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Alice Kimm of JFAK: “There is no magic bullet”

The active technologies and the materials that are being developed, for both interior and exterior, are getting more sophisticated every day. Technologies such as smart home devices that allow us to monitor energy usage, turn lights and fixtures on and off, and basically “talk” to our home from a distance/virtually, are allowing us to increase […]

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The active technologies and the materials that are being developed, for both interior and exterior, are getting more sophisticated every day. Technologies such as smart home devices that allow us to monitor energy usage, turn lights and fixtures on and off, and basically “talk” to our home from a distance/virtually, are allowing us to increase our conservation of valuable resources. These technologies are, thankfully, more and more available to middle-class homeowners; they are getting more and more affordable.


As a part of our series about “Homes Of The Future”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alice Kimm.

Alice Kimm co-founded John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects (JFAK) with her husband John Friedman in 1996. JFAK designs places for individuals and entities who understand the power of buildings and environments to inspire, communicate, and elicit joy. A Fulbright Scholar, Alice holds a B.A. in Economics from Cornell and a Master of Architecture from Harvard; she resides in Los Angeles’ Silverlake neighborhood with John and their three children and in her free time reads fiction, writes, and plays squash.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I loved biology and neuroscience, but I didn’t want to be a doctor or scientist. I was also drawn to the arts. I could draw, but didn’t feel that fine art was for me, so I ended up majoring in Economics in college, thinking that might have some practical value. My father is an architect, my older sister was trained as a classical pianist, and I wanted to marry my analytical side with my creative side.

In college, at Cornell, I became friends with students in the Architecture department. The thing that struck me about them, aside from their creativity, was the incredible passion they had for their work. They were all so fully immersed in the design studios they were taking. Furthermore, they were making so many cultural and interdisciplinary connections between what they were working on and aspects of the outside world. It was very seductive and very intense. The intensity, as much as anything, appealed to me. They lived and breathed their creative process. During my senior year, I decided to apply to graduate programs in architecture, and that was my path to becoming an architect.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

The most interesting “story” for me doesn’t involve an “aha” moment or have a beginning and an end. It’s more a story of discovery. I would say it’s the story of discovering how connected everything is, and how as one develops as an architect those infinite things begin to operate together, as a whole, and coalesce in the way one thinks and practices. Here is a distillation: In 2008, I started teaching a bit more seriously in the architecture department at USC, and eventually ended up directing their undergraduate program (numbering around 700 students) for 4 full academic years, from 2010–2014. During that time I was practicing also, with my husband and partner John Friedman handling the bulk of the work at our office, and my three kids at critical young ages (when I stepped down from the directorship in 2014 they were 14, 11, and 9). During that time, I started teaching courses in and solidifying ideas about the confluence of culture, technology, design, and public space, and in the past 6 years I’ve been able to take my ideas about how those things are intertwined and bring them into real design projects ranging from a cultural gateway, to a clean technology innovation campus, a public park, and a nonprofit we just formed to help address the crisis of homelessness. So, it’s not really a story per se, but a trajectory. Working in architecture and design, if one sticks with it, gives a great gift of “seeing” — seeing connections between things, and enabling the tools with which to physically and experimentally connect those things.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

Architecture for us has been a slow and steady uphill climb. We just kept working hard, developing our skills and design intelligence, and being as rigorous as we could along the way. Our work is very open; it’s about identity, community, and context — and I think that people and institutions are now responding to that as our brand. While we didn’t start doing anything different, the cumulative effects of our thoroughness and responsiveness, coupled with (I’d like to think) our talent, has given us a level of achievement — with more, I believe (I hope), to come in the future. I feel that architecture is one of those professions in which, once you achieve some traction, the momentum increases. So, I would say that good old hard work, and developing your talents and skills with rigor, does have its payoff. It doesn’t sound glamorous, but it has its own great satisfactions.

There are some valuable lessons to learn, though, from our journey.

One important lesson is: From the get-go, only take on what is really meaningful to you. Of course we all have to earn our bread and butter, particularly in an industry that is dependent on the economy and other industries, such as real estate, construction, etc. But I think it’s important to not just say “yes” to everything that comes along, out of fear that if you don’t you will “starve”. It’s important to set goals, keep those aspirations alive, and take a little time periodically to review them to make sure you are not straying from them.

Another lesson: Do not underestimate the importance of networking, marketing, and branding. It is worth investing capital and time into those aspects of your business, and those are also the means by which you can begin to mine the riches of connectivity — between people, ideas, disciplines, and tools.

