Welcome to Future Talks, where we engage in enlightening conversations with visionaries who have carved unique paths in their respective fields. We are delighted to have Jay Fox as our esteemed guest. Jay’s journey from a dedicated writer to a prominent figure in the field of architecture writing is nothing short of remarkable.
Jay’s story is one of perseverance, adaptability, and the pursuit of his true passion. With a background in creative writing and a published novel to his name, he embarked on a journey that would lead him to become a staff writer for Passive House Accelerator and the President of Intrepid Fox Writing & Consulting Services. He is a graduate of New York University (B.A., 2005), where he studied philosophy and history. He currently resides in Asheville, North Carolina.
His journey into architecture writing was serendipitous, marked by a series of opportunities that allowed him to translate complex technical subjects into accessible language. Starting with freelance copywriting as a side hustle, he navigated diverse subjects, from app development to tequila commercials, all while maintaining his day job. This journey led him to a role where he translated technical regulations into layman’s terms for property owners, opening doors to new opportunities in writing about housing policy, and eventually, his own entrepreneurial venture.
Join us as we dive into his extraordinary journey and glean insights into the world of architecture writing and beyond.
RTF: Hi Jay, we are so glad to have you as a guest on Future Talks. Thanks for joining us. So tell us a little about your journey so far. What has your background been like and how did you delve into the field of writing?
Jay: The path to architecture was certainly unintended and indirect, though I’ve been a writer for pretty much my whole life. I think I started creating my first short stories around the age of eight or nine. Me and a friend also put out our own newspaper (more of a newsletter) around the same time. While I was in high school, I really began to focus on creative writing. Throughout that time, as well as during my years at NYU and the first half decade out of college, I spent thousands of hours churning out prose whenever I wasn’t working or studying. Ultimately, I produced four novels, though only one was published—The Walls, in 2011. I’ve also had a few short stories published in small magazines.
Before and for several years after getting the novel published, I had a day job as a title searcher. It didn’t pay well, but the responsibilities of the job disappeared the second I walked out the door. This allowed me to write fiction until the wee hours of the morning. I felt as though there was a certain dignity in this kind of arrangement and that, even though I was struggling financially, my fortunes would change once I landed a publishing deal.
This did not turn out to be the case. The publishing house that finally accepted the novel was small, so I received no advance and sales were meager. I was very broke, jobs were hard to come by because of the lingering effects of the Great Recession, and the only marketable skills I thought I had included an ability to stay up very, very late and an ability to write. Consequently, I made what I believed was the only reasonable choice: I began doing freelance copywriting as a side hustle.
The hours were ridiculous when I started. I’d usually write from seven in the evening until around two or three in the morning, sleep for a few hours, and then go to my day job from nine to five. The subject matter was all over the place. One week I’d work with an app developer who needed landing pages for every state park in Texas, then I’d write a script for a tequila commercial, and then produce a review of a literary novel that explored the intersection of gender queerness and postcolonialism. It was exhausting, but it gave me the chance to learn a lot. It also taught me how to change my voice depending on the subject matter, how to manage my ego when editors came back with extensive notes, and how to work efficiently.
About five years into the copywriting side hustle, a job recruiter recognized that I could read legal jargon due to my work as a title searcher. He got me hired to write about code compliance, which then became my day job. Basically, I was translating really technical regulations into ordinary language for property owners, many of whom spoke English as a second language. This set off a cascade of events that still seems pretty wild to me. Since I managed to write about code compliance clearly, I was then asked to do the same with respect to landlord/tenant law. Since I managed to write about landlord/tenant law somewhat competently (at least according to the attorney who reviewed the articles), I was given the opportunity to write about housing policy. Since I managed to teach myself these rather difficult concepts and write about them for a general audience, a coworker thought I’d make a good editorial and research assistant for a physician he knew who was looking for help. The physician and I have been working together ever since.
As of early 2019, I left the job writing about compliance. I then incorporated under the name Intrepid Fox Writing & Consulting Services, and I have been my own boss ever since.
I met Michael Ingui, the founder of Passive House Accelerator, not long after that through a mutual friend. He had recently started the Accelerator and wanted help with public relations. Initially, my writing assignments were fairly simple: press releases, social media posts, and brief news items. However, Michael, Director Zack Semke, and Director of Publications Mary James began giving me the freedom to write more in-depth pieces, which allowed me to learn about the nuances of Passive House design and architecture in general. My responsibilities with the Accelerator have only grown, and I am now a staff writer for Passive House Accelerator magazine. I also create a lot of the content that appears on the site that goes uncredited.
So, to summarize, I ended up writing about architecture because a lot of opportunities were extended to me over the course of several years and I managed to not screw them up.
RTF: Tell us about Passive House Accelerator and the kind of content that gets featured on the platform.
Jay: Passive House Accelerator is an organization dedicated to promoting the adoption of Passive House and high-performance building methodologies. There are five general principles to Passive House, which include continuous insulation; airtight construction; thermal-bridge-free detailing; high-performance windows and doors; and balanced, mechanical ventilation that provides a continuous supply of fresh, filtered air. Passive House buildings are so well insulated and efficient that they only need a fraction of the energy of a conventional home. These energy needs can oftentimes be satisfied with PV arrays. Granted, Passive House does not explicitly address embodied carbon, but people within the community are turning their attention to using materials that are more sustainable and require less energy to produce.
Since its inception, the Accelerator’s site has been freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection. The general idea is that we’re in a climate crisis and we have to learn how to build differently. We also have to do this very quickly. The good news is that a lot of the technical hurdles that individual projects come up against are not unique; they are iterations of problems that other architects, engineers, and tradespeople have encountered before. More importantly, they are problems that have been overcome. By sharing how teams overcame those problems, they cease to cause headaches for other teams.
It’s almost like a chat group for a really challenging video game. You could spend hours figuring out all the puzzles yourself or you could go into the chat group and learn how others have completed the puzzles and moved on to the next level. Since we’re in a climate crisis, it’s only rational to take the more cooperative approach.
To facilitate this cooperative approach, the Accelerator produces live video events for free. The site also hosts recordings of these events, podcasts, and written case studies about specific projects that have been certified by one of the two organizations that issue Passive House certification—the Passive House Institute in Germany or Phius, which is based in Chicago. Some of the case studies are written by the architects, engineers, tradespeople, or homeowners who worked on the project firsthand; some of the case studies are written by our Director of Publications, Mary James; and some of the case studies are written by me. In addition to the written case studies, we also publish some content from our sponsors, news about changes in housing policy, and other items that might be of interest to people who believe we have to make the built environment less wasteful.
RTF: What kind of content do you specialize in at PHA? Are you approached by architects to write about their projects for PHA?
Jay: I’m hesitant to call it a specialty because I still feel like such a novice, but my work at the Accelerator is largely divided into working with sponsors to create blogs and working with teams or individuals to produce written case studies. I typically don’t dedicate a lot of time to writing news stories or more journalistic pieces, though there are exceptions—such as the story about the day New York had some of the worst air quality in the world due to the wildfires in Quebec. I happened to be flying into New York City that day, so it seemed appropriate to write something about it.
That said, I’m hoping to use the case studies as a vehicle to talk about the health benefits of Passive House construction, particularly when it comes to improving indoor air quality and reducing occupant stress. I think my work with the physician has allowed me to better understand the connection between chronic inflammation, psychological stress, and pollution. I’m really hoping to explore these topics more in the future because I think that the psychological stresses associated with climate change will become a major interest for architects, engineers, and policymakers. I think it’s important for more people to know that Passive House is an available solution to many of these problems.
As to your second question: yes, I have been approached by a few architects or representatives for firms to write about their projects, but I usually learn about projects that seem interesting through word of mouth or if they win an award. The Buildings of Excellence Competition, which is put on by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and elevates a lot of Passive House projects. That program has introduced me to a lot of projects I may not have heard about otherwise.
RTF: What does your day as a writer at PHA look like?
Jay: Just about all of the work can be done remotely from my home in Asheville, North Carolina, so most of my days start and end in my apartment. I spend about an hour per day coordinating with associates at the Accelerator about the magazine, social media posts, and our schedule of content. I also spend a good amount of time working with our sponsors on their written content. Some days this can be an hour-long conversation with heads of marketing about topics that our audience will enjoy, some days it can mean learning about the importance of grommets in airtight construction so that I can have an intelligent conversation about the subject.
I’ll then likely spend at least an hour or two on one of the longer articles that focuses on a specific project. This usually includes some combination of writing and research. Finally, I like to try to stay up to date with trends within the Passive House community, changes in policies around the U.S., and environmental news in general, so I’ll likely spend at least an hour doing that.
RTF: Tell us about Intrepid Fox Consulting & Writing Services Inc. and your role and work at the organization.
Jay: I am the President and sole employee of Intrepid Fox Consulting & Writing Services. This was the company I founded in 2019, and I would encourage anyone who is writing freelance (at least in the U.S.) for more than a few clients to incorporate. It makes billing and taxes easier. Having the word “President” on your business card is also nice.
RTF: As a freelance writer, you’ve written a variety of content, including Blog Posts, Commercials, Short Stories, White Papers, and Mission Statements. Tell us briefly about how your writing process varies for each type of content.
Jay: I think I have two distinct writing processes, one that’s more creative and one that’s more technical.
If I’m doing a really technical piece, for example a white paper on project management, I’ll typically start by just reading. It allows me to gain knowledge of the subject matter that I’ll be writing about. It’s always good to have read twenty times more than you’re expected to write. In other words, if the blog post is 1,000 words, read 20,000 words about that subject.
Reading also helps teach you the language of the profession. Though it’s more pronounced in the world of medicine or law than in building science or architecture, there are distinct lexicons and pragmatics within every profession. It’s essentially a dialect. If you are going to write for a professional audience, you have to learn their dialect.
When writing more creatively, I have a tendency to focus on crafting and refining the personalities of my characters before I fully map out a plot. There’s nothing worse than having a character act in a way that doesn’t make sense to advance a storyline or complete an arc. Typically, this will involve creating a scene that I play out in my imagination for a while before I start writing. It’s kind of like choosing the colors that will be on your pallet before you start painting.
RTF: What are your top three writing tips for aspiring writers?
Jay: There are two things that every writer should be doing every single day and I believe they are intimately connected: reading and writing. Read abundantly and critically. Read the news, literature, poetry, history, and philosophy. Read writers who have different cultural and political perspectives. Read the works of authors from different countries and regions. Similarly, write every day because writing is a skill that gets more refined with practice and helps you to think about and absorb what you’ve read.
Secondly, talk with other people. Observe the rhythm of their speech, their mannerisms, their idioms, the way they sneeze. When you’re writing fiction, this gives you unlimited iterations of characters who become amalgams of your experiences with others. When you’re writing non-fiction, it gives you a better idea of what voice your audience wants to hear. You can then adjust your prose accordingly.
Finally, learn to divorce yourself from your work. For a long time, I used to get really defensive when someone would come back with edits and suggestions. It felt almost like a personal attack. It’s not. Creativity is subjective and subjectivity is necessarily imperfect.
RTF: What is the most rewarding aspect of being a writer?
Jay: I think the most rewarding aspect of being a writer is that I’m constantly learning new things and forcing myself to question and challenge my beliefs on everything from ethics to the validity of a scientific theory. It’s kind of a dialectical approach to thinking that’s reminiscent of Pindar’s famous words, “Become who you are by learning who you are.” To me, that process is only possible through writing, and I get to do it every day.