September 07, 2012

My Speech: From Architect to Community Developer

by: Taz Loomans


Yesterday, I gave a talk to the School of Geographic Sciences and Urban Planning Brown Bag Lunch Series. The talk is about how I went from being an architect to becoming a community developer.

I thought I’d share it with you:

When I was 8 years old I named my 2 goldfish Gorbechev and Reagan. I remember being an avid watcher of the news back then, shortly after my family emigrated here from Mozambique. I was mesmerized by the Iran Contra Affair, learning about places like Nicaragua and people like Oliver North and John Pointdexter. This was my first foray into caring about world affairs and in essence caring about the world outside of my own.

I was a precocious reader, someone who read gads and gads of books, the classics, Judy Blume, Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, the whole gamut of teen literature. This and watching MTV were my two primary educations in American pop culture.

I was also a bit of an artist. I loved to draw and I was always the star in my art classes. My dad used to take me to art classes at the local community college while I was in high school to encourage my talent. When it was time to go to college I thought – hmmm – what would be a respectable major that incorporates art but yet has a tinge of engineering, my family’s preferred vocation (typical Indians)? And it struck me – architecture!

But boy, this simplistic reasoning didn’t do justice to what I found out architecture to be over the coming years. I struggled through the first 2 years of studio but in my third year I discovered my very favorite class – theory. Theory is basically all of the philophosy and history behind architecture. I LOVED doing all the readings and then writing about them. It was like – wow – I can’t believe this is homework because I would do this for fun.

I boldly continued with my architecture career, soon forgetting the theory classes, and fully immersing myself into the practice of architecture. I worked for several small and large firms, doing everything from tiny historic preservation projects to multi-story ground-up medical office projects. This first 10 years or so of my career ended up being the second part of my education into what the profession of architecture really is – a complex machine with a lot of moving parts, coordination, problem-solving, and compromises.

Once I started to feel at ease in the world of corporate architecture, having learned a lot and finally getting the hang of the process, I started to get a gnawing feeling of dissatisfaction. I started to see that while it was all well and good to be getting paid well, slowly climbing the corporate ladder and really looking as if I was making it in the eyes of th world, I couldn’t find any meaning in what I was doing. And once I allowed myself to care more about the world instead of how I looked to other people, the divide between what I was doing for a living and how I wanted to help the world became glaringly apparent and started growing, imperceptibly at first, and then at a rapid clip.

This divide soon became a loud, obnoxious monster in my head that would not be quieted as much as I tried to coerce it into submission and carry on with business as usual.  It became hard for me to get up and go to work every morning. I couldn’t face another day of the same old meaningless drill that had become my job. When I was no longer able to ignore my unhappiness, I decided to take a leap and align what I do for a living with what I care about. To this end I was willing to do anything, even throw out the biggest thing that had consumed my life for more than 18 years – being an architect.

I questioned everything. How could I help the world become more sustainable, more community-oriented, and more socially responsible by just designing buildings? I knew that for me, designing buildings for other people wasn’t the best way to make a difference in the world. Time and time again I saw in my own experience as an architect developers not willing to take risks, opting to do the same old shit over and over again and producing unsustainable and ugly buildings on a regular basis. After having acquiesced my values to bottom-line-driven developers one too many times, I thought – how wonderful would it be for me to become a socially conscientious developer, a socially-conscientious decision maker. And that is what led me to leave architecture as a service behind and form Blooming Rock Development, a company that is dedicated to improving neighborhoods by revitalizing abandoned and dilapidated multi-family residences.

Developing my first property, 3 Palms, a 1963 duplex in the Avalon neighborhood, stretched my comfort zone in ways I would never have imagined.

If I thought getting through architecture school and getting an architecture license was hard, this new chapter in my life seemed just as difficult, if not more. Scheduling contractors, sticking to a tight budget, dealing with unexpected delays and doing a lot of the work with my own two hands was extremely taxing but also rewarding. I was determined. And with my then husband Paul,  we redeveloped our first duplex in Central Phoenix neighborhood. I’m happy to report it’s performing beautifully, generating some much appreciated passive income, while adding quality and care to a neighborhood that doesn’t see much of that.

