You have stumbled on to another episode of Get Your FILL – Financial Independence, Long Life where we look for ways to achieve those two goals.
My long life goal had sort of a sad turn this week when my 97-year old aunt passed away. I had high hopes for her because her sister lived to be 105 and she was kind of the inspiration for this whole broadcast but unfortunately, she was not going to outlive her sister’s legacy and now, of the family that was originally 10 people, my dad is the only one left. He’s only 86. In that family that’s not much of an accomplishment. He’s got to last at least another 10-12 years to even get on the board. Anyway. I’m curious to know whether you think or how much you think genes play – genetic factors play – in a long life.
I know people whose whole family is riddled with cancer, like everybody in the family has some kind of cancer. I know people who were born with incredibly high cholesterol. I used to work with the guy whose body produces cholesterol and – even though he was a slim guy and always watched what he ate[m1] and took his medication – his cholesterol was always close to 400. So that kind of stuff obviously makes a difference but I’m curious about your opinion. How much of it is lifestyle? How much of it is genetics? How much of it is a positive mental attitude?
I think all those things play a part. I actually read a thing about people who had survived really traumatic things like being imprisoned in some kind of a concentration camp or a POW kind of situation and one of the things that kept everybody going was a sense of purpose. So even if your purpose was to live long enough to seek revenge on the people who put you in that camp, that’s a purpose that can keep you going.
I don’t know, but on a happier note and on a more positive note. I’m really excited today for many, many reasons: not just because our guest, Monica Gonzalez, is an award-winning architect. Not just because she’s a woman, not just because she’s also a real estate investor and developer, but she’s just a joy. She’s just so pleasant and upbeat and happy and interesting. So, I’m really psyched today. Monica, thank you so much for joining us today.
C: I’m excited because you are, I think, the first woman who I’ve talked to who has any kind of a really substantial role in real estate investing and the real estate creation industry. And I looked at your resume of course and it’s extremely impressive and so I’m even more excited for that reason ’cause I know that you’re obviously very talented and very intelligent and have a lot of excellent information to share today.
M: Thank you.
C: Will you enlighten the folks listening, just tell them a little bit about your background and a little bit about what got you interested in architecture and in real estate, in general?
M: Yes, actually I am an architect. I studied architecture in Caracas, Venezuela because I am from Venezuela. I was born there and now I have four years living in Boston, so I really, really like architecture. I went there to a beautiful university named Simon Bolivar University in Caracas, Venezuela.
So I really, really like architecture, I think, because my father was pretty involved in construction in Venezuela, so that was part of his business. I kind of grew up surrounded by people related to construction, commercial and residential as well. So that’s the reason I think I decided to become an architect when I was in high school.
Now I’m here in Boston and I am really interested in residential real estate. My husband is also an engineer and a general contractor. So, we’re working together here in our company and as I told you, we have only been here four years.
C: So how do you like Boston?
M: So far, I really like it. I mean, it’s a great place to have kids, to get your kids into the schools and they are loving the city very, very much.
C: You don’t mind the weather?
M: I mean, especially coming from the Caribbean, the weather can be a challenge. I think we’re getting used to it. We lived in London for two years, so I think that helped us a little bit, because we already have the experience of it being dark for a lot of hours and the snow it’s kind of new for us because in London, we didn’t have that much snow. Our kids are very used to it and they love to ski and they don’t mind the cold. My husband and I, we’re still working on it. I don’t know if we’re going to get 100% used to it but we’ll see.
C: Well, this winter has luckily been very mild and not too bad as far as I don’t think as far as the temperatures go for us. Last year, I think there was a lot of snow last year.
So now, in the company that you share with your husband, are you specializing in a specific type of architecture now? Or a specific type of real estate?
M: Yes, residential real estate. As developers, we try to find houses that need some work or maybe houses that are tear-downs and start from scratch in our projects because sometimes is easier for us to start from scratch and just use the land, but everything kind of depends on the deal itself, depending on the cost of the house, and the amount of work that we have to put in, but we’re doing at this point, mainly residential real estate.
We also do construction for third parties or other investors – maybe a real estate investor or an owner that wants to fix or build new houses.
