Season 2:

Episode 17

September 7, 2021

Modernist 4 with Alicia Hylton-Daniel

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In today’s episode, we will be speaking with Alicia Hylton-Daniel who is the founder of Hylton Daniel, a design and construction company in Durham, North Carolina. She is both an interior designer and a general contractor, featuring in the Durham Magazine and the HGTV show Love it or List It, where she shares her portfolio of modernist renovation and new construction projects in greater Durham. Today we will be speaking with her about Modernist 4, a new single-family home project currently in development. We will also touch on how COVID-19 has impacted the real estate market in Durham, including how this tumultuous period has spotlighted social justice and safety amid a backdrop of economic uncertainty.

Now, more than ever, buildings are integral for reshaping our social, work, and lifestyle environments. Modernist 4 is one such example, capturing the urban setting whilst emphasizing a sense of privacy and modernity for the homeowner. Alicia’s intentionality on this project has allowed her to increase the overall connectivity between people and their environments in the greater Durham area. Join us on this week’s episode as we speak to Alicia about her personal journey as well as her plans for her upcoming project, Modernist 4.


Learn more about Alicia Hylton-Daniel

Alicia Hylton-Daniel began her journey in interior design when a house fire caused by a faulty fireplace at her new Durham home occurred in 2002. That experience completely changed her career trajectory from being a hopeful paralegal to becoming an interior designer and a general contractor. Now she is is the founder of Hylton Daniel, a design and construction company in Durham, North Carolina, and has built a portfolio of over a dozen stunning modernist renovation and new construction projects. Her success is far-reaching; she has graced the pages of Dwell Magazine, has been on the cover of Durham Magazine, and has completed two building projects for the HGTV show Love it or List It.

[00:00:00] Announcer: What goes into making an iconic building in America? What are the stories and who are the people behind the next generation of architecture? If your work touches the real estate industry in any way or you’re just curious about what goes into one-of-a-kind cities and towns all across our country, join us on the American Building Podcast.

In season two, we learn about everything from skyscrapers to single-family homes. From the famous and soon-to-be-famous designers and developers responsible for them. This season focuses particularly on the pandemic and how our buildings will change in response.

Our sponsor is the iconic design firm, Michael Graves Architecture & Design. And now your host, award-winning architect-turned entrepreneur Atif Qadir, AIA.

[00:01:07] Atif Qadir: This is American Building and I’m your host Atif Qadir. We are recording from the historic home of world-renowned architect, Michael Graves in Princeton, New Jersey. Check out this amazing space for yourself at the Michael Graves Architecture & Design YouTube channel. Now let’s build something.

Today, our guest is my friend, Alicia Hylton-Daniel. Alicia is the founder of Hylton-Daniel, a design and construction company in Durham, North Carolina. She is both an interior designer and a general contractor. And with her husband has built a portfolio of over a dozen stunning, modernist renovation, and new construction projects in greater Durham.

She has graced the pages of Dwell Magazine as well as been on the cover of Durham Magazine and has done two building projects for the HGTV show. Love it or List It.  Before starting their firm, she worked at the design firms, HagarSmith and MHA Works. Today, we’ll be talking about Modernist 4, a new single-family home project currently in development. We’ll talk more broadly about Durham as a case study of the small American city, seeing a real estate boom during the pandemic, but also dealing with the ghost of its fast. Thank you so much for being here with us, Alicia.

[00:02:25] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: thank you so much for having me, Atif, I’m excited to be here.

[00:02:29] Atif Qadir: Absolutely, I want to make sure I’m fully pronouncing your name correctly, right?

 [00:02:33] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: So my name has two pronunciations, which is fine. It’s like tomato/tomato is what I always felt. Well, and it’s kind of my fault. So I was born in Jamaica, so by proximity to Cuba it’s Alicia. But when I came to the States third grade, Miss Angle just made me feel like my name was just so difficult to pronounce. And so I used to always say Alicia because it was just easy, and technically that is the other pronunciation. So I’m actually fine with both. When I became a fancy interior designer, I started calling myself Alicia, because I really do prefer that, but I certainly am partial to either.

[00:03:15] Atif Qadir: I think that what I’m going to do is because I think we want to teach that teacher lesson. Given, my name is so hard to pronounce as well. So let’s do Alicia Hylton-Daniel.

[00:03:23] Alicia Hylton-Daniel. Okay sounds good.

[00:03:26] Atif Qadir: So I want to start off focusing on your path to having your own firm. So your path to becoming a developer started with your own house, actually burning down. Tell us what happened?

[00:03:37] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Right. Well, actually that was the path to me coming in an interior designer. So I was actually a paralegal. I worked for a big fancy law firm in New York, Sullivan and Cromwell in New York. And then had moved to North Carolina and continued that path and was actually going to take the LSATs. I was studying for the LSATs unwillingly. I really didn’t enjoy.

[00:03:59] Atif Qadir: Oh wait people don’t like being lawyers?

[00:04:01] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: I know, right? Some do. But anyways, so we had bought this reluctantly. We had bought this cookie-cutter house over by the mall, because that’s where our broker told us to buy. We were kind of brand new to Durham. And we had a house fire, the construction of the house was poorly done as it related to the fireplace. And so that kind of changed everything. So that’s how I became an interior designer.

And then I always say that devastation has fostered my career path. So it was when I moved downtown after purchasing my home, my husband and I purchased an abandoned home from the bank. Back when you could buy a home for pretty cheap here in Durham, and we had a really bad general contractor.

At that time, I was an interior designer. I was working in Raleigh and lived in Durham, and look to an architect friend of mine to recommend a general contractor. And the person that he recommended was really dishonest. It was a nightmare. It’s kind of what the stories that you always hear of. So that awful experience, which led me to take him to arbitration led to Roger, looking across to me, I think when we were in mediation and he says, “You should become a general contractor.”

And it made sense because honestly. Even when we were trying to do work on our own house, we had such a hard time with people. Everyone said no or there was just always something. So it was a game changer. I could now obviously build what I designed, but also take on clients that would also perhaps be reluctant to hire a general contractor.