After 3 Palms was completed, I hit a wall. I knew it would take me a while, a year of more to raise enough money to do another redevelopment project. So I found myself with some time on my hands. Along with the extra time came anxiety and fear about what was next and how to make a living in the meantime. I really didn’t know how the answer to these questions. So I just started doing what I loved and what I cared about, without worrying about how I’d make money.

A little while back, my co-worker Ashley Luten and I had started a blog that rated the sustainability of restaurants in the Valley, just because we loved to eat out and we cared about sustainability. It was called Sustainable Sustenance and it turned out to be pretty cool.

We did video interviews of people like Chris Bianco. It was a good education in the art of blogging and I found out I was good at it. And so it occurred to me – why not start blogging about the things I care about in the realm of the built environment? And so the Blooming Rock blog was born, not as a strategy to make money, but rather as a way to educate people about the built environment and sustainability.

My first post was pretty dry and boring. It was a result of me trying to explain to a potential client the kinds of water heaters that are available to her in hopes that she would pick the most sustainable one. I had written out an entire document outlining the pros and cons of the different kinds of water heaters out there and I thought – wow, this could be useful to a lot of people, I should make this available more widely. It turned out that I didn’t get the remodeling job, but I inadvertently started a publication that has led to every opportunity that I’ve had since – the Blooming Rock blog.

I also blogged about the experiences, lessons learned and strategies we used in our redevelopment project. Eventually I took a leap and started blogging about community, something that became increasingly important to me once I quit my architecture job. When I emerged from the bubble of my corporate life and started living out there in the real world, I realized how important community is and how it’s largely a missing component from our highly-individualistic Phoenix culture. So I set out to create community as part of what I do.

My first foray into this arena was creating the Places, Spaces and Faces Community Dinner. I worked with other community developers like Kathleen Bartolomei and Jim McPherson to create a monthly event that would bring people together at an architecturally or historically significant venue in Phoenix over a potluck dinner. We had dinners everywhere from the ballroom at the  Security Building

to the historic First Baptist Church on 3rd Avenue and Monroe

to the roof deck of the Hotel San Carlos.

I’m happy to say that this was an incredible experience where I got to meet a ton of awesome people, and more importantly where people made close, lasting relationships with other Phoenicians and Valley residents and community was indeed created. I have people come to me and say they met most of their close friends at a PSF Community Dinner and that warms my heart because that is exactly what the goal was. Now Meghanne Bearden, a fellow community developer, runs the dinner and has taken it to the next level and it is now in it’s fourth year.

Although I intended to throw architecture out to be able to help the world, it turns out that the gods didn’t want me to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I ended up being the architect on Filmbar Phoenix, doing architecture as a service once again. But this time I did it because I knew Filmbar was a critical new business that would add vibrancy to Downtown Phoenix and I wanted to be involved in it.

Same goes for the green renovation of the Castaway House, which was the first Phoenix Green Building Construction Code project designed by Cavin Costello, who will be speaking at a Brown Bag after this one. I partnered with Cavin on the project as the architect of record because I knew it was an opportunity for neighborhood revitalization and sustainable renovation.

By letting go of being an architect as a status symbol, it freed me up to select projects that are in alignment with my values and what I care about.

But mostly, my passion and my attention over the past 2 years has gone to the Blooming Rock blog. Over time, the blog has become a gateway to more wonderful opportunities, professionally and personally. Writing regularly about things that I care about reminds me of how much I had always loved the theory classes in architecture school. It turns out I am a natural at thinking and writing about architecture, urbanism and sustainability. I love it, and I love that it educates the public about these issues in the process.

Writing my blog has opened up more writing opportunities as well, which has been an absolutely thrill for me. I am now a contributing writer for Inhabitat, an international sustainable design blog. I’ve also written for the Atlantic Cities. Locally, I write about urbanism and urban development for the Firefly Living blog, I have written a few feature articles for Modern Phoenix, and I am the architecture columnist for the new Arizona Community Contractor magazine.

Due to my blog, I have also had the honor to speak at some very cool events, like this one. Another one was being on the panel for the Downtown Voice Coaltion which was attended by over 300 people discussing Andrew Ross’s book, Bird on Fire. It was a thrill to be on the panel with the author himself.

I also wanted to mention here that as another result of the blog, I have been able to collaborate with Tiffany Halperin, founder of Women Design Arizona to establish and curate the Sustainable Communities Lecture Series that started in the fall of 2011. The series last year included topics like sustainable urban development, the canals, latino urbanism and urban farming and consisted of some pretty amazing panel discussions. We are in the process of planning this year’s series and we’ll be announcing it probably next week.

Last year, I covered the Phoenix mayoral election on the Blooming Rock blog by interviewing each of the candidates about things like transportation, bicycle infrastructure, community engagement, and Downtown revitalization. It was a great way to get to know each candidate personally and professionally. Because Greg Stanton was in alignment with many of the values espoused on the Blooming Rock blog, I endorsed his candidacy. Putting the Blooming Rock blog right in the middle of city politics has allowed the perspective of an architect to be heard on issues like sustainability, historic preservation, and the importance of bike/ped infrastructure and has led to my appointment to the Historic Preservation Commission, several Mayor’s task forces, as well as the MyPlanPhx Leadership Task force for Phoenix’s General Plan Update community engagement efforts.

Another result of the Blooming Rock blog is that along with my fellow architect and community developer Christina Noble, we are running the social media outreach effort for the Sustainable Communities Collaborative, which is an organization led by Shannon Scutari aimed at facilitating transit oriented development. I am also doing the social media outreach for the Arizona Town Hall, an event that just celebrated it’s 100th anniversary last year and is responsible for fostering non-partisan civic engagement in our state.

Slowly, over the past three years, my blog has cultivated a pretty good audience, around 15,000 pageviews a month. People are reading, they are listening and they want to know more. And now other people write for Blooming Rock blog, really great minds, people who’re doers, thinkers, and builders. I am very proud to see that the blog is transforming into something that is not only a forum for my own individual expression, but the expression, ideas and critical analysis of other really smart people like developer Feliciano Vera, landscape architect Kirby Hoyt, ASU professor and urban planner Kevin Kellogg and world-renown architects Will Bruder and Eddie Jones.

So this is my story of how I went from being an architect to being a community developer. It’s essentially my journey of how I went from having a traditional career to doing what I love and what I’m good at to help the world. I hope my story helps you, in some small way, to find your own way towards what you feel you’re meant to be doing. I didn’t have a plan, I don’t have a template I can give you. I just followed my heart, made a lot of mistakes, lived with a lot of uncertainty, and held on tight while riding the financial roller coaster that comes with an entrepreneurial life. But I wouldn’t trade any of that in for the financial security and prestige that came with my corporate architecture job. After three years, I can say I’m genuinely glad I made the leap and created my own path custom-fit to my strengths, what I love and what I care about.

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8 Responses

  1. Taz I always check in with your blog to see what’s next. I’ve enjoyed following your work, and very much appreciate the start you’ve made in Phoenix with the properties featured in this post. I can’t wait to see what the next ten years hold in store for your work.

  2. Taz Loomans says:

    Thanks for your support John! Much appreciated it. Your blog is also an inspiration to me. Keep up the great work you do too. I hope to meet you in person one of these days.

  3. Sapna says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Taz. What an inspiring journey.

  4. Diane D'Angelo says:

    Taz, this is such a lovely, lovely example of what it takes to stay true to the still small voice within, even if doing so flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Thank you for sharing it. I’m glad you’re my friend!

  5. Kathleen Bartolomei says:

    Bravo Taz! It has been so much fun to watch your metamorphosis, and amazing to see how you have transformed science and engineering into the architecture of placemaking.

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