private vs. public

The firm's modest beginnings designing weekend cottages on Puget Sound have led to ever more ambitious commissions and clients. One of Sundberg's projects—an elegantly detailed, 6,000-square-foot house under construction on Martha's Vineyard—has been three years in the making. Clients who are spending millions of dollars need extra care, he says, whether it's checking in more frequently or customizing design presentations in a way they can visualize. “Not all clients understand drawings, and sometimes they don't like models,” Sundberg says. “We have to be careful that a client understands the project.” He's also designing an 11,000-square-foot ranch compound in Hawaii for a client who wanted to be able to tell the story of how the project evolved. Sundberg presented him with two books documenting the project's main phases, including the client's first letter inviting the firm to do the job. “We created the story and literally published it,” he says. “Notes about the spirituality of the house, the site, pictures of us working, and drawings out of my sketchbooks were all put into good-sized documents, because that's what the client needed.”

Until about five years ago, Sundberg and Allen were primarily responsible for the firm's institutional projects, while Olson and Kundig led the residential side. Olson was taught in school that you do houses until you can do real architecture, so in the late 1980s, he gravitated toward larger buildings. But when the recession hit, institutional money disappeared. “We thought to ourselves: Houses are the mainstay of our firm, we're proud to be doing houses. As opposed to feeling like, oh, if we were really good architects we'd be doing airports.” Because the work keeps pouring in, the firm has returned to its first love.

Still, to support the practice and to explore its interest in urbanism, Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen is aiming for a more even split between residential and institutional jobs. It's a tricky balance to achieve, since their reputation for a high quality of detail and perfectionism doesn't lend itself to most mixed-use projects. For now, urban commissions revolve around condo build-outs and museums, and Olson is pleased with the mix. “The residential projects are so eccentric and so private that it's really interesting to suddenly be out in public where people can walk through your work every day,” he says. “I think there's this urge to share what you do with other people, and the public projects allow you to do that in a different way. Churches, museums, or wineries—those things are a nice balance to residential work.”

A glut of high-end commissions doesn't stop the firm from taking on the occasional modest house. Kundig is working on a mountain cabin with a $250,000 budget, which he finds refreshing. Always questioning, always researching, Kundig has a loop of ideas constantly running through his mind that render house size irrelevant. Now at 60-plus employees, the partners aren't interested in getting bigger but in getting it right. Allen, who compares doing architecture to making origami, with its complex interlocking spaces, says the partners teach employees to hang onto their values about how to approach life and design. It's being rigorous and enlightened at the same time, he says, and not giving up. No doubt that's why clients of a certain caliber continue to find their way to the firm. “Clients as a group are fascinating,” Kundig says. “They're willing to risk a lot to commission an architect to build a home. They embrace life and are optimistic and energetic.” Just like their architects.

cherly weber is a contributing writer in severna park, md.