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What Building New York’s First Underground Park Taught Me About Building A Family

This article was produced in partnership with our friends at Nest.

Maybe it’s just who I am or a part of my job, but I think everyone who’s been a 20-something, 30-something in a big city like New York has — how should I put this? — burned the candle at every end. You constantly feel like there’s something to do and there’s not enough time to do it, so you make plans for dinner and then plans for after dinner every night of the week. You’re constantly running around and engaged with something, and you just try and gobble up everything humanly possible. At least I did.

So I was utterly filled with apprehension when I found out “it” was going to happen. The birth of my first son, Finny, was something of an accident, I guess, but something that, in the back of my mind, seemed imminent — or at least the appropriate thing to do at my age. Not that I had any clue what I was getting into.

Fatherhood is a transition for all guys. If yours doesn’t look like James’, it might look something like this …

At that time, we were building this not-for-profit project ourselves (nobody had asked us to), along with my full-time job of running an architecture/design firm, with me splitting time between designing homes, inventing technology, and running a business. The technology brings natural sunlight underground so that an unprecedented, years-in-the-making underground park called the Lowline can take shape and ultimately change the landscape of New York City. And I was traveling the world to drum up support for the project. So, yeah, the perfect time to have a kid.

And it did dramatically shift the way I lived my life. For a time. Once we passed that whole, “Can you manage the basic functions of human life?” phase, it got easier. Even now, my younger son, Theo, is still in diapers but I don’t have to be like, “Are you gonna live or are you gonna die?” Well, sort of, anyway. But more or less. The time I spend with them is the most amazing thing I do, and the older they get, the more I enjoy it and the more I learn about myself as a professional.

Nest Fatherhood Stories: James Ramsey

Courtesy of James Ramsey

Little things, like trusting others to do the work you’ve supposedly entrusted them to do. Imagine that — the business can go on without me gripping it so tightly. Or backing away from the world’s most demanding, busy schedule to free up time to spend with the kids. Someone who commutes to a 9-to-5 only gets first thing in the morning and last thing at night with the little guys, but my office is a hundred feet from my home, so I can dip out for a couple hours when I’m not needed and hang out with my dudes. I know that makes me very lucky, but even if I have just one second to break away, I’ll try and video chat with them. And I’m texting the nanny all day to know what they’re up to, looking at pictures she sends.

More than all that, having kids injected empathy into my life, which is honestly one of the most meaningful things that’s ever happened to me. Nothing anymore is all about me, my social life, my business, being a selfish jerk. This sense of empathy bleeds into every aspect of my life now. It’s not just about designing what’s cool and interesting but thinking more broadly about issues that affect the long-term future.

Nest Fatherhood Stories: James Ramsey

Courtesy of James Ramsey

How can we be responsible about the way we design for our planet? What’s going to happen to our cities in 20 years? What’s going to happen to people, period? Does capitalism work? Are we going to destroy the earth environmentally? How can I leave the world a bit of a better place? I probably should have been thinking a lot more about this stuff before, but you know what? Now it really affects my little guys.

I’m much more attuned to the legacy of what I do and the grand timeline of how I approach building an environment. So now if I have residential clients with kids, I delight in designing little things into their homes for the kids to discover. Sometimes I don’t even tell them I’m doing it. I’ll thicken a wall in one bedroom and build in a hidden door to a tunnel that leads to a secret chamber and into the other kid’s room, and just wait. A few months later I’ll get a text or an email from a parent saying, “Holy shit that’s cool!” I never would have thought to do that before.

Fatherly And Life With Nest

Nest app.

Here’s an even better one. We built a test lab for the Lowline in an abandoned warehouse on the Lower East Side, where we installed a multi-million dollar solar optical system on the roof that harvests and pumps in sunlight and has allowed us to grow this crazy piece of planted terrain. It has 3000 plants in this almost sculptural, undulating terrain with hills and stalactites and stalagmites — basically, we’re building a freaking mountain. And, at some point, I realized it would be such a missed opportunity not to throw a secret cave into it. So yeah, I did that. Now there’s a secret cave in there that opens up into this cavern, and we’ve fed in fiber optics to create stars in the ceiling. On weekends we open it to the public and invariably the kids go, “Holy crap, there’s a burrow over here!” And they climb into it and sit there and invariably they go, “Holy crap! There are stars on the ceiling!” Those stars, by the way, are arrayed into a constellation that happens to be the astrological sign of my firstborn son. So this oddball project I’ve poured my life into that will (hopefully) change the landscape of New York City will forever contain an homage to my kid.

And if you’re wondering, yes, it’ll fit an adult or 2. Just in case someone wants to get a babysitter for the night and go visit with someone special.

James Ramsey is a NASA satellite engineer turned founder of the New York City design studio, Raad. He is the inventor of the Remote Skylight and creator of the Lowline, which will use that technology to illuminate an abandoned Lower East Side trolley terminal into a revolutionary underground park.