When Janet Lasley was growing up on Cherry Valley Road in Princeton, the oldest of four children, she and her sister and their two friends were "total Barbie". But, she recalls, they also built tree forts. "We stole wood from my father. We had to rebuild the roof about 10 times and it still leaked." Today Lasley is still building roofs, only with a little more accuracy. She founded Lasley Construction in 1985, which became Lasley Brahaney Architecture and Construction in 1997 when she married architect Marc Brahaney.
Lasley's most recent tour de force was not for a client but for her own company: she has been transforming the firm's new offices at 860 State Road - a 1950s modernist one-story building that had been variously used for administrative banking, truck maintenance, and light manufacturing - into a kind of "green" laboratory for testing out and showcasing sustainable building design and practices. From preferred parking for fuel efficient vehicles to landscaping designed to use plants that won't need additional watering after the first year, the 3,600 square foot space is designed to meet the level one requirements for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, the nationally accepted benchmark for design construction and operation of high performance green buildings set forth by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC).
"We put our money where our mouth is," says Lasley. While she can't quote a final budget - the building is still in progress - she says the initial outlay of money to build a green building is "significant." The payoff comes over time with savings in heating and electricity costs and lower dependency on oil. There are other real benefits too - some unexpected. For example, Lasley says, many of her 22 employees suffered from allergies in their former windowless space on Crescent Drive in Rocky Hill. In the new offices their symptoms have virtually disappeared, thanks to high efficiency HVAC units that circulate much more fresh air than in a normal building.
Other energy-efficient elements include motion and light sensor detectors installed on exterior and low-occupied areas such as the file storage room and bathroom; Energy Star rated appliances, and even an instant hot water heater dispenser that provides hot water on demand, thereby eliminating a need for constant hot water, a big energy waster. Construction waste was broken down into 10 categories for recycling. The original concrete flooring was polished and sealed to reduce the need for carpet. The new office furniture and area carpets are non-off gassing (meaning no chemicals are released under ambient conditions).
Lasley and Brahaney felt too close to the project to do the interior design themselves, and turned to the Michael Graves-groomed Leslie Dowling of Dowling Studios who, Lasley says, "imbued the original modernist design with a residential, cozy atmosphere." The reception area and conference table subtly evoke an open living room and dining room and the paint - as you would expect - comes from Sherwin Williams' environmentally-correct Greensure Harmony collection.
With green building so, well, green, it takes a particular kind of person to embrace its rigorous, almost spiritual principles. A peek into the greening of Lasley herself reveals a woman with an indefatigable determination - veiled only thinly by the warmest of personalities.
Lasley's work ethic stems from both parents. She says her strongest childhood memory of her father, who ran personnel and production at Opinion Research Company, was that he "never sat down." Her mother was first part owner then full owner of Princeton Aqua Sport. Her strongest childhood memory of her mother was when "one of my little brothers or sister was crawling on top of the piano and crying to be taken down, and I remember as an eight-year-old her looking at that kid and saying, `If you figured out how to get on top of the piano, you can figure out how to get down.'"
Her mother also may have nurtured in her eldest daughter the nascent seed that would later enable Lasley to succeed in the testosterone-steeped field of construction. When she was 10 years old she and her mother saw a motorcycle going by. A woman was driving with a man behind her. "I laughed in ridicule that that was happening," says Lasley. "And my mother said, `And what is wrong with that?'" This was, after all, the early 1960s and the women's movement was a good 10 years away.
After less than two semesters at the University of Colorado and a couple of side trips living in communes in Colorado and Vermont - "I protested the Vietnam War and wanted to save the world, I was very idealistic" - Lasley came back to Princeton and apprenticed with a number of carpenters and builders. When she kept getting laid off in the 1975 recession, she got a job working the Christmas rush as a deliverer for UPS, another male-centric community. She was 21 and "they were just begging me to stay - this was at the time that the law had just been passed about needing to hire more women - and they bent over backward to keep me. They were clever. They put me on Nassau Street so that I would have high visibility."
To keep her hammer hand nimble the year she joined UPS she bought a $23,000 fixer-upper in Rocky Hill. She stayed with UPS for seven years, half as a driver and half as a supervisor. From UPS, she says, she learned to work efficiently. "They're just masters of efficiency." But ultimately she says she had a dirty little secret: she didn't really care if packages got to their destination or not; the sirens of sheetrock and siding beckoned.
