The Lessons of 25 Years

search entire Mouzon Design site

   A quarter-century ago yesterday was a really unsettling day for me; it was my last day as an employee. I hung out my shingle 25 years ago today, on August 1, 1991, and promptly did something that has become a hallmark of Mouzon Design: I did an inadvisable thing. My first employer out of school was an architect who said he barely knew his daughter because he worked so much when she was young. I was determined not to repeat that mistake, so on my first day in business, I closed up shop and took my two sons to Point Mallard, an aquatic park in the next town westward. I can’t say I did right by them on every day since, but it’s important to stake out family territory early and often.

   If you really get down to it, going in business at all was highly inadvisable for me. I’ve heard many “secrets of success” for architects over the years, including the following: having wealthy parents, marrying a wealthy spouse, having parents with great political connections, being a great golfer, being charming, being attractive, etc. I had none of that. I really never should have opened my business. The only thing I had in my favor was that Wanda worked, and basically supported us in the early years. She would join me in Mouzon Design almost seven years later, in the spring of 1998.

   I had one more thing, actually. Roughly ten years previously, several of my fellow-students and I were in a conversation with Michael Graves when a freshman asked him “what is the secret of success in architecture?” I was afraid Michael would blow him off because of the juvenile question, but always the gentleman, he took him seriously. Instead of answering with one of the pat answers above, he responded with four words that changed my career: “extraordinary singleness of purpose.” I realized quickly that unlike most of those other attributes that you had to be born with, I could simply decide to have extraordinary singleness of purpose! And that realization has led to much audacity in taking on inadvisable ventures ever since.

   On my second day in business, I actually showed up at the office. I had no clients except Jerry Averbuch, my previous employer, and those were tough years for Averbuch Enterprises. So I didn’t actually have any work, nor did I know anything about getting work. I placed a call that morning for a listing in the phone book (remember those?) and that afternoon, the BellSouth agent showed up. I listed Mouzon Design, Architecture and Creative Services. She asked “what are your creative services?” I explained how I did graphic design, photography, and a few other non-architecture things. So she asked if I’d do a Yellow Pages ad for her. I quoted it at a half-hour, or $24. She came back the next day and was happy with my design. I deposited $23 and kept out the dollar bill above; it has been hanging on my wall ever since.

That “extraordinary singleness of purpose” thing has a dark underbelly...

   I struggled along on scraps of jobs like that for the first several months, then teamed up with a friend of mine and a friend of his in my first partnership. Together, we had enough clout that we actually got a few jobs of some substance. But the “friend of a friend” partner and I never saw eye to eye; he left on August 1, 1994. My friend and I continued on for another two years until he left on August 1, 1996. It has become clear through the years that I’m not an easy person to partner with. That “extraordinary singleness of purpose” thing has a dark underbelly, as it demands that you do things that go beyond good business practice. Things like Steve Jobs demanding that the inside of a computer be as well-designed as the outside, even though most people might never see it.

   During those early years, a strange thing happened. While working for Jerry Averbuch, our standard workweek was 50 hours, and I just grated under that burden. But as soon as I went in business for myself, I was working 80 hours per week, and I felt free! I still can’t quite explain it; I guess it’s because I was building something for me and my family instead of just selling my time. But as my average hours per week climbed from 80 to 90 to 100, I found myself doing little more than working and sleeping. After three years in a row averaging more than 100 hours per week, I quit keeping timesheets. My neglect for my family at that point was approaching that of my first employer.

   It’s important to know that I wasn’t doing this for greed. Anyone who knows me well knows I’m inspired far more by ideals than by money. But when you’re trying to start a new business in a market full of big boys, you feel pressure to do things like cut your price or offer more for that price. Otherwise, how will you ever get any business when you’re competing with established firms? And with a staff growing to a high of twelve at one point, I found myself working all those hours just to keep the bankers happy and the payroll paid.

... someone, somewhere, was doing the best working drawings on the planet. Why not me?