Third: Do not try to do everything yourself in order to save a few pennies. Not only will it wear you out, but in the long run it will hurt you not to have people who have been with you for the duration who are trained, skilled, and able to manage projects and keep things going smoothly. The longer you wait to invest in great human capital, the more difficult it will be to find those people later on. So surround yourself with those people early on, and do your best to mentor and train them. It will pay off.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

That is an easy question to answer, once I get past how grateful I am to my parents and family — I can’t imagine a more supportive family growing up. My parents gave myself and my siblings all of the love, support, and assistance we could ask for, no matter how hard it was for them. They taught me how to be a (hopefully) good mother and person. But with respect to my work and career, my husband and partner John Friedman is the person who helped me to get where I am. Even when it didn’t really make sense for our firm to have me pursue a teaching trajectory, which was a huge commitment and took me away from JFAK for major periods of time and split my focus, he always supported my personal development. During the time I was teaching, while I still contributed a lot to JFAK, John bore the brunt of responsibility for design and management, doing the work of 3 skilled people and training everyone else in the process. Teaching, however, helped me discover what in architecture is meaningful to me and how I want to pursue it; it helped me to find my own voice and create my own platform. I have brought that back to JFAK, to apply to the work we do here, and that could never have happened without the freedom to follow my own trajectory.

It has not been easy to raise three children, run an architecture firm, teach, and do the other things that John and I are invested in without the full support of each other, as well as sacrifices in turn by each other. So — it’s not a “wow” story; it’s the story of decades of steady support from a partner. On that note, I have been asked quite a bit lately about mentorship…John and I both wish that we had had mentors, individually or together, along our architectural career paths. It makes a huge difference, as history has proven. So we do our best to mentor others, through teaching, advising, lecturing, etc. It also governs how we work in our office — we have a studio culture and we spend a lot of time dumping our expertise, knowledge, passion, and ideas on staff, and the ensuing dialogue is an important part of our, and their, journey.)

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I have been a reader all my life. I started reading under the covers at night and that is why I have had contact lenses since a very young age. Mostly I have been a big reader of fiction; escaping into fictional worlds has been, in a funny way, my way of staying somewhat sanely connected to the real world. Movies have played the same role for me, but reading is the last thing I usually do before I go to sleep, no matter how late it is or how tired I am. As I’ve matured, I have of course added nonfiction and other media, and the interconnectivities that have revealed themselves between different ways of thinking and modes of expression define how I see the world and how I now understand what it means to grow older (and maybe a little wiser). But, as a result, I don’t have a single book, podcase, or talk to share — there are so many.

I’ll throw out a few random ones that come to mind in recent years. TED talk by Ron Finley — it hit close to home. He is the “guerilla gardener of South Los Angeles.” Watch it and be inspired to go out and do something that makes a difference! IQ84 is my favorite book of the past decade– this is Haruki Marukami’s masterpiece of magical realism with its minutiae of everyday life mixed in with ramblings on music and detailed characterizations, and it’s also an incredible portrait of Tokyo (one of my favorite cities). It’s also long, which is great, because when I get into a book I really like I just don’t want it to end. More recently, I read Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room — about the CA prison system and in particular several of the prisoners incarcerated at a women’s facility up north. Incredible writing, incredible characters. Finally, there is an essay on LA that was written all the way back in 1933, but that still, incredibly, rings true today: “Paradise” by James Cain. It is one of my favorites. It changed the way I think about Los Angeles and started me on a personal quest to understand the evolution of LA — LA as a relatively young city, marked by its sense of freedom, its positioning as a “frontier state”, and the home of innovation across many disciplines.

Finally, check out reasonstobecheerful.world website. It’s a site created by David Byrne that highlights the challenges of our day, but that is focused on the solutions that give us all hope. It’s pretty great. It’s also great that Byrne himself writes a lot of the pieces on the site. The cross-pollenation of talents, skills, and knowledge he has unleashed on the world is, well, a reason to be cheerful.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I absolutely do not have a favorite quote, not one that fits into any kind of category. But I remember being in college and talking with my younger (smarter) brother about being a bit behind in one of my classes, and he said, “Alice, just remember…Organization is the Key to Success.” Ha. I wanted to slap him. But there is definitely something to that! Is it a life lesson? Absolutely! 😊 I tell my kids this occasionally when I really want to annoy them.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Homebuilding in the US has grown tremendously. We’d love to hear about some of the new trends and techniques that are being used to build the homes of the future.

