living and working

For startup firms with no built work to show, a house of one's own design can be the fast track to new business. And having an office on site reinforces an architect's presence in the community. Those are the benefits that husband-and-wife team Christopher Hays, AIA, LEED AP, and Allison Ewing, AIA, LEED AP, were counting on when they built their house and the adjacent Hays + Ewing Design Studio near downtown Charlottesville, Va. “Chris felt the house would give a certain gravitas to our work,” says Ewing, who left the Charlottesville firm of William McDonough + Partners a year and a half after her husband did to open their joint practice. By then their reputation had gotten traction from the house's awards and appearances in national publications, including The Washington Post.

“We use the house quite a bit to take clients on tour if it's appropriate to their project,” Ewing explains. “It's really helpful having clients feel comfortable about what we'll do for them, even if what they want is quite different.” Before they built it, the couple had moved 13 times in 11 years and never owned a home. Although Ewing says they did a pretty good job of anticipating the needs of a growing family, they are thinking of extending the second floor over the double-height living room to provide more recreational and guest space upstairs. “The studio was supposed to be the guest room, but Chris won't give it up,” she says.

Matthew G. Trzebiatowski, AIA, co-founder of blank studio, also timed his business launch to coincide with the completion of his Phoenix residence and office. It was a strategic move that he began plotting during architecture school and while employed at other firms. With its rusted steel exterior, lime-green balcony, and position high in the air, the house is hard to miss. Beneath is the studio, which has a separate entrance. (For more on this project, residential architect's Project of the Year, click here). Managing the construction boosted his hands-on confidence. “I had built enough other projects as senior architect to know how the process works, but there's nothing like having all the responsibility yourself,” Trzebiatowski says. “It was an amazing learning tool—and the best way I could think of to do some experimental things to push the practice forward, like trying out details that don't get full warranty from a manufacturer or installer.”

The unusual structure attracted attention even while it was being built. A film crew documented the construction process for “Desert Lifestyles TV,” a local cable show. That airing produced a domino effect, including a house commission from the show's producer, and by launch time, blank studio had several projects lined up. “All the work we've gotten has come from people driving by, seeing the house published, or seeing the awards on our Web site,” Trzebiatowski says. “As a new studio, we don't have a lot of built work to show, and there's nothing better than walking someone through a real project, letting them touch the materials and understand the spaces you can create. It also helps us be selective in the clients we take on. In our climate, we have a lot of requests for Tuscan Mediterranean things, and we're not interested in entertaining that, so it's important to put out there what you're about.” And the evolution continues. The effort was so gratifying that Trzebiatowski says he is ready to flip and go again.

Gerard Damiani, AIA, NCARB, and Debbie Battistone, studio d'ARC architects, were thinking similar thoughts when they built a new live/work space on Pittsburgh's South Side. (For more on this project, click here and here.) But they were trying to make a point about sustainability and community. The married couple had previously designed live/work quarters for themselves in a historic building. By building new, they wanted to show potential clients how urban streetscapes can be revitalized by filling in empty lots. Another factor in infill's favor is that loft developments, by comparison, are often false starts when they fail zoning requirements or don't generate enough interest. “We've done a number of lofts and were always very interested in having clients build on infill lots,” Damiani says. “They asked what it cost, and we didn't know because we hadn't done one.”

The couple purchased their lot in 1999 and started construction in 2001, when the weak economy brought all their other projects to a halt. Damiani served as construction manager and part-time carpenter on the building, which reinterprets traditional Pittsburgh row houses with exterior materials such as Cor-Ten steel, mahogany, and asphalt shingles. In addition to attracting new clients, the venture has given them confidence to try out speculative development. “We don't have any desire to leave this place, but there's always that interest in doing another project,” Damiani says. Meanwhile, they're hoping the option they've placed on a second lot pans out. With only themselves as clients, it will be another chance to leave their calling card in the community where they practice.

turning the tables

Everyone has heard that doctors are the worst patients. But how do architects fare as clients? Surprisingly well, at least for Dennis Wedlick, AIA. When the time came to add 110 square feet to the 800-square-foot weekend house he designed for himself and his life partner, Curtis DeVito, in 1988, he didn't hesitate to hand off the job to Hoboken, N.J., architect Jennifer Marsh, AIA, LEED AP. “In my practice I learned the importance of giving the whole family equal time, building upon disparate goals to get something unique,” Wedlick explains. “I felt the best way to accommodate the things on both of our wish lists was to put my money where my mouth was and hire an architect.”

Marsh is the wife of one of Wedlick's longtime employees, and her design talents were well-established. In choosing her, he also sensed she was confident enough to give honest feedback, yet lacked an ego that would get in the way of listening. Throughout, the two stayed true to their respective roles. Marsh took Wedlick's rough sketches to the next level and explored alternate ideas, drawing at least 20 iterations of a stair that had to be shoehorned in place. Another potentially tense design puzzle was a window that was rebuilt three times for the sake of 2 inches each way. Throughout the process, Wedlick never overstepped his bounds as a client. “It was nice for Dennis to be able to react to things objectively because he wasn't trying to figure them out,” Marsh says. “And I could diffuse any tension between him and the contractor and absorb the emotional part of the process. It's always emotional, no matter how seasoned an architect is.”

Being on the receiving end of that support validated Wedlick's belief about the unsung value of architects: how important it is to be a partner who will help clients realize their dreams, who will assure them that everything will be OK when they're afraid it won't be, and who will provide a sounding board when they chase after things that aren't fully thought-out. “I have a lot more appreciation for the crap part of my job,” he says. “It's not easy listening to someone get really nervous and worrying about how they'll pay for the project. What I learned firsthand was that it's worth every penny to have someone do that for me. And it made me realize again the importance of how details are executed. If I was starting to lose some of that appreciation, I regained it by going through this.”

The addition has become a marketing piece, but not in the physical way one would imagine. Says Wedlick: “When I give a sales pitch to a client, I say, ‘Just to let you know, I hired my own architect.' That has a huge impact on people. Lawyers hire lawyers, and it's a resounding statement that it's worth the investment.”