Gregory Cowley Photography

Even in the best architectural partnerships, fissures can develop when disagreements arise. “That can be stressful,” says Julie Dowling, AIA. “In our case it’s not.”

There are plenty of identical twins in the world who are, perhaps, less identical in their outlook. But Julie and her partner, Leslie Dowling, AIA, are identical twins who share an uncanny synchronicity. They often find themselves on the same page, and, more often than not, on the same paragraph. “We’re always moving in the same direction and very open to the other’s point of view,” says Julie.

After working separately for 12 years, the twins united in 2010 to create Dowling Studios, a bicoastal practice that, at the moment, is doing a lot of West Coast work. The partnership is based in a San Francisco Victorian where Julie works out of ground-floor offices she shares with her husband, an art dealer. Leslie, on the other hand, works out of a home office in Princeton, N.J.

Digital design and files help shorten the 2,911 miles that separate them. “Sometimes it feels as if we are sitting next to each other,” says Julie. Typically, they divvy up their work in an “I’ll-do-the-floor-plan-and-you-do-the-ceiling-plan” fashion. Because of their synchronicity, “Leslie often ends up designing something very close to what I would have done,” Julie explains. Plus, “we act as each other’s second eye.”

That has something to do with their shared professional background, too. Natives of Atlantic Beach, Fla., they graduated from the University of Florida with undergraduate degrees in architecture and went on to earn graduate degrees in architecture from Princeton. Both interned for Michael Graves, FAIA, their professor at Princeton, and immediately after graduation for Juan Navarro Baldeweg’s Madrid office. Then Julie returned to Graves’ office before she headed out west, to San Francisco, in 1998. Leslie stayed with Baldeweg for another two years and served on the design team for Princeton’s School of Music—a coup for someone right out of grad school. She also went back to Graves, in Princeton, helping to design the products in his first rollout for Target, and then in his New York architectural office.

In San Francisco, Julie was a store designer for Banana Republic, and later partnered with architect Lorissa Kimm to create Dowling Kimm Studios. The firm garnered lots of attention for its residential work, but after collaborating for a decade, the partners amicably separated.

Once solo, Julie found herself increasingly relying on her sister. By this time both had families, and Leslie had segued into part-time work, mostly designing eateries for her restaurateur husband. Working with her sister had tremendous appeal. “The whole backbone of my training up until that point had been custom residential,” explains Leslie.

Designing for exurban settings like Tahoe and upscale suburban locales in California’s Marin County allowed the sisters to “develop the language and identity of our work because we can design these houses from scratch,” says Julie. That “language and identity” is a minimalist Modernism they describe as “warm” and site-specific, often incorporating elements of the outdoors into the interiors.

As a result of past projects, the sisters are licensed in multiple states, which they hope will make them more marketable. Julie’s licensed in New Jersey, Wyoming, and California; Leslie in New Jersey and New York.

So far, the Dowlings have completed three residences in California, including the first LEED Platinum house in Sonoma County. Among the six projects on the boards are a modern urban residence, ski house, and minimalist addition to a barn at Bella Vineyards in Healdsburg, Calif. “We have been so busy with those projects—one leading to the next—that we haven’t had time to pursue work elsewhere,” says Leslie. “But it is our goal to get more work on the East Coast.”

As successful as they are at working together, the twins nevertheless have hit a few snags. First was managing the time difference. “If I wanted her to see something the next morning, I had to be sure to send it out the night before,” Julie explains.

The other difficulty concerned one that’s typical of twins: having too much in common. Discussions about permits and floor plans often were laced with updates on children, husbands, and parents. So they implemented a rule: On weekdays they are architectural partners, but on weeknights and weekends the sisters can just be sisters.

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