When Frank Harmon, FAIA, talks about his completed projects, the first two things he mentions are the site and the client—not the architecture. “Everything we do is appropriate to the place where it’s built and the needs of our client,” he says. This sensitivity to local geography, climate, and culture has helped make his Raleigh, N.C.–based company, Frank Harmon Architect, one of the most respected firms in the southeastern U.S. It’s won dozens of design awards at state, regional, and national levels, for projects ranging from custom homes to churches to educational facilities. And in 2008, the firm won a competition to design the American Institute of Architects’ North Carolina Center for Architecture and Design in downtown Raleigh. The under-construction building will contain a host of green features, such as a vegetated roof and solar panels.
Trained at the Architectural Association, Harmon has taught in the School of Design at North Carolina State University since 1981. An engaging writer and speaker, he often publishes articles or gives lectures on topics such as sustainable design and vernacular architecture. But he is first and foremost a practicing architect who currently works with four talented staff members (including his wife, landscape architect Judy Harmon, ASLA). Common threads weaving through his work include an emphasis on sustainability; the use of local, natural materials; a skillful deployment of color; and a strong indoor-outdoor relationship.
What is the most gratifying aspect of residential practice?
Well, the most gratifying thing is to go back and see the house several years later and find that the clients is both transforming it and feeling transformed by the building and the space. You always hope a house gets better over time. It’s very satisfying.
What is the most frustrating aspect?
I’m sure I won’t be the only one to say this, but any time an architectural review board is involved, it’s just very painful for everybody. Whenever review boards come into it, there are preconceived notions of how a house should look. It’s architects’ responsibility to fight against those corrosive preconceptions. It’s frustrating, but a challenge and a responsibility.
What is your mission statement or firm goal?
I want everybody to wake up in their house 10 years later and not be questioning why they did it.
What is the most indispensable tool in your office?
We still think it’s building 3D models. We do a lot of SketchUp, too, and other modeling, but we still think the 3D models are the most important.
What software does your firm use?
PowerCAD, SketchUp, and InDesign.
Who is your ideal client?
The best client is someone who wants a particular thing, such as a view out over a forest or a place for their children to play. They clearly want something, and that overcomes almost every obstacle. It gives us a frame of reference.
What is your favorite building?
A series of houses on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, known as the “Unpainted Aristocracy.” They were done by a builder named S.J. Twine around 1900 or 1910. I think they’re arguably the most accomplished buildings in North Carolina because they’re utterly appropriate to the site. They’re as good today as when first built. The porches are open to the sea and breeze. They’re exquisitely sited. They represent the best way possible to respond to a particular climate and landscape.
If you didn’t have the time to design your own house, who would you hire?
Does it have to be someone who’s still alive? If not, Harwell Hamilton Harris. He really listened; it was his mission to listen to what people wanted in a house.