate. It was before the internet was really prevalent, so I was literally walking around looking at buildings. Then I would have this broker of mine approach the owners. He was older and looked the part. With him being in front of me, no one ever knew how young I was. So I just started putting offers on buildings, and I would force myself to write business plans for the deals I was looking at.
When an offer would come in, I’d tell them to send it to my attorney. My attorney was a friend of mine, and I’d tell him to just sit on it while I wrote the business plan to get the cash. I’d get it all wrong because I never took any real estate classes. I was using all the wrong words; I didn’t know how to do the underwriting for it. I didn’t know how to do any of this.
Did you get the wrinkles ironed out by the time it went through your lawyer?
No, I actually never had him look at anything because I didn’t want to pay for him.
How did you avoid getting screwed over in these deals?
I didn’t get anything done for years. I spent all my time networking with people, telling them that I’ve got this deal and do they want to invest? I explained that I’d do the architecture, which was great—no one ever questioned that I would be the architect. I just threw it all out there, and I’d meet people I knew who worked for banks or whoever. And over time I figured out how to write a proforma. I’d ask for examples of projects that impressed people, and I’d work it all backwards to see what the numbers should look like. I’d reverse engineer the Excel sheets.
But you learned all that while getting paid, right?
Yes, but as the architect. I was young, and it didn’t matter. I wasn’t married, I didn’t have any kids. Over time, I started to learn what worked and what didn’t with presentations. I started to learn how to ask for a lot of money. What are the pitfalls, what are the important questions, what do you give up?
How do you ask an investor or a bank or an organization for a large sum of money?
The person that you’re most likely going to get the money from you show the deal last.
You learn from everybody else exactly what is wrong and what questions you should be ready to answer, so that you’re ready to go in and ask somebody who is actually going to write the check. You figure out who that person is, and you go to them last. You start seeing when people are interested.
You learn that great deals are very easy to finance, and okay deals are very hard to finance.
Your current projects are measured in tens of thousands of square feet, yet you’ve worked with smaller scale projects like your 1,100 square-foot R-House in Syracuse. How do you effectively shift gears between large and small projects?
The smallest stuff that we would do now needs to be personal to me. It’s got to be millions of dollars, or I’d rather give the work away to non-profits.
You recently released your book, Think/Make, published by Princeton Architecture Press. What did you most want to convey to the world with this book?
The message I wanted to get out to the world was be resourceful. It doesn’t matter what you are doing. If you don’t have the resources, figure it out. Ask a lot of questions. Go for it. Don’t worry about failure. There’s no other way but to get out there, be scrappy and get it done. Nobody is going to do it for you.
I’m writing my will right now for my kids. At the end of the day, I’m going to have an estate that’s worth real value. But I don’t want my kids to grow up feeling like it’s theirs. I’ve got crazy stuff in my will, like dollar matching for when they save money. If they want access to the cash, they can propose a business plan to the trustees, and the trust will pay for business advisors to help them get there and review the business plan. Basically, they can’t just have the money— not until they’re older do they get access. Until then, I’ll pay for all the education, but I’m trying to teach them that they need to have a goal and a meaningful career choice that they’re passionate about and try hard at. And if they have a great idea, I’ll support that. It’s impossible to teach work ethic.
If you’re in your 20s or 30s and you’re unmarried, my advice is to work hard. You don’t have to get home early. You can balance having a social life and working really hard. You can focus on career choices and make long-term decisions.
When you first started out in New York City, you considered yourself to be an outsider. How did being an outsider benefit your career?
Going to Washington University and moving to New York, Andy and I had no network. But it made us feel like we had something to prove. It made us scrappy. We didn’t know anybody anywhere in New York City, so we just started attending everything.
Your Glenmore Gardens housing project in Brooklyn was constructed for $127 per square foot. How on earth did you build good, modern design so cost-effectively in New York of all places?
It was a request for proposals from developers, and we submitted as developers with no experience, but we’re architects. All the other developers just copied stuff for the RFP that they had done last time. On the other hand, we treated it like a design competition. We did a lot of work up front and a lot of drawings—most of this stuff we would normally give away anyway. And the City said, OK, let’s see what happens. The City has all of these crazy design guidelines, and we broke every one of them. The buildings had to be brick, the cabinets had to have raised panel doors, and we just fought them on everything. We said the intent of your rules is to make sure that affordable housing meets a certain quality standard, so we’re going to prove to you that we have good intent and are interested in good design, and as a result, you should give us some latitude. We showed that their rules weren’t really applicable. At the end of the day, they let us do whatever we wanted because we proved our intentions.
We tried so hard, it took two years. It was a labor of love. We found one of the affordable builders who would do the work for $80 per square foot, and we convinced him to do this project for $110 per square foot. There was only about 20k of change orders on the whole job. He did a great job, but we drove him mad.
It was incredibly rewarding, and the units still look great. People take care of them.