   I eventually found two ways beyond price that we could use to compete with the big boys: quality of design, and quality of drawings. Because most architects in small cities and towns tend to view architecture as more of a means of making a living and less of a mission, it wasn’t so hard to start winning some local design awards. And I realized at some point that someone, somewhere, was doing the best working drawings on the planet. Why could that not be me? And so we set out to develop the best process of drawing we could imagine. I was an amoeba on working drawings… whenever I saw a better way, I simply enveloped it and made it a part of what we did. My employees called the process “Mouzonification,” normally when I wasn’t within earshot, according to Mike Sherrod and Chris Sides who worked with me for many years. It took about a year to fully train a new employee, but once they were trained, they became significantly faster than people in other offices because they didn’t have to stop and think about how to draw something… the process laid it all out. And we got numerous jobs because of our drawings weren’t just clearer and more beautiful, but were easier to work with… so word got around.

   One day in the late 1990s, I bought a CD of construction details from McGraw-Hill to beef up our detail library. But when I opened the details, I realized that our details were substantially better. So I did another of those unadvisable things that most architects in their right mind would consider to be a waste of time: I looked up McGraw-Hill’s acquisitions editor for architecture and called her up and told her the story. When I told her I’d like to send a sample of our details, she said “you can if you want to, but I won’t promise I’ll ever look at them.” Undeterred, I put together a package and FedExed them for 10 AM delivery. At 10 minutes after 10 New York time, I got a really excited phone call from her. “Wow, you weren’t kidding! These really are substantially better!” Thus began my first McGraw-Hill publication: a CD of about 1,300 of our details.

... being an author... opened many doors that would have remained firmly closed...

   Doing a publication of any sort is a huge time commitment, and the royalties I got in return were just a pittance, so that CD was one of the biggest inadvisable things I had done at that point in time. But being an author, even if what I authored was just a bunch of CAD details, opened many doors that would have remained firmly closed otherwise. I followed the CD a year later with a paper version, 1001 Traditional Construction Details. At one detail per page, it was as thick as War & Peace. My last book with McGraw-Hill was Traditional Construction Patterns, begun in 2001 and published in 2004; it is still selling well today, but I doubt if I have yet made more than minimum wage on my time spent on the book because the royalties after discounts are so low.

   The pendulum began to swing back toward higher ideals on the third weekend of October, 1995. I persuaded my partner that we should do a weekend in New York with our families, and get some continuing ed credits as well at an event put on by (if I recall correctly) the Institute of Classical Architecture. Alvin Holm’s lecture on ornament was the high point, and changed my career. That was the first of a long-running string of events put on by the ICA and the Seaside Institute that transformed me from a little-known small-town architect fighting for the next metal building commission into someone who has far more priveleges and opportunities today than I could have ever imagined back then. I shudder to think what might have happened if Al’s lecture had been a bust. Might I have gone back home unchanged?

... why don’t you design anything that anyone else I love would love?...

   But it wasn’t, and I didn’t. Al made it clear that there were others out there who cared deeply about the things I believed in. Wanda actually got me started on this course years before, right after we were married in the summer of 1979. She asked “why don’t you design anything that anyone else I love would love?” “Don’t I?” “Of course not!” “How do you know?” “Have you ever listened to non-architects talk about architecture?” “No, our professors tell us we should educate the client.” “Well, if you’d listen, you might learn.” And from that moment forward, I moved one tiny step at a time toward an understanding of what the non-architects loved. I’m not there yet, but it has long been clear that it's far different from what we learned in school.

   Shortly after the New York trip, my partner got a lead on a weird new type of job. Gary Justiss, one of my heroes, had grown tired of his Town Architect gig at Blount Springs, a DPZ town North of Birmingham. A Town Architect, I learned, is someone who reviews other people’s drawings to be sure the new building will be a good neighbor to the existing ones. We had done a few houses at Blount Springs, including the one where we first persuaded DPZ to consider alternative materials like Hardi-Plank. Previously, they only accepted fully natural materials like wood and stone. That would have been great a century ago, before we started genetically engineering wood to grow really fast, but to rot even faster. So we took over the Town Architect gig at Blount Springs.

... I was able to communicate principles, not just the particulars...

