Q&A: Boston Developer Jacqueline Nuñez
A Dorchester-based developer creates top-notch properties with an eye toward sustainability.
There’s been plenty of construction going on in the city, but few new buildings would jazz an architect or an environmentalist. WonderGroup developer Jacqueline Nuñez is trying to change that, one project at a time. We sat down with this intriguing polymath to learn more about her efforts to lead a quiet, yet critical, revolution.
In a nutshell, what’s your mission as a developer?
People want to build responsible, sustainable, super-insulated homes with energy efficiencies. Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot built in a way that I would consider very beautiful and inspiring. What excites me as a developer is that we can provide homeowners with very small energy bills and an absolutely gorgeous building.
Most developers are weighing many priorities, and few put design first.
I think sometimes developers think, “People will just buy my location and I don’t have to do a lot. People are going to eat up what I build regardless because I happened to be located here.” I just haven’t operated this way.
How is your approach different?
My philosophy has always been that if I invest in the design and quality—whether it’s the exterior architecture, the finishes, the way that I insulate, or the way my painters prep—people see it and appreciate it. I love the process of the buy; I love agonizing over spending three months finding that perfect light fixture to fit into that perfect little space. It’s fun. My approach has always worked for me.
You arrived at development in a roundabout way.
I had a full athletic scholarship to Northwestern University, where I played volleyball in the Big Ten Conference. When I went to graduate school in Rhode Island, I began coaching. I was a divisional and head coach for 10 years, but I left coaching to go to law school at Northeastern. I practiced for just a few years until I realized that real estate was what I really loved and wanted to do; I launched my development company in 2003.
What was your first project?
It was a three-unit triple-decker in Dorchester. I went on to do several more three-family condo conversions.
When you first started out, did you feel like you were treated differently because you were a woman?
There’s no doubt that there aren’t many women in development, so within the trades, definitely. It took a long time to get respect. It still sometimes takes a while for someone new to realize, “Okay, she knows what she’s doing. She knows what she’s saying; she’s not stupid. She’s going to call me out on everything that I do.”
After 13 years, have you discovered the secret to getting respect?
I have very, very high expectations of my crew. I have no tolerance for complaining on the job site. If they start complaining, I tell them to stop crying and write about it in their diary that night. Really. I don’t want to hear it.
Tell us about your current project, a proposed 20-unit housing development in West Roxbury.
Two years ago, I decided that I wanted to scale up. In the summer of 2014, this site went up for sale. It’s not often that such a large property becomes available in Boston. It seemed like a unique opportunity to do something innovative, sustainable, and net-zero in energy use. Ultimately, I also decided on fortified construction.
Does that mean it will survive hurricanes?
Yes, that’s the intent. Fortified construction is a more robust method of construction that ensures the building will survive severe weather conditions, including high-wind conditions.
You selected Merge Architects to do the design. Had you worked with them before?
No. I started with a different architect and we had a parting of ways in the fall of 2014, so I went out looking for a new one, someone familiar with green-building practices who could create really beautiful contemporary design. I love contemporary work. And Beth Whittaker, of Merge, offered both. She’s perfect for it.
I understand that you worked really hard to save the trees on the site, which is unusual for a development.
Yes, we have a bunch of trees right now that we are intending to save. I mean, of course, I’m building, right? It is a development and some trees will be removed. But we nestled these buildings within the topography of the site, which enables us to be very ecologically sensitive. I’m not going in there and bulldozing everything and trying to level up the site with a huge retaining wall to make everything flat.
How are you working to protect the adjacent conservation land?
I’m excited about the ecological sensitivity that we are showing toward the site. We’re removing all of the invasive species that are growing on the site and will be replacing them with native species to form a connection to the Allandale Woods.
That’s really great. But I understand that getting city approval to build has proven difficult.
It’s been a process. I started on this in August 2014. As of March 2016, I’m still awaiting approval from the Boston Redevelopment Authority. They are excited about the project, they like it a lot; they’re excited about all the initiatives that I have for it. It’s just the neighborhood can be difficult. It’s not easy navigating the various interests of the abutters—people who fear that I might harm the Allandale Woods. One neighbor claimed that I had wetlands on the property, but the Department of Environmental Protection just confirmed that we don’t.
Allandale sounds like a standard-setting project from a design and environmental perspective. Once that’s completed, what is your next ambition?
I want to continue to scale up, to eventually get to where I’m building some cool 150-unit buildings somewhere in an urban center that would make a big aesthetic statement.
If you could fix one thing in Boston, what would it be?
To me the architecture, the built environment, defines cities and can define culture. There is such ugly stuff going up—we need to have more beautiful architecture. Boston needs plenty of other things, too. We need more housing. I wish it were easier to get all of the housing built that needs to be built. It’s a tough city in that way.
How would you like to be known?
I want to be known as the developer in Boston who is building aesthetically gorgeous projects that are net-zero in energy efficiency.