C: So, did you do this in London and Venezuela as well?
M: I did it in Venezuela. In London, we were there because we were studying. I studied Construction Economics and Management in London and then we went back to Venezuela. I worked in the construction industry in Venezuela. I had my own company for 10 years, but then we moved here, I’m starting from scratch.
C: How does it differ? This is a very naive question. I have never tried to build anything in Venezuela. Is the architecture different, is the procedure different, are the politics and the environment different?
M: Yes, everything is different. First of all, we never use wood in Venezuela. We have a lot of… We are located in an area that has a lot of earthquakes. So we have to use either metal, steel structures or reinforced concrete, so that’s the main difference. Our foundations are deeper in Venezuela. Here, the foundations are not that deep. And the structural design is based out of wood. The framing system gives you more flexibility than the concrete structure. In Venezuela, the steel structure can be a little bit more flexible than the concrete but it will never be as flexible as the framing system that you guys have here. It also goes up very, very fast.
We also… We don’t have standardized materials like for example: windows, those types of elements, most of them are not standardized… So we have to build everything from scratch so, it takes longer. Here is very, very easy because most of the elements that you use are standardized. You can just buy them and use them without having to create every single piece from scratch. So that’s one of the main differences that you’ll see from Venezuela to here. And also, the design is different because the weather issues here, you have to be more conscious about the use of openings and windows and glass. Because there is a difference with the weather.
Also when you design a space here, you kind of design everything inside the house. In Venezuela, you can have more open spaces and design more outdoors. Here the outdoor kind of… It’s not designed for a whole year, so it’s kind of different because you have to think about the outside that will change across all the seasons and will be useful. It will have different uses across the different seasons, so you are not gonna expect to use those spaces across a whole year. So the design is more indoor design.
C: Yeah, I’ve been to other warm countries and see how they incorporate the outdoors inside. I remember when I was in Morocco, the whole building is built around an open area that you can get the sun and the air and the rain even comes into what we would consider the house, but it’s just so nice to have that free-flowing air and the freshness.
It’s difficult to incorporate that here, like you say, because if you had that open sky, you would have snow in your house.
M: On those designs the open space we can call a patio, that patio, it’s kind of designed in a way that you can reduce the temperature inside the house because you can get the air flow. Here, you don’t wanna do that. Here, it’s more indoor and closed structure which is very, very convenient when you have framing, because framing it’s like a whole system that is supported by itself. You don’t wanna have holes in the whole thing. So it makes sense that people here use framing structure.
So those are mostly the difference. When it comes to designing a kitchen or a bathroom or maybe bedroom or even a living room, the esthetics that you use to design those spaces are pretty much the same, here or there. But when you are designing the whole structure, it’s pretty different.
C: Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. Do you see with all of your experience – you’ve got some industrial experience, some commercial, residential – do you feel like that impacts or influences your designs, ’cause you’ve got that big warehouse of experience that you’re bringing to a project that maybe someone who’s only ever done residential or something wouldn’t have? Do you think you view projects a little bit differently, because you have that extra experience?
M: I do think that when you do this kind of crossover from one industry to another, you bring more efficiencies to the design, for sure, because when you do houses, you are used to one type of design all the time, it’s kind of like copy/paste but when you bring experiences for other industries, or other sectors of real estate, you can bring, you know, more efficiency and think out-of-the-box and bring new ideas, because you already have those expertise in those in those other areas.
So for example, if you are building commercial where the real estate is very important, but very modular or very standardized you can bring those elements into the design of the house. And maybe you can build a different house but keeping those efficiencies in the new design without having to have the design that people have all the time. You can bring new ideas and still be efficient by doing those crossovers ideas from one place to another. I think that’s one of the main things.
C: Now, it sounds like are you doing smaller sort of residential projects or are you actually tearing down homes and putting up huge sort of structures? What’s the largest project that you’ve taken on since you’ve been in the States?
M: And right now we’re doing a pretty big house, we are taking down a 1800 square feet house, and we’re building a 3000 SF in the same lot. So that’s, that’s the biggest we’ve done so far.
