The first issue of PROP.houses features architects and entrepreneurs Lance Cayko and Alex Gore from F9 Productions. They will answer an array of questions ranging from how they started and have grown their architecture and real estate development firm, to what architecture students can do to obtain their dream job right after graduation.
Q: Could you share a little bit about how you became interested in architecture, and then when/how did you start F9 Productions?
A: Lance – I have the typical cliché story about growing up with a sketch pad and always drawing. I would go on car trips with my grandmother and she would make sure that she always bought me a package of LEGOs on every car ride, so I was always building. I went to trade school to become a carpenter, and at the end of trade school, when I looked at blueprints I was always still left wondering, “Why did the house get designed like this?” I then applied to North Dakota State University, and through [my schooling] fell in love with architecture.
Alex – I have a semi-similar story, and it [also] involves my grandma. I was always drawing ants versus bees, [the two] warring each other. I moved on to pirate ships battling each other. And then finally I graduated to big cities from the back of those huge calendars my grandma would give us. Then she would take us on architecture trips. We would go see Frank Lloyd Wright [buildings and such]. So it was always kind of in my blood. Then I attended NDSU as well.
And for how we started F9, after NDSU we both went to work for firms: me for Daniel Libeskind in New York, and Lance for Studio H:T in Denver, then the recession happened. I got laid of first, and I basically told Lance, “Hey we have to do something, this might be coming down the pipeline. I’m going to go back and get my Master’s in Construction Management.” Lance got laid off maybe 6 months later, and he started to do BIM (Building Information Modeling) work and some carpentry. I got done with my Masters, and Lance already had a bunch of BIM work and carpentry work, and from that we grew into residential architecture.
Lance – I had two kids to feed, and a wife to take care of as well. So what I did was, right after I got laid off from my architecture firm, I put out a Craigslist add to Boulder, [CO]. I said, “Hey, I’m a young guy, I have a Master’s degree in Architecture. I have a bunch of carpentry experience. I will do any kind of construction-related [work] for $18 an hour, cash.” I did that for about 3 or 4 months, and then like Alex said, I started to land some BIM work through Arcat and Sumex Design. That laid the foundation for F9, and from there we’ve slowly built what we do project-by-project.
Q: What does a typical day at your firm look like? What types of projects are your employees working on at a given time? Do they often have more than one project on their plate due to the smaller size of the firm?
A: Lance – My day is obviously different than [Alex’s] day because we are different people and we work differently. I’m usually in [the office] between 8:00AM-10:00AM to start off the day, and the reason for that is I have a home office. If I get on a roll in the morning hammering out administrative tasks, I continue until I am at a good stopping point. If that means that I don’t get in until a little later, that is fine as long as everyone is on auto-pilot and I’m not missing a meeting. Lately I have been able to get a little more work done by delegating more of the as-built work out to one of our employees who is an expert at it. I have actually been able to get back to doing real architectural work and drafting and designing more, at least 50% of the time. The other 50% of the time is administrative work. We are doing a lot of different houses: some additions, some remodels. We are doing some drafting for General Steel, and of course custom houses. So a huge variety of work. Everybody has probably 3-6 projects that are on their plate at one given time. It doesn’t mean that they are simultaneously working on them all, but it is more of a linear thing. We try and get to a good start/stop point. Whoever is on a project at the beginning, we try and keep them on until the end.
Alex – I am upset if I do not get in my 6:00AM. The only reason I am not in [the office] by 6:00AM is because I fail and hit the snooze sometimes. I do that because I can come [to the office] and focus. Who knows when my wife and baby are going to get up, and if he sees me he is going to attack me. In the mornings I can generally block out time to do stuff, but during the day it is usually this email or that email, just craziness. A lot of the time, Lance and I steal each other’s guys. But usually, one guy will have his major project and then one or two supplemental projects. We have one intern who I try and just give one project that usually he will see start to finish because it is good to see that whole process.
Q: What spurred your firm’s transition into real estate development? Do you think the transition into larger projects will result in a necessity to grow the size of your firm?
A: Lance – The thing that spurred us into [real estate development] was the ability to purchase land. In order to purchase land we had to keep our salaries low for several years. Then the idea is, instead of getting a quick reward of money right into our personal bank accounts, we held off on that until we had enough to buy the piece of land. It’s like golf: it’s a long game. We’ve always wanted to do it, but that was definitely the changing point.
Alex – I don’t think that it will make our firm grow, because we will [subcontract] out a lot of the work so it won’t be necessary for us to do [all] the actual work. It might grow because it’s a great project and more people want us to do work though.
Q: Talk a little bit about your Atlas Tiny House, which won an Architizer A + Award and was featured on HGTV’s Tiny House, Big Living. Where did the inspiration come from, what was the design-build process like?
A: Alex – Inspiration came from me being in Montana during the summer between when I went back to school and got my Master’s in Construction Management. Montana is beautiful, just like Colorado. We were just outside of a national park and it started to rain, so we went inside [our tent] and I realized that I was starting to get a little claustrophobic. I thought, “Why am I in the most beautiful place in the world and I can’t even see outside, even though it’s raining?” When we saw this tiny house [trend] developing, we thought that we could do it a little bit better. Instead of just doing a cabin, which is not aerodynamic, “why don’t we tilt the front to be aerodynamic, put some solar panels on there, collect the rainwater. But let’s make one side all glass with a fold-up awning and a fold-down deck, so that even if you are inside, not only can you see outside but your living spaces double.” It all worked out.
[The design process] flowed pretty naturally. We had 4 people come up with an idea, but Lance did not have time to do the design process. So I sketched something up, and he modeled it in SketchUp. It was kind of known that that one was going to be the winner, and we just took it from there.
Lance – What’s the design-build process like? Fun. Hard, but that’s okay. We learned a lot. What was really nice about it was that it led to control. We were able to control the quality of the construction. We definitely overbuilt some things on the first tiny houses. On the second ones, we already knew some tricks so we were able to decide on materials, such as the framing change from steel to wood, because we were so sick of working with steel. It also helped us transition and convince people that we are experts at design and building things; therefore, you should hire us because no other architects are doing this in Colorado.
Alex – Also, everything that we had to do we had to compartmentalize. This is a transforming tiny house, so when I was thinking about the deck that folds down, I spent a whole afternoon just thinking about that hinge. How does that hinge work? How do you install that hinge? I don’t think you have to solve everything right away to be able to jump into [design-build]. I think you jump first and then learn as you go.
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