Tags: architect as developerarchitecture
Episode 058

On Developing Projects and Building Your Own House with Zeke Freeman

Enoch SearsMay 5, 2014

What's the most important part of an architectural structure? It's foundation. What does it take build a successful architecture firm? A good, solid foundation of business networks and business skills.

In today's episode with Zeke Freeman, principal architect at Root Architecture + Development, he shares with us how determination, a whole lot of courage, and the desire to help others in growing their business took him from small town DIY builder to founding his design-build architecture firm.

Architect As Developer Zeke Freeman

Show Notes

In This episode we learn:

  • How to build a successful business network
  • Tips for starting an architecture firm
  • How to make and build valuable relationships
  • About Zeke's experience cold-calling for new work
  • How Zeke designed and built his own house as an architect
  • Visit Zeke Freeman's website at: Root Architecture + Development.‎

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Interview Transcript and Members Only Resources:

[DAP errMsgTemplate=”SHORT”]

  • Proforma for Pearl Street Project: download
  • Proforma for 203k Loan Indian Hills Project:download

Enoch: Welcome back, Architect Nation. This is your host Enoch Sears. This is the show where we talk about running a great business so that you can enjoy the fruits of your labors as an architect, enjoy design, and not have to worry about paying the bills.

Today’s show is brought to you by the Business of Architecture Conference, which will be coming to you online only in early October where, you will be able to learn everything you ever wanted to learn about starting an architecture firm, finding clients, and getting the flexibility and freedom that you want to be able to pursue the designs that you would like to pursue.

Today is our second half of our interview with Zeke Freeman. He’s the Principal and owner of Root Architecture and Development based out of Denver Colorado. In the last segment we talked a little bit about how he’s got to the point now where he’s successfully developing and doing architect-led design-build.

So, Zeke, welcome back to the show.

Zeke: Good to be here, Enoch. Thank you.

Enoch: Now, I wanted to just rewind and go back in time a little bit and just ask you what took you down this path of pursuing architect-led design-build?

Zeke: I really grew up in a, kind of, self-reliant, small town mentality in east Texas. My father was a builder. Pretty much everyone around me was in charge of making their own thing. So, if you needed an addition done or you needed a barn put up, you just went out and you, kind of, did it. There was no architect, or engineer, or building code, and there is still a little bit of mockery to those pieces if you go back and chat with the small towns.

The great thing about that is that you just did it. So, this kind of instilled the mentality that if you need something done, you pull up your boot straps and you go get it done.

I, kind of, found architecture and the passion for design really later on in life. That was something that I’ve become passionate about, but never really loss this desire to have control of things all the way through.

So, there were many years of intention of trying to get to a point where I would be able to… You know, I think, as an architect, you’ve got to go through and pay your dues, and you’ve got to work through IDP and through your firms, and really learn how to put together buildings. But, in game plan, many years in the making, was to come back around and get with the design and build projects even if they’re at a smaller scale – see the whole projects all the way through.

Enoch: What would you say would be the keys to the success that you’re having right now?

Zeke: I think the biggest thing in whatever business you’re in is having a good network of smarter people around you. So, I spent a lot of my time, even while working for other firms, just going out and getting to know other more successful people.

One of the things I volunteered for at my last firm was to take on the role of business developer. Not that in any way I had any skills or business being in any sort of sales, but knew that (1) having time to build a network because it does take a lot of effort, and (2) the benefits of building a good network will pay off through your whole career.

I had tried to do that while I was in school. I go around and interview every developer and successful architect because they’ll give you free advice at that time. It gets a little harder when you get in to the professional career and you’re competing against each other.

So, by taking on this business developer role, I got the free lunch card basically. You get the company credit card, and take people out for lunch, and their usually willing to bend their ear for an hour.

If you could find something that you’re offering up to help other people, then sales go away. So, probably the key is learning that (1) spend as much time as you can trying to help other people, and then (2) that instinctively builds this network and it will carry your career further.

So, for now, the success that we’re having isn’t because I’ve gone out and marketed for any project. Everything has been really built on several years of getting to know the community, getting to know investors, making a lot of mistakes, but then trying to do things right along that whole way, and people will refer projects, or properties, whatever it may be. If you kind of clearly stated out your goal of what you’re trying to do, and you’ve done the same for them along the way, you’re more just helping each other reach your goals. Those things come across your path and if you know who’s doing what, you can ship it that way so you end up with a network of people that’s win-win and you’re helping each other out.

