Brigitte Shim, FRAIC, Hon. FAIA, presented the keynote speech Dec. 6 at Reinvention 2010 in New Orleans. The residential architects and architecture buffs—nearly 200—at the conference had eagerly anticipated Shim’s talk, and no wonder: With her husband and partner in Toronto’s Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, Howard Sutcliffe, MRAIC, Hon. FAIA, Shim has amassed a portfolio of intriguing, serenely beautiful homes, in settings ranging from tight urban zones to bucolic rural landscapes. (See residential architect’s 2006 profile of the firm.)

Shim told the audience that she and Sutcliffe think of housing as an ongoing laboratory. “We’re doing larger-scale work now, but always have and will do work at a residential scale,” she said. “It is the laboratory. We can then plow all those experiments into other projects.” She used images of various houses to help explain the common threads of their work, including an emphasis on framing views in unconventional ways; thinking about the way light will fall throughout the seasons; using water to connect with the landscape; and making a constant effort to look at space and materiality in new ways. Shim-Sutcliffe also views architecture and furniture as intertwined entities, as was demonstrated in slides of a house for a mathematician/concert violinist, which featured custom music stands of stainless steel mesh.

The firm often works with repeat clients, and an audience member asked Shim how it managed to retain so many of its past customers. She summed it up as selectivity. “We need the right kinds of projects,” she said. “We need an attitude that’s open to experimentation. Also, we manage expectations.” If a client is driven by timeline and not result, that may also prove a mismatch, she continued. Another questioner asked about fees, and a portion of Shim’s response drew a spontaneous round of applause: “The worst thing architects can do is undercut their fees. For us it’s a fundamental that architects should be paid properly for what they do.”