"I loved working as a driver but I knew it wasn't what I wanted to do. They were offering me `the program, the track.'" It was 1982 and her boss, whom she loved, pulled her aside and said, "I know you don't love it." Even so, she says it was very hard to leave. "I cried for three days. Every time I saw a brown truck I'd start to cry. You know it's terrifying. You're going from a really great paying job back into construction where you're not necessarily going to make much. I took a 50 percent pay cut."
In 1985 she started her own business. And ever since, you would be hard put to drive through Princeton's exclusive western section any day, any year, and not see a Lasley Construction sign shoved into the front lawn of one or more expansive mansions sitting like so many staid matrons along Hodge Road, Cleveland Lane, and Library Place. Asked how she broke into that lucrative neighborhood she laughs and says, "We try to claw our way in there.
She credits lots of people who helped her but mostly realtor Pete Callaway, a friend of her father's, whose house in Bay Head she had worked on early in her career. Callaway would recommend her when people he had sold a home to were looking for a builder to add a bathroom or do a renovation. She did a huge renovation on the house next door to Callaway's in the western section and as she puts it, "All you need is one or two jobs, and then they talk to people and then it just creates its own little avalanche."
Contrary to what you might think, Lasley says there were more advantages than disadvantages to being a woman in the Diet-Coke-man world of construction. She says it was harder when she was younger and working as a carpenter. "I could definitely get hired, but it was tough to keep the job because sometimes wives or girlfriends would get jealous because there was a girl on the job. Some people said, `I can't hire you, my wife wouldn't put up with it.' There were women who didn't trust that I sincerely just wanted to work as a carpenter," says Lasley. "They thought I was on the `Mrs. Track' and that couldn't have been farther from the truth."
As her business grew her gender actually worked to her advantage. "I never perceived it was an issue at all, and I saw just the opposite, everybody really excited to say, `I want to hire a woman because this will be a completely a different experience,' and so I tried to make it a different experience." She says she feels she is "good at getting at their pain, getting at what is wrong with their building. One of my mantras is that I get up in the morning because I get to improve the quality of other people's lives. For me that is the great motivator."
It's just a coincidence that this article is being published the day before Valentine's Day, but the story of how Lasley met her husband and future business partner, architect Marc Brahaney, is the picture-perfect tale of how opposites attract. In 1987 Lasley was doing another big renovation in the western section with a woman architect who hired Brahaney to help with one of the last elements of the job, a garage/poolhouse addition. From day one both the woman architect and the client kept telling Lasley, "You have to meet Marc Brahaney. He's adorable. You guys would be a great couple." "I was 37," says Lasley. "I said, `I don't need any help with boyfriends, I have plenty of boyfriends.' So I did everything I could to avoid meeting him."
That only worked for about a month. One Sunday afternoon Lasley found herself at a meeting on the site with the woman architect, who had brought her newborn baby along, and the client, who informed her Brahaney would be dropping by. "So he walks in the room," says Lasley. "He's kind of this lanky, gangly guy, like a scarecrow, and I say to myself, I knew he'd be a dork. But he had the sweetest face." Much to her surprise, however, Lasley found she literally could not talk. Later in the meeting the 35-year-old Brahaney took the architect's baby downstairs and they fell asleep in the couch together. "We came down a good hour later, and there was Marc with the baby on his chest - and I was a total goner."
Lasley admits they are complete opposites. "I'm totally into my heart first, think later. And he thinks long before he allows his heart to engage. He says `Janet, you're the type who gets your gun out and goes, `Fire, ready, aim.'" But she is quick to add that their opposite natures work to their advantage on the job.
"I can feel the emotion of a building and how it's going to feel, and he knows whether the width of the hallway is going to work in relationship to where the doorways are. I'm caring about where the sun is going to be and where the group is going to be and how they are going to talk to each other, and he is measuring to make sure there are 16 feet six inches, rather than 14-7 so that the group can fit in there. I say, `We don't have to worry about the little inches here,' and he says, `Somebody does, I'll do that.' He's loyal, he's honest, he's thorough, and all these things that I admire. And I'm many things that he admires. We fight a lot but we're best friends. I could count on him for anything." After a pause she adds, with the pitch-perfect tone of a mother of two, "We've been through H-E-double hockey sticks and back."
