Talking Heads: Greg Minott, Managing Principal, DREAM Collaborative

12 min read

Gregory Minott is an awarding-winning architect and co-founder of DREAM Collaborative, a black-owned design firm in the Boston metro area.

Minott was raised in the hill country of Jamaica far from the coastal beaches and resorts in an area with a diverse mix of nationalities. His interest in architecture started in his early teen years and continued after he graduated from high school and moved to the U.S. to complete his graduate studies.

As a young black man, being exposed to American culture opened his eyes to many inequities that inspired him to co-found an architecture firm that not only embraced inclusion and diversity, but actually built its business and success around these critical factors.

DREAM provides business insights and design solutions that help developers execute successful building projects while maximizing their social impact in communities that are historically underserved by our industry. The firm integrates many voices and perspectives into its design thinking to address today’s pressing socio-economic issues, such as racial health disparities and the wealth gap that exists in underserved communities.

Tax Credit Advisor sat down with Minott to learn more about his approach to designing affordable housing and the short- and long-term trends he is seeing in the marketplace.

Tax Credit Advisor: You were born and raised in Jamaica. What was growing up in the Caribbean like? How did you end up in America?

Greg Minott: It was great growing up in Jamaica. I grew up in a hilltop town called Mandeville. My parents moved there when I was very young. My father was a chemical engineer and my mother a real estate broker. My father worked for a multinational company, so I grew up with a lot kids from different countries and backgrounds. It was a very diverse kind of upbringing that shaped my view of the world and comes across in my work. I pursued architecture to help my community stay a great place to live. It was a well-developed place, but then it became over-developed. As I grew older, I saw the pressures on the town and the infrastructure was not keeping up. That interested me. I lived there until I was 23 and then decided to complete my studies in the U.S

TCA: What led you to choose a career in architecture?

GM: During the summers when I was off school, I explored the neighborhoods where homes were being built and walked through them and imagined what they would look like when completed. My parents started to build a house when I was 12. I got to see the purchase of the land, the foundation and the blueprints. I studied the plans and I still remember the strong ammonia smell they had. There was a part of the home that my dad wanted ideas for and he asked me if I had any. It was for the front porch. I enjoyed contributing my ideas. I loved doing that and he actually built it the way I sketched it out, which was quite satisfying for a boy. I also liked art, math, physics and technical drawing, and I took some business classes in high school. Architecture lined up with my interests. My mom, as she was selling more and more properties and interacting with developers, met a couple architects along her journey and was able to introduce me to them. I got my first commission while I was in school from a friend of my father’s, who was a bank manager and wanted to update and modernize his branch office. That job gave me the confidence that I could actually do this for a living and enjoy it.

TCA: I’d like to jump ahead and talk about your now-established career in architecture. You were the keynote speaker for NH&RA’s Northeast Developer’s Conference this past fall. During your talk, you spoke about the importance of passive house design in the building of affordable housing. Please tell me more about what that is.

GM: Passive house design is a codified way of building where a structure is designed to reduce added energy loads and optimize any solar or internal heat gains. It’s so efficient that you could essentially heat an entire single-family home off the energy usage of a hairdryer and get larger scale multifamily buildings much closer to a net-zero energy building. It has been around for over a decade, but more recently, it has been adopted by the affordable and mixed-income housing world because we understand that it is even easier to achieve those benefits at a large scale. From the beginning at DREAM, we were always focused on sustainability. Coming from Jamaica, it was ingrained that we create buildings that consume as little energy as possible. Jamaica has one of the highest electricity rates in the Western Hemisphere, so everything has to be designed with an energy-efficient approach.

TCA: Can you be a little more specific about the concepts embraced by passive house design consultants?

GM: Passive housing design prioritizes five areas: the first is super-insulated envelopes to minimize unwanted heat loss and gains, so we want to keep as much of that heat that’s generated inside the building in the colder months and limit the heat from entering the building in the summer. Second is the air tightness of the construction. All buildings leak, so one of the things that we do is create a continuous air barrier on the exterior of the building to help minimize that air leakage. We look at high-performance glazing as a third priority. Windows lose a lot of energy to the outside, so we use triple-glazed windows that have a third pane of glass that creates an added vacuum to reduce heat transfer. The fourth thing that we look at is thermal bridging. The best example of this would be at a balcony. In traditional construction, the balcony is supported by a large piece of steel which is then bolted directly to the concrete floor. By virtue of the building assembly, the steel becomes a conductor for the cold air transferring through those materials right into the concrete floor below your living room. By limiting these transfers of energy with smart detailing and thermal break technology, we can reduce potential thermal bridging and consequent condensation within the walls.  The last piece looks at the mechanical systems themselves in terms of heat recovery ventilation. Because passive house buildings are almost air-tight, ventilation is critical to provide fresh air inside the building.  Heat recovery ventilation provides 100 percent fresh air into all occupied spaces, which will have greatly improved overall air quality. Their mechanical systems take advantage of every bit of recovered heat so they can be truly efficient.