Enoch: So, the previous firm where you’re at, you had a Principal who was understanding and trusting…

Zeke: Yeah.

Enoch: To be able to give you that flexibility. So, you have this free lunch card. What’s your first move?

Zeke: Well, you know, as an architect most of the time your head is down in your projects. So, that’s a great question of what your first move is. I started with the people that I knew and told them what we were doing – again, kind of, put out our goal.

I had a buddy at the time who was working for a Geotech firm. They do the whole boring for soils tests, which is one of the early parts of development. We were talking about it at lunch one time and he had this list of projects. He had this about 200 page long spreadsheet database. I started asking where those things were going and what was happening on it, and started to realize it was a database full of potential opportunities. He passed that along to me.

So, my first move was to go out and cold call 200 soil reports. Most of them were kind enough to take my call, but cold calling is never a great long-term lead. So, most of those didn’t turn in to anything, but a lot of them turned in to lunches. As you started finding out what other people are interested in, again, I was able to kind of refer things back over to them.

As an architect, lots of times you need your consultants which end up being a great source of leads as well. If we had a project come through to the office and I knew I had a consultant that specialized in hospitals, I would pitch a project over to them, and they knew that I was off to trying to build projects. So, lots of times just by helping some of your consultants out, they become a great source of sending other projects back your way.

Enoch: Okay. Do you remember what those first cold calls were like? What you were saying, what was your pitch?

Zeke: Let’s see. So, the list had where the project was and the owner’s name. I did try to dig in to those a little bit deeper rather than just cold calling somebody. I would Google as much as I could, see what the project might be, have a little bit of understanding what it might entail, call anyone that might have been associated with it before I actually called the owners.

Let’s see, I remember calling [Inaudible] apartment buildings. We, at our firm, did not have much apartment experience, but I had quite a bit on my previous firm. So, I called them up and told them who I was, and I asked them about their projects.

Lots of times those guys are always looking for preliminary layouts. So, if you go and offer some free piece of, you know, “Can we help you do a side analysis or a schematic?” then you might get in the door; or, “Can we sit down and talk to you and see if there’s somewhere we can give you a hand with?” Those are probably some of the more successful ones where there was some piece that you had at least some connection with.

Also, if you knew, you know, “Joe” who might have been involved in it you could throw a name out that might have connected with that person. That always instantly opens at least a connection with the person if you have some other reference that you can point towards that might have recommended you to give them a call.

Enoch: So, you’re doing these cold calls and it sounds like you said nothing turned out from that 200 long list of calls that you made?

Zeke: So, not a whole lot of projects came out of that.

Enoch: Sure.

Zeke: Again, it kind of comes back to the… At the moment, we were looking in the tunnel of what those things might be. At the moment, it can be frustrating. It’s not till a few years down the road that you start to figure out, okay, that was what all of that was about in the big scheme of things.

Making those calls builds that skill set of having some nerve to be able to then go investors and then go to potential clients – that skill set of learning how to pitch yourself and not being afraid to do that. Then, what happens in those is that, over time, you start to build that network of people that slowly starts to know what you’re looking for or refer things back to you.

A large part of the work that we have coming in now has come from real estate agents that I knew that we’re looking for other clients because they’re in a certain area. So, I’ve refereed friends that might have been looking to buy a house over to them or some I’ve actually bought places for us. They have an understanding of what you’re looking for and those turn back in to, you know, they have developers that are looking to do something similar.

So, those come back around in a given time. There’s never a one step or an overnight success to get there. I think it’s, you know, you spend your career trying to help other people and figure out what it is that makes their business turn, and those things will get reciprocated. It can be a solid basis for business, you know?

Enoch: Yeah. If you are going back and you can meet yourself two or three years ago when you first got that free lunch card, so to speak, would there be anything that you would tell yourself about what to do differently?

Zeke: No. I think the most important thing is just to get out there and do it. Starting is always hard, and you’re always going to make mistakes in the beginning, and you’re never going to…

If you’re learning something for the first time, you’re going to be uncomfortable. So, I think it’s important to just make a practice of finding whatever it is that makes you uncomfortable – sales made me tremendously uncomfortable – and putting yourself in to that.