For a long time after they married Lasley resisted combining their businesses. "I didn't want to work together. I thought it would be too narrow of a focus and that we'd be bored." But in November, 1997, something happened that would change Lasley's tune radically. While still breastfeeding their son, Charlie, who was born in May of that year (their first child, daughter Caylin, was born in 1993), Lasley developed a large mass in her abdominal cavity and was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called leiomyosarcoma. She was told at that time that people with that cancer live an average of two or three years.
Lasley has been Stage IV for 10 years, through six operations and some 15 different forms of chemotherapy drugs in various combinations, from the tried and true to the experimental. Her last chemo round was in July, 2007, and Brahaney says that since that date, "this is the first time Janet has not had something going on with cancer, either an operation or chemo."
Lasley says simply, "I just get back up again." But of course it isn't simple at all. She says battling cancer "alters you and kind of gives you balance. I'm always saying to myself now, Well, nobody died, so what if those windows didn't show up." Her fighter mentality is captured in the 2006 book "Succeed on Your Own Terms: Lessons from Top Achievers Around the World on Developing Your Unique Potential," written by Herb Greenberg, the president of the Carnegie Center-based consulting firm Caliper. She is quoted as saying of her illness, "This is not freaking going to happen to me. I'm not going down this way!"
She is deeply impressed with oncologist Peter Yi at the University Medical Center at Princeton, who has been with her since her initial diagnosis. "Forget intellectual intelligence, he's emotionally brilliant," Lasley says. "He mirrors back to a patient, he reflects back what they need. I've gone in there crying, and he'll say, `I think you might need a night in the hospital, you're dehydrated, and you need a 24-hour break.' He's kept me alive. Peter gets it. You can go in there all confident and so sure that everything's great, and he'll say, `You know, I really agree but I still think you should have a CAT scan to be sure.'" She is scanned regularly and she also sees specialists at Memorial Sloan Kettering.
The seriousness of her diagnosis clinched Lasley's decision to join her business with Brahaney's (the couple's two businesses were profiled together in U.S.1 on October 8, 1997, just prior to her diagnosis). "I basically threw the business in Marc's lap and said, `I can't possibly think about this for one second.' The type of chemo and treatment I had were very physically difficult for the first seven years. One of the chemos I took was called `The Red Death.' So I was really sick - not from the cancer but from the chemo." She says that while she was dealt a bad hand with cancer she was also dealt a good hand in that her body is very responsive to chemotherapy.
Lasley credits the good work of Yi and the specialists at Sloan Kettering but she also credits two energy healers, partners Geoff White and Diana Warren of Cranbury, who have been coming to Lasley's home for four years. "They have been crucial," says Lasley. "I nearly died two years ago at Christmastime. I had a tumor that was wrapped around my aorta and they couldn't get it under control. I was in bed, my stomach was all bloated, I was really bad. And Geoff came in and said, `You're not gonna die.' They teach my body to use its own immune system, so they do a lot of work with body flow, getting meridians lined up and connected so your own cells can attack cancers. They have strengthened my liver - I had 60 percent of my liver removed - which in turn strengthens the blood."
She gathers inspiration and energy from "my supportive husband; my wonderful children; the rest of my family; my friends; exercise; swimming as meditation; and keeping interested, busy, and curious about things - events, people, travel - that make me thrilled to get up in the morning and find out what's next. My life feels like a treasure hunt - the treasure of an unexpected sunrise, a laugh with a close friend, an endearing interaction with a stranger, the treasure of smelling my son's sweaty boy forehead when I kiss him goodnight." And sometimes she swims with the sharks - the Lasley Brahaneys are all SCUBA certified, and they have gotten up close and personal with hammerheads and white tip sharks in the Galapagos.
While the business faltered initially after Lasley's diagnosis, it grew steadily in the ensuing years. "Marc got his footing and used his measured approach. He took it from being a `fun' company to what I say is a really mature company."
Brahaney, who grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, is no stranger to husband-wife teams. His father was a builder and realtor, and his mother collaborated on projects and was also a teacher, then a librarian. Like his wife he is also a cancer survivor. After matriculating at Princeton with the Class of 1977 he developed testicular cancer and had to take some years off. He graduated, summa cum laude, with an architecture degree in 1981 followed by a master's in architecture, also from Princeton, in 1986.
