The Creative Payoff For Building Your Own Home

Yes, it’s a huge, complicated, occasionally frustrating, time-consuming project–but one with unexpected benefits.

The Creative Payoff For Building Your Own Home
[Photo: Flickr user Dr. Wendy Longo]

Nearly a decade ago, when they were just starting their ad-targeting company Yashi, Caitlin and Jay Gould would drive around the Jersey Shore in Jay’s beat-up Hyundai and dream of owning a home on the water.


Finally, a few years ago, with Yashi on the rise, they decided it was time to make the dream a reality. They found a house with a view of the water in Toms River, New Jersey, and when it survived Hurricane Sandy without a drop of flooding, rushed to buy it. Initially, their plan was to renovate the existing house, but as they walked through it, a daunting realization began to set in.

Caitlin and Jay Gould

“We didn’t want certain rooms next to each other,” says Caitlin, “and to get it to work, it was going to be too much money. So we figured we just had to start from scratch.” In other words: they were going to–with help, of course–design and build their own home.

It’s a big task for anyone, let alone a young couple with a growing startup (Yashi is now firmly established, having been acquired by Nexstar Broadcasting in February). But there are several reasons why the Goulds feel that creating one’s own home from scratch (or even resolving to go DIY on home improvements) is the perfect extracurricular hobby for the entrepreneur.

It’s A Huge Challenge

Like a lot of entrepreneurs, “I’m a very competitive person,” says Caitlin, who played sports through college. “I love a challenge–that’s how I always excelled.” Never mind that the Goulds had no experience in designing or building homes. They carved out a part of each day, typically from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., after the kids were put to sleep, to research every aspect of the home, from design aesthetics to proper lighting heights. Soon, Caitlin focused on the look and feel of the home, while Jay managed the structure and logistics (with help from his father, a general contractor).

It Stretches Your Creativity

At Yashi, Caitlin is head of strategy, a role less directly connected to creativity than others. In designing her home, Caitlin exercises a different creative muscle. For each room of the home, Caitlin starts with a storyboard, where she experiments with various ideas for the room: color scheme, materials, paint shades, and so on, “down to the lighting and the rugs.” Then she executes. Her proudest achievement to date? A nook of shelves made of natural stone by the bathtub in one of the bathrooms. She’s also pleased that she salvaged the shutters from the home they tore down, which have been transformed into a coffee table. “It’s a blank canvas and you have endless possibilities,” Caitlin says of a house built from scratch. At the same time, she counsels: “You can’t be indecisive. Do your research, ask your advisers, make your decision, and move on to the next thing.”

You Get To Be A Control Freak

Let’s face it. One reason you’re an entrepreneur is that you’re kind of a control freak. If that’s the case, then building your own house is definitely for you, suggests Caitlin. “I’m designing my dream home, and I have it exactly how I want it,” she says. “I basically chose and handpicked every single thing. You’re finding the materials that are perfect, at reasonable cost. You’re constantly negotiating with different people to get the pricing you want.” Jay, who is 35, took the long view, designing a house he felt he could age in with dignity. He was adamant about having the master bedroom on the ground floor, to avoid having to climb steps in old age. The Goulds have also made their house into a “smarthome” with automated temperature control, window treatments that adjust depending on the time of day, and cameras in every room to help keep an eye on the kids.


Nothing Will Go According To Plan

The only thing you can count on in building your own house is that you can’t count on anything. This might seem like a drawback for some, but Caitlin says this is a draw for the entrepreneurial personality, who loves to problem solve and is trained for uncertainty. As entrepreneurs, the Goulds had long spoken about the need to sometimes “pivot once you’re in it.” Building a house has made that literal. “It’s one thing to have big ideas and grandiose plans, but the real creativity comes when you’re problem solving in the thick of it,” says Caitlin. “When you go in with an idea of how it’s going to work out and it doesn’t pan out like you hoped it would, you gain the perspective to reposition yourself and come up with a solution.”

You Get To See–Not To Mention Live In–The Reward

At times, building your own house can be as dry and technical as the least inspiring parts of running a company, Caitlin admits. There’s the tedium of running from lumberyard to lumberyard; there’s the spreadsheets comparing prices; there’s the trigonometry that goes into cutting trusses. But at the end of the day, she can see her work, and actually touch it. Sometimes she envies the designers at Yashi, who build a feature with code over the course of a week, and then have the satisfaction of seeing users flock to it. With building her home, she gets something close to that day-to-day reward, all while building something to last a lifetime.

“It takes tons of research, time, and patience,” she sums up, “but the end result is worth it.”


About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal