Banging hammers aren't part of the daily routine at most architects’ offices. Nor is pumping 10 tons of cellulose into the rafters overhead. But Placetailor isn’t your typical architectural firm—in fact, it isn’t an architectural firm at all. It’s a four-year-old design/build/develop/bike-to-work cooperative with projects all over the Boston area. Although it isn’t clear whether its got a viable model for reinventing how buildings get built, the practice offers a critique of the profession that may resonate beyond its R-48 walls.
Placetailor was started in 2008 by Simon Hare, Assoc. AIA, a designer and builder passionate about developing new models of design and construction that challenge industry standards. Placetailor’s first project was the Hare family’s home, Pratt House, which garnered attention for its energy-efficient renovation and small physical and environmental footprint. Hare recruited a team of young designers and builders turned off by design-firm hierarchies and an industry they see as pitting architects against contractors. The company has had an evolving cast of characters, united by the conviction that designing and building should be joined together as a cooperative enterprise.
Declan Keefe, who has been with Placetailor from the beginning, took over as director when Hare went back to Israel. Just 24 years old, Keefe recently graduated from Boston Architectural College. Evan Smith left his high-end landscaping business to join a values-based company focused on a new way of shaping the world. Travis Anderson studied architecture at the University of Washington with Steve Badanes, AIA, a co-founder of Jersey Devil, the pioneering design/build firm whose collectivist ethos seems to be an animating spirit for many emerging professionals.
These three, along with Kevin Young (Boston Architectural College), James Drysdale (Massachusetts College of Art), and Steve Daly (Wentworth Institute), comprise the “tailors of place” who share design and building duties, and decisions on structuring their future. There is no office to keep up or sweatshop hours for the Placetailor crew: they work out of temporary “mini-houses” set up on their sites and put in a four-day week. No one has a pickup truck and they rarely use cars, preferring bikes instead.
“We try to rethink every aspect of the design and building process to make it rewarding at a lot of different levels” Keefe says. “Our business model is constantly evolving so we can balance profitability with other goals.”
Keefe sees their enterprise expanding through a network of loosely affiliated cooperatives that can keep a local focus while still having a broader impact. It’s a bit of the “stay hungry, stay crazy” startup mentality that is hard to sustain as firms grow and get bigger and more prominent commissions.
Because personal fulfillment is as important to Keefe as meeting social and environmental goals, Placetailor has adopted German Passive House principles that slash energy usage to practically zero. They construct a super-insulated shell-within-a-shell wrapped in an air-sealed skin, then duct in fresh air with a heat recovery ventilator to recapture heat from the air ducted out.
The devil is in the details, of course, and Placetailor works hard to make sure every pipe and wire is run so it doesn’t puncture the airtight wrapper. The result is a house that is kept warm all winter by its occupants’ bodies, their cooking, and sunshine. Or, as they claim, the same amount of energy consumed by a typical household hair dryer, which is about 1,000 watts.
Placetailor’s recent docket of work includes residential rehabilitations, a new house built from the ground up, and energy retrofits for a 100-year-old church. But its most prominent project is a three-unit condominium building on a tight urban site in the Roxbury section of Boston. Dubbed “Powahouse,” it is intended to make sophisticated energy saving technologies accessible to a broad-based urban constituency. Placetailor was not only the designer and builder but the developer as well, allowing them to bring the neighborhood in on the planning process.
“Design needs to include input from the entire community,” Keefe says, “rather than being imposed by architects from above.”
Placetailor has been smart about branding its approach with the catchy Powahouse name and logo, and sending the message that zero-energy construction isn’t just for show-house projects. Yet the collective seems to be less concerned with using design to give form to its cultural visions. Powahouse looks like a fairly conventional residential building, without much formal ambition or exuberance to suggest the unconventional building process behind it.
What Placetailor does provide, importantly, is a useful model for how contemporary practice could move in a more entrepreneurial and cooperative direction by responding to trends in both the academy and industry. Many architecture school studios create an opportunity for collaborative work, but those opportunities often screech to a halt after graduation, leaving many young designers longing for an alternative to the typical office. Recent graduates are also confronted with more options for getting buildings built, including modular and prefabricated buildings and a variety of community-oriented design/build programs. Some building delivery systems may focus on a strong formal vision, while others see construction techniques and neighborhood input as the primary drivers of design. Placetailor provides an alternative to the architect as the primary, authorial voice.
Without question, buildings continue to speak long after their builders have moved on to other projects. Honing a more enduring message through design can only help in the creation of meaningful buildings and neighborhoods, no matter how they are delivered. Placetailor is suggesting a broader model for practice that could return architecture back to its community roots; whether eloquent design can come out of its more egalitarian process still remains to be seen. —David Eisen, AIA