Published: Authority Magazine
In this interview, Esther Sperber spoke to Jason Hartman about her successful career as an architect and principal of Studio ST Architects.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this particular career path?
I always loved solving problems, taking things apart and putting them back together. In high school I disassembled and rebuilt my bicycle. I also loved art and drawing. Growing up in Jerusalem, I had never met an architect and definitely not a woman architect, but when I was applying to college, it seemed like a career that might combine many things I love. I applied and was accepted to a five-year program at the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology (which is a bit like the Israeli MIT). I decided to give it a try and I immediately loved it. I loved the design aspect, I loved thinking about how people behave in space, I loved the materiality of buildings and I also loved the problem solving and practical side.
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away, you took out of that story?
My firm, Studio ST Architects, does many different kinds of projects. We were doing the demolition for a duplex renovation in Greenwich Village, and when we took down the back wall of the bathroom, we found an empty closet with broken furniture inside. Even after 25 years of working as an architect, each project is different and there is always a surprise.
Do you have a favorite “life lesson quote”? Can you share a story or example of how that was relevant to you in your life?
There is an ancient Jewish book called Lessons of Our Fathers from the 3rd century. One of the teachings is:
אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתַי…
If I am not for me, who will be for me?
And when I am for myself alone, what am I?
And if not now, then when?
It is a reminder that we need to be self-motivated and work to make the world a better place but recognize that this is not something we are responsible to solve on our own. I take these old words as motivation to try my best but avoid despair when the world remains broken.
I believe that architects have a unique way of seeing things, and this knowledge or ‘design thinking’ can be used to make the world a better place. In 2016 when there was a lot of discussion about transgender people and bathrooms, I created a video op-ed, suggesting that our current public bathrooms, originated for men and women, do not work well for many other people. Think of a dad in the airport with his young daughter who cannot accompany her. Or an elderly person with a caregiver. I suggested that we make “Bathrooms By Size”–small, medium, large and extra-large–allowing different people, genders, and families to find the one most comfortable for them.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! We just completed two large renovations of synagogues, one in New York City and one in Skokie, IL. We transformed Skokie Valley Synagogue’s sanctuary by installing a large triangular skylight over the center of the space where the prayers are recited. For the synagogue in New York, we transformed the entry by making a much larger lobby with all-gender bathrooms, seating, a coat room, stroller parking and a new elevator to make the building accessible.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
When people hire an architect they want to solve a particular problem, build a new multifamily building or renovate their community center. I try to listen closely to what our clients ask for. But I also feel that, like a good psychoanalyst, they sometimes know they need something but are not sure what that is.
When we were asked to renovate the 14th Street Y, we were told to redo their gym. After studying the space, we realized that they really need a new lobby, a large space for people to hang out, which is the point of being a community center. We were able to relocate the offices and create a new, colorful and edgy space on a tight budget which transformed the entire institution and building.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have a deep sense of gratitude towards my parents. I grew up in Jerusalem, the oldest of ten children. My parents instilled in us a sense of independence, a commitment to honesty and hard work that I still try to live up to. I was also very fortunate to work under the mentorship of two great architects. In Israel I worked for the Israeli Brazilian architect David Reznik, a talented and kind architect. I also got to work with Mr. I. M. Pei at his son’s firm, Pei Architects. He, too, was a rare man who was both brilliant and a gentleman.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Caring — We care deeply about each project and making it the best we can, but also care about our clients, our staff and how we treat our engineers and contractors.
One of our clients is renovating the beautiful apartment she grew up in, after her parents both passed away. She was excited about the new home she was creating, but was also very emotional about the loss of her parents and the memories she had that were tied to this apartment. In the first few months of working with her, she would often cry when speaking about her mother with love and admiration. We would pause and listen. She commented later that she valued my ability to hear her pain and that this was one of the reasons she chose to work with Studio ST Architects.
Hard work — My staff and I love our work. We work hard to solve problems and to create beautiful spaces. However, working hard does not necessarily mean staying at the office late at night. I believe we do our best work, think clearly and listen well when we can balance our time at work and our time at home and with our friends or family.