   Not long thereafter, I was appointed Town Architect at a New Urbanist neighborhood closer to home. But things were anything but smooth. I might have had my drawing process down pat by then, but my Town Architect process was severely lacking. There are several ways of serving as Town Architect; I tried every way except the “resident Town Architect” way that Gary had used. By the time I got hired as Town Architect of the Preserve near Birmingham, I had dissected all the normal methods and found their core flaws. It was time to try something new… I launched my face-to-face method there, sitting across the table from the designers, builders, and clients. That way, I was able to communicate principles, not just the particulars of where the design was screwed up. Designers and builders quickly got far better than they had even been before. I still use this method today. I have served in a number of neighborhoods in the US, most of them for long stretches, three for well over a decade. I also serve at the University of Alabama, where over $2 billion worth of construction has been done on my watch. And it’s so gratifying to see everything from huge institutional buildings to simple homes and shops being built better than they have been in a long time, simply because the designers and builders are basing their work on principle.

   But back to the 1990s… a year later, after my friend and I split up our business, a developer I had been working with talked to me about a new mountaintop subdivision he was planning on the edge of town. I did my best to steer the job to Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. who had designd our favorite beach town of Seaside, Florida, but the job went to the next best planning firm I knew: Urban Design Associates. I had been a fan of DPZ ever since the design of Seaside was first published in April 1981, and almost went to Miami to seek out a job with them upon graduation in 1983, but went home instead so our oldest son Sam could grow up near his grandparents. David had not yet been born at that time.

... I had the nerve to do another inadvisable thing...

   The developer brought in a famous architect to design the houses, but he said “your lots are too thin and deep. You need wide and shallow lots so my designs will fit.” Because he wasn’t willing to design for a traditional neighborhood, he left the door open for me, and for the next several years, I designed dozens of homes for that neighborhood. Thankfully, I had the nerve to do another inadvisable thing and send a couple of the designs I thought were my best to Southern Living. Kristen Payne agreed, and made them Home of the Month in successive months. One of them (Ash Lawn, my tribute to Monticello) is still selling today.

   Not long thereafter, I had a disagreement with UDA over a window detail. I drove 50 miles to prove the point, photographing every good house in the tiny hamlet of Town Creek, Alabama. On the way back, I photographed every building in Mooresville, Alabama where I encountered the greatest mystery of my career on the day after Thanksgiving, 1980. Ever since Wanda’s love lecture in 1979, I’d been a fan of the everyday fabric buildings of a town more than the heroic monuments most architects photograph. By the time I got back home, the idea had grown to more than just proving a window casing point. I photographed most of the Twickenham neighborhood of Huntsville before the weekend was over, and the Catalog of the Most-Loved Places was born.

... when they retire, they have no more time left to sell...

   It’s important to point out that no business-minded partner would have tolerated any such waste of time as what I had done since losing the partner who was my friend on August 1, 1996. But it’s precisely those seemingly foolish things that were central to our transformation from small-town, small-job firm to something very different. Two other ideas were central to this transformation. Years before, when I was still employed by someone else, Wanda stopped me in a grocery store parking lot and said “Steve, I work with a lot of doctors, as you know. They sell their time, and do well. But when they retire, they have no more time left to sell, and if they try to keep up that lifestyle, it doesn’t always end well. If you can make things once and sell them many times, I think you’ll do better than if you just sell your time.” That opened the door in my mind to our books, house plans, photography collections, and place-making tools; without that conversation, I might never have considered trying anything of the sort.

   The second idea comes from people who I consider to be some of my spiritual mentors. I’ve heard too many times to count “find a need that isn’t being met and fill it” from them. And while there is no comparison between the spiritual and the professional realms, some ideas actually make sense in both. This is one of them. So since the late 1990s, I’ve tried to find architecture and urbanism needs that aren’t being met, and fill them. Typically, you’re the only one doing that thing, so there is no competition. You’re both the best on earth and the worst on earth. And nobody else even knows what it is until you explain. But it makes your work valuable, if the need you’re meeting is really a serious need.

If you don’t have a Nathan Norris in your life, you really need one...