[00:05:45] Atif Qadir: So you were able to take that experience and then literally build something with it and take a career shift towards something that you’re much more passionate about now?

[00:05:54] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Absolutely.

[00:05:55] Atif Qadir: So you left working for a design firm, which was an entire period between studying for your LSATs and then having your own company. Walk us through that process of when you were working for others, and then you made the decision to start your own firm?

[00:06:11] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: So it would take 10 years. Because it just had to, had to kind of get that experience and learn. So the first firm in Raleigh, Hagar Smith, giving them credit in terms of, I don’t know how interior designers were being used or what typical interior designers do. But I came into that firm during the recession of 2008. So by all means, as people reminded me, I was just lucky to get a job. And as a matter of fact, when I graduated school, I was maybe one of three interior designers that actually got a job in interior designer. Some of my friends became brokers or went into medical science.

[00:06:54] Atif Qadir: Mh-hmm. Okay.

[00:06:56] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: I mean, there was just not a lot of jobs. And so for them, obviously they build interior designers cheaper than architects. And so the interior designers there did most of the fit-ups. We’re in North Carolina, so there’s a lot of ground ups, there’s a lot of big stuff. So the interior designers did more of the office fit-ups.

And we would go in, we would measure the buildings, we would do our As-builts. I’d be in that planning space and then I would create construction documents and apply for permit documents. I would meet with the owner’s rep, I’d meet with the actual client. And I became that one contact for that client. The architect would look over our drawings and seal them and they taught us a lot, and so that’s kind of the fundamentals. HagarSmith definitely gave me the formative, they formed my ability and used me in a way that I didn’t know different. And so I left there I didn’t like the commute. I didn’t like the pay, they didn’t pay very well.

[00:07:59] Atif Qadir: It’s important.

[00:08:00] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: That’s important to say, especially when you’re a woman, this was like 2008, 2009.

[00:08:06] Atif Qadir: And a person of color?

[00:08:07] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Exactly. And a black woman, especially. So I had to go because I just wasn’t going to be able to… well, if it weren’t for me being married, I wasn’t going to be able to survive financially. So I was fortunate to get a job in literally six blocks from my home.

[00:08:27] Atif Qadir: Awesome.

[00:08:28] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: So another architectural firm in downtown Durham hired me and brought me in with the promise of being a project manager, interior designer. And then when I got there, they kind of were… it was really bizarre. And I think I really liked it there, in many regards, they used me very differently. But they saw that I was more, I guess, useful as a project manager. And so they had this thing where they didn’t want to call me an interior designer and project manager, for whatever reason, but the woman that sat right behind me had both titles.

So I called myself an interior designer and a project manager because I was an amazing interior design, and I still am. And so there, I was able to bring in a lot of my own clients. I had done restaurants at Hager Smith, and so some of my clients opened up a second restaurant and I was kind of known for restaurants. And I like to do the front of the house. And so during this time, my husband and I had purchased a lot in Durham.

We had put in for an auction, we had won the auction, but then we lost it. And then the owner of the house didn’t pay taxes on the house, he was living out in California. His father had passed away and he was calling around anyone that purchased the house to see if he could pay the taxes. And then we purchase the house through him and everyone told him no, and we told them, yes. So we were able to purchase this. Unfortunately, it was a tear-down for many reasons. The house was left abandoned for his father had died 10 years ago and no one even cleaned out the refrigerator.

[00:10:08] Atif Qadir: Oh my God.

[00:10:08] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: So it had rained in the house it was just like a hazmat situation. Anyway, so we purchased the house. And then it was exciting because this was going to be the house where I was going to be able to use my general contracting license. So I was going to be both designer and contractor.

[00:10:27] Atif Qadir: This was blank canvas?

[00:10:28] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Yes, exactly. At first we weren’t quite sure what we were going to do. So the designer in me took… we had a survey of the lot and went down to the city, and found out that the house was non-conforming. Meaning back then people didn’t get permission, especially, in predominantly black neighborhoods, they didn’t get permission from the city to build a house. They would go to a neighbor, buy a parcel of land and build a house.

And so that limited in terms of the size of the house. Which became interesting because I was like, “Wow, wow.” And so I decided unapologetically, I was going to kind of search into who I am as a designer and do something modern. Bring something modern yet humble into this neighborhood and on this lot. And it was great. And I still had my full-time job so it was so close to the lot, it was just like within walking distance. I mean, within like a two-minute drive. So I was able to go to this site in the morning, go at lunchtime, and go after work. I had no life and I worked on the weekends.

And so it just so happened that my partner, my husband, Roger, what he did for a living, he was able to work Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings or 12-hour shifts. He was a department of defense firewall IT person. And so he would be the person that would be the project manager and the kind of the on-site Superintendent of the site and that’s how we managed to get this house completed. And then we were able to, when it was done in a weekend, we had five offers for a two bedroom, two and a half bath, 1200 or less square foot house, so it was exciting.

[00:12:20] Atif Qadir: I think what you described, Alicia, that experience of not having your skills fully utilized, and not being fully valued. Is a story that I’ve heard again and again and again, from women and particularly women of color in New York. So it’s a story that I can totally empathize with because that’s also the experience as a person of color in firms just like this.

[00:12:41] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Exactly.

[00:12:42] Atif Qadir: So I think it’s one of those, it takes a lot of guts and I think it takes a lot of courage to say, “That doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t work.” So, and to go off and do something else, that’s really awesome that you took that first step. So from that first project which you started in 2016, all the way to now you have about a dozen projects completed. What have you learned across this kind of arc of projects about being a great developer and about being a great interior designer?

[00:13:12] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: So I have done, we’re small, so we’re entering our fourth year. So we pretty much, we’ve done a modern house a year and with the pandemic things have slowed down. So this is our modern fourth house, but we started the foundation for five and six. But what we mostly do is client work. That’s how we have to survive, and we are lucky and fortunate that we do get so much work that comes through the door.

 So development, what have I learned? Access and resources; something I don’t have. Also location, location, location. The story of me doing my rental house, I bought my house where I live in 2011, and my husband and I saw the potential coming from, my husband grew up in Brooklyn. I grew up in Long Island, but Brooklyn was always super cool.

