Eck is devoting a little less time to the business these days, and it's costing him. To get those Fridays off, he took a cut in pay. Several years ago, he made his two longest-tenured associate architects partners in the firm. He gave them each a number of shares in the business and offered subsequent opportunities for them to buy shares. Currently, Paul MacNeely, AIA, and Stephen Mielke, AIA, own 32 percent each of Jeremiah Eck Architects, and Eck owns 36 percent. Not only does he still hold the controlling interest, he remains the chief rainmaker and therefore retains the eponymous firm name. The 13-person practice has about 15 projects on the boards at any given time, and averages about 70 percent new houses and 30 percent remodels. It also does one large institutional project a year. "It evens out the cash flow," he says. "With our educational projects, the clients tend to be the same. There's a lot of overlap between the private-house world and the private-school world."
Schools are on Eck's mind of late. He designs them, he teaches in them, and he has a bright, inquisitive, 3-year-old daughter who'll attend one in the not-so-distant future. They are, he believes, both the problem and the potential solution to bad house design. The difficulty is that our education system neglects the left brain, which is a primary reason the general public has little understanding of or admiration for what architects do, he says. "Things would be different if our culture thought of us as a necessity. But the only way we're going to change the culture is to educate children visually. There are two sides to the brain--this is not news--but if we train just the scientific side, no one can make the leap into three dimensions."
That's what makes architects' jobs so difficult. Not only do they have to design beautiful houses, they have to teach their clients how and why they're beautiful. Then they have to convince them to pay for them. "I've had bank presidents as clients who can't visualize how something will look," he says. "Contractors are viewed as the experts who can put everything together. Our culture values those who can build things, but not those who can design them. We don't see architects as adding value to the process like a custom suit or a beautiful car."
By painting, Eck sought to reawaken and expand the left side of his brain. After so many years in practice, it's easy to delegate many of the creative tasks and shift into more of a management position. "I thought I was just looking for a rest," he recalls. "I felt I was losing touch with the intuitive parts of the business. But by painting on Fridays, I made myself a better architect and it helped my business. I make intuitive judgments faster now, and in a larger firm you're asked to make big-picture decisions quickly. It kept me from atrophying into a management role."
Jeremiah Eck's new book makes a compelling—and beautiful—argument against houses that disregard their environments and in favor of more...
Almost exclusively, he paints landscapes. "I try not to do houses," he says. "I tried one summer, but I didn't capture the spirit of the building. But paintings are about light and space, just like architecture." His favorite painters are the Tonalists, landscape painters whose work was once well known but is now eclipsed by the Hudson River painters, the Impressionists, and others. George Inness was perhaps the most famous Tonalist, but Eck is partial to the work of a fellow Ohio native, Alexander Helwig Wyant, who painted during the last half of the 19th century. "The Tonalists reacted against the industrialization of their age. They had a heartfelt sympathy with nature," he says. Their style wasn't about copying the scene with scientific accuracy or technical flourish; it was about getting at the emotion and spirit of a place.
Eck hopes to achieve the same goal with his houses. "The intimate knowledge I gain from painting landscapes is, most of all, an intimate knowledge about the site I paint. That awareness can't help but inform how I site our houses. How else could it be?" he explains. "If you have to understand and express what it feels like in the shadow of a tree, the slope of the hill, or at the edge of a meadow, you learn at the same time much about how the potential house will feel in the same position."
How his houses will feel to those who live in them is of paramount importance to Eck. In the slide presentation he gives to prospective clients, he includes many magazine-worthy, sweeping shots of exteriors and interiors. But he ends the show with a quiet little vignette of an easy chair, a cup of coffee, a book, and a pair of glasses. "I say to people, in the end it's about comfort and feeling peace. I want you to return from work, sit down, and feel at home."
It's a lovely picture only an artful architect can paint.