July Interview

I’m back with another fun interview for you this month. This time we’re talking with a long-time architecture partner in crime of mine, Brett Koenig Greig.  I first met Brett during a volunteer program we were both working with at UVA, the Housing Improvement Program (HIP!).  A bunch of us met on Saturdays and drove around Charlottesville and Albermarle county and helped the elderly or less-fortunate improve their homes by doing things like fixing roofs, removing asbestos from beneath ancient linoleum floors, scraping lead paint off of exteriors… we got into all sorts of messes.  I definitely acquired poison ivy at one point, and multiple sunburns.  It was a great way to get off school grounds for a little while and meet some new folks outside of the architecture school, though I did meet Brett (also from the architecture department) so I think she must have had the same idea as me.   And then she followed me from Charlottesville to Austin.  Well, not really- she explains how that worked in the interview, but as different as she and I are, you can certainly see that there are some similarities in our decision-making.  In addition to attending the same schools, Brett and I also traveled to India together as part of a studio, and she put up with me as a roommate for an entire month.  I’m pretty sure by the end of it she was ready to completely de-friend me (I became pretty whiney  the last few days and when our trip home was delayed due to terrorist bombs in Mumbai, I turned into an unbearable brat).  But, incredibly, she continued to talk to me after that and does to this day.  This girl has patience.  She’s an amazing drawer, listener, and instigator of good ideas- all qualities which make for the kind of architect you want to work with.  And stamina!  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen her work through a problem to come up with the most thorough of solutions.  She’s a perfectionist in all the ways that I am not, and it was wonderful to be in school with her because I was always learning something from her.  She still lives in Austin, and of that I am quite envious.

Here’s a photo (provided by Brett) from our trip to India in 2006, at the Agra Fort with the Taj Mahal in the distance.  There were crazy monkeys all around us that night, though somehow none made it into that picture.

Tell us a little about yourself- where you’re from, where you went to school, what you are doing now, etc.

I grew up in Tampa, Florida and moved with my family to the Orlando area when I was sixteen.  Florida was a fun place to live, but it also felt very isolated, geographically and culturally, from the rest of the country.  I attended the University of Virginia due to my craving for history, mountains, and seasons.  It helped that it also had an extremely well-regarded architecture school.

I loved my time in Charlottesville, and also spent a semester studying in Copenhagen during my fourth year.  When I graduated in 2003, I struggled with where to go next, eventually landing in Baltimore at the encouragement of a friend.  There I found work at a great medium-sized firm, which allowed me to gain a broad array of responsibility and experience, despite my being just out of school.

The city was changing a lot at that time, just starting to re-inhabit its downtown core, and there was a lot of work in renovating old warehouses into offices, apartments and condos.  Baltimore is a fun and dynamic city, but I was still very much in transition while I lived there, knowing I’d leave in a couple years to go to graduate school.  My degree from UVa was a Bachelor of Science in Architecture, and in order to ever become a licensed architect I’d have to get a Masters Degree.

So after two years I moved again, down here to Austin.  I surprised myself by turning down an Ivy-League school and attending instead the University of Texas at Austin.  I loved the atmosphere and teaching philosophy of UT, and the incredible quality of life Austin offered.  It also helped that on my first day of classes, I was walking across the courtyard and saw a girl with a shock of red hair and immediately recognized Rachel from the class ahead of me at UVa.  That was such a nice surprise.  It turned out there were quite a few UVa alum who had ended up at UT.

Anyway, so here I am, six years later and still in Austin.  It’s been a wild ride with the economy’s crash and now slow recovery.  I spent 2008 working for an incredibly talented design/build architect.  My favorite project, and the one I spent most of my time designing, was a small house and studio for a husband/wife who were members of an emerging experimental rock band.  They said their favorite building was the Eames House, which they’d visited once when they were on tour in California, and that they wanted their house to be fun, simple, and colorful.  It was the smoothest client relationship I’ve ever experienced, and even now when I see them around town they tell me how much they love their home.  Unfortunately that firm was not immune to the recession, and I spent half of 2009 unemployed — a great time to study and take all my licensing exams (TX 21976 !).

