"It's not a man's world anymore."
Susan Ho says that that now with confidence, but when she founded Lakeville Homes in 1985, there were very few women in the construction industry.
Ho immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong in 1976 with her husband and infant daughter and $20 in their pockets. She didn't believe that her gender or her race should keep her from pursuing her dream of designing custom homes.
Today, Bellevue-based Lakeville has 10 employees and has helped more than 100 clients build their dream homes, including one in 1992 that was featured in the prestigiousSeattle Street of Dreams.
Ho's success has become an inspiration for other women, and she was a keynote speaker at a recent luncheon in Seattle that honored women builders.
Her speech at the event, sponsored by the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, was titled "A story of perseverance and accomplishment."
The organizer of the luncheon, Fern Lam, of Countrywide Home Loans on Mercer Island, asked the 57-year-old Ho to share her story with the audience because "we wanted to really show that whatever the circumstances that people are at, they can still come out of it and survive and be great," Lam said.
"She went from a $20 family to a multimillion-dollar company."
Ho's business partner, Brad Gilbertson, said there were probably not even a handful of women builders two decades ago when he first met Ho as a subcontractor hired to do the framing on the first house that she built.
"She was one of the very first," he said. "That was definitely something to overcome: people's perception of what a builder should look like and act like."
But he said Ho just doesn't see barriers.
"She knows she has to overcome things but she would never think twice about doing something because of some perceived barrier," he said. "She just does it."
Bernadette Yarbrough, the company's vice president, said that it was difficult for Ho initially as a builder.
"I think at the beginning, people didn't think she knew what she was doing," she said.
"But Susan has a singleness of purpose: If she sees something that is right, she'll pursue it no matter what anybody thinks," saidYarbrough, who was a neighbor of Ho's at the beginning and was hired to do the bookkeeping.
Ho points to her enthusiasm as a major factor in her success. She says she enjoys what she does and gives each task her all. She speaks and acts confidently and said she believes there is a solution to every problem.
In 1999, when she built six upscale town homes on Delridge Way Southwest in Seattle, it was considered by some a risky move in what was a rundown neighborhood of small, old houses.
But Ho was just ahead of her time and now that part of Delridge Way is filled with new houses, condominium and apartment buildings.
And being a woman in the male-dominated industry has actually helped, she said.
"Nowadays construction is not like the old days," she said. "If you were a contractor or builder, you were expected to pound nails and frame that house. Now it's more organization."
She said women excel at paying attention to the details of homebuilding, especially since women generally spend the most time in the home.
In Ho's own kitchen, cupboard doors can be closed to hide a messy coffee-preparation area, leaving a clean and tidy image.
"A lot of men think `Why worry about hiding the coffee maker, just leave it on the counter,' " she said. "But visually it bothers us more than it bothers men."
Building a career
Ho and her husband had earned architectural degrees from Hong Kong University and worked as draftsmen when they first came to the United States. Then she got a better-paying job with the U.S. Postal Service and worked her way up to a building-management position helping to design post office buildings.
That job came with great benefits and a good work schedule, but Ho said she felt like she was "selling" her hours.
"My passion was to create homes that people can feel pampered in, not boxes like the post office," she said in her recent speech to women in the industry. "I did not want to trade my dream for security."
By that time, her husband, Larry, was working as an architect and making enough money to support the family. So Ho quit her job and started Lakeville as a one-woman show.
"I was the company president, construction foreman, bookkeeper and everything else," she said in her speech.
With her husband's encouragement, Ho designed and oversaw the construction of her first home on Mercer Island.
"I really didn't have a concept of what a business is like," she said. "So we started building this home thinking if it doesn't sell it can be our home."
But that home did sell, and building it began to prepare Ho for the future of Lakeville Homes.
She said she treated that first home as an art project, placing a lot of emphasis on its sculptural form.
"The home was a beautiful flat-roof structure with multiple roof decks and a gorgeous view of Lake Washington and Mount Rainier," she said about the house that was featured in a community newspaper article about Mercer Island living.
The process was "laborious and overwhelming sometimes," she said. "I made my share of mistakes and learned a lot.
"Most importantly I learned to pay a lot more respect to conventional wisdoms such as the reason why people built mostly pitched roof houses instead of flat roofs in our area," she said. "Because it rains. Flat-roof houses leak!"
"Glue it together"
After more than 20 years in the homebuilding business, Ho has gone from pioneer to a wise, experienced builder and remodeler with many satisified customers. She said that building custom homes for clients can be challenging.
"It's our job to keep the accents of what they want and still have the spaces flow together smoothly," she said. "The most successful thing is if you can make it work like it's the client's idea."
The final product should be the home of the client's dreams, she said.
"But when people dream, it's fragmented. It's our responsibility to glue it together, make it work."
Lakeville Homes helped Tom Ismon and his wife, Joyce, with a major remodel on a home they bought on Mercer Island.
"It was a wonderful experience," Ismon said. "We always knew what was going on. We always knew what was next."
After buying the Street of Dreams home from Ho in 1992, Jim and Amanda Haines had Lakeville remodel a home they bought in 2000.
"It was outstanding," Jim Haines said. "Communication was constant. Susan's great."
Lakeville builds and remodels plenty of custom homes for clients, but about half of the homes it builds known in the industry as "spec homes" don't have clients. At least not real ones.
"We always have an imaginary client," Ho said.
For a development near downtown Bellevue, the imaginary clients are young professionals. They would appreciate proximity to the city and may have young children, so the homes have fenced backyards where they can play.
The space is more contemporary. The cabinets are straighter. The lines are cleaner. Spaces are more open.
Another development on Mercer Island has more mature imaginary clients. The master bedroom is on the main floor. Corridors are wider. There are fewer steps. The taste and interior decorations are more substantial. The colors are calmer. There is more texture.
"You imagine the clientele," Ho said. "You imagine what they like in that area. In any location, there are certain things attracting buyers."
Ho used to be closely involved with the design of every home, but now she plays a broader role.
Her oldest daughter, Jamie Hsu, who came to the U.S. as an infant, now works at Lakeville as an architect. Hsu and interior designer Felicia Foster, who doubles as a project coordinator, always talk about their concepts with Ho.
"Being at a further distance, I can tell them to look at the development as a whole," Ho said.
Hsu said working in architecture in her own career has opened her eyes to what an anomaly her mother is.
"Because my mom was involved in the construction field for most of my life, it took me a long time to realize that it was an industry that was male-dominated," she said.
But, as Ho points out, it's not like that anymore.
"There's a lot more women in construction and related industries than when I started," she said. "I can't remember seeing or running into any real workers that were women when I first got started but now you see them.
"I don't think gender should be the thing that deters people's aspirations to become anything. I think the world has become pretty much even."
Ho told the audience at that recent luncheon that she hoped sharing her story would show them that "somebody ... who had nothing but passion and belief, can succeed in the construction industry."