Like Lasley, Brahaney agrees that cancer changes you indelibly. "Sometimes surviving cancer changes a person's priorities and perspective so that what seemed so important or urgent before is less so after. It also seems important to remember, though, that the rest of the world might not share these rearranged priorities. The rest of the world - non-cancer folks - might not be prepared to blow off the things a cancer survivor has demoted in importance."
While the desire to make their new offices green "jives with our belief system that energy efficiency is extremely important," says Lasley, it is also born of their own experience with cancer. She believes cancer is caused by an intermingling of three factors - genetics, stress, and environment - and thus their drive to "go green" is fueled also by the desire to create a healthy working environment for themselves and their employees.
They bought the building for $658,000, a bargain considering it "was a piece of crap," Lasley says matter-of-factly. "And then the fun began." To make a building green, Lasley says, you are faced initially with "an overwhelming bunch of decisions to make and there's no clear `right thing.' You can buy bamboo flooring, and that's great because it's sustainable and you can regrow it in three years, but it only grows in China, so you're shipping it from China and using gas and oil and making us that much more dependent on those things. Then you can buy flooring from the guy down the road who cuts trees locally and that's a good thing, there's no shipping, but there's not very much of it."
While Brahaney says "clients aren't really asking for this stuff yet," Lasley finishes his sentence with "but that doesn't stop us from suggesting things that they could do." Brahaney adds, "We're not experts but we've jumped up quite a bit in our understanding of what makes sense and what doesn't make sense, the pros and the cons."
"Both of us have found ourselves on job sites and promoting things that we had never done prior to this building. The building came at the perfect time," Lasley says.
In a depressed real estate market it may be some time before the company sees the fruits of its labors but business is good for them no matter what's going on with the economy.
Brahaney says: "In a robust real estate market people move to new homes and they want to renovate them. In a poorer real estate market, people stay put and then they choose to renovate their existing house. What they might choose to do, though, is a less ambitious renovation. People at times like this kind of pull back and do things that are important to them and their family and that aren't so relevant to selling their house. There are so many emotions involved in renovating a home. Your home is your physical expression of how you want to have your family, how you want to connect to your family, what kind of time you want to have with your family."
The Lasley-Brahaney family lives in a yellow Gothic revival Victorian built in the 1870s on Rosedale Road that Brahaney had admired since he was an undergraduate at Princeton. It was a true fixer-upper and they have spent years restoring the 18-inch fieldstone walls, repairing the roof, adding a dormer, removing the wall between the two parlors and redoing the kitchen, among myriad other improvements, often incorporating salvaged materials such as a fireplace mantel, claw-foot bathtub, and a crystal chandelier from other jobs. The house received a plaque from the Historic Preservation Committee of Lawrence Township in 1997 and was on the YWCA's Rooms to View tour in 1999.
When Lasley and Brahaney decided a while back to subdivide their six-acre property, sell the house, and build their dream house on the back parcel, their plans were thwarted when the house simply wouldn't sell. So what are they going to do? Just what Brahaney would have predicted in such a market. "We'll just stay put and probably add on," he says.
When asked what life lessons she hopes her kids will remember when they're grown, Lasley says: "Only boring people get bored. Take a chance and do or say something risky." Lasley practices what she preaches. Last year she became one of the founding directors of the new Bank of Princeton.
"When they first asked me," Lasley says, "I looked at them like they had two heads and told them that the last thing this world needed was another bank. They asked me to check with my current bank to see what interest rate I was making on my money market account. I called my old bank and found out I was getting two percent less than that bank was currently advertising for new deposits. It outraged me that a bank could do that. Their attitude was that I hadn't followed up and asked for a current going rate and so they didn't give it to me. I became a director to help build a community bank that would actually help small businesses to grow and individuals to bank wisely. I don't do business for long with people that require me to have eyes in the back of my head."
Here's one more piece of advice Lasley says she is passing on to her kids, which can only be spoken with sincerity by someone who has foundered in life's darkest waters and swum like hell to get back to shore: "There are miracles every day, and all you have to do is go get one when you need it. Absolute true miracles."
This article by Jamie Saxon was prepared for the February 13, 2008 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.