Construction is last year. Although I grew up and had a good understanding of construction, coming back around in to it and really building that network of people has been tremendously uncomfortable, but it’s a skill set that will continue to help you grow.

There’s no stretching unless you step in to those areas that you’re just not 100% used to. So, as much as you can, if you can get out of doing CAD and Revit and find the pieces of business that are on the periphery, you need all of those in your bag of tools. [Inaudible] a really important time in my career.

I’m a great Sketchup and Revit guy, and I spent years with my head down. I think those are the things that you naturally pick up as an intern, but you have to push yourself to learn all those periphery things: CA, business development, accounting (Oh, my God). So, just keep pushing those peripheries that aren’t natural.

Enoch: Zeke, you built your own house, and I’d like to take our audience through the process of what it took to build your own hose and maybe we can learn something from you about that.

Zeke: So, in between starting my own business and having pitched that duplex that we looked at and haven’t had any success on that, again, coming back to this feeling of, you know, I’m tired of trying to get people to say that it’s okay for me to do something. I just want to go and just do it and do it anyway.

You know, building your own home is one of the really easier things to get in to. It’s very difficult to do and get done and fit in to a full life of job, and kids, and career, and all those things, but it is one of those things that’s financially accessible – there’s an FHA loan, there’s a 203k. The great thing about that is they’ll let you know borrow as much construction cost as you want as long as your income can support it, so there’s no after repair value ratio or anything that they look at.

So, I wanted to build a new home. I went and looked for the crappiest house that we could possibly find in the best location and we spent a year doing that. Found a great little cabin just outside of town, a community called Indian Hills. It’s up on a hill and has a great view. It was doggiest, ugliest little cabin, but I knew there was enough that I could… I’ve got two boys and a wife, and they’re up for camping. So, we’ve basically been camping for eight years.

We moved in to the cabin. Bought the cabin for a $130,000; borrowed a $100,000. The 203k is a 3% down loan, so $6,000 in to it. You can get owner concession that can go towards that amount and down up to – I can’t remember what the percentage is to get owner concession – so it can reduce that number down to a little bit less.

I think we were in to the house and in to the construction giving up maybe 3k or something by the time we were done. We had a full construction budget to go play with, basically. As an architect you’d get excited about that.

I did want to build most of the house and I was working a full time job. So, what I did is we did a large addition. We did that addition out of, basically, a timber frame and SIP that, kind of, sit in between the timber frame, and then the house, kind of, sits upon stilts on these big foot platforms.

I tried to pick everything I could that could be done quickly because I had to either get this done on my vacation done or at weekends. I took two weeks off, did the foundations, pretty much did everything ourselves – excavated, rented a tractor, put in these foundations, and then built a platform. We had a big boom crane out. In about two days we had a full building up with those SIP panels. They’re fantastic. They get up really fast.

The tricky part is we’re on this hill, so we have a timber frame that was up thirty foot. My father came up for a week, and we got out our old climbing gear, and stretched it across, and put the timber in the air. So, that was a lot of fun.

What it, kind of, did is it substantiated… We kept a little blog going at the time. It was one way to communicate back to friends and other colleagues what we were doing. I put that to my wife, Terry, and told her what to do, and she kind of kept it up. It generated a lot of interest, and it substantiated a little bit that kind of, you know, “He’s a boot strap kind of guy, and he’ll go out and get it done if it needs to get done.” These pieces that we’ve been talking about trying to do: “He’s the guy that can get it done.”

So, just by having something, whatever scale it might be, that someone could feel, and touch, and walk through, and have a beer with is a great platform to go to the net level that you want.

Enoch: So, Zeke, I will put the url, to the blog where your wife documented that process, in the show notes for those listening so they could go back and look at that process. How important would you say this process was of building your own house was to be able to break in to the field of developing and building projects?

Zeke: Well, it wasn’t so much about learning to build for me. I mean, honestly, it’s what I grew up doing, but that was back in Texas. I’m in a new area and, in construction, one of the hardest things is getting that network of where it becomes subconsultants that you have a trust with.

So, (1) I started to build a network of subconsultants (2) to substantiate some of the investors and colleagues of what we were trying to do, and (3) anything that kind of get you out of the office for a little bit, and get some fresh air, and generate new ideas. So, yeah, it was significant at the time.

Enoch: Okay. Jonathan Segal always says that that’s his number one recommended course for architects who want to start developing their own projects. Would you agree with that?

