Only in Silicon Valley does an introduction from a client lead you to the guys running Google's top-secret research lab. That's what happened to architect Michelle Kaufmann five years ago, when a tech CEO she'd designed a home for put her in touch with Google X's Astro Teller and Sebastian Thrun. After meeting with the pair, recalls Kaufmann, "I felt like I had found my people." Although she didn't realize it at the time, the encounter would also help her put her career, which had recently derailed, back on track.
Kaufmann had spent the previous decade and a half building a soaring architecture career. She had worked for design populist Michael Graves and then computer-assisted-design (and swoopy titanium) pioneer Frank Gehry. By the time she was 34, she had built her namesake firm, creating beautiful, modular, sustainably designed prefab houses that mashed up the ideas of Charles and Ray Eames and tract-house pioneer Joseph Eichler, leading Sierra magazine to hail her as the "Henry Ford of green homes."
Then came the aftershocks of the 2007 housing-market crash. Kaufmann had bought a factory and was holding, she says, millions in contracts for prefab homes, but suddenly "the people who were getting funding from the banks were just disappearing." She had no choice but to sell her designs and move on. Her professional implosion "was so public," she says. "My husband and I were crushed in all ways. Just drinking tequila."
Until, that is, she met Teller and Thrun. "They were looking at the world's biggest problems and for audacious ways to solve them," says Kaufmann, who had always been driven by the global need for affordable housing and more sustainable architecture. "One of the world's biggest problems is buildings that create the most carbon, use the most energy, and are unhealthy for many people and not built with durable construction. And there are still so many people in the world who don't have access to shelter."
Since joining forces with the Google X team in late 2010 as a consultant, Kaufmann has reemerged as a major force for sustainable, humane, technology-wired architecture. In 2012, she co-founded Flux to apply artificial intelligence and computer science "to help make thoughtfully designed, healthy, durable buildings accessible to everyone." Kaufmann says the startup, the first official company spun out from Google X (now part of parent company Alphabet), will enable architects and urban planners to tap the massive efficiencies of a software platform in a profession where "essentially each building is still designed and built from scratch." Flux, which just closed a $30 million round, built software that Kaufmann says will adjust for everything--from zoning regulations to the angle of the sun to the size of a screw--in seconds.
After getting Flux off the ground, Kaufmann started and now runs the R&D lab for Alphabet and Google's new campus, which is set to break ground in 2018. She is collaborating with the project's two architects, Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick, using rapid prototyping and other product-design principles to develop new kinds of building materials and adaptive structures, like "a handkerchief [roof] in the middle [of a building] that can open and close and create energy." That project has led to her involvement in the partnership between Alphabet and former Bloomberg CEO Dan Doctoroff--Sidewalk Labs, which is "applying ambitious Google-type thinking to improve how we design and build cities," she explains.
All of these ventures have the potential to change the lives of millions, a much larger scale than Kaufmann ever could have achieved had her firm survived the crash. "We're using the buildings we're designing to help unlock or disrupt technologies," she says, "to make better design for more people."