Interview with Ana Castañeda, Lead Architect and Founder at HAC Arquitectura
Who is Ana Castañeda, and what can you tell us about yourself?
I'm Ana Castañeda, founder and lead architect at HAC Architectura. I am from Guadalajara, where I was born and grew up. I studied architecture at ITESO in Guadalajara, and from there, I started taking several business development courses, such as a Business Development Diploma at Harvard Business School. I have always been interested in the business development aspect and the "approach" towards my clients, in addition to architecture: the public relations part, how I had to run my business, and that has led me to where I am today.
Where did you start, and what can you tell us about your professional path?
Well, first of all, I was born an architect. The truth is that I never had another choice of profession; architecture was always what caught my attention. I am fortunate that my father is an architect, so I got involved very young. I loved going to the construction site, I loved talking with the masons, most of the workers knew me from a very young age, and I lived in love with everything my father did, and I always visualized myself doing the same. I was also fortunate to start working in my father's company while studying for my degree, but my father told me that if I wanted to learn the profession, I had to learn it from the most basic.
So, he put me to work in his office, but I was never the daughter of the architect or the daughter of the company's director; I started like we all start, from the basics. I began to get to know the profession from being a draftsman to being a construction resident, seeing the work of the master masons when they are doing it, helping them to do it to understand what is required to be able to build, be it: a residence, a hospital, a commercial building, or whatever. I was curious to learn all those processes, which my father always instilled until I gradually climbed, as we all had the opportunity to do within the company until I became the project manager. Later, I decided to start making my way, and HAC Architectura was born.
I mainly do residential work in Guadalajara, residential design has always been my passion, but I started my career in the health sector. I started working in specialty clinics, building them, and later designing them. I had to study a lot of all the "know-how" in terms of regulations, national and international laws, everything because they are complex projects.
I was very absorbed in that part of my career, but I liked it. I learned a lot about the structural part of respecting both design and engineering processes and this humanitarian part because you become very sensitive to the end-user and their families when you design health spaces. It is inevitable to put those granites of more into your work to do the best you can with what you have.
From there, I decided to pause that stage of the health sector and focus on what is truly my passion, which is the residential part.
What were the aspects that made you fall in love with architecture?
I could stay for hours watching a master mason glue bricks, the technique, so manual, the precision of his work. We as architects always use tools to know that we are getting things right, and their understanding of the material was incredible, like seeing a drawing they built something. When I was little, I saw it immense and said, "how did you do to create this space of the living room and dining room? If what I saw was a little leaf with little lines".
At that time, I had to be in high school, if not in elementary school, and I had a cousin who worked with my father, an architect too, older than me. With her, I went every Saturday to site visits.
While she went through the work and supervised, she taught me to draw the things that I saw, then I sat down with my notebook and my pencil, and told me "look, you have to pay attention to this," then she set the guidelines for me and that was how I began to see things as masons saw them.
A good example was drawing those lines to have that creation later, but I did it the other way around. First, I saw them already done, and then I sketched them. Those were all my weekends, every Saturday, and the truth is that I loved it.
What qualities did your father have that made you learn and grow within architecture and your professional path?
The main thing was that he never treated me like his daughter in the office; never in our entire professional career have we had a problem or a father-daughter argument in the office. We have never involved those two things is 100% thanks to him.
He gave me the same workload that he gave everyone else. He gave me the same advice that he gave everyone else. When I was desperate crying in some other part of the country because I couldn't find workers to help me finish a project I was doing there, he always told me: "you have to find a way" he always encouraged me he told me you can, you have strength, you have all it takes.
He never felt compassion in my process because I was his daughter, or at least he never showed it; it was always the opposite. When I talked with my dad about work, I listened to him having conversations with the other collaborators within the company, and the talks were always the same. There was never a preference towards me; just as he pushed me, he did with everyone within the company to optimize their potential.
That is what has caught my attention the most. I think it is the basis of HAC in terms of its collaborators. All those who work with us are part of the family, and we are very interested in their growth. We promote their development within the company, answer all their questions, and involve them in all processes to better understand what the business represents.
How does it work, and what is the difference between HAC Arquitectura and your father's company, Coarmex?
After working in design and construction, I found my passion much more in design. I love going to the construction site. I love learning about what we are building, not as a construction resident but as a spectator. Someone who will learn from the mistakes that one makes when designing because it is inevitable to make them, and learn from the construction processes of specific projects so as not to make those mistakes or not inherit false paths to future projects.
So, my dad's business was always "let's design what we build or just build designs already coming." It was "I'll stay in design," if I want to focus only on design, I have to separate myself and start producing opportunities where my father's company could be involved in the construction. By setting up my project, I also opened the door to the possibility of taking on projects that only require design.
That's where I decided to take a separate path, but I also invited my dad to be part of the project to create the balance. My dad is in charge of his company; he is the construction. I am there internally too, but in mine, I am the head; I direct it, and my dad is the one who supports me in the construction part. Thus we have the two scales.