Before I had children I would stay at the office until 11 p.m. or midnight. When my daughter was born–she is now 18–I made a commitment to be home around 5 p.m.. It turned out that the “mommy efficiency factor” worked, and we were able to sustain our rigorous practice with less time in the office. The pandemic taught us another important lesson about flex time and work-from-home opportunities. We trust and respect our team members and do our best to work around their needs.
Curiosity — Asking questions and embracing challenges have helped me grow as an architect, business owner and leader. It’s important to see that every interaction, situation and difficulty is an opportunity to learn. In my office, junior designers and senior architects teach each other new things. When I’m at a construction site, I may have my own opinions, but I also want to hear what a client thinks about a particular material selection or how the contractor wants to solve a problem.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Can you share 3 things that most excite you about architecture and the Real Estate industry in general? If you can please share a story or example.
- Every architectural project is unique — The locations, the program and the clients always create a new set of challenges and opportunities that we need to solve. I love discovering new places.
- Seeing the potential — Real estate is about seeing value and potential that is hidden. Perhaps the property can be reconfigured, enlarged or undervalued. Similarly, architecture is about seeing beyond what currently exists and imagining better spaces. It is about exposing and enhancing the potential of a space of building and making it usable in new ways. When we first visited the Skokie Valley Synagogue the space was dark and formal. We transformed the space through a large renovation, adding a triangular skylight, new lighting, painting the brick white and reconfiguring the seating to be more intimate and inclusive. People who had not seen the space were so surprised by the transformation, some asked if they were in the right locations for services. Being able to keep an existing building and yet transform and expose its potential is a meaningful experience.
- Well-designed architecture can enrich people’s lives — We recently completed a 10-apartment multifamily residential building in Jersey City. We started the design before the pandemic, but the apartments went on the market in August 2022. They were all rented within two weeks. One reason was the amenities we provided, such as balconies and outdoor space for each apartment. We also included home offices, bike rooms, a gym and a large shared green roof garden. These amenities, which enhance the tenant’s wellness and encourage community, are one of the good things that emerged from the COVID pandemic tragedy.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest? Please share stories or examples if possible.
The 3 things that concern me most are:
- Architecture has always been a male dominated profession. This is further enhanced by the construction industry which is almost entirely male. I would love to expand the way we imagine the architect, to include women and other minorities.
- Architects are underpaid. I am not sure how we can fix this, but compared to other highly trained professionals, architects have low salaries. We bring essential and valuable expertise, and this talent and hard work should be rewarded.
- I don’t want to sound naive, but one issue with the construction industry is that everything is so expensive. It is a challenge to create beautiful spaces and precise details when the cost of materials and labor are so high. This is especially challenging when we do institutional projects for schools and synagogues where funds are limited, and the infrastructure needs extensive repairs.
If I could change the architecture industry, I would make sure everyone follows these things:
- Treat our construction workers better — Our construction industry for smaller projects relies on family-run general contractors, many of whom are immigrants. We have worked with teams from Ecuador, Poland, Greece, Ireland, Malaysia, China, Hungary, Israel, Italy and Bosnia. Isn’t that incredible? Without these people New York City cannot function. We need to make sure these people have a path to citizenship if they need that, fair housing and health insurance. We also need them to know they are valued and welcome.
- Efficiency — We spend a lot of time on the approval process of residential renovations. Before we can submit the plans to New York’s Department of Buildings, there is a lengthy approval process by the building’s independent reviewing architect. These reviews can take months. While I respect the need for a shared condominium or co-op to make sure one person’s renovation will not adversely affect others in the building, it seems like we can make this more efficient and reduce the costs and delays to the owners.
- Sustainability — We are all experiencing the volatility of our climate and realize that becoming more energy efficient and sustainable is an urgent task. Architects like to feel that they can fix the world. I don’t actually think we can correct all the mistakes caused by decades of big industry and political indifference, but we can and should do our own part. In the field of architecture, new buildings often get most of the media’s attention. We have been doing many renovations of existing buildings, such as synagogues, schools, community centers as well as apartments. This work is crucial because keeping our existing buildings and upgrading them is an important aspect of making our built environment more sustainable.
Ok, here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share with our readers the “Five Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful Career As An Architect?” If you can, please give a story or an example for each?