Zeke: Yeah, it’s a great way to start. When you’re developing a project, it takes cash, experience, and then trust with your network of people that you can get it done. By developing your own house, you can actually get a little bit of cash, which is one of the key things to do.

We haven’t sold this house that we’re in yet. We’ve fixed and flipped some other houses up to this point, but we add a little equity in to that. That helps now to take out other loans. So, it is key and is helpful, I think, both in cash and in experience, and then also building that network.

Enoch: Now, you’ve spoken a lot about your network, Zeke. What’s your top strategy for developing that network? What do you do to cultivate your network?

Zeke: I think it’s pretty simple. I talked a little bit about, you know, just trying to help other people. I think probably key number one is whatever you can do to find that you can help someone else out, people naturally want to reciprocate that. Do it genuinely. If you’re a non-intentional person, people read that like a book. So, be genuine and really try to help people.

Then, you know, as an architect you’re busy as heck and it’s hard to find time. Everybody has to eat though and the simplest thing that you can do, as an architect, is get away from your cubicle, and go out to lunch, and call any of your colleagues whether it’s a subconsultant or a potential client. Go to lunch, find out what they’re doing, and then start the process of trying to help them. That’s it.

I think those two things: don’t eat lunch alone and don’t be an asshole. Be nice and try to help people out will build your network.

Enoch: Awesome. Well, Zeke, do you have anything else before we close up the interview today? Anything else that you think we should touch on or go over that you’d like to talk to our audience about?

Zeke: Let’s see. So we talked a little bit about starting your house as a great forum. We talked a little bit about putting together at least a pitch, which is what we did in the Pearl Street house.

Becoming an expert in some area, I think, is maybe something we’re touching on a little bit. You can’t do everything, so you should pick something. I picked a particular project type model on a particular land size of 50 x 125. Becoming good at doing that one thing and finding the people who are interested in that is really important. You’ve got to be a generalist in a sense that you can, as an architect, you’ve got to get a lot of things done, but be specific enough that you can be an expert in some area.

What else have we got to talk about?

Enoch: Well, here’s a question that I think would probably be good to end with: How has this process of being involved in the development of projects changed your view of what goes in to design and your view as an architect?

Zeke: Developing your own projects opens up a lot of doors. When you’re looking at a project from the architecture stance, you know, we all love beautiful buildings, and it’s a great thing to offer up to the community, but unless you … My understanding is a few of the other pieces that go in to it: the financing aspects of how these things get done, the construction aspect of how these things get built, you can really enhance that architecture calling because you’ve created a greater project of value.

What happens so much, and it’s so frustrating, is the architect, just looking at that one piece, you can probably create a more beautiful building without those pieces, but it gets [Inaudible] out In those subtraction process, you inevitably end up with less of a project, frustrated clients, potential losses. So, I think everyone should at least try to dive in to knowing those key pieces. It can help you actually make these things become feasible.

If you know what you’re client needs or what they’re agenda is to get it financed – it might be like with the 203k, it’s about the speed. Can you get all those pieces together early so they know how much to borrow? It might be more important than having a great looking building. It might be [Inaudible] early on; something different for everybody else.

On the duplex projects, figuring out how to get extra 100 square feet at $300 a square ft. makes a project go from feasible to not feasible, from $50,000 to maybe a $100,000 of profit. If you can find what it is that the client really needs to make it feasible, they’re going to be happy at the end of the day, and you’re going to get more projects done, and life will get a little bit easier.

Enoch: Alright. Any parting words for us, Zeke?

Zeke: Just be bold. I love saying that. I have a favorite quote that says “Proceed and be bold.” I think everyone just needs to be willing to step out on those limbs and stretch yourself a little further. Get out of your tube and go do it, man.

Enoch: I love it. Alright, Zeke, well it’s been great having you on the show. We look forward to touching bases with you in the future as Root Architecture and Development continues to grow.

Zeke: Thank you so much, Enoch. You’ve been a great inspiration. Keep doing it, buddy. Thanks, I appreciate it.

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Enoch Bartlett Sears is the founder of the Architect Business Institute, Business of Architecture and co-founder of the Architect Marketing Institute. He helps architects become category leaders in their market. Enoch hosts the #1 rated interview podcast for architects, the Business of Architecture Show where prominent guests like M. Arthur Gensler, Jr. and Thom Mayne share tips and strategies for success in architecture.


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