How would you describe your style as an architect?
I like to think that I am a translator for my clients; I don't design for myself; I design for them. A residence is one of the greatest aspirations that anyone can have; whether it is because they are going to build their first home, their second home, the house for all their children, or a vacation home, it does not matter. This desire of "I am going to spend so many moments there" means that I have to create something incredible. So for me, that is an essential value. All my projects are different because all my clients are different.
I like to respect their ideas and transform them into something better for them. We all always have an idea of what we want in terms of spaces or activities to develop. It depends on how each individual's brain, of each member of the family, works. Still, everyone has concrete ideas of what they want, and the fact of transforming that idea into something 1) accurate and 2) that genuinely improves their quality of life inside their home, for me, is the most important thing. So if we talk about styles, my style of architecture is the style that my next client decides to have for his house.
I learn a lot; each client teaches me a different perspective and a very different understanding of architecture. As a person and an architect, it is food for the soul; it is what I most love in my profession.
I tend to go with the most natural choice possible in terms of materials. I believe that this is part of the honesty within my design process, the honesty towards my clients, the openness towards "I am listening to you, and I want to transform your words into a space" has to be accompanied by natural materials. These materials belong to the environment where they are building their house because one not only lives within its four walls but also coexists with the environment. My proposal will always start there.
I like to think that I am a translator for my clients; I don't design for myself; I design for them.
Ana Castañeda, Lead Architect and Founder at HAC Arquitectura
What can you tell us about your expansion to Los Cabos?
Cabo, for me, was a surprise. When I came to Cabo as an architect who had already developed several projects and had been involved in projects, from extensive developments to luxury residential projects, I believed that I had the necessary tools to start immediately. But, the truth is that in Cabo, the market is very different. First, because nobody needs a house in Cabo, that's a fact. The people who come to buy a property or build a property in Los Cabos come with such great expectations. Most of them are foreigners and will develop activities different from those that one creates on a day-to-day basis in their main home. It meant, "I have to understand what people come here to look for, their experiences, and with whom they come to live them." With this understanding, I mainly transform my knowledge of residential architecture within a city into a vacation home.
That is why I decided that it would be a good idea for me to get into real estate to have access to properties built by the owners of those properties to understand what they were looking for when buying that property or building that property. I continue to pursue a career in real estate because the architecture part has fed me immensely. If I hadn't taken that step, I don't think I would have been able to have the understanding with my clients here in Cabo that I have now. I spent two years doing real estate before deciding to do a project for a luxury residence here in Los Cabos. It was very, very important to understand how that psyche is to be able to "click" with the client. In Los Cabos, we design luxury homes in developments such as Chileno Bay (see Casa B), The Cove (see Casa TC7), and Palmilla. Our main objective here in Cabo and the city is luxury residential projects, but with that human understanding and honesty, I have taken my clients from the beginning.
As an architecture company, are you looking for a high volume of projects, or are you more selective?
I like to consider HAC Arquitectura as a boutique company. I do not take on more than five clients at a time. I also learned during all this time that it is my magic number. It allows me to maintain proximity with my clients to give them the attention they need, preserve the highest level of communication, and ensure their awareness and involvement throughout the design process. I have my entire team in the design area. Still, I am present in all meetings. The initial project ideas always derive from me. Our clients become so close to us that they notice when a design concept related to their project does not come directly from me. As a company, we invest a lot of time in getting to know our clients to such an extent that they understand what we are presenting to them.
I always tell my clients that this is not only the architect's job; the client has to do a pretty intense introspection, which many people are not used to doing, to make effective decisions for their projects. I dedicate a lot of time and effort to establishing this level of trust with my clients, and it is the part that allows me to understand their needs fully. It translates into something like "what do you want from your day-to-day process, what do you like, what do you not like." My clients have to analyze much more and pay more attention to what they do during the day. What is bothering them? What do they have in their current home that they like, and what would they want to improve?
So, yes, the Cabo client is quite different, and residential architecture, during the pandemic, has changed quite a bit as it relates to special needs and requirements. In another interview, we can discuss this aspect more in-depth as a whole subject on its own because it's quite an issue.
How long does it take you to complete a project?
That's a super broad question. The truth is that it does not depend on my team or me. It depends 100% on the clients. Typically, an architectural design office will tell you that several revisions are contemplated within its budget. Each extra revision will cost you a certain amount when that number of revisions is completed and the project is not fully defined. They do this to be much more effective in the process. We don't; with us, it's entirely the opposite. We know that each client has different time frames and a different way of understanding the architecture, meaning that the processes are unique from one person to another. There are projects that we have defined in two months, and there are projects that have taken us more than a year to determine, and this is due to the clients' decision-making. A client's project is not finished until the client feels the peace of saying, "this is it, this is what I want, let's go! Get on with what's next."
