FAIRFIELD — Since the start of the pandemic earlier this year, more people are choosing to work from home. For those with children, it has meant a difficult balancing act between fulfilling their job duties and watching after their little ones.
Holly Butler of rural Fairfield is juggling two part-time jobs while supervising her 9-year-old son Charlie’s online homeschooling. Butler knows everything her son is doing on the computer because he’s just an arm’s reach away from her own desk, where she splits her time between designing kitchens and bathrooms for a local company and running her own architectural firm.
“We’re literally 2 feet from each other,” Butler said about her and her son’s work stations. “I oversee him to make sure he’s actually doing his homework. And we’ve got three cats and a dog, who are like my co-workers, so I’m never alone anymore.”
Charlie was in the Fairfield Community School District until this past summer when Butler and her husband Jens decided to put him in an all-virtual school called Iowa Connections Academy. She knew going fully online was an option through the district, but she liked the idea of transferring to a school that already had a well-established online curriculum.
Butler has been working from home since March when the schools closed, and she had nowhere to send her son. The couple has continued to homeschool Charlie because they’re not comfortable sending him back to a building full of other students.
“The big benefit of working from home is that I get to protect my child,” Butler said. “We’ve lost two family members to COVID-19, so we’re not taking the risk. It’s not worth it when I can stay home.”
The main downside to working from home is that Butler lives 5 miles outside Fairfield, and her rural internet is “terrible.” She said the internet goes down a lot, and it has low bandwidth, so her service lags. She and her neighbors are putting their heads together for a solution, but so far they haven’t found one that didn’t cost $1,000 per home.
“It’s nice living in the middle of nowhere, but there are trade-offs,” she said.
Overall, Butler likes this new arrangement. Life feels less hectic now. Gone are the days of rising early to get Charlie on a bus by 7:15 a.m.
“Now we can get up at 7:30 a.m., and it feels like we’re sleeping in,” Butler said. “It’s more laid back now.”
Butler said the employer she designs for, Green Building Supply in Fairfield, has been flexible in letting her work from home 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. five days a week. She’s worked for the company for three years and has supplemented this income with her own business, HDLB Architecture & Design. She knew that running her own architectural business was not going to be a full-time job, because there isn’t enough demand for architects in a town like Fairfield.
For Green Building Supply, Butler designs kitchens and bathrooms for customers all over the country. She said she has designed hundreds of rooms thus far, and she greatly enjoys it.
“It’s pure design. I don’t have to worry about finding clients or anything like that. I just get to draw,” she said. “For my own business, I have to do taxes, marketing, finding clients, etc. I don’t like business. I like drawing.”
Butler started her firm in 2016, hoping to recreate the success she found making cost-effective designs for Habitat for Humanity as its construction manager. Butler was the group’s construction manager for about six years where she wore many hats. She designed the house, wrote the contract for the family moving in, hired subcontractors, organized volunteers and was on-site helping build the house two days a week. Since much of the work could be done from home, it was perfect for her as a new mom, since she only had to hire a babysitter one day a week.
“It’s very satisfying for an architect to build what they design,” she said. “It makes you a better designer, because you realize what is easy to build and what is needlessly complicated or expensive.”
For the most part, Butler said people were accepting of having a woman as construction manager. There were a tiny handful of exceptions, though, of contractors who “didn’t come around” to the idea.
“I was pregnant when I was building the first house,” Butler said. “I don’t recommend that. There was a little bit of resistance from some contractors.”
Butler has built upon her knowledge of cost-effective design from her years in Habitat to do the same thing for her own customers today. Her customers usually have a larger budget than Habitat, whose motto is building homes that are “simple and decent.”
Thus far, Butler has designed several renovations and porches, and designed a couple of houses under construction. Unlike in her role with Habitat, she leaves the building to other contractors, focusing instead on the design.
Even now after stepping down as Habitat’s construction manager, she continues to help the group with designs and site plans. Butler’s neighbor Kathy Brown is now helping with Habitat’s construction management. Brown got Butler involved in Habitat a decade ago after Holly and her husband moved here from Denver. That’s where Butler grew up, where she cultivated her love of building and design that has blossomed into a career.
“As a child, I always made houses for my toys and things like snow forts,” she said. “For my career, I never thought of doing anything else.”