Skip to main content

Making a Living as a Full Life-cycle Residential Designer

Source:  DMH Design LLC
Dana Henrickson's sketch of his family home in the Palouse of Washington.

According to statistics released by the IRS, 72% of all the businesses in the U.S. are self-employed entrepreneurs running full or part time businesses.  The types of businesses run from buskers and shoe shine stand operators to writers and authors, attorneys, and other professionals, including architects and designers.

Meet Dana Henrickson, a self-employed residential designer who started his business, DMH Design, LL.C., in Seattle, Washington in 2002.  Dana focuses on the niche need for accessibility in new and existing homes, for either older home owners who wish to stay in a home and neighborhood they know rather than moving to an assisted living center away from their home, family and a lifetime of roots.  With our country’s rapidly aging population, Dana’s skills and experience put him in an exciting niche.  The other need is for retrofitted homes for returning Veterans with disabilities as well as anyone needing accessibility.

As the youngest of seven children in a very close family, Dana had the wrenching experience of watching his mother put his grandmother into what was known in the late nineteen seventies as a “rest home.” Here, she lived in a shared room in a private facility, which as Dana put it, “warehoused” people.  While the modern trend for assisted living centers are “Cadillac’s” compared to the home in which his grandmother lived, he’s come to the conclusion that “it’s best and cheapest to keep someone in their own home.” 

As Dana points out, retrofitting an existing two story home with an elevator costs about sixty thousand dollars, about the cost of one year at an assisted living center.  Not only does this keep someone in a familiar location, it adds value to the home in excess of the cost of the retrofit.  In a newly constructed home with the elevator designed into the structure, the cost drops to about twenty-five thousand dollars.  Compare this to a dumb-waiter, a popular amenity in some up-scale new homes, which costs approximately $20,000. 

It’s what Dana calls “designing today for tomorrow,” adding features that extend the useful life of a home the owners will use as they age.  Think long term, he says, “think of the lifecycle of the house matching the lifecycle of the owners.”   It’s his experience that owners of functional, life-cycle homes come to take ownership of the concept in a very real way.  Plus, designing homes with the full life cycle of the owners in mind opens up the market for the home to include people of a retirement age, especially between the ages of 75 and 90.

Here’s Dana story in his own words from an interview conducted earlier this year at a coffee shop in West Seattle:
*  *  *  *  *

I grew up on a wheat farm in Rathdrum, Idaho, twelve miles north and west of Coeur  d’Alene, Idaho, and went to a trade and technical school, Phoenix Institute of Technology in Arizona.  I became interested in architecture at an early age.  My mother’s family emigrated from England mid 19th century to Connecticut to Chicago where they were merchants and bankers to Sprague to Oakesdale, Washington.
Source:  DMH Design LLC
The Family Home
My great grandfather on my mother’s dad’s side had some money and had this idea of raising his family on a big farm with orchards.  He purchased a hillside overlooking a small community and built a very, very lovely home, a Chicago Victorian style house (photo, right) with a turret, wrap-around porch, and a hip roof with gable cut-ins.  What got me interested in architecture was that this house was in the family, and how interesting it was when we went up to see the house, and tour around it, and see leaded-glass windows, tile imported from Holland, exotic woods imported from Southeast Asia, and things of that nature.

The house still exists in the Palouse country in Eastern Washington.  Interestingly enough, Mom’s side of the family built it and about twenty five years later, my father’s side of the family that emigrated from Denmark and into Manitoba, bought it.  It was in my father’s side of the family for the next seventy-five years.  About twenty-five years ago it was purchased and has been painstakingly restored and is a residence for a retired couple.  One of the new owners is a professor from Eastern Washington University and the other who works for a company that builds electronic devices in Pullman, Washington, and Western Idaho.

Early Career
So how did I end up in Seattle?  After attending school in Phoenix, Seattle seemed a logical place to come.  There was work here when other markets such as Boise, Spokane and Salt Lake were slow for design and architecture in the early eighties, the Columbia Center was being built and other major buildings now in the Seattle skyline were being planned or permitted.  Seattle was really a boom town for my industry. 