When the client sees "the project," exhales, and says, "that's it," it is the most encouraging and incredible moment that one has as an architect or at least in my team because we already know that the client is genuinely convinced. What happens when we do it this way, you might ask. When it comes to building a house, decisions are made based on knowledge, and clients are so convinced of the entire design process that they understand their home so well that there are very few changes when it comes to building it. This method dramatically speeds up the most tedious process because the design part is the fun part.
The construction part is where the client suddenly feels a little more anxious because six months and eight months can go by, and you would like to see your house finished. Still, you keep seeing bricks and materials everywhere without fully understanding the critical construction phases.
What have been your main observations of foreigners who buy or build their homes in Cabo?
The foreign client has already seen Cabo, they know what a paradise it is, but they have also seen many movies in Hollywood, where the part of Mexico that they show you is not very pleasant, not very reliable.
There are very well-established companies here in Los Cabos, and they are doing a good job; usually, clients go with them because of the volume of projects they handle and the name recognition. Like us at HAC Arquitectura, many smaller boutique-type companies have begun to cover a lot of ground with clients, and I think that, once again, everything is based on the trust that the client can establish with you during the first appointment. If you have the opportunity for a person looking to buy a house or build a home here in Los Cabos to meet you and make that "click," the "click" between architect and client is essential. If you don't manage to have it from the first time, from the first conversation, it will be challenging for the client to have that openness and that trust in you as an architect.
How has your team adapted to working with foreign clients regarding the language?
It has been a more straightforward process than I thought. All the people who work with us speak English, or at least those who have direct contact with my clients. The most challenging part was learning all the terminology you don't usually use in an English conversation, but we quickly got our heads around it. Our clients enjoy working with our team; they are grateful that we have taken the time to learn the language that is native to them. It removes many of the barriers that languages naturally create.
What are your plans and expectations for yourself as a professional and HAC Arquitectura in the next 2-5 years?
The truth is that I see the studio thriving in the next few years. I wouldn't want to grow it too fast and too big. I've been enjoying what I'm doing and how I'm doing it, so I plan to keep doing it this way. The magic number I spoke of before is only working with five clients simultaneously. I want to continue to respect that as much as possible. It allows me to enjoy my profession and maintain the level of personal attention and quality delivery for which HAC Arquitectura is known. So, I'd love for things to evolve at the same pace that they currently are.
Of course, I would love to grow a little, but to grow very thoughtful, very measured, and only with things that I genuinely know that I can continue to enjoy and control in a certain sense.
What can you tell us about your team at HAC?
My team is made up of young adults, all younger than me. They are learning from me as I am learning from them. At least, I hope so! They bring all this fresh blood, "I want to try new ideas, propose this to the client," which is essential for my growth as an architect. I need to be in contact with young people with fresh ideas who are injecting me with energy. I love having young people, and I love that they grow up with us. I love to think that I can leave them something in their career as architects if they decide to grow with us, incredible.
If they eventually decide to spread their wings and "fly" to another place, either for another architecture studio or to start their own, I always encourage them to do what they feel is right. I believe that there are opportunities for everyone. It is great to have a vibrant team eager to perform when the workload is heavy. The first ones I turn to are the people who have been working with me for several years, who have done an excellent job, and who have all my confidence. In short, I have been lucky to build such an incredible team.
Everyone is always willing to learn and ready to listen to the clients. I hope to leave a positive impact on their professional journey.
If someone is interested in looking for a piece of land and building their house in Cabo and even working with you, what are your best tips?
If the client wants to hire an architect in Los Cabos or anywhere, my best advice is to talk to them and ask uncomfortable questions. It is a relationship that will last a long time, at least two years, if it is a relatively standard project. It is crucial that you feel comfortable with your architect. You can go to our blog; there is a post about the essential questions to ask your architect [hypelink] when deciding on the architect you will have in charge of your home project.
See your architect as a coach. Because at the end of the day, that's what we are here to do. An architect is a tool that will help you create a space where your family will grow, live together, and share, so making that vital "click" with your architect is very important. The "click" factor is the most important part, much more than the price. The promises made to you all mean nothing if there is not a deep level of connection and understanding of your needs.
In your opinion, is it a good time right now to invest in a house in Cabo?
In my opinion, there is no better time than right now. Los Cabos is growing a lot. It is just beginning to catch this boom in terms of growth. There are still many opportunities for land to build on, which are going very fast.
Los Cabos is attracting a lot of attention from around the world. After the COVID pandemic peak that we just went through, people understood the value of having a place to escape with space to breathe and continue living a quality life. The truth is that Cabo won the hearts of most foreigners within the American continent. If you had thought of owning a property here in Cabo at some point, building a property here in Los Cabos, now is the time to pull the trigger. The increased demand in the property market in Los Cabos will eventually lead to prices skyrocketing, options will decrease, and the added value you will find in a few years is like no other part of the country.