Nonquitt Garage House
Peter Vanderwarker Nonquitt Garage House
Laura Hartman
Courtesy Fernau & Hartman Architects Laura Hartman
Richard Fernau
Courtesy Fernau & Hartman Architects Richard Fernau

“You can make architecture out of the complications of whatever job you’re given,” says Richard Fernau, FAIA. “You don’t have to generate them. Life is complicated enough.” No doubt it’s that philosophy that makes Fernau & Hartman’s buildings seem joyful and effortless. They’re environmentally and socially considerate, balancing the local “street language” of architecture with an inventiveness that seeks to do justice to what’s best in a site.

Perhaps that’s also why Fernau and partner Laura Hartman, AIA, often are asked to design houses in impossibly picturesque settings—vast ranches, open meadows, wooded canyons, coastal outcrops. Their improvisational vision, which adapts to the world as they find it, is both playful and pragmatic. Rugged, basic materials like metal and wood siding reflect vernacular building traditions, soft color palettes enhance nature’s hues, and towers and sleeping porches infuse everyday life with a sense of adventure.

Fernau, a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, says the graduate course he teaches in computer algorithms is foreign to the firm’s work. “Prefab and computer-generated notions of building is a laudable goal, but it’s not the one we’ve chosen to develop. I think there will always be a place for architects whose specialty is making a building that grows out of its site—what I call circumstantial architecture, though it’s becoming somewhat of an oddity. It’s fascinating when you see the richness and complexity in a situation, and almost the impossibility of doing anything, and then find there is a way.”

What is the most gratifying aspect of residential practice?

When we can make something that was a real head-scratcher fit just perfectly into its context.

What is the most frustrating aspect?

When agencies, contractors, clients, and even colleagues aren’t able to shake fixed ways of doing things.

What is your mission statement or firm goal?

To build a sustainable house in every climate zone in the country.

What is the most indispensable tool in your office?

The ear. Listening—to clients, to review boards—is really critical in architecture. You take all that in, and then start to figure out how to solve the puzzle.

What software does your firm use?

Vectorworks, SketchUp.

Who is your ideal client?

Someone who is a collaborator and improviser, preferably with a sense of humor to get you through the hard times.

What is your favorite building?

R.M. Schindler’s Kings Road House.

If you didn’t have time to design your own house, who would you hire?

Bernard Maybeck, if he were still alive, or Peter Zumthor.