   I think I attended my first Seaside Institute event in December 1998. Nathan Norris was one of the first people I met. If you don’t have a Nathan Norris in your life, you really need one. Nathan is an attorney by trade, so he’s a great cross-examiner of ideas. But he’s also a great connector of people and places. And his greatest pleasure comes from promoting other people, not himself. Nathan was fascinated by some of the ideas about architecture, urbanism, and sustainability I had been trying to put together ever since that day in Mooresville in 1980. Nathan spent days on end in my office, working with me to organize some of the ideas that would eventually become the Original Green a decade later.

   Nathan had other ideas as well. He was working at the time as Town Manager at Gorham’s Bluff, and was cleverly crafting a way of remaking the place with very little budget. He knew that I had been trying to play some role in New Urbanist planning ever since the UDA project. But if you’re not a planner already, who’s going to let you have a part in planning their place? But Gorham’s Bluff was suffering from a plan where all lots were the same size, so I agreed to re-plan the town in a diverse way in exchange for two lots on Main Street. The time investment to do the plan was just part of it… before that, I had to develop my entire system of urbanism drawings, as I had never done such a thing before. Of all the inadvisable things I’d ever done, Gorham’s Bluff took the prize for being the largest yet at that point in time.

   But Nathan wasn’t done yet. He didn’t just need a new neighborhood design; he needed new house plans as well. He came in one day and said “what if we assembled a bunch of young talent who know how to design in a New Urbanist place, and ask them to design house plans for Gorham’s Bluff? They will get paid when the houses get built. In the meantime, we will promote them together, as a guild. Do you think that will work?” So we hatched what we called the “architects’ guild” in 2001; I later re-branded it as the New Urban Guild when we incorporated. Today, there are 80 or so Guild members; with only a few exceptions, the best and most notable architects working in the New Urbanism today are Guild members.

... do you know how long I have been searching for this?...

   DPZ came to town in April, 2002 to design the Village of Providence for client of mine. True to my track record of doing inadvisable things, I said “these guys have been my heroes since 1980; I’m going to donate a week of my time.” So I showed up at the charrette studio and helped out however I could. On Saturday afternoon things slowed down a bit, and I was walking across the studio with Andrés Duany when I asked him “have I told you about the Architects’ Guild?” He stopped, mid-stride, and looked at me in a really strange way. I thought I was in trouble or something. I fumbled around an explanation, then he interrupted “do you mean you have assembled a guild of architects who know how to work within the New Urbanism?” “Yes.” “Do you know how long I have been searching for this?” And so began what is now going on 15 years of fabulous collaboration. I’ve lost track of the number of Guild charrettes we’ve done for DPZ projects, and also the number of DPZ planning charrettes on which I have been a consultant. And that collaboration has led to work with other legendary New Urbanists like Moule & Polyzoides and UDA.

   True to form, Nathan had yet another great idea. DPZ had been developing the SmartCode for several years, with the intent of leveling the playing field between the New Urbanism and sprawl. Nathan had been contacted by Ann Daigle, then planning director in Vicksburg. Ann and Nathan really wanted to do the first SmartCode ever, and so Nathan put Guild member Frank Greene and I together to do the job. Unfortunately, we stepped on a number of land mines we would know to avoid today, and the code never got enacted. But Nathan, Ann, Frank, and I joined together with my sister Susan Henderson to create PlaceMakers shortly after Vicksburg. I left PlaceMakers after a couple years to focus on Mouzon Design and the Guild, but that firm continues strong today under the leadership of Susan, my other sister Hazel Borys, Ben Brown, and Scott Doyon.

... the thought of moving to paradise and working with my heroes was greater...

   Early in 2003, I was in Miami working with DPZ on a couple projects. One evening, Andrés, his brother Douglas, and I went out for dinner on South Beach. On the way back to Douglas’ apartment, Andrés said “Steve, so long as you live in a small Southern town, people will assume you’re no good. But if you move to South Beach, I can get clients for you from around the world because if you live in South Beach, they’ll believe anything I tell them!” The thought of uprooting myself from my hometown was terrifying. I fully expected to live out the rest of my days in the town of my birth. But the thought of moving to paradise and working with my heroes was greater. And so I arrived October 9 to set up a beachhead. Wanda spent a month with her aging mother, then joined me on the day after Thanksgiving 2003.