Initially, when I moved to Seattle, like a lot of people who graduate in design or in architecture, you do a lot of repetitive work.  The running joke is “I draw stair and toilet details for high-rise buildings.”  Both are very repetitive, from one job to the next, you can just cut and paste.  I was really fortunate that I had a boss who recognized that I had a real thirst for knowledge, so I worked with the architects, the electrical engineers, the mechanical engineers and the structural engineers in the firm.  If they had a real push to get a project out, they would put me to work with the team because I had a willingness to learn and was very proficient at drafting.  At that time, Seattle was my employer's regional design center for institutional justice facilities, jails if you will, hospitals, clinics and so on.

I was a jack of all trades, master of none.  I worked for a number of different design and design build firms, including one which sold turn-key clinics to physician groups in like or similar disciplines so they could have their own facility.  They were trying to maximize their profitability by putting related disciplines together.

It was the next firm I worked for where I started doing homes.  It was Nash Jones and Associates in about 1988.  They did a lot of spec house design, the market was really hot at that time, and we were building a lot of single family residential units on going onto land being developed on the Sammamish Plateau east of Lake Sammamish, east of Seattle.  We were building as many as three hundred housing units a year.  Some of the firms were building as many as three or four homes a day.  A lot of it was cookie-cutter design, with the same floor plan with a gable and either garage left or garage right depending on how the house would fit best on the lot.  Very much cookie cutter.

When I’ve been out in these developments in subsequent years, and the houses look like they were reasonably designed, something that people would be willing to buy years and years into the future.  As long as they are reasonably maintained, they’re still attractive.

After working for Nash, Jones and some other firms that both built and designed homes, I went back to work for my original boss who had started his own firm.  He was designing assisted living facilities for the elderly in about 1998.  That industry was taking off, getting a lot of credibility with a lot of public awareness. Assisted Living was getting a lot press, and people were looking at that as an alternative as they were getting older.  It looked like a good alternative for people who were widowed or getting older, as a safe environment to stay in.  It was becoming a very good alternative to remaining in the home if you didn’t have the friends or didn’t feel safe.

I looked at assisted living as, “this is a great idea,” but if we could take these ideas and incorporate them into a home that someone already owned and lived in, people would find that to be as viable solution as selling their home and moving into assisted living.

Going Out On His Own
Over the last fifteen years I’ve been doing that, I’ve found people are more receptive to staying in their own homes.  My employer was very happy with designing and building facilities, but at the end of 2000 when money tightened up and their ability to get investors declined their ability to get this work was greatly reduced.  At that point I went to work for myself in 2001-2002 because they didn’t have an more work.  I thought that after eighteen years in the profession, it made more sense to take what I’d already learned and apply it to my first love, residential architecture, that came from my grandfather building this incredible home that I had seen repeatedly from a very young age.

I wrote a business plan, and the idea was I would focus on trying to introduce the idea of life-cycle.  If I had a client of a certain age, I would ask, “how long do you plan to stay in this house?”  Is this somewhere you would retire to, or bring one of your parents in if the need arose.  I stopped focusing only on the immediate needs homeowners would come to me with and introduce the idea of the long term need to them.  A lot of my projects have morphed because initially people aren’t thinking long term but when clients mull on the idea that I’m of a certain age and ought to consider this, my mother stays for long periods of time, I have friends in the neighborhood that can make use of the ease of getting in and getting out of the home, making full use of the home.

When I left I had whatever money was in my account plus a couple of thousand dollars in savings.  Mostly I’ve tried to use cash on hand but I have had to dip into savings, to borrow against a whole life insurance policy.  When I told the boss I wanted to leave and pursue my own business, he wished me well, we’re still friends to this day.  In fact he has often refers clients to me for this type of work, which is like the highest compliment you can get. 

I talked over my business plan with other architects and design professionals that were either in a partnership or on their own.  I still maintain my business plan.  This is my eleventh year in business, and at this point it needs to be dusted off and reviewed.  The way I did it initially was a one year, three year, five year, ten year and now I need I’m at ten, I need to take a look at what I feel my goals realistically need to be.  If you’re serious about your business you set goals and you hold yourself accountable to those goals.  So I may want to build a certain project, want to have so many billable hours per year, to attend a certain seminar, to speak about my craft is to a large audience and that sort of goal.

When I started I designed a brochure, business cards, frankly trying to do it myself.  I’m not all that good at graphic design, if I could give anybody any advice, talk to somebody.  I suggest speaking to two graphic designers, talk about your company philosophy; it’s worth paying a few hundred dollars to get some ideas to really put a stamp on your brand.  I was in business for five or six years before I felt I had a really good identity that I could give out as collateral.  There is a free service at the University of Washington where you can talk to a coach, and I highly recommend doing that. 