So when I was able to live in Brooklyn as a professional, I’ve lived in the Fort Green Clinton Hill area. And Durham just kind of had that vibe about it, especially where I live now. And so even though you couldn’t convince most of my friends to move downtown Durham. I saw that it was going to just continue to be a place that people came to. Because Duke started being interested in being in Durham. There was just a lot happening. Duke students that graduated that graduated were actually now calling Durham home.

And so we looked at this abandoned house that was a block away from my house as a investment potential. And it was at that point where we… back then you could just call the bank, call the number, the bank owned the house and they were like, “Yeah, yeah. When you’re ready, just let us know. We’ll take your number down in case someone else calls in an offer.” That’s not how it is now.

So what we’ve seen is that things were tangible, within reach for people that actually lived in the south or lived in Durham who could afford it. To now I’m four years in and I can’t afford to buy anything this year, not even with what I’ve sold. And I think that’s something that people need to understand is that I’m certainly not getting rich off of this. I love it. And I enjoy it and I’m certainly charging what I think I’m worth, but everyone else has to get paid, right?

[00:15:33] Atif Qadir: Sure.

[00:15:33] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Your electrician and all of these craftsmen are no longer working for minimum wage. They’ve never worked for a minimum wage, but now they won’t even work for double minimum wage. So material pricing, we’ve seen over the pandemic, being developers in this short time and doing Modernist 3. Worrying about selling that house because last year, this time people couldn’t enter homes, they had to do virtual tours, or if they came in, it was very kind of very just unusual.

You’d have to make an appointment. It was very formal. So that’s kind of what we’ve seen. So we’re kind of like things were attainable before and now they’re getting to the point where we don’t know how, hopefully we’ll be able to stay in this game. Hopefully we’ll be able to get resources and access. Hopefully people will see what we do and want to invest in us. And I think that’s what the main thing is.

Roger and I are not getting the investors, even though I’ve been on the cover of Dwell. Well, not in the cover of Dwell, but In the cover of Durham Magazine, featured in Dwell. That just got me noticed that just got me. I always had that got me to the table of mediocrity, right? Like, “Here, here she is.” But it doesn’t get me to people calling me up or sending me an email saying, “How can I help you? How can I invest in you?” Because I’ve assured you, I think I am. Everything that we’ve built, we’ve sold quickly. We’ve done a pretty good job, we’ve gotten recognition.

Most of the owners I know I’m friends with and my clients invite me over for Thanksgiving and dinner. So, it’s having that reputation but also kind of understanding. I’m still learning because I don’t think we’ve ever been in this situation where you’re living in rural, well, not rural, but you’re living in a small town in the south and it’s now becoming a big deal.

And so every time you turn around either something’s been acquired that you didn’t know about. And you’re like, “How did I not know about that?” Like, “Why wasn’t I part of that know?” Or people are buying things for a ridiculous price. And you’re like, “How are they going to make revenue? How are they going to turn that around?”

And so I guess these are people that just have like generational wealth or just make a lot more money. And so they’re able to come here and snap things up and take that risk that in maybe the next five to 10 years they’ll see a return on it.

[00:18:13] Atif Qadir: I think if we had more developers like you, as things that people saw. The general public would have a much better perception of real estate developers and investors. So I think that what you’re describing is particularly a challenge that exists for a secondary cities, in large parts of the country. New York, New Jersey, exactly what you described. New Haven, Connecticut, exactly what you described, which also happened to be cities with very large black populations too. And I don’t think the two are completely coincidental.

So I think that is a really good entree into talking a bit more about Modernist 4. So you’ve mentioned that project, so tell us the scope of this project.

[00:18:56] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: All right. So this project is a little different than the former three I’ve done. Mainly based on location, so I’m taking over. The other three that I’ve done have been in walkable neighborhoods like walkable to downtown. This in itself though is also in an older neighborhood. It’s called Colonial Village, it was a very, post-war, all-white, blue-collar neighborhood, just across 85. But it’s almost Black WallStreet. They put 85 there for some reason, it’s in a very bad place. But it’s sort of disconnected, but it isn’t because you could cross the street and walk through a park, and get to downtown Durham. Kind of a nice way to get to downtown if you had to walk or take a scooter.

But I like this neighborhood because I tend to, unapologetically, like walkable, urban neighborhoods.

That’s where I live, that’s what I know, and that’s what I’m very comfortable doing. I’m also not taking down trees. So that’s another thing I literally designed this house with the existing trees on this lot, no trees were taken down.

But what I also try to do is, which I’ve done with the other three, is I look at the existing houses. And even though I am building modern, I try to integrate it in a way that it does kind of give a nod to the post-war. So for instance, I do have an A-frame roof, but it’s like an offset roof. So I’m like, “Okay, we’re going to A-frame it, but we’re going to also introduce modern.” I also went out there and measured the houses on either side, just to make sure that my roof line wasn’t going to be taller than anyone else’s house. And I built a one story house, which is typical to this neighborhood.

Now my house is larger than the other neighbors because my house is built today. So it doesn’t have one bathroom like the other houses have. Because honestly whoever buys those older homes usually it sticks on an addition where they add a primary en suite.

So it’s a one story house. It has three bedrooms on the main floor and a small room, which could also be an office or a nursery. And the reason why I say the main floor is that the house drops in the back. So we had the opportunity to do a walkout basement, which we did. And I wanted to also, obviously, use that real estate, and think about the occupant of that home for many reasons. You’re in a pandemic, so if you had to have a home office that you wanted disconnected from your house, as I do in my house, this could be a perfect opportunity.

Also as we look at Durham and people moving here, there’s a lot of residents and professors. Certainly the occupants of this home could have a investment income opportunity or grandparents coming to visit from Jersey, could come to the summer and stay a while. But I also wanted to invoke my design influences in what I love, and I love mid-century modern.

So these houses were built in the forties. There are some cute mid-centuries on the other block were around. And so I wanted to introduce or give a nod to mid0century. So I did split face CMU block on the basement portion of the home. And I did like just some mid-century elements where you would like take a simple building but divide it by materials.