Can you share with us a few of the methods that are being used to make homes more sustainable and more water and energy efficient?

For us, sustainability is a set of values that promotes a way of life that is healthy, creative, productive, and promotes human happiness. The home, of course, is the repository of all things that bring those aspirational conditions to fruition. Technology is advancing every day, and very quickly, so anything I say will be yesterday’s new thing faster than one can take it in. But for us it comes down to incorporating 4 things into the design of a building, including a home: 1) active technologies (things we pay for that are added to the building, like super-efficient and high-performing HVAC equipment, solar panels, battery backups, smart car charging stations, energy-saving appliances, and low-flow plumbing fixtures; 2) passive technologies deployed through intelligent design (like putting windows in the right place so that there is cross ventilation and abundant (but not too much) natural light); 3) recycled or regenerative materials; and 4) an attention to metaphorical expression, or branding — in a home, this means celebrating the sustainable attributes that have been designed, perhaps by using materials in their natural state, or integrating solar panels into the design in a way that exposes them as interesting and beautiful. All four of these broad strategies all work together to conserve energy and water.

The active technologies and the materials that are being developed, for both interior and exterior, are getting more sophisticated every day. Technologies such as smart home devices that allow us to monitor energy usage, turn lights and fixtures on and off, and basically “talk” to our home from a distance/virtually, are allowing us to increase our conservation of valuable resources. These technologies are, thankfully, more and more available to middle-class homeowners; they are getting more and more affordable.

There is a lot of talk about Smart Homes. Can you tell our readers a bit about what that is, what that looks like, and how that might help people?

Smart Homes don’t really look any different at this stage from other homes; the intelligence is embedded in the communications devices, keypads, and apps that are placed around the home and on owners’ smartphones and tablets. A smart home is a simple way to describe a home that is automated. A home automation system will control lighting, climate, entertainment systems, and appliances, and if an owner has gone to all that trouble, then home security such as access control and alarm systems are likely to be present and automated as well. Home automation can save an owner big bucks in energy usage by allowing one to program their lights, air conditioning, and other energy-using devices to turn off automatically. It can control window shade systems so that the house is not heating up when nobody is there; the shades can come down to protect from solar heat gain. It can provide peace of mind when traveling because security is present and at one’s fingertips, and one can check embedded cameras to make sure nothing is amiss. Sensors can help detect the presence of unwanted water (flooding), smoke (fire), and carbon monoxide; for owners with children, these aspects of home automation can be very reassuring.

Ultimately, the smart home will likely involve the widespread use of drones or bots that clean, pick up after people, and cook. Now, if we can only have a smart home that will have a device that takes care of the kids’ homework (and does so correctly), we’ll be all set!

Aside from Smart Homes, can you talk about other interesting tech innovations that are being incorporated into homes today?

Well, rather than mention other things being incorporated into the interiors of homes to make them more sustainable or smarter (because I think we’ve covered it), there are great strides being made in home construction, including the use of SIP (structural insulated panels), 3D printing, and modular construction. These are what we will see more of in the future. For LA County, we recently won a competition for creating demonstration fast-track housing units out of modular buildings — very exciting. In order to fulfill the need for affordable housing everywhere, we need to build homes faster. But we still need them to be super well-designed, and of course sustainable and smart.

Can you talk about innovations that are being made to make homes more pet friendly?

As part owner of two happy cats, I would say that making a home pet-friendly really has more to do with creating nooks and crannies where they can hide out, snuggle, cuddle up, and sleep. Holes and openings between spaces they can pass through and pop out of. Space to run and climb if possible. In smaller homes, one can empty out a base cabinet and leave it open for pets to climb in and hang out. Or cut a hole in the bottom half of a door and create an opening pets can pass through (it can be lined with plastic to dampen noise). Things like this will make pets much happier, without adding much cost or complexity to the home. They are not high-tech; rather, they are spatial modifications focused on your pets’ well-being and happiness. In our own home, we have bookshelves that are open on two sides and our cats love to jump through them. Our kids’ bedroom doors are dutch doors, and when we hinge open the top halves, the cats start jumping over the lower leaves; it is very funny. But they get plenty of exercise and a variety of ways to play. If it’s possible to screen your windows so that pets can have fresh air without escaping, that’s also very important. Finally, placing windows (whether operable or not) to the outside at their level, close to the floor, gives them a lot to look at and extends their horizon. It’s not only human beings who need views, light, and air; so do our pets.