My first office was in a condo I owned in Bellevue, Washington.  Between 2007 and 2009 I had a really great office in the Securities Building in downtown Seattle on the tenth floor.  It was about as big as a master suite closet, about 200 square feet.  If we had more than three people in the room there was a danger of chucking an elbow through one of the windows.  It was a good experience, it was fun to have the name on the door.  It was really a classic building with marble floors and all the privacy glass down the corridors, it was really sentimental to me. 

My office today is in the basement of the home I share with my girlfriend in the Belvedere neighborhood of West Seattle.  She’s been extremely supportive and understanding even through some of the bad times of the last four or five years when I may have gotten the pink slip.  A woman of lesser quality would have probably. . . her patience allows me to do what I really love is really important to  me and it’s helped me make a lot of difference in people’s lives.  She sees the merit in what I do.

I’ve never had employees; I have a unique service.  A lot of people who do what I do are sole entrepreneurs who contract out a lot of the drafting work.  They will take on more work than they can handle on their own and they will hire other people to do the drafting work.  I don’t.  I only take on the work I can perform.  I use structural engineers, I use landscaping services, I use interior design professionals, and I also use soils engineers, geotechnical engineers.  My average project at the very minimum involves myself, a surveyor, a structural engineer and a geotechnical engineer.

I concentrate on what I’m good at, and the things I’m not good at with respect with how to run the business or to market the business you really need to get others involved.   When I started I worked with an attorney to draw up a contract that would limit my liability, I’ve used accountants and, sadly, I’ve had to hire attorneys to defend the work I’ve provided to people, I’ve had to hire attorneys to protect my copyrights.  This is really a tough thing for me to do because of the way I was raised, it really cuts to my core that I have to hold people’s feet to the fire for not honoring a contract, but I’ve had to do it.

My insurance, my life, my homeowner’s, my car insurance and my business insurance is all through one agent who’s been part of my team for nearly thirty years now.  I talked with him soon after I started my own business.  I had a CPA in place before I started, and only switched when they were winding their practice down.   They were twenty years older than I am, and now they’re younger than me and their business will outlive me by many years.

I believe my business has legs, I believe in what I do, but in a bad economy the last things people are going to do is spend money on a house.  Money is not what drives me, but I’d like to be in a position where the money takes care of itself.  If making a living weren’t the imperative, what I’d really like to do is give away my skill set.  I feel there are so many people who need what I offer, either they don’t know about it or can’t afford it.  I’d love to help a serviceman who has risked it all for his country and has come home with physical problems, I would love to help him stay in his home and live as they did before they left.  The V.A. does some of this, but I’d like to work with the private sector to set up a foundation that could help wounded warriors stay in their homes despite their disability from combat without a lot of bureaucracy.

In this community there are plenty of families that are burdened – and blessed – by having to bring an elderly parent into their home, and have no money to convert their home to accommodate that family member coming in.  I’d really like to be able to help people like that.  I’d like to be able to say, you need it, I’ll make it happen.  There are so many deserving people that don’t have the means and can’t muster the resources on their own.

My parents were very giving people, I think back about my dad loaning a plow or post hole digger or helping a neighbor plow a field because his tractor broke or didn’t have the money to put fuel in it, he was always doing stuff like that.

I don’t think about retiring.  Some of the best architecture is done by people with a lifetime of experience.  I will never know everything I want to know, but my ability to evaluate and solve a problem with at least two viable solutions at this stage in my life is very, very good.  I can explain it best with this story.

There’s a famous architect who passed on recently, he was nearly one hundred.  His name was Philip Johnson.  Philip had some property out in New Canaan, Connecticut, on which, every few years, he would build a new building that reflected the style of that period.   

Well, he was at a cocktail party, and gets into a conversation with a couple who are building a high-end very modern home.  They’re complaining to him that they can’t get the architects they are working with to get the detail on a stair railing right.  They’re trying to communicate, but there just at loggerheads.  They love the house, it’s perfect but their architect just can’t quite get it correct.  So he pulls out a cocktail napkin and sketches something up and he gives it to them. 

The couple is blown away by his design.  They tell him, “this is what we want, this is exactly what we’re trying to communicate.”