 I usually always try to do a rainscreen wall because I just really love that warmth, that warm, modern take on a home. And maybe that’s that interior designer in me that feels like there needs to be some warm on the exterior as well not only on the interior.

And then I always think about, and this is kind of where I guess maybe sets me apart. I live here locally. So I do spend a lot of time in the design phase, walking the actual lot and trying to figure out where I’m going to place windows, for many reasons. One I want to capture, again, I’m in a very urban setting. So I want to capture and make sure that I’m giving views of the existing trees on the lot, that you’re not looking into your neighbor’s bathroom.

[00:23:25] Atif Qadir: Mh-hmm.

[00:23:26] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: And I also want to create a sense of privacy. I want to try to see how much glass I can introduce, but also create a sense of privacy, not only for the homeowner, but for the actual neighbors too. Especially if I’m building something a little bit grander, I just don’t want the neighbors to feel we’re kind of peering over and looking into their home.

So I try to be very intentional and we’ve gotten some really nice DMs on my Instagram from some of the neighbors. Who has been very nice, my neighbors are really excited and they basically told me that I did a really good job.

[00:24:02] Atif Qadir: Awesome.

[00:24:02] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: So that really makes a huge difference. I mean, I’m always going to have people that are not going to like what I do. They’re just like, anti-modern, anti-anything development, anti a tear-down, right?

[00:24:13] Atif Qadir: Mh-hmm.

[00:24:14] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: And I’m going to go ahead and say, we don’t tear that anything that we can actually save. Unfortunately, the house that was here had an illegal addition and a house fire. There was literally charred parts of the house down to the foundation. The reason that we were surprised it was still standing in many parts, so it had to be taken down and it wasn’t built well. So we built a better house that’s pretty much it.

I think it’ll be a little bit different. I’ve done houses where I’ve done a little bit of a contrast of like white and dark, and this house I’m painting pretty much all one very dark color with some cypress wood. And I love cypress because it is local to North Carolina. It’s an oily wood and I think it holds up really well with all the rain and kind of humidity we get here in the South,

[00:25:06] Atif Qadir: So you mentioned earlier on 85 and Black Wall Street. Could you talk about that in a little bit more detail for people that may not be familiar with that?

[00:25:13] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Yeah. Well, I always have to kind of revisit it. Because Black Wall Street was primarily Parrish Street in downtown Durham. And unlike the violent Tulsa massacre, Durham did the end of Black Wall Street a little bit more civilly. They just literally built the highway through it. So that prevented people from being able to get to downtown easily.

If you didn’t own a car, you had to cross streets there weren’t sidewalks or anything like that. So they made it so that it would deter, especially poor black people from being able to get to the downtown. To be able to enjoy the amenities and all that Black Wall Street had to offer.

It’s sad because population here in Durham is probably has the highest percentage of African-Americans than most cities or towns, especially major cities and towns here. In Durham, Black Wall Street is no longer really black owned. There is plaques and that sorts of things, but there’s not really any… there might be one or two buildings that are owned by African-Americans.

It’s not a huge street by any means. It’s a small city, but at one point it was primarily the Mechanics & Farmers Bank, which is a Black bank. And a lot of Black industry was right there in the heart of downtown Durham.

[00:26:53] Atif Qadir: And I think, you mentioned the Tulsa Massacre early on, which was in 1921 and was essentially a government-sponsored massacre of a black economic area. With the pretense of some retribution for an event that didn’t happen between a black man and a white woman.

[00:27:14] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Yeah.

[00:27:14] Atif Qadir: And I think what’s so interesting is that there is something that incites such an anger amongst a white majority in those cities. It’s the idea of wealth and black people having wealth. Which is the tie between Tulsa and Durham. And just the circumstances of how that was responded to was just a different one. But I think the result was in some ways rather the same.

[00:27:37] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Yes. And I think that’s actually key. Because here I am a Black woman in Durham, trying to acquire wealth, right?

[00:27:44] Atif Qadir: Mh-hmm.

[00:27:44] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Through real estate, through those sorts of things. And I’ve not had any direct racial experiences. But I’ve also not been privy to things that have been for sale that I know 100% , I would have done a nicer job with because I really love my city. And so, I try to be thoughtful about what I put on these lots.

So it hasn’t hurt my feelings, and just who has access to that? Even though it’s not in your face, like it was back in the Black Wall Street era, it’s still there, it’s just not said.

[00:28:25] Atif Qadir: Yeah. I think particularly what I’ve found is over the past a year or so, is the way that I’ve found to respond to things like that. Is just to verbalize it everywhere and just tell everyone everything.

So for example, leaving one of my construction sites for a rundown 1890s townhouse in Hoboken that had turned into a gorgeous condo building. A group of colleges yelled, “Terrorist” at me. Literally had no idea of who I was? Did not realize I owned that property and I was redeveloping it, and just yelled “terrorist.” Because they felt like it. And I think the more and more that I tell people, I tell city council people, I tell the mayor, I tell the police, that’s when you start actually seeing something. So I think for me, at least I’ve found it that I just don’t stay quiet. I just say everything I want to say.

[00:29:09] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: As do I. Which I think is why you and I hit it off

[00:29:14] Atif Qadir: Exactly. I think you did a really good job of describing all the parts of Modernist 4. Would you, for our listeners to get a visual of the space, walk us through the building and what someone would see as they walk through it.

 [00:29:28] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Sure. So one thing that I didn’t say, which is paramount as I introduced the building, I’ll explain it to you guys. Is that prior to the pandemic, I’ve just always, as a designer, I love the connectivity between the outdoor and the indoor spaces. So in all three houses that I’ve done before, I’ve always kind of cut a terrace or a deck into the center or the core of the house.

This house didn’t really offer me that opportunity just based on the lot and I just didn’t want to take down any trees. But what I did is that it offered me the opportunity because the house sits pretty far from the street. So what I did is that I kind of played with like heights beat elevation at the entry door is just kind of like two steps up or sits kind of standard. But then I raised the height, there’s like a covered porch at the front. And it just kind of gives you that sense of, I don’t know, just kind of cradles you because you’re kind of high up with these trees.

