The New Year is the time when many of us take stock of where we’ve been and where we’re going.
It’s a time to reflect upon the way things have been and create a new plan for the future. In that respect, Denise Lehmann is way ahead of the game: For years, she has been looking ahead. As an environmentalist and builder, she and business partner Alex Plessant have been building the homes of the future. The two are spearheading the creation of Sheldon Crossing, a 16-unit carriage-home development in Manayunk (www.sheldoncrossing.com). Described as “eco-passionate,” Lehmann and Plessant are committed to building homes that are not only luxurious and stylish, but environmentally friendly too. “Our homes will not only save energy and cost less to operate and maintain, but they will be healthier, more comfortable and durable, and have less impact on the environment,” Lehmann said. The homes will feature everything from photovoltaic solar panels, vegetative green roofs and charging stations for electric or hybrid vehicles to fireplaces and 18-foot decks. PGN spoke to Lehmann as the new decade got under way.
PGN: Tell me a little about yourself. DL: I was born in Hackensack, N.J., and I am the middle child of three girls. I have a sister who is three years older and one who is eight years younger than me. I’m the only one who moved away. I came to Philly about 17 years ago, but the rest of my family still lives in North Jersey.
PGN: What did your parents do? DL: My mom was a stay-at-home mom and my dad had a painting and wallpapering company.
PGN: Do you think that influenced your desire to get in the housing business? DL: You know, I think that it probably did. And my mom, although she didn’t have a formal profession, was really into decorating. She is very talented and has a great eye and passion for it. Her friends were always asking her to help design or fix up their homes. My father was into it as well: They were always working on our house. In fact, I remember when I was really little suggesting to my parents that they open up a shop together where he could sell paint and wallpaper and she could do interior design work. I didn’t understand how difficult it was to run a business.
PGN: What were you like as a kid? DL: I was a tomboy. I loved to be outside. I was always creating and building things. I would create forts out of boxes in the summer and build igloos in the winter. I’d put carpeting inside and make a mock sofa, really fix it up so I could hang out in comfort. I never really thought about it until you asked that question, but I guess I’ve been building things since I was a kid. I used to build go-carts and all sorts of stuff.
PGN: It seems like you were good with mechanical things. Most little girls at that age were busy playing with Barbie’s Dream House and you were building your own out of cardboard. DL: I guess I was! [Laughs.]
PGN: So other than building go-carts, what was an early sign you were gay? DL: I just remember early crushes on teachers, and that’s not to say that I didn’t have crushes on male teachers too. I had plenty of boyfriends and, in fact, was engaged twice. But when I think back, I always knew that I felt a little bit different. Obviously, we don’t recognize what it is a lot of times until we’re older. I didn’t officially come out until I was 24, but I did have some early experiences with women.
PGN: When was that? DL: When I was 17. I was dating this guy and back then we were close to the New York state border, where you could drink at a much younger age. We went to a bar in New York and I found myself very attracted to the female bartender. We became friends and eventually one thing led to another. At the time, I thought maybe it was just a singular event and that it was just a passing phase, but I continually found myself attracted to women. Then when I was 24, I was dating this guy and we were going on vacation. We started taking scuba-diving lessons and the scuba-diving teacher was very attractive. [Laughs.] I ended up breaking up with him and dating the diving teacher! After that, I never looked back. We were together for three years and that’s when I came out to my friends and family.
PGN: How did the family handle it? DL: I think it took most people off guard — friends, family and certainly my parents, but for the most part it went very well. I think my sisters were a little shocked, but they were very accepting. My parents were the last to find out and it took them a little while to come around but they did eventually get there and they’re now very supportive.
PGN: Where did you go to school? DL: I went to St. Thomas Aquinas College in New York for two years but I dropped out to work at an Austrian eyewear manufacturer. I started working for them when I was 16 years old in high school and part-time while I was in college. After I dropped out, I worked for them full-time. I moved up in the company and got a position with them that brought me to Philadelphia. In 2000, I started investing in real estate and started my own company renovating and rehabbing homes. It naturally progressed into building new housing. Sheldon Crossing is my largest project and my baby.
PGN: How did you get from working for an eyewear company to building and construction? DL: The truth of the matter is that there is no direct correlation, but the indirect correlation is that the skills that I learned in the corporate world laid the foundation for me to run and market my own business. What brought me into home building was my deeply rooted passion for it, which I think I’ve had since childhood. I always loved the warm and inviting home environment that my parents created and enjoy sharing that passion. I’m not an architect, but I’m heavily involved in the design process. It’s in my blood. I know what it is that I want to create. I think what makes you successful — what makes anyone successful in life — is if you can find what you love and make a living at it, big or small, as long as you are doing what you love to do.
PGN: When did you develop an interest in the environment? DL: I’m the kind of person who has always been into health and fitness and nature. I love animals and the great outdoors, and it’s always been a part of me. My mother really loved animals, so growing up we always had pets. My grandfather had a farm too, so he bought my sisters and me a horse to ride.
PGN: What was your worst riding incident? DL: I was about 7 and my grandfather bought a new pony for us. I got on him and the pony threw me over his head. Right outside the barn was a big cement block with a water fountain, and I missed slamming my head on it by a fraction of an inch. Of course, my mother and everyone was screaming and it was awfully traumatic for a 7-year-old, but my father insisted that I get right back on. Thank God he did. It was the wisest thing, and I think that maybe it instilled in me the drive I have now. There are a lot of things that I might not have done if I didn’t have that capacity to move past the fear. No matter how scared I might be, I always forge forward.
PGN: Any other lessons? DL: I also believe that if you’re going to do something, do it well. We’ve always tried to be on the forefront of building in a sustainable and eco-friendly manner, even prior to the U.S. Green Building Council standard ratings. I just believe in building well. It’s building in a way that creates a healthy home while minimizing the negative effects on the environment. I mean it’s where we spend most of our lives, so it should be someplace that nurtures us.
PGN: Tell me about the “Tree of Life.” DL: We were in a meeting trying to decide what to do with the debris that was leftover from the construction. Alex has an artist friend, Mari Skarp, that he went to school with. He called her and she gathered almost 800 pounds of leftover wood, metal, iron, wires and plastic and is going to construct a statue called the Tree of Life, that will symbolize the interconnectedness to the earth and living green that we are trying to create with Sheldon Crossing. We’re really excited about it.
PGN: What is the Home Grown Manayunk Fall Festival? DL: It’s a festival that brings together a lot of different artists and vendors from the Manayunk area. Almost all of the work I have done has been in this area, so when they contacted us, we were happy to sign on as the main sponsors. I really believe in giving back to the community and this was a great way to do it. We’re hoping that it will someday be as big as the Manayunk Arts festival.
PGN: What makes it home grown? DL: The festival is all about being local, sustainable and green. Last year we had a CD signing with the Bacon Brothers and live music on two different stages. We even had a Mummers string band performing. There’s also a farmers’ market and local foods are featured at participating restaurants. There is also a sidewalk sale with merchants selling locally produced items, organic foods, environment-friendly and recycled products and services.
PGN: Switching gears, did you play any sports? DL: I was in track and field in high school and I play tennis now, but I was never really into organized sports. But I like to be active and stay fit and I am the kind of person that if someone called me and said, “Let’s go throw a football around or play some softball,” I’d do it. I’m game for most things.
PGN: Which personal trait has gotten you into the most trouble? DL: I’m going to say the fact that I can be a bit flirtatious. By nature, I’m a warm, touchy-feely type of person and I can be flirtatious, which can be misconstrued at times.
PGN: What’s the worst hairstyle you ever had? DL: Well, I’m a Jersey girl, so you know that I had to have big hair at one time or another. That bad perm from the early ’80s.
PGN: How did you meet your current partner? DL: We met at the New Year’s Eve party at the 2-4 Club three years ago. I hate to say that we haven’t been back since. We’re both homebodies!
PGN: Something great about her ... DL: She keeps me in balance. She’s the kind of person who keeps things simple, which I really love and really need. I tend to complicate my life and take on more than I should and, as a workaholic, will do everything I can to complete the things I take on. She is very centered and helps me slow down.
PGN: Any hobbies? DL: I enjoy gardening and, if you ask any of my friends, they’ll tell you renovating and redoing my house, which I have done over and over again. When I’m not building, I’m doing something to my house. Honestly, that’s what I love about my job, because what I do for a living is what I love to do in my life. If I wasn’t doing it for a living, it would be my hobby.