Fast forward to today, and I find myself wearing many different hats as the economy picks up again.  I work 4 days a week at an incredibly friendly and long-established firm in town, where we do a wide range of projects – libraries, park buildings, affordable and rehabilitative housing, bars and restaurants, and new and remodeled houses.  It’s an office where in one day I may find myself working on four different projects, which definitely keeps me on my toes.  I also just wrapped up teaching a summer course back at the UT School of Architecture, and have been asked to teach again in the Spring 2012 semester, which I am very excited about.  And last, but certainly not least, my husband (also an architect…..we don’t stray far) and I have started our own small practice and are staying quite busy on the weekends.  There’s not a lot of down-time these days, to the dismay of our sweet dogs, Clovis and Marnie.

How did you get interested in architecture?

It was my mom who helped plant the architect seed in me.  She had wanted to be an architect when she was young, but at that time it was perceived to be a man’s profession, and she was deterred by advisers and family from studying it in college.  When I was young, if there was a house under construction in our neighborhood, mom had no fear of pushing aside the construction fencing and she and I would walk around inside, imagining what kind of family would live there and how they might use the space.  Since we already lived near the beach, we’d take family vacations to cities instead.  I remember especially a visit to Savannah when I was around 8, where I sat in the squares drawing pictures of all the stately mansions.

It’s hard to pinpoint just one moment where the lightbulb went on and I said “I want to be an architect.”  I just feel like I had always been observing the built environment around me, making judgements about what made one building nicer to be in than another.  I was also very lucky to have access to art classes throughout school, so I was always drawing dream houses for my parents.

What projects are you currently working on?

As I said, there are lots of things going on these days.  At the office, I’m working on a new clubhouse for one of the City’s golf courses.  Working with the parks department and with the City project managers is challenging and slow, but I think the building is going to be a great amenity for the surrounding neighborhood.  I’m also working on a new bar in Fort Worth, and on an interesting pool house for a man in East Texas, that is mostly underground — something I’ve never done before.

With my husband, we are working on additions for two young families who have both outgrown their current homes.  We are also renovating a bar space, making it function better and allowing it to take full advantage of the views from its 21st floor downtown location.

[Brett and her husband, Travis, at home.  Doesn’t that look like a Dwell magazine cover?]

What do you think is the biggest misconception about architects or architecture?

That all you do as an architect is sit at your drafting board and draw amazing buildings all day.   Architects are the ultimate multi-taskers, coordinating the flow of information between all parties involved in making buildings happen — the city, the clients, the contractor, all the consultants, the banks.  Architects are not just designers; they are psychologists and managers as well.

 What’s your most memorable project?

Definitely the house and studio for that musician couple.  They had such great style and taste, and made designing for them so much fun.  It was also interesting to learn what, architecturally, it takes to make a working recording studio.  I hope I have more clients like the Lamberts in the future.

What was the worst project you worked on and why?

Probably a recent one — what seems on the surface like another very cool, modern house for an easy-going client.   It came into my office before I had started working there, and didn’t get a lot of up-front attention, but it had made it through all the preliminary design phases.  I was asked to draw up Construction Documents, and did, thinking all the up-front work had been completed.  But when the Contractor went to get permits and start construction, all sorts of problems arose.  The zoning designation had been unclear, and it turned out it the lot had much larger setbacks than anticipated, so we had to move the house.  Then it turned out that a tree was incorrectly marked on the survey, and was twice the size we had thought.  So we had to move the house again to avoid its root zone.  Then, most recently, the neighborhood association raised objections, and construction had a stop until plans and materials could be reviewed by them.  Things are moving along again, but the project has been such a headache.  It has also been a reminder to everyone that clear communication and preliminary due-diligence are SO important for every project, big or small.

What architect or architects inspire you and why?

I love Peter Zumthor.  When I was studying in Copenhagen, we traveled to Austria to see the Kunsthaus in Bregenz.

I was awed by how many ways sunlight interacted with the building.  In the early morning sunrise, the shadow of the interior trays glowed through the layers of offset glass on the exterior.  Then later in the day the building appeared almost opaque as it reflected the sun’s rays.  Inside, light is never directly allowed in the galleries, but must travel across the frosted ceiling panels which feel like they are hovering untethered above you.  The only surface you can touch is smooth-finished concrete, that has been left its original flinty gray color.  It was almost 10 years ago that I visited his work (we went to St. Benedikt Chapel and the Therme Vals on that same trip), and it still makes my heart skip a beat when I think about how I felt inside the Kunsthaus.  He is REALLY good at making buildings that feel very personal to the user.

What is your favorite city for architecture?

That’s hard since I have lots of favorites.  I love Chicago for its history, New York for its density, Berlin for its optimism, and Delhi for its ambiguity.

