Reflections From a Camp Trailer

It was 2010, three years after the economy collapsed. Still feeling the effects, my brother and I weren’t exactly busy. The architecture firm I had been working for had shriveled down to the principal and myself, and my brother was a self-employed cabinet builder. It was October, and we had just shimmied a small excavator into our parent’s backyard. We were building a sunroom addition onto their house. In exchange for our unskilled labor, we were offered our family’s version of the “stimulus package”.

With some of my free time that year, I had picked up some small design jobs from a Craigslist posting. I wasn’t a licensed architect at the time, but that wasn’t a requirement when designing residential projects like kitchen remodels, decks, and additions. It occurred to me that many contractors and homeowners didn’t know how to approach an architect. Not to say that one couldn’t call them. Rather, they seemed unrelatable. They’d advertise the work they were most proud of which would often be high-end custom homes out of reach of many homeowners.

Many of those more humble homeowners were just looking for a simple set of plans. Thousands of houses in the Bay Area had never been updated to contemporary standards and aesthetics. Whether it was a family in need of another bedroom, or a kitchen from 1952 with pink tile countertops, there were architectural problems to be solved at the micro level. They didn’t need Frank Lloyd Wright, just some good ideas and practical knowhow.

My solution, of course, was to buy a camp trailer. I would convert it into a rolling cafe/meeting room and travel around the Bay Area to hunt down contractors. If I saw a jobsite, I’d invite the contractor into my trailer for a cup of coffee and pitch them my services. Much like their go-to electrician, I’d become a subcontractor doing the design for their clients and get their permits.

Before I bought that camp trailer, I needed to build my website and create the brand. As I mentioned, I wasn’t licensed yet. I couldn’t use the word “architect” for my business name or in my marketing material. I knew that I wanted to fall somewhere between an architect and a draftsperson, so I was avoiding the word “architect” anyway. I wanted people to feel that I was on their level, not some mysterious creative savant. While I loved designing spaces, drafting was really the core of the business. Knowing my ambition and the realities, it was pretty easy to find the name. Cafe as an experience felt perfect. Cafes were for friendly chats, slowing down, and enjoying jazz music. And, I’d be doing a lot of drafting. By conjuring the Cafe experience and marrying the concept with architectural drafting, Drafting Cafe was born.

I didn’t have any money, so I built my first website using straight html coding. Needless to say, I couldn’t afford that camp trailer either. I continued to advertise my services on Craigslist, but now I looked legit with a real brand and a website. Within a few months, I had enough work coming in to hire a draftsperson to work from my dining room. We were able to move to a shared office in downtown Oakland after about a year. Within a couple of years we had become a small office of four. In 2013, I got my architecture license and moved to our current location in Oakland.

Today, we have 9 people in a 700 square foot office. Some of our clients have garages bigger than that. It’s certainly tight, but the fact that we can sit on top of each other every day and still enjoy our jobs feels like my biggest accomplishment. Drafting Cafe only works because our team works so well together. We have been blessed with an amazing group of people and their dedication shows in our projects. I can’t thank them enough (though I will try my best by moving us to a much larger office in December). We’ve also been blessed with pretty amazing clients. Every business has its growing pains and Drafting Cafe has been no exception. There’s a lot we’ve had to learn-by-doing over the years, and I’m grateful to our clients for allowing us to grow and learn while working on their homes.

In the end, my parent’s stimulus package worked. The sunroom transformed their house, and their support was just the right nudge to keep us on our feet and thinking. My brother is no longer a starving cabinet builder. I was given the room to create something that I can deeply believe in. It feels pretty good to support a group of people whose task is to help restore, repair, and renovate the fabric of these homes where our friends and neighbors live and love. I’ll leave the high-end mansion design to the other guys.

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