So those are the things that you can reuse some part of the foundation, for example, and you can reuse some of the inner element, but the whole structure gotta be new because the house is completely different. Where if we’re gonna change the direction of the roof or the design of the entrance and everything, you gotta start from scratch because it makes more sense, and it’s more cost efficient.
C: How about energy efficiency sort of things, have you become interested in green building design or anything that has to do with using the natural environment to make the house more efficient?
M: Yes, I think as an architect that’s a must-be that every single professional gotta have in their minds… How to build it in a more cost-efficient way, but also in a more conscious way with the environment. I think that that’s a very important topic. So how to make not only the construction process, but also how to make the house more sustainable for the environment as well. How to use… Maybe less power or less water and how to make the house an element that will impact less in the environment. So I think that’s why I’m very interested in that. I have to learn a lot because since I’m working right now here, the same way that happens with the structure the same way it happened with… Although the resources, for example, septic systems, wells, all those different elements are different also here.
Yeah, so in order to make them more efficient, we’re also learning how they are used right now and how we can make them more efficient for the future as well. Electricity, solar power, insulation, it’s very important on how you can work with your design and installation to make the house more efficient with all that energy challenges, that house will have here because of the weather, especially because of the weather.
And maybe how to design house that during the summer doesn’t need that much of air conditioner because what we are seeing right now, solar houses that have a lot of heating doing during winter a lot of air condition, and so they getting even more and more dependent on resources, instead of making them more self-sufficient without having to spend that much of resources to keep them running.
C: Yeah, and do you see… Because I feel like you were talking about septic systems, people who have been working with them during their whole career, they’re not gonna say: Hey, how can we do this more efficiently, how could we maybe change some things and make this whole process work better? Do you see any other – do you see any mistakes or anything that we do here, sort of by habit, that you think: Gee, that seems like a strange choice” coming at it from your experience.
M: Yes, I do think sometimes here the time, it’s very important and sometimes the decisions are taken by the general contractors or the people involved in the construction since they have so much pressure to keeping building, building, building and sometimes they just use the things that they are used to instead of trying to apply or try new technology or ideas that are gonna be more green for the environment.
There is such pressure to build the houses really fast so there is a lot of work that has to be done before the building process where you can design these new options so those new ideas will start getting incorporated in the regular practice of those general contractors. So it’ll be like a work-in-progress for the future but take those additional weeks – I don’t know if that’s gonna be a couple of weeks or something – but take that additional time in the beginning to plan everything and try to start incorporating new things and new technology and new ideas that will make the house more efficient, instead of having a project and trying to rush it and use the same thing that you be used the last X amount of years. So in order to make a change, it takes time and a little bit of planning, especially at the beginning, even you can reuse those learning and keep improving for the future. So I think that’s a very important task that we have as architects and designers and builders as well.
C: Yeah, yeah, you’re right. A lot of people, they just rush in and say, “Okay we’re under the gun, now, we have to hurry up and get this done. Just bring me all my same guys, all my same equipment on my same floor, and that I always use, in the same cabinet person, and granite guy and we’re just gonna do everything cookie-cutter. So we take the time in the beginning. It might come up with something more interesting, more appealing, more cost effective, but it’s not always easy to do that.
Now, I noticed on your resume, on your CV, you were talking about that you help people to do real estate investment decision making, what does that entail, how would that work?
M: That has to be with when people are, for example, as an investor when they are buying a house to make a project as an investment project?
So how we can do that design so it will be a good design that will sell that will have all the things that the other houses around may have, but also a competitive advantage with a design that will bring more value to the property. So for example, if you have a project and all the houses around are, for example, three beds, two bathrooms – how to make the same three bed, two bathrooms but with a different… With a different design or something even better that will bring value for the customers to place that product in a better position when it comes to competition, by the time that you are gonna sell the property. So that’s very important how to use the design to bring more value to the project, but it’s not only for investor also for the people that will live there, if you’re working with a person that it’s building their own house and it’s important to understand their needs, but also how to make the design in a way that in the future will put their house in a good spot when it comes to sell the house as well. So good, a good real estate investment decisions not only for investors, but also for the people that will be living there but eventually will sell their houses.