What work of architecture would you most like to visit?

Katsura Imperial Villa and its gardens in Kyoto, Japan.  Though it dates from the 1600s, its organization and structure has had a strong influence on the work of 20th Century modernists.  We had planned to spend 3 weeks traveling all over Honshu this spring (a belated honeymoon, really), but the March 11 earthquake struck two weeks before we were supposed to leave, and we canceled our trip.  I hope we can go again in the next few years.

If you weren’t an architect, what other career path would you have taken?

It’s hard to answer this since I really have wanted to be an architect since I was four or five.  Before that, I wanted to be a lounge singer (our neighbor was one – she had long blond hair and wore those totally ‘80s sequin gowns, singing in hotel lobbies etc), a veterinarian (until I realized that animals can die and that would make me sad), and my parents’ cleaning person (so I could stay at home and live with them forever).

But seriously, I have enjoyed teaching summer courses for two years now.  I hope that I am able to continue teaching, not just next spring, but in the future as well.  Working with students, especially those in their first year of architecture school, helps me remember why I was drawn to the field in the first place.

What, if anything, would you change about architectural education?

I actually don’t think I would change much about architectural education paradigm, in that I think it demands much from students: critical thinking, presentation skills, problem solving, etc and prepares them well to succeed in whatever professional environment they choose I have friends who have gone on to become graphic designers, a food stylist, a real estate developer — and I think all would agree their architecture education served them well.

I do agree that if students are serious about going into an office environment straight from architecture school, then there should be elective courses on construction administration (RFIs, Submittal Review, etc.) and basic finance (like an introductory accounting course) available to them.  But I don’t think we should take away courses on history, theory, and design in order to accommodate those vocation-oriented classes into the mandatory degree requirements.  Call me old-school I guess.


Thanks for the interview, Brett!  I hope you and Travis get to make that trip to Japan!


My crazy night out

[image courtesy of Carina]

Tuesday night’s workshop at Red Barn Mercantile was so fun!  There were about 10 folks in attendance (including my dear friends Brandy and Carina), and all had great questions!  The discussion lasted almost two hours, and we covered everything from compiling a house wish-list on Pinterest, the design process, choosing a contractor, and almost everything in between.

Before the workshop, Lindsey and I brainstormed to come up with four topics we thought we could cover:

  1. Know Thyself
  2. Research, Research, Research
  3.  Working with an Architect
  4. What to Expect from the Process

Lindsey was a rockstar and created a hand-out further detailing these topics.  I provided two hand-outs:  “20 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Get Started” and “20 Questions to Ask an Architect”, both of which I found on the AIA Austin website- check them out here.

We discussed the wonderful resource of local AIA offices, which are not just for architects!  The office for Northern Virginia is right in Old Town, and they also occasionally hold workshops like “How to Work with an Architect”.  But, as Amy said, will they have wine and cheese and comfy sofas to sit on?

I answered some of the more technical questions (like “What’s the difference between an architect and a designer?”) and Lindsey provided anecdotal thoughts from her experience watching her parents work with an architect on both renovations and a new construction project.  Hopefully we provided some insight into the process of hiring and working with an architect.  I think it’s so incredible that Amy, the owner of RBM, hosts these workshops for the community. Thanks, Amy- I had a great time!

If you have any questions about how to hire an architect, feel free to email me.  Maybe I’ll take this show on the road!

Appearing Locally

One of my most favorite Alexandria stores, Red Barn Mercantile, is hosting a workshop next week called “Picking an Architect”.  Guess who will speaking there?

little old ME!

I’m pretty excited about it.  I’ll be presenting ideas and answering questions alongside Lindsey Roberts, a local design writer whose work appears in Architect (the AIA magazine),  the Washington Post and Apartment Therapy, among others.

This is a topic I feel passionately about because as an architect, I’m constantly trying to justify our work and the value that it brings to society.

Read more about it (and sign up to attend!) here.

Hope to see you there!

Gotta go.  A small child is attempting to Swiffer and hide his duckies in the living room.  Where does he get this behavior?

June Interview- just in time

I’m just under the wire here, getting this month’s interview with an architect just as June comes to a close.  Don’t be sad.  The 4th of July (my favorite holiday) is just around the corner, and July will bring more in the way of posts.  What can I say?  I’ve been out of town and out of town and out of time!

