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Credit: Espirit Photogaphy

Founded by Marie Zawistowski, Architecte DPLG, and Keith Zawistowski, Assoc. AIA, GC, OnSite is a design/build practice which draws on the two principals’ shared experience at Auburn University’s Rural Studio in Alabama, the building traditions of southwest Virginia (where they live), and the classroom. The Virginia Tech School of Architecture + Design’s first professors of practice, the Zawistowskis are recipients of Graham Foundation grants, and in 2011, were awarded NCARB’s $25,000 grand prize for the course Designing Practice. “As creative professionals, we should be as creative about our approach to business as we are about design,” Keith says. The business model of OnSite is “one project at a time.”

The Rural Studio was a life-changing experience for us, as human beings and designers. We knew what we were getting into in terms of the Rural Studio’s values. Because we were outreach students—in other words, we weren’t from Alabama—Sambo [Rural Studio co-founder Samuel Mockbee] took us around on what he called his “Southern Odyssey”—the building traditions, the food, and the music. We became totally immersed in that culture—learning about a side of architecture that we didn’t know existed.But it was really a total immersion in a specific place. Our design/build practice is called OnSite, which is to say that we live and work in a place—a specific place—and we teach that as a value to our students. We encourage personal approaches to design and architecture, and we encourage students to find their own course.When you think about the architect as master builder—that old idea—it forces you to consider who is on the ground, involved in every step of the project’s design, sourcing materials, and making the physical project. So we use the term “design/build” to describe our firm because one of the things that matters to us is initiating a complete approach to a project—becoming a partner in the project. It means going out and finding the clients, and helping those clients with funding, designing, and building.We give a lecture together called “High-Tech/Low-Tech,” which deals with minimal means in terms of materials or funding, and we talk about developing a high-tech system that draws on what’s locally available. In the case of the Covington Farmers Market [pictured above], all of the goods sold there are produced within 100 miles. And so our students, who designed and built the project, tried to source building materials within that same radius as well.It’s about fostering a culture of initiative and resourcefulness for us—making something happen that couldn’t happen otherwise. It goes beyond the regular scope of an architect’s work. You become a person in the community who can identify a problem and find a solution to it.

Over the last few years, there’s something that we’ve found—a strategy of dealing with clients: Most clients don’t care what you, the architect, like or what buildings you think are interesting. But when you describe architecture in terms of how it solves a problem, then it makes sense for them regardless of what they think a building should look like.-As told to William Richards

To see Keith and Marie’s work, visit onsitearchitecture.com.