They tell him, “Philip, we have to pay you something, what is this worth, we have to give you something because we’ve been struggling with this for weeks.”

Philip answers, “$25,000.”

They look at him and say, “$25,000?  How can this be worth $25,000?  You sketched it out in ten minutes.”

“Yes, I sketched it out in ten minutes,” he is said to have answered.  “But it took me fifty years to learn how to do it.”

After thirty years in the profession, that’s the value that I offer.  It’s not the price, it’s the value.  You can charge whatever you want, but did you solve the problem?  It’s not the money the customer will remember, it’s did that designer meet my need, give me a solution to their design problem.

My advice to any artist going to work as a solo practitioner, pick the brains of others you respect who have started other businesses.  It doesn’t matter if you’re creating something or selling something, there are axioms you need to know.  Seek out  the books and the counsel of those you respect.

Number two:  If there is a like-minded soul you can share the yoke with, share the burden with, someone you can get along with, I suggest a partnership which is more than twice as strong as the individual when you add your creativity and your strengths with their creativity and their strengths.  I have talked with other design professionals about this but the timing hasn’t worked out, but I’m certainly not averse to bringing somebody else in. 

Maybe you’re the creative type and they are more the business type, so you complement each other and you learn from each other.  In architecture, there’s a lot of this.  There are people who are good architects but stronger business people, and others who are stronger designers than businessmen.  I rate myself seventy-five percent creative and twenty-five percent business.  Just like in music or show business, business is part of it, but business is my least favorite thing.  To sit down and prepare taxes or  invoices and bill people, I do it because I have to.  If you bring in a partner who is good at the business part it frees you up to do what you’re best at. 

Finally, I encourage anybody who has ever thought of starting a business, whatever it is, anyone who is truly driven at what they are good at, they are eventually compelled to go out and put their individual stamp on it, and I encourage people to do that.

Reading selection related to this post


Popular posts from this blog

Earn a Living Shining Shoes. . . Really

Earning a Living as a Bootblack
Can someone make a living shining shoes in today's economy?  At on time there shoe shine boys as they were called were found on street corners across the country, thousands of them.  Many were from poor families and worked to help support themselves and their families.  Today, I found three established shoe shine stands in downtown Seattle, plus two bootblacks, the traditional name of those who shine shoes, working on the streets of Seattle.

Meet George Johnson, age 74 on October 20th, a self-employed operator of a shoe shine stand in downtown Seattle's Rainier Place.  George has been shining shoes for the last sixty years, starting in Arkansas and ending up some thirty years ago at the Washington Athletic club a few blocks from his current location.
"Sixty years," I asked him the day we met.  "You ever think of retiring?"

"Gonna work until I can't do it no more," he replied.  "I don't even think about i…

The Facts of the Small Business Survival Rate

Back thirty years ago when I first wrote about small business, a hoary and horrible statistic was bandied about, even by some of the most experienced entrepreneurial pros: "80% of new businesses fail in their first five years." 

This "statistic" has appeared in more places than you can imagine, from the leading small business magazines, books, presentations by employees of SBDCs, the SBA, SCORE, Chambers of Commerce, even professors on the college level - who should know better than to quote un-sourced numbers.  It still shows up in small-business blogs today.

For some years, I searched for a source of that statisitic.  Never found where that number came from, leading me to believe that some self-appointed expert made it up.  To quote a character from the popular television show, M*A*S*H, "Horsepucky." 

Here is the truth about the survival rate of new start up businesses in the U.S. economy from two unimpeachable sources, The Marion Ewing Kauffman Foundati…

The Seven Characteristics of the Creative Employee.

How to Find Good Employees:

On my post of February 18th of this year, we talked about the role of managing stupidity in the success of any organization.  "Stupidity Management" refers to the real need of a business to know the difference between routine tasks that must be completed by rote and those tasks that require innovation and fresh thinking.  

Every business has a need for discipline in tasks that must be performed the same way, each and every time.

Every business has a need to creative thinking and fresh ideas on certain other tasks or problems, just not every task of problem.  

The Hunt for the Creative Individual
There are certain jobs in every organization where you, the owner, need original thinking.  Or perhaps you're running a business that lives off original thinkers.  An advertising agency is a business where the company's assets walk out the door every day at five (ish).

Professor Øyvind L. Martinsen at BI Norwegian Business School has conducted a study to…