But let’s get to the interview.  This month the Babbler talked with good friend and inspiration Cassi Niemann.  Cassi works in Atlanta, and I got to know her through my sister-in-law, Anne-Marie (who also has a blog- check her out).  But come to think of it, if I were still working in Atlanta, I’m pretty certain I would have come across Cassi all by myself because she’s just that type of person.  She knows EVERYONE.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she becomes mayor someday.  And I don’t mean Foursquare mayor.  Cassi has that personality that is so useful to architecture- the one that is interested in EVERYTHING.  She has a knack for taking up hobbies, and she doesn’t just dabble- she pursues with a vengeance.  Take the little group she started a few years ago- Team Awesome.  It started as a small team that would compete in road races when teams were allowed.  Since then, it’s grown to a group of over a hundred who participate, compete, and socialize in all sorts of events.  There is a website, t-shirts (they started out homemade- now we have technical tees with images on the front and back!), a Facebook page and a newsletter.  All managed by Cassi.  In her spare time.

Cassi is the lady who convinced me that I needed to be LEED accredited and that I needed to study with her.  Boy was she right.  She provided incredible resources for studying and just pure enthusiasm for getting the exam over with before it was upgraded to a newer, more difficult version.

Another fun fact about Cassi?  She’s recently engaged!  So I cut her some slack with getting interview questions back to me.  She’s been a little distracted lately.

In short, Cassi is a phenom.  You will love this interview:

Tell us a little about yourself- where you’re from, where you went to school, what you are doing now, etc.
Well, I grew up in a town called Mt. Rainier, MD – which is just 2 blocks outside of NE Washington, DC. It’s an awesome little hippie town with truly great people that most definitely helped shape me into the person I am today. It takes a village!
I went to public school in Maryland and it was during a drafting class in high school that I realized I had a knack for drawing and my teacher pushed me to take more drafting classes and then eventually, to look at architecture programs for college. (I think it also helped that I was the only one doing work in the class while everyone else was dealing drugs. But whatever.)
So I found Georgia Tech in Atlanta and decided to go there. It fit our budget and my parents used to live there so it seemed like a good fit. I didn’t know anyone else at Tech but I quickly realized that GT was a place for overachievers. Everyone was super smart and I was just one in a crowd (this was a little hard for me to accept at first). So I went to GT for 4.5 years, finishing with a Bachelor of Science in Architecture. I didn’t realize until it was too late that with a BS in Arch, you still have to get a masters in order to be an architect. Whoops. Why don’t they tell you that when you apply?!
While at GT I was on the crew team. Only 2 or 3 other people have ever rowed on the team all through their college career AND finished with a degree in Architecture. It’s quite difficult to stay up all night building a model and then get up at 4am to go to the river. But I found that it made me more productive and I was able to get more done when I knew I didn’t have all night. So when I finished undergrad, instead of taking a job at a firm, I worked in a restaurant and coached the GT Freshmen/Novice Women’s crew team. But eventually, I decided to give in to the world of architecture and try it out. Fortunately, I found the best boss in the world and started the job that I still have 9 years later.
Somewhere in that 9 years, I decided that I better get on it and become a real architect. So I went back to graduate school at Georgia Tech again in 2006 and finished in 2008. Because of my 4 solid years of work before grad school, I was finished with my IDP hours and could start sitting for the licensing exams. It took me 3 years of preparing and studying, but I finally passed my last exam in March of 2011 and became a licensed Architect. It was, and still is, one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve ever had. But then I had this shocking revelation that now I was an architect and I had a career and I was grown up and responsible and all that stuff that comes with a professional title. Holy crap!

What projects are you currently working on?
I work in a very small firm for an extremely smart architect. I’ve learned so much from him in the past 9 years because he lets me work on everything that comes in the door. We do mostly residential apartment complexes and commercial housing. Most of our work is government subsidized, brought to us by big developers, getting their money from DCA, HUD and other programs. I work on projects from start to finish, spending most of my time on the construction documents (including mechanical, electrical & plumbing drawings too)! I’m a CAD monkey, but I love it – especially the brainless red lines so I can listen to podcasts about Harry Potter while I work.  (I’m a dork and I acknowledge this.)
Right now I’m working on two big rehab projects. One in Louisiana and one in Augusta, GA. They are both projects with extremely old buildings, built in the 20s and 40s. Louisiana involves an old Masonic Lodge/Orphanage (creepy) that we’re turning into new apartments and lofts. It’s a gorgeous old building on a great piece of property. Augusta involves two old hospital buildings on a VA campus. One was the psych ward and the other was for Tuberculosis patients – talk about creepy! These buildings are attempting LEED certification so I am also the LEED consultant on the job, which is extremely stressful but definitely exciting. Because they are on VA property, using government funds with DCA, attempting historic recognition and LEED certification – I often feel like I’m being pulled in 5 million directions. These are the first projects I’m working on as the head architect, so it’s a great learning experience but damn if isn’t overwhelming!!!