C: Yeah, it’s smart. A lot of people, when they’re looking at, Okay, I have some amount of money to put into my home. They’re not necessarily gonna put it into the place that is gonna bring them more resale, they might put it in a place that just spends the money.
M: Yes, it’s also how to get a balance because you may want to spend the money and things that you like, but that money won’t bring value to your property but you may put some of the other money in areas that will bring a value for the future but also meet your expectations. So it’s kind of like a balance.
Yeah, it’s not like spending thousands of dollars on curtains, or whatever, things that are not bring value to the property, but you like it – so it’s kind of like a balance between how to make the property a more valuable asset and also have something that you like and that you enjoy. And I think that’s where the architect has a lot of work in helping the client, how to put together the project and finding that balance as well.
C: Yeah, now in all the different sides of real estate, the architecture side, the design, doing your own projects, the general contracting side, and then all the different kinds of experience that you have, do you have a favorite? Do you have any aspect of the industry that you really enjoy more than others?
M: I really like to be on-site and I do really like to do residential because residential, you can get that balance between the things that bring value and the things that the customer will like, in a way that will bring beauty. Where you are doing commercial, it’s different is mostly about efficiency and area, and all the things that the commercial involves… But when you do residential, you have more room to play with a design and bring an experience for the person that will live there. When it comes to commercial, the experience will come later. So we’re not part of that experience, we’re just part of the creation.
C: It’s more of an assembly, as opposed to getting your creativity involved.
M: With house is different, because you can start putting some elements to go like: the bathroom, the kitchen, all the materials, the interior, the design to bring the experience to life. So I think that’s the reason I prefer to do residential and being on-site, it’s very exciting, because you start seeing the things that you design and I think that’s a pretty exciting part of process as well.
C: Yeah, seeing it all come to life. So I, I noticed on your CV that you had done some juries, you’ve been doing jurying for people’s theses and I did that sounded like a lot of fun, a really interesting experience. Can you talk about that a little bit?
M: I love it, I really love it, and since I’ve lived here, I’m looking for an opportunity in the future to kind of like be a professor, again – part time, of course – but I would love to go back and have the opportunity to be on those juries again.
C: What kind of what is involved in the thesis, what do people have to present to what type – is like a whole project or some element of design?
M: It depends on the course that is finishing because I was invited to those juries when the course was getting over. So it was like a final project.
It will depend mainly on the type of course that the students are going through, so it can be anything from the beginning of the architectural design off to the final project when you are getting graduated as an architect. It can be anything. If I do it here, it will depend also on the college or university that I will be helping or getting involved with.
C: Do you remember any of the theses that struck you as being particularly creative, or different, or way out of the box, or that you enjoyed hearing about?
M: Yes, I do remember a house that was built on the beach and it was 100% sustainable. It didn’t have any water or electricity connected to it, so it had a system that will transform the salty water into regular water to be used. It had the septic system for all the sewage. I mean, it was a small house, but it was a pretty nice project.
C: Yeah, that sounds fascinating.
M: Electricity was with solar panels, it had all of the systems that were involved in the design and they were very thoughtful about the way they designed the house not to make it like an only house with all the systems that had to be involved in the process and in the final design.
C: I’ve seen some things. This is just people trying to do things on their own. A rooftop garden that captures the rain water and irrigates all the plants at the same time and things like that and re-uses the water that falls naturally and things like that. It’s just when you really stop and think about it, right? There’s so many different things you can do.
M: And some of them are so intuitive for example: taking a shower with the rainwater, that kind of thing. It’s not applicable here in this weather. That project was in the Caribbean.
Here, it would be a little more difficult, but still I think that was one of the projects that I really, really enjoyed learning about. I had to make comments and I had to make questions and that was a very interesting project that I did.
C: Yeah, it sounds like it… Do you have any advice for people who are trying to do some of their own – whether they’re fixing up their home or whether they’re buying and fixing a home to re-sell any kind of design suggestions or any thoughts or suggestions in any aspect of that?
M: I’ve seen here that one of the main problems people have is that I think people don’t understand the difference between a space and the circulation, so sometimes you have a space that is smaller than the circulation and the design to access that space.
I do know that sometimes the framing can be a little bit difficult to deal with that relationship, but I think a good recommendation is trying to understand the proportions between the space that you use to get to the space and the space itself – because sometimes you see areas that are a space that is useless and then the circulation is a very big useless space and then you get to a room or a space that is not big enough.
So one of the main things that I will say it’s every time you are planning on redesigning a space, be very mindful about the relationship between circulation and the space and then you’ll have a better final result. If you, from the beginning, think about the relationship between the space and the circulation – for a kitchen, for a bathroom. When you start thinking about this circulation and this thing, then you’ll understand where to put the doors, where the doors are gonna be open to, so all those little things will come if you start from the beginning, thinking about the whole picture, and the circulation.
C: So how people are gonna move through the space, how they’re gonna use the space. I see that a lot in kitchens where people who don’t cook design these kitchens and you just think: yes it’s big, but that’s not really an asset today. I remember, I was working with a tile guy and he brought me to this house. He was so proud of the work he had done and literally, it was probably a 400 square foot kitchen, and the refrigerator was on one side of the kitchen and all the other stuff was on the other side of the kitchen. I thought: the person working here is gonna need roller skates to make a meal. They just went with big, that was the asset.
M: The circulation was very, very, very big and the space was very, very small. So think about the relationship within the circulation, which is a space that you need to move from one space to another and then the space itself. So, because having a big space, it’s not the best solution all the time. If you’re having a big space that you’re not gonna use because it’s just a circulation to move from one point to another or then you’re losing the space somewhere else, where you are gonna need it. That’s very important.
C: One thing that we do here – and I would like to hear your thoughts about this – is the way we design a lot of the different home styles that we have here, thinking about your conversation about circulation and stuff, is just like a lot of hallways a lot of this is just a way to get to another space like you say, there’s just a big, wasted area in order to get to a room that could potentially be bigger if you did the layout a little bit differently.
M: Yes, I think most of those houses were built like 100 years ago. Now, we know that we can replace some of the frame or some of those bearing walls with metal beams that will support the weight of the second floor. So you’ll have more of an open space and those are the things that people are looking for because in open space, you have more flexibility. Again, if you’re mindful about the circulation and that open space, you’ll have a lot of possibilities for people to use it and it’s very important when it comes to investment because if the person who is gonna buy that house understands the way they can use it, then it’s easier to sell that house.
On the other hand, if you have a house that it’s difficult to understand that you have little spaces and you have a lot of circulation and then few useful spaces, then it’s difficult for that investor or for that person to resell that house. So it’s important to keep in mind that flexibility and that relationship so you can create more efficient spaces.
C: You just reminded me of a house that I had was the seller’s agent on and it had the way they had broken up the house, there were all these strange, little areas and I thought: people are gonna be like, what’s this for? So I had to really think when I staged it. Okay, this could be an office or this could be a little seating area where you can just look out the window. It was like, “What is this space?
But yeah, I know what you mean because if people can’t picture themselves there, they’re not gonna be interested in it, they’re not gonna attach their heart to the building and they’re not gonna wanna buy it.
M: Yes, and if it is difficult for you to stage, can you imagine it’s gonna be even more difficult for the person who wants to buy it to understand how to use it? If it is a design well done, then will be easy for the listing agent to stage it and give them an idea how they can use it and it will be easier for the person that will be buy the house to understand how they will see their furniture or how they’re gonna use that space in the future, if they were to buy that house.
C: Exactly, exactly, so, Monica, what else should I have asked you What else do you wanna share that I have failed to ask?
M: I think you did a pretty good job. I don’t know, let me think, I would say that when it comes to design, another important trick or advice or something that we should always keep in mind is trying to create contrast with the materials but without overkill the whole thing. So try to find three or four materials that you like – when you are designing a house, create a palette where you can put all those materials to make sure that they work together and then use only those materials instead of putting one material here and one material there without having the whole picture.
So keeping the whole picture is very, very important. Not only for designing the space when it comes to circulation versus the space that you’re using, but also keeping the big picture with the materials themselves. So bring a palette, create one idea, thinking about the whole picture, the whole house and then use those materials in a creative way – indoor and outdoor, as well. Because sometimes you see a house that is very, very white but so white that it doesn’t have energy or flavor because it’s like so, so white. If you create that palette from the beginning, you can understand that contrast between those two materials and then you can apply it and use it create more excitement. Not only outdoor but also indoor – bathrooms, kitchens.
