A doctoral degree in education is an unconventional credential for a homebuilding career, but it served as a gateway for Nicole Tysvaer, Ph.D., to discover her passion for expanding sustainable living options.
Tysvaer spent the first 20 years of her career working in youth development and job training programming, with a heavy emphasis on the construction trades. But it wasn’t until she built a new home for her family in 2010 that she realized how much she enjoyed construction.
“I was finishing my dissertation at the time and absolutely fell in love with the building process,” she recalls. “I took a vacant lot and turned it into a gorgeous home—and I was just smitten.”
The experience altered the course of Tysvaer’s career—and she hasn’t looked back since joining the world of women in construction. “After the project was complete, the builder, architect, and I all had a champagne toast and said, ‘Hey, let's do another project.’ And we’ve been working together ever since.”
How Galaxy Homes and Symbi Homes Got Started
In 2014, she launched Galaxy Homes, a custom homebuilder in Washington, D.C., together with building industry veteran Matt Kulp. She’s vice president of sustainability for the company, which specializes in constructing and remodeling high-performance houses that maximize energy efficiency.
Tysvaer also serves as CEO of Symbi Homes, a residential development business she co-founded with Kulp and architect John Linam, AIA, in 2018. The firm is broadening the marketplace for single-family homes by focusing on wellness, energy-efficiency, and technology. Its latest demonstration project—Symbi Duplex One—is a net-zero energy ready duplex in Mount Rainier, Md.
“We started with a theory that there was a market for houses with smaller footprints that were loaded with sustainable and smart home features,” she says. “The purpose of the project was to prove to investors that it was a viable model.”
Four months before construction wrapped up, Symbi Duplex One was already under contract. Each 3,200-square-foot unit incorporates a flexible floor plan with a first-floor home office that can be converted into a master bedroom and a self-contained apartment in the basement that can also function as quarantine space. “The entire first floor is designed so someone can age in place, with an ADA-accessible bathroom and three-foot-wide doorways,” Tysvaer says.
Her typical workday begins with 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation, a practice that helps ground her for whatever the day may bring. “As a builder, you never really know what's going to come your way when you wake up in the morning,” says Tysvaer.
Challenges for Women in Construction
Since making the transition from education, a field that attracts a majority of women, to one that’s dominated by men, Tysvaer has faced challenges familiar to other women in construction. They range from a real-estate investor who couldn’t find the women's restroom key to a contractor who stopped returning calls after she rebuffed his advances.
“Like so many women in the construction industry, I’ve experienced gender bias, gender discrimination, and sexual harassment,” she says. “But I'm lucky to work with a lot of great men who see the value of what I bring to the job site, so it's not a constant problem I face.”
That said, Tysvaer believes gender bias has probably hindered the growth of her business. “It's been much harder for me as a woman to get investment funding than it would be if there was a guy at the head of the company,” she says.
And though Tysvaer acknowledges she hasn’t always confronted gender issues head on, she relies on a tight-knit community of other women in construction for support. “I think any woman in this industry should form an informal support network with other women,” she says.
Her other piece of advice for fellow women in construction is to never be afraid to step in and speak up whenever they witness any kind of injustice. She also urges women to align themselves with allies. “Seek out those people who really appreciate and respect you as a competent businessperson,” she says. “And whenever you can, cut ties with those who do not.”
Despite the built-in biases that exist in the construction industry, Tysvaer thinks she and other women bring distinct advantages to the homebuilding process. “On every project, I think about the responsibilities of busy parents with active kids, and I imagine the ways in which the home can make their lives easier,” she says. “It’s this sense of empathy that I bring to my job that is uniquely part of being a woman, a mother, and a nurturer.”