What do you think is the biggest misconception about architects or architecture?
That I am really good at math. I’m horrible at it. And that I sit around being artsy-fartsy-creative all day. Really, the creativity is in the problem solving. That’s what architects are. We’re problem solvers. We’re links in a chain. Between owners and contractors. Products and buildings. We guide things to their rightful place. We instruct, we decide, we see the problems and figure out a way to solve them. Most of our days involve phone calls from contractors, invoices to clients who won’t pay, emails to companies about their products and redrawing bathroom elevations for the hundredth time because the owner changed their mind about the size of the tile. It’s tedious and boring at times and for the most part, it’s like we’re working for free. But somewhere along the way, I realized that I’m good at problem solving. I like the mindless drawing, the drafting of forms with lines on a page. I can create space.

What architect or architects inspire you and why?
I love diagrams. With big arrows and colors and text. I love breaking down forms into conceptual parts. I love explanations and clear paths to a final solution. I’m a control freak. So I love Rem Koolhaas and OMA. His ability to create perfect diagrams makes me want to crawl inside of them and live there in their clarity. And recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Bjarke Ingels with BIG (http://www.big.dk/) and found myself completely inspired by not only his designs, but his delivery. Not surprisingly, he used to work with OMA. I even got to see a few of his buildings in 2008 when I visited Copenhagen. They were awesome.

What is your favorite city for architecture?
My fourth year in undergrad at GT was spent in Paris, France. It was the most fabulous year of my life. I lived in an apartment in the 5th arrondisement and traveled all over Europe. We went to school at Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris La Villette. I had a French boyfriend, I bought baguettes on the way home from class and I drank wine on bridges over the Seine. I was free.
The architecture in Paris calms me. It’s dense and heavy and filled with passion. I could walk the streets forever, just enjoying the scene. And it’s not about specific buildings. It’s about how it all comes together and how you experience it. I don’t have a favorite building, but Paris is my favorite city.

In 2008, I had the opportunity to travel in Europe again for 2 months. We spent time in Paris, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Berlin. I fell in love with Amsterdam. Not because of the coffee shops but because of the bike riding. We rode our bikes everywhere in the Netherlands and quickly fell into the rhythm of the city. We’d ride from the center of the red light district out into the waterlands, 15 miles away, never stopping.  Seeing the city from those two wheels changed everything.

And then there’s Berlin, Germany. A city with such a rich history – a history that is SO apparent in its architecture. I didn’t expect to love Berlin, but I did. The contrast of new and old made it a great place for exploration. I didn’t want to leave.

If you weren’t an architect, what other career path would you have taken?
WOULD I HAVE TAKEN? You mean, WILL I TAKE!! I have a habit of keeping busy. Along with being an architect, I do many other things on the side. I have more than one career path and I hope I always do. It’s just that right now, the architecture path pays the best! (Not to mention I spent 14 years trying to become an architect so I figure I should stick with it for a while.) But I’m hoping some of these other lines work out at some point. So I am an architect – but I’m also a graphic designer, an event planner, a marketing director for two different non-profits, a rowing coach, the founder of Team Awesome (www.team-awesome.org) and as soon as I pass the test, a physical trainer! Architecture prepares you for a life of multi-tasking, overachieving and never sleeping.

Watch this fun video:

What, if anything, would you change about architectural education?
I want to say that we should be taught to understand the world of architecture as it exists outside of school. How to deal with contractors, specifications, accessibility, the boring, yet important, stuff. Instead we focus on concepts, forms, theories, crazy rendering programs and big, big, big designs. The fun stuff. The stuff that seems so unnecessary most days when I’m knee-deep in shop drawings and RFIs. But really, it’s the stuff that pushes us past our limits. Our creative limits, our sleep-deprived limits, our drawing limits. If we just focused on the specs or the correct way to swing a door, we’d be horrible architects because we wouldn’t know how far we could go. What we could do. So I guess we’re doing the right thing. Right?

Finally, watch this incredible video Cassi produced during her Master’s thesis: