Not many small firms can claim at least seven bridge commissions as part of their portfolios, but Safdie Rabines Architects can, which speaks to the firm’s broad architectural range.
But even as the San Diego–based firm branches into more mixed-used and larger commercial projects, residential work remains a vital part of its repertoire. “Even though we are working on larger projects, we still love to do single-family houses and don’t want to give that up,” says Taal Safdie. Adds Ricardo Rabines: “We want a mix because we always learn so much doing residential work. It keeps us up-to-date on finishes, materials, and new things coming up, and then we can bring them into public work.”
The firm’s work is decidedly modern, but style becomes secondary due to the abundant use of wood—inside and outside—and other materials that give the homes a warm, approachable feeling.
"We want to do things that are very elegant and timeless," Rabines told residential architect in 2006 when the firm received the magazine’s Rising Star Leadership Award. "That is one of those things I constantly think is lacking in architecture—there are a lot of nice-looking things but not a lot of elegance."
Thanks to a recent influx of public and civic work seeking the firm’s elegant brand of architecture, Safdie Rabines Architects is expanding, and its staff now stands at 20. Safdie says, "We’ve almost doubled in size in the last four or five months."
What is the most gratifying aspect of residential practice?
Taal Safdie: Even though we are working on larger projects, we still love to do single-family houses and don’t want to give that up. Part of that is just the bond that you can create with the client of a single-family house. It’s a much more intimate relationship.
Ricardo Rabines: It’s kind of the realization that you are building your own home through another person. You can do it many times because each site is different, there are different circumstances, and different people so it’s really coming back and building your dream. It’s extremely gratifying, especially when you get along with the client.
What is the most frustrating aspect?
TS: If you don’t hit it off well with a client in a residential project, it’s really painful because it is such an intimate relationship that it becomes much more emotional.
What is your mission statement or firm goal?
RR: The only thing is that at one moment we decided that we wanted to be more committed to public work. We want a mix because we always learn so much doing residential work. It keeps us up to date on finishes, materials, and new things coming up, and then you can bring them into public work.
What is the most indispensable tool in your office?
TS: Ricardo’s beautiful hands. Ricardo has a beautiful hand and he does all of our presentations. He draws everything—elevations, plans, etc.
RR: Taal’s phone. Taal can design a whole house from her phone. She can literally get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and have an East Coast phone call with the contractor and talk him through everything. She can keep track of every single thing through words and conversation. I always joke with her that she can design through the phone. I envy it.
What software does your firm use?
TS: We use everything. Everyone is trained on Revit, AutoCAD, SketchUp, Maxwell Render, Rhino, form-Z, Adobe Photoshop/ Illustrator/InDesign, Vectorworks.
RR: We use SketchUp and then when we start doing construction drawings, we do Revit.
Who is your ideal client?
TS: It’s not so much who, but the ideal client is someone who is educated and visionary: educated in the design process and has a strong vision so they are a real active part of the design process. A great client is someone who is driving the project as much as you are, and it’s a real collaboration with them. That’s the best part.
RR: Someone who can challenge you.
What is your favorite building?
TS: I don’t know if we have a favorite building, but we just saw a beautiful building in China, which is the opera house in Beijing. It was a really moving building. Just beautiful.
RR: I would say that’s one of the most beautiful I’ve seen. Very simple. Again, it has the luxury of a private residence, but it has the presence of a civic building. It’s also very popular, which we like. That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about. It’s amazing. What we love the most is that it’s so public and so private.
If you didn’t have the time to design your own house, who would you hire?
TS: Renzo Piano. He might not take the commission though.
RR: I don’t know really. It’s a tough one.