How One Architect Hatched the First Startup From Google's Top Secret Lab

The unravelling of Michelle Kaufmann's architecture career led her to Google--and to reimagine design.

Only in Silicon Valley does an introduction from a client lead you to the guys running Google's top-secret research lab. That's what happened to architect Michelle Kaufmann five years ago, when a tech CEO she'd designed a home for put her in touch with Google X's Astro Teller and Sebastian Thrun. After meeting with the pair, recalls Kaufmann, "I felt like I had found my people." Although she didn't realize it at the time, the encounter would also help her put her career, which had recently derailed, back on track.

Kaufmann had spent the previous decade and a half building a soaring architecture career. She had worked for design populist Michael Graves and then computer-assisted-design (and swoopy titanium) pioneer Frank Gehry. By the time she was 34, she had built her namesake firm, creating beautiful, modular, sustainably designed prefab houses that mashed up the ideas of Charles and Ray Eames and tract-house pioneer Joseph Eichler, leading Sierra magazine to hail her as the "Henry Ford of green homes."