How about actual construction materials? Are there new trends in certain materials to address changes in the climate, fires, floods, and hurricanes?

There is no magic bullet. Homes in fire-prone areas should not be built of wood, for instance, but rather concrete or block. For flood-prone areas, as most people interested in home construction know, houses are built on stilts. Now, there is also innovative work being done by companies that specialize in flexible buildings that literally rise up during floods. Hurricane-ridden areas are simply tough — connections that go all the way through to the foundation, so that the body of a house can remain intact even as the roof gets blown off, are key. Homes in earthquake-prone areas need to be able to absorb shock and move around, so wood framing is a good option — but a lot of the innovation comes in the way structural members are connected, and those connections are being refined and evolved every day. Now that there are more earthquakes occurring on the east coast, we are going to see some trouble, as the old masonry (brick and stone) structures of yesteryear will come tumbling down when big ones hit. I am sure there is work being done on researching how to retrofit old east-coast structures to withstand earthquakes; California has a head start in this area. We have performed seismic retrofit on many buildings here, and while expensive, it has proven very valuable to maintain the beautiful existing materiality of old brick and concrete warehouses while updating them to be fully accessible, accommodate new programming, and be able to host 21st century technologies.

For someone looking to invest in the real estate industry, are there exciting growth opportunities that you think people should look at more carefully?

A big opportunity right now is to think about post-COVID-19 living. With the idea that remote working/learning is not going to go away, and that people want to flee not only to suburbs but also to more remote locations, quaint, small towns with history and housing stock with good bones will be much more desirable. These areas have great potential from a design perspective and offer fantastic investment opportunities to investors who can fix up these properties. And of course, within cities, there is a great opportunity to develop new models of housing that incorporate remote working in a very active way. Perhaps the provision of co-working spaces for residents within a complex makes a lot of sense now — both indoors and outdoors, as part of the common space amenities. How this will pencil out is yet to be seen, but as office spaces shrink, common home areas may expand.

Let’s talk a bit about housing availability and affordable housing. Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

This is a subject close to my heart, as John and I recently set up a nonprofit organization called Open Source Homelessness Initiative (OSHI) to create an open-source platform to share resources, information, and data in order to accelerate innovation in the fight to end homelessness. How did we get to this place where so many of our neighbors have no roof over their heads and no place to call home? We got here because we don’t have enough affordable housing, because of systemic racism and discrimination, and because we don’t have the political will to change the situation. Until there is affordable housing in every neighborhood in every part of every city and town in this country, we will have a homelessness problem. We have to vote out those who won’t support this idea, and we have to create more equitable cities in which everyone has equal access to housing, education, and job opportunities. There was a good piece by Binyamin Applebaum in the NYT back in May that summarizes this challenge. (NYT, May 15, “America’s Cities Could House Everyone if They Chose To” by Binyamin Applebaum)

Is there anything that home builders can do to further help address these problems?

Of course, builders are in a perfect position to help address homelessness, because ultimately we need to build more homes to accommodate everyone who needs one. However, builders have to be enabled to build. It goes back to the question of policy, rules and regulations, design intelligence, and technology. Construction comes after the policymakers do their job, which is after we vote. In the meantime, while we collectively work on that, builders can figure out how to accelerate delivery. Accelerating the delivery of housing units is critical. How can we build faster, cheaper, but also better? There is a saying in architecture that you can only have two out of these three things, so you have to choose. But…really? Come on! We need to achieve all three. Period. We need to figure out that equation.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Given that affordable housing and homelessness are front and center for me at the moment, I would inspire a movement that would bring an affordable home to every single person in the world, evenly distributed throughout every village, town, and city of every country of the world. This would trigger equity in access to education, which would in turn trigger many other forms of equity. It begs the questions: Housing is not actually a fundamental human right. Should it be? Shouldn’t it be? Let’s give every single person a place to rest their head and call their own.

How can our readers follow you online?

The work of my firm can be found at jfak.net, I have my first piece in a series on public space posted on Medium.com @akimm, and I can be emailed at [email protected] .

Other social media outlets are:

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jfakarchitects/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JFAKarchitects

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/jfakarchitects

Twitter: https://twitter.com/JFAKarchitects

Alice Kimm LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alice-kimm/

John Friedman LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/john-friedman/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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