TCA: In addition to passive house design, what other design features do you try to incorporate into every housing project? How much input does the community have?

GM: We involve the community from the start. Obviously, we are constrained by a budget that our client sets as well as a program that our client is controlling. That is necessary, but we filter what they’re saying to us through the lens of how the community will perceive the project. Ultimately, our client has to have a great relationship with the community for the project to succeed, and brokering those relationships is where DREAM really shines. Once we’re finished and on to the next project, the neighbors have to live with this project. There are certain themes that communities gravitate towards. Open space is always a consideration. We want to make sure there’s enough open space that allows for a family to live there, as well as a single individual or a couple. That’s one of the ways that we can be inclusive. Everybody uses open space or can use open space, but only if they have the opportunity, only it is there. We also look at providing balconies. Especially during COVID, having some private open space shifted from nice-to-have to a necessity for residents’ well-being. We also try and incorporate roof decks for gardens or very light recreational activity. With interiors, we’ve always looked at providing the flexibility to work from home, so we’re incorporating more study and work-from-home nooks. We also look at space that brings neighbors together beyond just a community room, such as co-working spaces and creative studios that bring arts and creative interests together to help to build community.

TCA: How has COVID-19 impacted your approach to designing multifamily housing?

GM: The home needs to be more than just be a roof over someone’s head. We often think about what it would take for someone to work from home successfully. That impacts where we position light fixtures to make it such that if they’re going to be spending more time at home and doing multiple things that’s all considered that they have the right connectivity to the outside world. It could be an extra power outlet, which seems small, but does make a difference. I think it also means looking at well-being and how you use those open spaces and thinking about not only just our project but what does our project connect to. Do we link to a walking trail or some other thing that helps neighbors to stay healthy and active? We’re also looking at technology and touchless features that allow someone to get into their unit more safely or calling the elevator from a phone, or not having to touch a door to get into the building. We’re still trying to incorporate social spaces because we are social beings. I don’t think we’re going to get away from that. We might use them a little differently or try different furniture layouts, but that’s certainly going to remain.

TCA: Tell our readers more about the DREAM Collaborative. For example, what are you most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from architectural firms?

GM: When I came to the U.S., all of a sudden, I was a minority and I had to figure out how to exist in that kind of social construct. I moved to New Jersey for my graduate studies and then to Massachusetts and I saw a segregation that I had never really seen before. Based on my professional experiences, I knew that with my own business, we needed to be moving forward. We need to be relevant. We need to solve a real issue with the work that we do. We see the power of architecture to either reinforce segregation or blur the lines and become more inclusive. We settled on a design ethos that is all about inclusion and in order to do that, we need not only a certain type of voice, we need all voices. Diversity of our team is really a cornerstone of DREAM. Because there is a diversity of perspectives, it makes our designs more interesting. The places that we design are more engaging and more authentic. Having worked in a lot of areas with tough problems, we have to get involved not only just as your traditional architect, but we have to get involved in the conversation as well to really make an impact.

TCA: From a design standpoint, what other important trends are you seeing across the affordable housing space? Do you see any major changes coming in the next five years?

GM: I am seeing programmatic changes in terms of the diversity of the types of housing being created. Looking beyond unit size — studio, two-, three- or four-bedrooms — that’s one thing but then how are people and groups of people living together differently, especially because of COVID? How are people going to make decisions about what happens to their parents? We’re looking at it in terms of multi-generational living where different groups, whether they’re part of the same family, or maybe friends that have something in common, come together to rent or to purchase a unit or a pair of units together. I think we’re going to see some social shifts in the way that people live that influence how we design and build. We also see the distance between where you live and work being collapsed. The other thing that I see is a greater dependence on wood and synthetic materials to construct buildings and less reliance on materials, like steel, that are carbon heavy in their production.

TCA: Thank you for your time, Greg. Is there anything you would like to see change in the relationship between architects and developers?

GM: I would love to see more dialogue earlier on between architects and developers. Architects have expertise in certain areas, but we are also generalists, meaning that we have a lot of knowledge that we can bring to our clients based on other projects that we’re doing. It’s not necessarily just the building type or the size but also the social aspects of the project. Even some of the economic considerations that go into a project. Architects are problem solvers. We solve building problems of course, but when you have diverse voices around the table, we can help identify and address other challenges as well. I invite developers to be less siloed in their approach. We can help provide a more comprehensive view on creating healthier buildings and stronger communities.

Darryl Hicks is vice president, communications for the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association and a 24-year veteran of associations managed by Dworbell, Inc., the management company of NH&RA.