Frank Harmon, FAIA, first got the inspiration to design his house when he was living and working in England. He and his wife, Judy, a landscape architect, fell in love with the famous English manor gardens and dreamed of designing a house and garden that belonged together. On returning to Raleigh, N.C., in the 1980s, they bought a lot near North Carolina State University and spent a year negotiating a design befitting their young family. “It was the first time we worked together directly on such a thing,” Harmon recalls. “We designed it 13 times and built No. 10.”

Harmon's desire was not so much to bolster his five-year-old practice by showing off his design skills as it was, as he puts it, to create a “wonderful place to wake up in every morning.” And yet, directly or indirectly, an architect's home amounts to both a personal and a public expression of artistic sensibilities. If people are endlessly curious about how their neighbors live, they are even more intrigued by what architects build for themselves. Think of Frank Gehry, FAIA's deconstructivist Santa Monica, Calif., home. Or the Glass House that Philip Johnson designed for his own use—perhaps his best-known work. On a grander scale, there's Monticello, where Thomas Jefferson's quirky inventiveness is still a popular draw.

Designing a personal dwelling gives architects the rare opportunity to explore their ideas of what a house should be, to experiment with materials, and to test their vision in everyday life. What's more, they have only themselves to please. “By far it's the best thing any architect can do,” Harmon says. “It's elemental in the pleasures and rewards it brings, and it's the first statement we make about ourselves and what we believe in.”

calling card

For many architects, building their own house is a chance to try things that clients would never agree to. That was the case for Mark McInturff, FAIA, back in 1978, when he bought four contiguous houses in various states of disrepair. Over time he renovated and sold one house, combined two as his own, and made the last one into the office he occupies today. He did much of the construction work himself. “When I finished my house, I used to say that people should never hire an architect who isn't living in a house of his or her own design and didn't build it,” he says. “I knew it shortened the list of competitors, but I thought there was something real to that idea.” Without regard for resale value, he did some unorthodox things, like locating an open bath in the bedroom and creating 10 different floor levels, including a five-level office.

Early on, the project jump-started his practice as people began to see it published. Television anchor Charles Gibson toured it live on “Good Morning America.” HGTV picked it up as well. It even appeared on the cover of Metropolitan Home. “The houses were instrumental in helping to establish my reputation,” McInturff says. “You're giving people an intimate look at yourself. It gave clients more insight into who I am—and a higher comfort level.” Although he's been working on the property for 30 years, he no longer gives clients tours. But what does show, when they come to the compound, is an overall sense of his work. Last spring McInturff built a steel-framed “flying screened porch” that's 30 feet above ground and reached from the house over a 60-foot-long bridge. “If you compare this office environment—a bunch of houses in the treetops—to a downtown office, it's a different world,” he says. “It's a much warmer, engaging environment, and the buildings become business cards.”

Mark Hutker, AIA, uses his four-year-old Falmouth, Mass., home as a business card too. He brings clients by to demonstrate that scrappy materials such as concrete floors, exposed engineered floor joists, and acid-etched steel can be both warm and visually exciting. This is the second house that Hutker has designed for his family, and its forms and materials reference the outbuildings of a neighboring horse farm. The idea was to include a chill-out space that would become the destination of choice for his teenage children and their friends. But it was also to work out some design frustration. “When I'm working with a client, I'm thinking about solving their daily life patterns in the context of a specific site,” he says. “You imbue the design with as many interesting and artful ideas as you can, but you're not in decision-making mode. That's the difference in the paradigm.”

Hutker has always liked the vibe of a just-framed house, because one can see how the building is working to protect its inhabitants. In addition to exposing the floor joists and using vertical cedar siding inside and out, he painted the lateral steel beams safety-orange. After the staircase's steel stringers were laser-cut and the rough edges ground down, Hutker liked the rough-hewn look so much that he decided to finish it with a clear sealer rather than paint over the discolored grinding marks. “Can you imagine calling the clients and saying, ‘Let's keep this'? You sense that someone has touched it and cared for it. There are few architects who get to work on the purely artistic level. Designing your own house is the chance to say, ‘This is what I'd do if I got the opportunity.'”

Todd Walker, AIA, co-founder of Memphis, Tenn.-based Archimania, agrees. “If you can't do something noteworthy for yourself, you have no one to blame,” he says. In 2000 Walker built his Harbor Town house, close to downtown Memphis, to show people what could be done on a tight budget and a difficult site. He also wanted to demonstrate that a modern house can fit right into a neighborhood infused with history. “We were doing some residential work that was just one degree out of the norm,” he says of his fledgling firm. “They weren't projects we could hang our hat on.”

Although building new can be prohibitive for a young architect, professional skills provide the much-needed leverage. Walker got a good deal on the lot, not only because it was perceived as difficult to build on, but because he convinced the developer that he could show the public how a steep slope could become an asset. Ignoring the advice of local Realtors to include a two-car garage, he built a one-bay detached garage that lent a cottage feel. Not only was it less expensive to frame as a separate structure, it added value by freeing up space for a patio on the small plot and minimizing the house's scale.

Walker was rewarded with a handful of design awards and national media attention. The project immediately generated new work with private clients and another developer. His business partner, Barry Alan Yoakum, AIA, LEED AP, recently built a house in the neighborhood, too, and the pair is considering building new homes for themselves every five years to diversify their portfolio. “It's as important for the firm as it is for us personally,” Walker says. “We're intrigued by the idea that you can build a little portfolio of houses you've designed for yourself. That doesn't mean your work for clients can't evolve, but this accentuates what you do and adds some diversity. You get a lot of respect from clients when they see what you've done for yourself. It adds something that's hard for other architects to compete with.”