- Love architecture — You need to love buildings and get excited about the beauty of stone or the smell of wet poured concrete.
- Love people — In my opinion, you cannot create good architecture if you do not enjoy people. Buildings are designed to be inhabited and I love imagining how people would use the spaces we create. It used to be common to photograph buildings without any people in them. In recent years we have started photographing our work, especially public buildings, with people in them. I feel that this gives a better sense of what we are trying to accomplish.
- Love your staff — Like other service professions, we are only as good as our team. Architecture cannot be created alone, and I am fortunate to have a great team at my office. We share ideas, suggestions and bring our own strength to the team.
- Love running a business — When I started my firm, I did not know much about running a business, tracking costs and projecting profits. Over the past two decades I have learned from friends, colleagues, YouTube and coaches. I enjoy the task of running my business and making sure we are financially stable alongside the creativity of the design process. My work week is incredibly varied. I spend a few hours sketching a new design on trace paper, putting together a fee proposal and spreadsheet schedule for our team, learning about a new product, putting on my work boots to visit the concrete foundation work on a multifamily building, selecting stone for a countertop and giving a lecture to students about the architecture of synagogues. What could be more exciting?
- Love a new challenge — When you are an architect there is always more to learn than one person can handle. We need to be able to learn from others, ask the right questions and have good intuition about mechanical systems, structure, sustainability and city codes. But there will always be something new that we have not encountered, and a good architect needs to not be intimidated by this, but rather find these new challenges exciting.
Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
In February 2020 we created a “thought leadership project”, a speculative design that was intended to shift public discourse. A judicial court decision revoked the building permit for the top 20 floors of a luxury Manhattan condominium because it used gerrymandering style tax lot assembly tactics to justify the request for a very tall building. In an appeal, it was decided that the building could remain as built. I suggested that the extra floors the developer had built should be converted to affordable housing along with empty floors of other high rises in Manhattan. The pandemic only strengthened my view that one of the most important aspects of the city’s survival during the pandemic and other challenging times is the incredible commitment of front line and essential workers. We need to treat these people as part of our emergency infrastructure. For practical and moral reasons we need to provide better housing close to these people’s workplaces, and create affordable housing within luxury buildings.
How can our readers further follow your work online?.
I would love to share my writing and my firm’s work on our website. You can also follow our Instagram (@studiostarchitects) and LinkedIn page.
Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights! We wish you continued success.
About The Interviewer: Jason Hartman is the Founder and CEO of Empowered Investor. Jason has been involved in several thousand real estate transactions and has owned income properties in 11 states and 17 cities. Empowered Investor helps people achieve The American Dream of financial freedom by purchasing income property in prudent markets nationwide. Jason’s Complete Solution for Real Estate Investors™ is a comprehensive system providing real estate investors with education, research, resources and technology to deal with all areas of their income property investment needs. Through Jason’s podcasts, educational events, referrals, mentoring and software to track your investments, investors can easily locate, finance and purchase properties in these exceptional markets with confidence and peace of mind.
Starting with very little, Jason, while still in college at the age of 19, embarked on a career in real estate. While brokering properties for clients, he was investing in his own portfolio along the way. Through creativity, persistence and hard work, he earned a number of prestigious industry awards and became a young multi-millionaire. Jason purchased a California real estate brokerage firm that was later acquired by Coldwell Banker. He combined his dedication and business talents to become a successful entrepreneur, public speaker, author, and media personality. Over the years he developed his Complete Solution for Real Estate Investors™ where his innovative firm educates and assists investors in acquiring prudent investments nationwide for their portfolio. Jason’s sought after educational events, speaking engagements, and his popular “Creating Wealth Podcast” inspire and empower hundreds of thousands of people in 189 countries worldwide.
While running his successful real estate and media businesses, Jason also believes that giving back to the community plays an important role in building strong personal relationships. He established The Jason Hartman Foundation in 2005 to provide financial literacy education to young adults providing the all-important real world skills not taught in school which are the key to the financial stability and success of future generations. We’re in a global monetary crisis caused by decades of misguided policies and the cycle of financial dependence has to be broken, literacy and self-reliance are a good start. Visit JasonHartman.com for free materials and resources.