WELCOME TO THE GOLDEN LENS where we spotlight the stories and photography of inspiring women who’ve found their version of success and fulfillment. We’re so glad you’re here.
Gaby joined me inside the Self Portrait Studio community for the following live interview. You'll love hearing Gaby's singular point of view as she draws parallels between the beautiful homes she renovates and her philosophy on life, trusting yourself and making mistakes. Preferring the beauty and charm of older homes Gaby lives for transformation. My favorite part of the interview is when Gaby examines her success, generously sharing her missteps and lessons learned. Enjoy the interview and photography from our photoshoot together.
LH: Hello Gaby! Tell us about yourself. Give us personal details, quirks, give us the Informal Gaby Bio.
GN: Oh I love that. The Informal Gaby Bio. So, my name is Gaby. I am Nicaraguan, so I am not from the US. I moved here twenty three years ago, in 1999. I own a construction company called Guild Properties and I am a general contractor. Let’s see... keeping this informal... I love dogs, I love steak, I love a good standup comedy show, and I appreciate dry humor.
LH: You and I first bonded over coffee, specifically a cortado which you wrote about in an Instagram post.I finally had one but I'm not sure how authentic it was.
GN: Miami has the best, most authentic cortados in Cuban ventanitas. They are about ninety-eight percent sugar and like two percent coffee. But it is totally my jam. You drink two of those and you are set. Sometimes it’s too much and I overdo it and I, like, get emotional. I start screaming and, like, crying, and people are like, “what’s wrong with you?” and I’m like, “it’s the cortadito!” But they are delicious.
LH: Congratulations on your feature in Domino magazine with Matriarchy Build! Tell us about being a woman in a typically male industry.
GN: Thank you. I am going to be very frank here — I hadn't given it much thought until I started hearing this question again and again. I think it's because I come from construction. I grew up with the construction projects my Dad worked on. He used to own a very large construction company in Central America and my brother was an architect so there was always construction in my house. I took that on when I moved to the US. This is the first house not currently under some construction. Wherever I go, and I own several houses, there’s construction all the time. There is always a ladder, there are always workers around...right now though, there is nothing. But give me a few weeks and there will be something!
It is interesting, I guess, it's apparent to others who are not in the field. To other women who are not involved in this field. It first became obvious to me in 2020 when I went in to apply for my builders license. I have been in the field for a long time. I am originally a house flipper, that is how I got into the business of construction. I started house flipping in 2012, a decade ago. But it wasn’t until 2020, when I decided to get my commercial and residential building licenses that I noticed there was only one other lady doing the training with me. I remember this guy came up to me and said, “So is this your husband’s company?” and I just looked at him. No, it is my company, it is my license, and it’s my business. There is a husband, but he has nothing to do with what I do.”
I remember this guy came up to me and said, “so is this your husband’s company?” and I just looked at him. No, it is my company, it is my license, and it’s my business. There is a husband, but he has nothing to do with what I do.”
I have worked with the same construction crew for a long time and these guys are totally on board with working with a woman. I have never heard otherwise. They’re supportive, respectful, fun, caring, and we have each other’s back. I think they appreciate the way I manage them, especially since I also have a family. I understand that they want to be involved with their kids. If you need to step out on a Friday afternoon because you want to take your kids to soccer, that is totally okay.
LH: Let's talk about money. So much of what you do if juggling numbers and budgets, were you always comfortable with money or did you have to work on your mindset?
GN: Interesting. So, in Latin America, you don’t talk openly about money and how much you make. You flaunt it, but you don’t say it. You don’t talk about price or how much you paid, but it’s cool to own expensive stuff. Which I’m not necessarily into. That's the culture. So very early on — because I went to business school — I’ve always been comfortable with and loved numbers. Give me a good spreadsheet, a trapper keeper, and I am set. I think that's why I love real estate so much, because of the deal making. It is all about the numbers and I just love that.
In Latin America, you don’t talk openly about money and how much you make. You flaunt it, but you don’t say it. You don’t talk about price or how much you paid, but it’s cool to own expensive stuff. Which I’m not necessarily into. That's the culture.
When it comes to renovation projects, you are profitable when you manage your ins and outs well. That is when a lot of construction companies go under, because yes, they are making a lot of money, but they have no idea what they are spending on. This is something I am adamant about — and I always have several projects going on at once, but I know exactly how much a project is costing me at every point in time.
You need to be comfortable talking about money and how much things cost with a client. I have needed coaching around this. I have needed help with that mindset, setting boundaries, and being very open in my communications with clients. I tell them, “I am not necessarily the most expensive renovation company out there, but I am also not the cheapest. Usually, general contractors charge twenty percent as their general conditions fee. I charge twenty-five percent. I let them know very clearly, “everything you see here, my cost is twenty-five percent of that.” They need to be okay with that. That is the cost to work with me. The value I provide for them is ten years of knowledge. They have nothing to worry about. They just need to open the door for us and then if they trust me, they can just let us do our thing.
I let them know very clearly, “everything you see here, my cost is twenty-five percent of that.” They need to be okay with that. That is the cost to work with me.
Going over budget does happen, especially nowadays when with inflation and supply chain problems. The cost of materials is changing all the time so my estimations may not be as accurate as before, and we might go over budget. I have had to also have those hard conversations with my clients about overspending. Some people are freaked out, and others totally understand, but they are uncomfortable conversations.
LH: You recently launched a virtual design business as a way to help more people with their renovation projects. How is that going?
GN: 2021 was the year everybody wanted to do renovations in their house. Interest rates were low, it was very affordable to have a construction loan. That is changing, because of inflation and higher interest rates, people are more cautious about spending a lot of money on renovation. My husband is an economist, he saw this coming a long time ago. So I started thinking about creating a virtual service for bathroom renovations. Bathrooms are the majority of my business — I want to say seventy-five percent of my business is bathrooms. I understand bathrooms. If someone sends me a picture or video of their bathroom and gives me a generalized budget, I can tell them exactly what to do and how to do it. I have had a few virtual clients now. I haven’t sold it as much as I need to because I still have a lot of in-person renovation projects. I'm balancing my time with what I can do and what I can’t do. I also underestimated how much time it was going to take for me to deliver the virtual product. It is a lot more time than I had anticipated, which is always my downfall, Lisa. Every single time — and I have also needed coaching around this. I tell myself, “oh, I can do that in an hour.” Well, no. It is never an hour. It's usually three hours later and I am halfway done. So, miscalculating my output is my biggest downfall, because I always think I can do more in the amount of time than is truly possible. So I need to be very cautious with that. But I mean, it’s great. The clients that have gone through the process love it.
I have also needed coaching around this. I tell myself, “oh, I can do that in an hour.” Well, no. It is never an hour. It's usually three hours later and I am halfway done. So, miscalculating my output is my biggest downfall, because I always think I can do more in the amount of time than is truly possible.
LH: I appreciate your transparency around needing coaching Gaby. What is your favorite part of the construction and design process? Which part are you just there for every single time?
GN: I always tell people I am in the business of transformations. Before and After reveals are my catnip, you know? It is sort of like my meditation, relaxation, ASMR. I love the transformation aspect of what I do. I have done it for myself in every single home I have owned. I do it for my mom when I visit her, my sister...everyone. I walk into a space and I immediately start rearranging floor plans in my head. I can’t always demolish walls, so I start moving people’s furniture. I change people's floor plans all the time. I love transformation.
When I walk into a client’s space the first time, I know what it’s going to look like at the end. Completing a project, with the staging and final photography...it’s the best feeling. And I always want more of that feeling. I wish I could bottle that feeling and have it every single day, it never disappoints. It’s kind of like a high, I love it.
Completing a project, with the staging and final photography...it’s the best feeling. And I always want more of that feeling. I wish I could bottle that feeling and have it every single day, it never disappoints.
LH: Astrology, human design or enneagram?
G: I’m an Aries, so I was born in March and I’m super fiery. I love confrontations and I can get loud. I’m loud and I love arguing and I will argue until... I don’t know. Sometimes it gets me into trouble. So I need to watch out.
LH: And you didn’t go into politics? I mean, that would be a natural place for you.
G: That’s what my dad always said! He would say that I needed to be a litigator because whenever I'm not winning an argument, I confuse. I make it more complicated for people.
Photo credit Lisa Haukom, Goldenbrand Photography Studio.
LH: You live in Virginia, with your husband, and you have three children, a girl and two boys. What are their ages?
GN: 24, 13, and 11. The boys are the younger ones. Isabella is my 24 year old daughter who was born when I was 18 years old. So I was a teenage mom. Then I had the boys and they are 13 and 11. Coco, my standard poodle, is one.
LH: Coco is the cutest pup, I think she enjoyed the photoshoot too. I imagine there are a lot of lessons you are passing along to your daughter?
G: Oh yeah. I always tell her “I’m only eighteen years older than you,” and she hates it. But now, it is more like a friendship relationship and she actually helps me a lot with the boys. She recently moved to New York City for work. We miss her a lot, but she needed to go. She went to college here, so she really hasn’t left until now. And she needed that. But we are very close. I am pretty much decorating her apartment from here.
I've talked to her about having a baby so young and going through college with a baby. But it’s like, when I see things as a challenge where I get to overcome it and get to find solutions, it is so much more fun. And that is sort of like what renovation projects are. It is figuring out how to solve this puzzle. And so is life and so is anything that we do. It is all about making a choice. Looking back at all those challenges...oh my gosh. When you’re in it, you have no idea all of the skills you are picking up. Now I can see all of the tools I have gathered from all of the challenges. I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn't gone through all of these things. I just wouldn’t.
As a parent it is very hard because I don’t want to see my kid suffering or sad, I want to fix it for them, but I would be doing them a disservice. They need to fail. They need to figure out their own solutions. That is the only way. We need to fail every day because failing is how we get to our goals. Get to the goal, celebrate, hug yourself, what’s next?
They need to fail. They need to figure out their own solutions. That is the only way. We need to fail every day because failing is how we get to our goals.
LH: Do you have any sources or places you look at for aesthetic inspiration?
GN: We travel a lot. I mentioned I’m Nicaraguan. I get a lot of inspiration from traveling and from just Nicaragua Every time I go, I visit the market and the artisans down there are extremely inspiring to me. I take a lot of photographs and videos to look at when I'm back home. I'm constantly putting myself in situations where I know I am going to be inspired. I live in Washington, D.C. and we have so many museums here to visit and explore. Sometimes I'll go to a cafe and just sit with myself.
I get a lot of inspiration from traveling and from just Nicaragua Even time I go, I visit the market and the artisans down there are extremely inspiring to me. I take a lot of photographs and videos to look at when I'm back home.
I love old stuff. I’m not really into new home constructions, you know, I rarely add new square footage to homes, I am a big believer that we can make existing homes work beautifully. We don’t need a lot of enormous houses, we just don’t need that. Of course, if that’s your thing, that’s totally fine. Go buy a new build. But old houses are beautiful and with a good renovation, they can become super functional.
I am a big believer that we can make existing homes work beautifully. We don’t need a lot of ginormous houses, we just don’t need that. Of course, if that’s your thing, that’s totally fine. Go buy a new build. But old houses are beautiful and with a good renovation, they can become super functional.
Gabriela Narvaez grew up surrounded by the sounds of construction and design. The loud drill of power tools and conversations between contractors were a part of her normal life in Managua, Nicaragua where her father was a civil engineer and ardent developer. For Gabriela, real estate, design, and renovation has not only been a lifelong passion but also a constant part of her daily life.
In 1999, Gabriela moved to the equally humid city of Washington, D.C. Over two decades later, and she has not left. She has found a newfound passion for the properties within the District and the ones that surround it. From the single-family colonials in Arlington to the federal-style townhouses in Georgetown, Gabriela sees potential in renovation everywhere.
Demolition, development, and design excite Gabriela. As a fully licensed general contractor, designer, and real estate developer, she strives to create spaces where families can live both beautifully and joyfully.
She currently resides in Arlington, Virginia with her husband, three children, and their lovable poodle-mix.
This interview has been edited for clarity.