I grew up in Vermont on a small farm with parents who embraced the back-to-the-land movement. I had 60 chickens, raised sheep and tapped sugar maples. It was a time when hippies were moving to the state with great expectations and a plethora of creative ideas. In the 1970’s Vermont was alive experimenting with alternative building methods and home energy ideas.
My dad was an architect and I was awed as a kid by his beautiful pen and ink renderings and amazing balsa wood models. We spent many hours fixing up our old farm house and working on the various outbuildings around the farm. I loved the hands-on satisfaction of creating and building things.
When my dad saw my interest in hand drawing, architecture and building construction, he let me tag along on his jobsite visits and later connected me to many summer construction jobs. This was an invaluable experience showing me how things go together…. or not. I got to see several experimental and creative passive and active solar projects.
I went to architecture school at Kansas State University. (A practical move as it limited my passion for the mountains and for skiing). You would think a school in the middle of Kansas would be very conservative, and although some things were, it was a very creative and inspiring time for me. I discovered Christopher Alexander’s, A Pattern Language, and I’d thought I found the real bible.
My thesis in school was, How to Make a Small House Feel Large. I established ten guidelines or patterns that worked to increase the perceived dimensions of spaces. An article I wrote for Fine Homebuilding titled, Big Ideas for Small Houses, published a few years ago summarizes this work.
I did my school internship in the office of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, with Peter Bohlin in the Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania office. This was another very influential and creative time for me. They instilled the mantra “See the problem as an opportunity” and we did.
When Peter announced they’d just won a competition with Jim Cutler to design Bill Gate’s house. He asked if I would be willing to work on the project. Obviously I jumped on it.
I worked on the Gates project for almost 6 years. After the Gates project and a short stint in Jim Cutler’s office, I worked for Marc LaRoche architects. They had a connection in the San Francisco Bay area to one of the founding partners of Oracle Computers. I worked on several projects from wineries in Napa Valley to a 12,000 square foot compound in San Francisco. Again great experience, but I had a nagging feeling that it didn’t feel right working on these big projects. Many of these projects claimed to be using environmental care in construction. And yes, there was a lot of good that came out of it, but they were also laden with environmental irony. For instance, the product might have been sustainably harvested, but it was shipped from half way around the world and we need 5 tons of it.
I decided ten years ago that I needed to move on from the big house projects and re-engage in what Frank Lloyd Wright expressed as “The true basis for any serious study of the art of architecture is in the indigenous structures, the more humble buildings everywhere, which are to architecture what folk-lore is to literature or what folk-songs are to music, and with which architects are seldom concerned.”
A great house doesn’t mean it has to be big. It’s not ego building, it’s eco building. I love the quote by William Keeler who wrote a hundred years ago “better a house be too small a few times a year than too big the rest of the year” !
I’ve heard that Bill and Melinda’s favorite place to hang out is in their 500 square foot lakeside pavilion. And it is no wonder. The cozy space is well proportioned, wrapped in warm wood, flooded with natural light, and anchored with stone and heavy timbers.
My architectural life has been inspired and influenced by the big, the small and the in-between. But finally, I’ve came back to my roots and thus my strong belief that we can all create and build amazing buildings with respect for the land and our valuable resources.