C: Yeah, that’s a good point and I have to note that because I have a habit of designing one room at a time and then they don’t flow. If you just say “Oh, I found this piece of something on sale. I’m gonna put that here, and then I’ve got this other thing” and then you walk from one room to another or like it’s like a theme house: This room is metal and this room is wood and this room is whatever.
M: That can be the idea to have a very eclectic design, but you gotta have something in common across the board. Trying to find that element that will bring everything, that will bring you the big picture – that element that may be a color, maybe it’s a detail maybe it’s a material and then you’ll have the other elements that will match that idea. So keeping the big picture, it’s very, very important for the materials for the design space for the circulation is important. To avoid for example, in the circulation to avoid having inefficiencies with the materials, it’s important to keep the whole picture to avoid having inconsistencies.
Like a collage design that’s not appealing.
C: Yeah, it’s unsettling to your mind, I think, because your mind is trying to make sense of things, and put them into some kind of pattern and if there is nothing, it just feels tiring.
M: It’s important to keep the palette indoor and outdoor as well because sometimes you see a house that from the outside has an idea and then you go inside it’s completely different. Sometimes it’s better to have both of them together because we’ll bring excitement to the person who is gonna live there, when they are outdoors, when they are indoors. Keeping the whole picture is very important, so I think that’s one of the advice that I will give to a person that is designing or building a new house, the whole picture is very, very important.
C: Yes, that’s excellent advice, thank you very much. So is that part of what you help people do, as well, when you’re consulting with them? Is to create that theme that’s gonna carry forward throughout the house.
M: Yes, for example, if I have a client that wants me to help her with a bathroom, I gotta realize that bathroom is part of the home… So I gotta design the bathroom, so it will match the rest of the house instead of going and building this new bathroom that I saw on a magazine somewhere else.
So it doesn’t make sense. You have to design something that’s part of the whole thing – in circulation, in materials, in idea, in relationship with other spaces – everything gotta be together, even though doing only a bathroom. For example, if you’re doing a kitchen, it has to work with the living room or the dining room that’s next to it.
Maybe you are not working in those two spaces, but you gotta design in a way that will work with those other spaces instead of: I’m gonna do a kitchen. So try to keep in mind the whole picture. It’s very, very important, especially when you have a client that only wants you to work in one area, that’s very, very important to keep in mind because that will make the design successful.
C: Yeah, and that’s an excellent point because people do their designs in a vacuum. I’m gonna go to Home Depot and they’re gonna help me design my kitchen. But then, it might – like you say – I saw it in a magazine, this is what I want. And then you actually put it in the house and they don’t like it because – and they don’t know why they don’t like it, but it’s just because it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t flow with the rest of the house.
M: It has nothing to do with the rest of the spaces. We gotta be very careful of the things that we like because they are beautiful but maybe there we have to make some changes before incorporating those ideas into another space. Because if you copy and paste it may not be the right fit. Just try to understand why you like it and the elements that are nice in the design and how you’re gonna apply them into the new design and make them work here.
C: Excellent, thank you so much, Monica, I really appreciate your time and all your wisdom that you shared today.
M: Thank you very much for the invitation.
C: Monica, if people want to get in touch with you and have you help them with their designs and just work with you on a project, how can they reach you?
M: I think the best way to reach out to me is by email. My email is Monica@A1REsolutions.com.
C: Okay, I’ll put that on the website. My website is GetYourFILLPodcast.com, and we’ll put your CV there, your photo and then all your email and then… Is there anything… Do you guys have a website for your building company that I should link to?
M: It is www.A1resolutions.com.
C: Okay, great, Monica, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you and thank you listener, for listening. Be sure to join us next week when we’ll be talking to J. Lucky Henry, the rappin’ real estate agent. Also, he’s a real estate wholesaler. He’s a cool, interesting guy, and I think you’re gonna really enjoy him. So be sure to be here next week. In the meantime, have a good one.