And then what I did is I punched a skylight right on that porch ceiling, that porch roof, just so you could sit on a rainy day and there’s just this beautiful branch, there’s a big old tree there. That is just kind of like part of the design of the house. So that is the part of the house where I did that rainscreen. So kind of playing with like that cypress and nature.

As you walk into the house, you are greeted, there’s a small foyer, so there is a cook closet. But then off to the left I have a feature wall, that will still TBD, because we’re in construction, whether it will be cypress or I’ll do white oak, more than likely I’ll do white oak, which is also native to North Carolina. Well, Raleigh’s the City of Oaks.

So you walk in, and what I did is I put the dining room at the front of the house. Because all my best views are at the back of the house. And honestly, when I eat dinner, I kind of like people. You sit out the window and you kind of see who’s walking down the road. So I put the dining room at the front of the house, the kitchen anchors in the middle, which gives you views to the left and the right. So you can look out at the front or you can look at it the back, which is all trees.

And then I didn’t do large windows in the kitchen. Instead I did casements that are high up cause that’s your driveway and your neighbor’s houses right there. So it gives the opportunity of, again, you’re looking at the neighbor next door seems to be a great landscaper, and she has beautiful crepe myrtles. So there’s beautiful crepe, myrtles kind of swaying as you’re cooking. There’s a central island. And then there’s a large living room with gliding glass doors, I did like the modern doors.

And the house is segmented. So you have your public space, which I just described on your left and then on the right are the bedrooms. So right where that on the covered porch behind that is a bedroom with a full closet. And then there’s a shared Jack and Jill in the middle, and then there’s another secondary bedroom or you can call them children’s bedrooms. But they’re pretty nice sizes.

And then in the core of the house, like right on the other side of the kitchen I have a powder room and a laundry room. And that kind of connects you, so I always think about if kids are scared at night, they can kind of go through the laundry room, scurry through that hallway and get to mom and dad’s room.

[00:32:56] Atif Qadir: Mh-hmm.

[00:32:56] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: And so the primary bedroom sits in the back of the house, it’s kind of L-ed with the living room so they both have access to that big deck that sits off of the back porch. And then there’s a small room right in front of the master bedroom. Again, just giving lots of buffers and making that master bedroom feel like it’s not really connected, right?

[00:33:17] Atif Qadir: Mh-hmm.

[00:33:17] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: It’s connected enough that you can hear kids or babies cry, but it’s also very private. And so it’s way to the back of the house, there’s nice views of all the trees on the lot. And then you walk out and onto that deck, that shared deck. And then there’s this staircase that takes you down to the basement should you choose to go that way or you can certainly walk down the driveway. And the basement has a kitchen, a full bath, and what could be a bedroom or an office and the living space.

Now what we’ve done, we value engineered out because of the cost of lumber. Where I have stubbed up roughed in for all of the kitchen. I just won’t be providing kitchen cabinets in the basement, but the full bathroom is there and everything else is there. And if that buyer wants us to add on that kitchen then we can certainly do so. And that’s pretty much it.

[00:34:08] Atif Qadir: That’s interesting that you flipped the dining area with the living area because most houses do it the other way. But I can tell you that at least amongst the East-Asia or Indians and Pakistanis you just walk straight through the living room and go right to the kitchen anyway. And I think there’s a swath of people that, that applies to, so why not do something that is more the way that some people live, so I love it.

[00:34:29] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: That people live, right. You spend way more time in your living room than you do in your dining room. And I’m even going to say that whoever lives here will probably mostly eat at this kitchen island, it seats four. And then when company comes, they’ll sit in this dining room. Or they may have dinners at the dining room table and have that fun of kind of looking out. Because it’s tucked so far from the road that you can see people and no one can see you.

[00:34:52] Atif Qadir: Mh-hmm.

[00:34:52] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: And just kind of watch people strolling through, walking dogs and stuff. And it’s kind of creating that’s urban lifestyle. As a New Yorker, I love, when I’m sitting and eating, I go on my porch so I can watch my neighbors walk through the neighborhood, if it’s a nice evening. So I just kind of think about it in that way. I will say this I don’t like to see doors off of public spaces, so I tend to always kind of tuck my doors away.

[00:35:22] Atif Qadir: It’s an elegant treatment that you’ll see with, for example, pre-war buildings in Brooklyn that I’ve rented in. They tend to have that solution so you don’t have this like, “Surprise.”

[00:35:32] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Exactly.

[00:35:33] Atif Qadir: As you are coming back to the living room too, through a non-public room.

[00:35:35] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: “I forgot to make my bed today.” And yes you forgot to close the door. So I try to be very intentional and really try to think about how I would live in the space. And then obviously talking to… in this design world that’s all we do. We kind of have these focus groups. We kind of talk to people and hear what their quirks are and you’re always making a mental note.

[00:35:59] Atif Qadir: And material wise, we’ve talked about a cedar, we’ve talked about white oak, we’ve talked about split CMU. What are some of the other major materials? Like what’s the wood flooring? What’s the counters?

[00:36:11] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: So I typically like to do quartz because it’s low maintenance, and it’s durable. It’s kind of a good all around, so I will have quartz. My kitchen cabinets or just like slabs, so not shade, they’re just clean, full overlay, flush cabinets. They are going to be matte black with some white oak accents. And my countertops will kind of like white, just the clean kind of a simple white marble. Quartz, not too busy at all. There is a fireplace in the house and I’m doing a fluted tile. I love a company called Wild Tile out of Barcelona.

[00:36:51] Atif Qadir: Okay.

[00:36:51] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: They make really just, I just love it. They make just the most beautiful modern tiles is all I can say. In this house, I decided to change it up a little bit and I just was like, I want to do color. And so I’m actually doing a very mid-century, kind of a nod to mid-century wallpaper in the powder room. And in the primary bathroom, I have like a light pale green tile as opposed to doing whites. And

like, I’m not going to do white this time around. I am doing a custom mid-century vanity with a company based out of, where is he? He’s in Nashville. Yeah, in Nashville. Then that will be white oak as well. So it’s pretty simple in terms of like materials and like texture. We are doing a really cool fluted tile as well. So lots of texture and then using a lot of local fabricators and local material.

[00:37:47] Atif Qadir: And for this project, how does the map work in terms of how much to buy, to build, and what you aim to sell it for?

[00:37:55] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Right. So there should be some good math. However, we built this house right at the start or right at the height of the lumber pricing, it was just insane. We were already 16 weeks behind schedule, which is ridiculous. Not because we didn’t have anything to do or what we were so busy. It was because that’s how long it took the gas company to come out and disconnect. Dealing with other emergencies, which we just were not considered an emergency.

So ordinarily we would have liked to have built this house for a little over 300, bought it for 135, and then sold it, maybe, like in the low six hundreds. It’s going to be more 400 to build it, because that’s how much, I mean, lumber prices went up two, threefold. Also window prices went up and they’re not coming back down. Hardwood floor prices went up.

So we’re budgeted and we’re definitely right in four hundreds, in terms of like the build out for it. And so we’re going to probably shoot to sell it like in the high sixes and hope that we get more than that. But that’s the reality we’ve been, I always say I have to pay myself as a designer, and I got to pay myself as a general contractor and it took… Usually we can build, I always say a house is like being in bed, it’s usually a good-night rest. This one is going to be a year just because we’ve been so behind. But we are really pushing it and trying to get it done, and I’m excited about it. Hopefully it will sell, if not I’ll be moving in, but I can’t.

[00:39:38] Atif Qadir: It’d be an awesome place to live in.

[00:39:39] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: It would be awesome, I’m not complaining.

[00:39:42] Atif Qadir: So I want to take a break here to let our listeners know that we’ll be having on a really special person on the podcast later this season. Pascale Sablan is a designer at Adjaye Associates, and the founder of an amazing architecture advocacy organization, called Beyond the Built Environment. Please be sure to subscribe to the podcast at So you don’t miss hearing from Pascale and all of our awesome guests in season two.

So, any conversation about Durham, invariably leads to Duke University. So we all know that Duke has a terrible basketball team. But that’s not the focus caught our hills, that’s not the focus of this particular question. So I visited the Gothic campus when I was in Durham earlier this summer, it’s stunningly beautiful. And I came to learn that it was designed by a Black architect who was not allowed to come to campus during construction because he was Black. And, Duke University is one of the largest employers now in the Metro Durham area. And it’s earned the nickname of the plantation. For it’s, a slave-owning founders, and pointedly for the low wages, and other issues that they’re known for in the Durham area for now. All of that said, what kind of a place does Duke have in your image of what Durham is?

[00:41:10] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: You know, it’s really a mixed bag. Because I’ll be honest with you, the reason why I moved or my broker. I was living in Raleigh and I was Raleigh just was not a good fit for me. And so we came into Durham, and what was attractive about Durham for me was downtown. I had a Black broker who told me that people don’t live in downtown, it’s dangerous. So fast forward, this was a time when Duke just happened to be in Durham. They were kind of here, you would see the students maybe living in the older kind of eclectic, for lack of a better word, older homes in like the Trinity Park, and even where I live now and in Old North Town but they didn’t really partake in Durham.

The professors kind of stayed within their Trinity Park and Duke Forest, but you really never saw Duke graduates stay in Durham. And then all of a sudden it changed. As a designer, I just remember it changing when Duke became the leaders in this area for like lead buildings. They started being very sustainable. They started being very intentional and it became a game changer.

Now there might be other parts and pieces, but I’m just talking about in terms of like the design world. Clearly medicine is also what The Duke is known for. That was a game changer. And so you started to see students graduate and make Durham home. You started to see at one point, Durham was very Black and White and Latinx. You couldn’t see Asian culture here in Durham, you’d have to go into Cary. And all of a sudden you turn around and you’re like, “Whoa, look!” And it was exciting.

So with that bad, there is some good. I’ll tell you right now, like there are a lot of interesting and lovely African-Americans there’s Mark Anthony Neal.

That’s like the head of the African-American Studies and our daughters used to swim together. And he’s kind of like this big force at Duke culturally. John Hope Franklin was at Duke for many, many years. They’ve named the center after him. The National Museum, The National Museum, which is so rich with African-American modern art,

black art. So Kehinde Wiley, I actually was able to meet Kehinde Wiley back in 2008, I think, at the Nasher.

[00:43:42] Atif Qadir: He had a show at the Brooklyn Museum.

[00:43:46] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: So he came to the Nasher. So Durham, Duke, I think, has obviously, it still has its issues. But I think who doesn’t, right? When you’re talking about you Haven, Connecticut, Yale is there, right? So there’s kind of this reputation where the South kind of gets hit harder than the North.

But we all know that me growing up in New York, I felt like neighborhoods were far more segregated in New York than they are in the South. And it still feels that that way, when I go up to New York. It still feels like if you’re Black and you’re living in an affluent neighborhood, then why are you there? You just no one’s bought it from you yet. Because this happens my cousin-

[00:44:32] Atif Qadir: Prospect Heights, Clinton Heights.

[00:44:33] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Yeah, my cousin lived there in Fort Green Clinton Hill. And she does well and she owns a few salons and she’s always getting people asking her to sell her house. But they’re not asking the white lady next door. So there’s a lot of that.

So it’s kind of, that thing about Duke, where there’s still probably that presence there, but they have done a lot of good. They have employed a lot of people. I’d say a lot of my clients are Duke affiliated. So in many ways they’ve kept me employed. And I feel like what they did and I have not really looked into this, but over the pandemic, they had grants for small businesses. And it was mostly geared towards people of color. So you had to like, yeah… And I think you had to be like a non-profit, which you might not, so I did not qualify.

But I’ve been asked when I sold Modernist 3, there was an economics professor there who came by and Roger and I did a talk with his class. And it was very engaging. I didn’t feel like it was a little pretentious. So I don’t know, I feel like Duke has really kind of opened its arms and has really much been why Durham is where Durham is now.

Some people don’t like for me to say that, but I’m like, “If Duke pulled out…?” Honestly, just about everything here is Duke. Our hospital, our labs, even some of the buildings downtown are owned by Duke. Their occupants may be like a startup, but they might be Duke-owned. So I feel like they’ve done or they really try to do a lot of good here in Durham.

[00:46:19] Atif Qadir: I think particularly the way that you’re describing the geography, the race, the social climate of Durham really does sound so much like New Haven, Connecticut. And I think particularly the issue that is probably at the heart of so many of the town and gown issues in New Haven is the reality.

That because of it’s a non-profit status Yale university, which like most universities are in sense that they are for-profit institutions, regardless of whether they’re defined as non-profit or not are able to take a large swath of the city’s footprint and burden and city services without paying taxes. So in Yale the argument is, “Oh, but we do this.” And “Oh, but we do this.” But it often seems that argument is one that is only benefiting one party and not-

[00:47:10] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Yes. Of course, and we’ve definitely seen that. And we’ve seen even, there’s this thing as in all cities affordable housing. And for me, affordable housing means owned, not rented. And so if the university has the means, which we know that they do, they ought to work on that with our city council. But it’s really heated, when you you’re in a very progressive city. Like everyone… And you sit in on these city council meetings and they can’t agree on anything and progress cannot happen.

And there are people that are not boots on the ground. And so they’re not understanding historically what these neighborhoods are now, just what they were then. And who’s really living there and how they can be that change. We have a lot of teachers here who have to commute from 20, 30, 40, minutes outside of Durham because they can’t afford housing and they don’t want to rent. They’re trying to start a family.

And Durham has an inventory and there are opportunities that they can think differently about what affordable housing is rather than it being something that is rented and something that is temporary. Because we all know what happens with rentals. Over time, unless you have an awesome landlord like me, they don’t stay that way. They start to deteriorate. So they may be only attractive for maybe seven to 10 years, if that. And so having that mindset is something that Duke certainly has the means and the access, and should think about. And I’d be willing to be a part of that discussion.

[00:49:09] Atif Qadir: So next time, there is a mayoral election… I think city council will be more fun.

Any executive elected official is the pits, because everyone blames you for everything, but a legislative one, you can do nothing and just have so much fun, right?

[00:49:24] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Okay. I’ll look into that. It just seems like we’ve had some good mayors come in. The one that we have now, he’s not running again and he’s older, and he wants to be with his grandchildren. But you just don’t know, because I think, you’re never going to make everybody happy. And I think some of them have good intentions and really want to or think that they can change and I mean, well, make everyone happy. And I think that’s just the point. Like I can’t make everyone like me or like what I do, but I’m not going to stop doing it.

[00:49:59] Atif Qadir: I think, there’s so many things that you’ve touched on that are fascinating about Durham. And particularly, I think what it is, is that it’s emblematic more so than any like the Northeast cities that we’ve been comparing to.

It’s emblematic of a new American city, a new American small city. And there’s things that are part of this recipe for his new city. It’s an anchor by a university, I really researched university employees a lot. It’s about a diversified industry base. So now increasingly pharmaceuticals and healthcare in Durham, it’s about an educated population. It’s about relatively low-cost of living. It’s about low taxation. It’s about good highway access and transportation, a temperate climate. What other things would you say are a part of the Durham recipe, about making it for other small cities across America.

[00:50:46] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: That are making it for other cities? Well, we have a nice food scene here.

[00:50:50] Atif Qadir: Oh food, that’s another recipe that draw people and keep people there.

[00:50:51] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Right. So the Magnolia Grill used to be here in Durham. Do you know what that is?

[00:50:58] Atif Qadir: Mm-mm.

[00:50:58] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: So I believe it was the New York Times or it might’ve been the New Yorker years ago that did this article, where they did the Magnolia Tree. And it was a symbol of the Magnolia Grill here in Durham, and all the famous chefs that they could pick off of it and how those chefs are either in New York or Seattle or, and a lot of them are still here.

[00:51:21] Atif Qadir: That’s on my list of when I come back to Durham, to see you, I’m want to go to Magnolia.

[00:51:24] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Well, it’s gone now. So the owners retired, which is why I think this article was done to kind of show all of the people that came out of there. And so Durham does offer that is very… As you said, there’s, there is a lot of culture here, I would like to see more destinations.

So I think the issue here in Durham, is that I have park envy when it comes to the other cities that aren’t as diversified as Durham. Like they have these beautiful parks and I think that Durham just needs to think about that. Because the word gentrification is always thrown around and I’m like, “We can be a city of Black people and have beautiful things.” We can have a beautiful park, we can have all of this. And there’s a lot of just littering in our city and things like that.

So just kind of taking it a little back from an interior designer’s perspective, and from a builder, unapologetically, just thinking about our city moving forward and how we want to make it more of a community. And how we want to change the stigma of what things ought to look like. When people of color or Black people inhabit them, so kind of changing that mindset.

I would like to see more, I hate this word, but ethnic restaurants downtown. I’m Jamaican. I came here at seven, but I’d like to see more Vietnamese, just more culturally rich, beautiful food downtown. I mean, I do feel like it is a very friendly city.  As a black woman, you’re always cautious that you can never be too comfortable. But I really do love this city. I’ve been very comfortable here.

I feel like it’s one of those things where I’ve told people that I can agree to disagree with you. And I can literally talk to you like this in a coffee shop, in Durham. And then you turn around and we’re like having dinner tomorrow.

[00:53:33] Atif Qadir: Yeah.

[00:53:34] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: So it’s just one of those cities where… We are that Southern city where people aren’t wearing masks. Everyone is very… We’re just not having it. It’s a very progressive city. It’s a very like-minded city. I’m in construction, so I work with a little bit of everybody outside of Durham. So I see a little bit of everything, but it’s come a long way. I’d like to see more theater, just more culture, just bring it on, bring it on.

[00:54:05] Atif Qadir: I think what is so interesting is that Durham has traveled this path of re-imagining an American cities so quickly relative to others. And I think in particular, the interesting question is what is coming next? And I think with Apple and Google, announcing their intention to build new corporate campuses here. That adds another industry to the mix for Durham, but then there’s this vision into the future of what Durham could be?

And I think, the idea that Durham could become a San Francisco in terms of complete housing or making housing and affordability. And lack of access, so many major issues that are now socially dividing parts of San Francisco. How would you imagine that Apple and Google coming to Durham could do good for the city without doing the bad that perhaps we’ve come to see in other American cities with large tech presence?

[00:55:09] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Well, one, I would hold it on them. Like they know what they’ve done to those cities, which is why they’re coming here. They’ve priced them out. So your average person can no longer afford to live in San Jose. There’s what? Only 30% of people in San Francisco actually own their homes is that the right amount or it might be less today?

[00:55:30] Atif Qadir: Not even my assumption is this-

[00:55:32] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: Roger just showed me a burned out fixture and I can’t remember if it was San Francisco or Oakland that sold for a million dollars.

[00:55:40] Atif Qadir: Of course it did.

[00:55:41] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: We’re talking about… It was completely chart on the outside. They, had no shame in showing you pictures. So these companies need to be held accountable. If they’re saying that they’re moving here, so that the people that are working for them or the communities that they’re moving in can still afford to live there. Then they need to put their money where their mouth is. Just like, we’re asking Duke to.

What are they doing to be stewards of affordability? What does that look like? It’s very nuanced though, because, I always say when people talk to me, and want to understand racism when they’re not Black, I’m so confused. You designed it. It’s your footprint, it’s your house, but you’re inviting me into your house and asking me to show you around.

So hopefully they have people working with them. They have a board, not even a board, because you want a representation of the people that are being disenfranchised. Are the people that can explain to you what to do or ideas. People that are actually boots on the actual ground, not someone living in a million or $2 million home, that eats out every night.

And they need to be able to know that not everybody that works for these companies are going to be high execs. I think part of the problem that we’re seeing now with the labor market, there’s not enough people working because nobody wants to work for anything, because they can’t live. So hopefully they’re using these, this information and taking all of this information, and processing all of this information, and hopefully they’re going to do something about it. That they’re going to create because they have the access and the resources to do so they can build.

They can control and buy. I think what’s going to happen is I think most of their sites are in the Research Triangle Park Area, which is kind of interesting because part of it’s Raleigh and part of it’s Wake County, which is Raleigh and part of it’s Durham. And it’s really interesting because how these lines get kind of blurred what’s Raleigh what’s Durham. It’s interesting that the Raleigh makes more money off of RTP than Durham actually does. Because again, Durham was a predominantly Black city, so there’s a lot of history on Research Triangle Park, as it relates to that border of what’s in Wake County and what’s in Durham county.

But interesting to see because a lot of the people that tend to also move to the area that are even Blacks or people of color from out of state. Always tell me that their brokers say that, “Not to really think about Durham because Durham’s not safe.” Because we have a, a larger Black population.

So it’ll be interesting to see what does happen when these companies come here, because it might be a mixed bag unless you really know the actual area and you like to live in more of like an urban city then yes, Durham would be the more attractive of the options. And just kind of seeing how it’s all going to plan out because I don’t have any say as to what’s going to happen, I’m just going to, I guess, sit back and watch.

[00:59:17] Atif Qadir: I think what’s so interesting about these two boogeymen in this conversation of Duke and big tech is how similar they are in terms of taxation. So the corporate tax rate in the United States right now is at 21%. It was over 50% as recent as 1970s. So it wasn’t that long of the corporate tax rate was 50%.

And I think what you end up seeing in this kind of duality of these large entities that take, but have in there. I guess the arc of history incredibly low or non-existent taxation is there’s just this transfer of wealth to big tech and to universities are able to do what they please with that money.

And I think the challenge then becomes how does a city move in the direction that it wants to go when it’s in a position to ask for things, rather than to be able to do things with the money that it would receive through taxation. And I think that, that I would imagine is going to be the extreme challenge of any city that says, “Here 20-years of tax abatement pay us nothing, just show up.” Because you’re giving away your power as the city you have been, what would you do? I’m thinking that, that might be like a potential challenge for Durham.

[01:00:40] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: I know. And we’ve obviously we’ve seen that happen even with Amazon, coming to Long Island City. And everybody is like, you want these big companies to come and then you give them… why are you giving? They have. So we’re keeping giving to the rich and sacrificing everyone else.

[01:01:01] Atif Qadir: I would probably say, I think there is a very important argument to make that way. And there’s also another argument to make that, it’s just bad business to give somebody else all of your negotiating power. How is that a good business? It doesn’t seem to be like. I mean, both of us are small business owners that doesn’t seem good business to me.

[01:01:18] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: No, every year that we do our taxes, I just cringe, I’m like, “We really have to pay all that.” We’ve already are paying and paying, and you just can’t the bar is set here and you get almost there and then they raise it for small companies and so it’s tough.

[01:01:40] Atif Qadir: So let’s see what Durham does?

[01:01:44] Alicia Hylton-Daniel: We’ll see. I sure you’ll probably keep me abreast of it in case I’m inside and I missed it.

[01:01:52] Atif Qadir: So on that note, thank you so much for joining us today on the American Building Podcasts, Alicia. And if you want to hear the behind the scenes stories of how iconic buildings in our country were designed and built, subscribe to this podcast on Spotify, iTunes, Google, or wherever it is that you like to listen.

We all know real estate is a tough industry to make it. So how can professionals stand out and make a name for themselves in today’s world. Hear from me, the team at Michael Graves, and many of our spectacular guests, like Alicia on what we did to make it where we are. Grab our exclusive guide Seven Tips on how to stand out in your field at

Finally, we live in the richest country in the history of humankind. We must reach beyond the boundaries we see, and the boundaries we create to help build homes and to build communities. Today, Alicia and I have made donations to Beyond the Built Environment, which advocates and celebrates diverse designers and diverse environments that they create. I encourage you, our listeners to support their worthwhile work as well by donating at that address will also be in our show notes. My name is Atif Qadir and this has been American Building by Michael Graves.

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