   The Guild in early 2004 was a great idea without a lot of muscle because I was spread so thin. But before the year was over, Wanda and I persuaded Wanda’s sister Janna Whitley to join us in Miami to work on the Guild. Janna stayed four years, and the Guild as it is today would not exist had it not been for her efforts. She was also instrumental in getting the Guild Foundation going. Without her, the Foundation would not exist.

   2005 dawned with great hope and the most prosperity we had ever experienced. But on August 29, the Gulf Coast descended into the long nightmare of Katrina, and everything changed. Guild member Michael Barranco was at the epicenter of the rebuilding effort in Mississippi, pulling us into it in the days after the hurricane. What began with a phone call from Michael to Wanda resulted in arguably the largest planning event in human history just six weeks later, as the New Urbanists led the Mississippi Renewal Forum in Biloxi. Of all the initiatives spawned at the Forum, the most long-lasting was the Katrina Cottages. Guild members at the time designed all of the original cottages; a few dozen members spent countless pro bono hours on the designs.

... too many times to mention, we were within days of bankruptcy...

   My personal role, beyond organizing the Guild, was working with housing manufacturers to try to get Katrina Cottages on the assembly line. For the next three years, I spent countless hours in the effort, once even sleeping in a trailer factory in the interest of getting a prototype finished. Of all the inadvisable things, this was now the biggest. Too many times to mention, we were within days of bankruptcy as a result. We finally pulled the plug when the Meltdown occurred in October 2008, because at that time, our survival was in jeopardy for reasons outside our control. Still today, not a single one of those Katrina Cottages has ever made it to an assembly line… but I still have hope.

   In the aftermath of the Meltdown, as the enormity of the Great Recession was unfolding, I called a summit of the Guild. We gathered in Miami on January 10, 2009 to lay out the principles of what would become known as Project:SmartDwelling. The idea was to build radically smaller and smarter, so that the same customer would be happier with a house half the size as the one they thought they needed. Some of the smarter things would cost more, of course, but we felt we could deliver them at 60% of the price of the bigger house in hopes of some customers getting a SmartDwelling financed who couldn’t get financing for a full-size house. So many Katrina Cottage lessons found their way directly into the SmartDwellings.

   Shortly after the summit, Lizz Plater-Zyberk did one more in a long string of very generous things for which she and Andrés are so well known. The Wall Street Journal had asked Lizz to design a house for their Green House of the Future article, but she said “because you’re working on the Original Green book, it would make more sense for you to design the house; would you like to?” “Are you kidding??? Of course I would!” On April 29, 2009, the Journal published the story, which included my SmartDwelling I design.

Are we committed enough to the implementations of these principles... ?

   Three years later as the Great Recession was waning, I was visiting with my great friends and Guild members Eric Moser and Julie Sanford at CNU 20 in Palm Beach. All three of us are board members of Julie’s Sky Institute for the Future, named after the town of Sky Julie was about to break ground on when the Meltdown came. I said “the SmartDwellings are a great idea, but so long as we only talk about it, that’s all they’ll remain: just talk. Are we committed enough to the implementations of these principles to create a design firm dedicated to that implementation?” And so we banded together to create Studio Sky. Today, over a hundred SmartDwellings are rising across the Gulf, at Mahogany Bay Village on Ambergris Caye in Belize. We don’t work together all the time, as each of us keeps our own private practices, but when we do work together, we work on a project that advances the sustainable ideals of the Sky Institute and Project:SmartDwelling.

   What’s next for Mouzon Design? Because Wanda and I have long been committed to finding needs that aren’t being met and filling them, those efforts usually fall into two categories: Sometimes, we’re inventing completely new things like the Living Tradition series of architectural pattern books. Other times, we’re working to reform things, like working drawings, the Town Architect process, and the like. The attempt to reform the manufactured housing industry was huge, and hasn’t yet borne fruit, although I believe it will. Recently, we’ve taken on a new reform effort which seems daunting, but for which I have high hopes. Andrés Duany and I are now working to reform the vinyl siding industry. Many consider that impossible, and incredibly inadvisable, but if doing inadvisable things has brought us this far, why stop now? 

~Steve Mouzon

© Mouzon Design 2014