Asking an architect about their favorite project is an unfair question, like asking a parent which of their children they like best. Still, however, we were curious. Leaving commercial projects aside, what kind of residential project is particularly rewarding from the architect’s point of view?
It turns out that the answer isn’t necessarily what you’d expect. True, architects are concerned with design sensibilities, making the building fit the site, and using state-of-the-art energy efficiency and sustainable materials. But a good working relationship with the client was cited more than anything else in creating a rewarding and successful experience.
“They really understood everything that I was trying to do with their house,” said Woodstock-based Les Walker, who has practiced architecture in the Hudson Valley for some 30 years. “Making a building that really fits the owners’ needs, making it fit the site, and having a really good time doing it — that, for me, is the most rewarding part of being an architect.”
Walker is a Pennsylvania native who was a founding member of Studio Works in Manhattan, an award-winning design firm. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in architecture from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s degree in architecture from Yale University.
“It’s so much fun putting together a building, this giant, three-dimensional object that everybody’s involved with,” he said. “It’s just sort of thrilling to walk into it when it’s being built, discussing it, and seeing [the homeowners] as happy as can be at the end.”
Walker sees the client-architect relationship as an integral part of the process. “In order to make a good piece of architecture, you need to have a really good client,” he said.
One couple in particular stands out for him.
Mid-century modern, with quarry
Several years ago, Walker got a call from clients he’d worked with before. They’d purchased a house from the estate of Petra Cabot, a longtime Woodstock resident and an artist, best remembered for designing “The Skotch Kooler” in the 1950s, a rather chic-looking early version of an insulated cooler, very popular at the time. The bucket-like metal containers decorated in a cheery plaid carried the designer’s name long before the practice was common, and are considered very collectible today.
Cabot had also designed her house in Woodstock, a mid-century modernist structure on a beautiful site with a quarry and a swimming hole. But when Walker set out with its new owners to renovate, they found that the floor plan was laid out in a curious way. “The layout of the bedrooms was terrible,” said Walker. “You had to go through one bedroom to get to the living room and the kitchen. We couldn’t figure it out. We think maybe Petra and her husband came in the back door through the porch, and they didn’t use the front door.”
Walker reconfigured the floor plan so that the front entry worked better, making it into a functional house.
In addition to the quirky floor plan, the house needed a lot of work. “It was rundown, really sort of a disaster,” said Walker. “The windows were all single-paned. There were no windows at all in the kitchen. It was sort of beat-up.” The windows were replaced with insulated glass, and a new roof was installed, along with a new heating/cooling system. Walker enjoyed the opportunity to work on a modernist design, something he says he doesn’t get to do very often.
“We brought it up to date,” Walker said. “We rebuilt the kitchen, brought light into that, and added a master bedroom suite that now opens onto an existing screened porch, so that it becomes all one room, and added an outdoor shower. We made it much better, personalizing it toward the new owners.”
The homeowners wish to maintain their privacy, but Walker emphasizes that working with the couple was a big part of why this project was so personally rewarding. “They’re really smart, and really appreciative, and had such a nice approach to things that it was really fun. They really understood everything that I was trying to do with their house,” he said. “They had a lot of input, too, and played a big role in the design. I would say it was the nicest experience architecturally that I’ve ever had.”
Les Walker has written eight books on architecture, with a ninth coming out this summer. Walker has designed over 100 single family residences and over 500 home additions in the Hudson Valley, working in a variety of styles. For information, contact Walker at 679-4217 or visit www.lesterwalkerarchitect.com.
Low-key aesthetic sensibility
Originally from the Boston area, architect Brad Will was educated at Cornell and practiced architecture in California for 14 years until moving to New York in 2001. He formed Ashokan Architecture & Planning just over ten years ago in Stone Ridge, and after being headquartered in Kingston he’s now based in a new location in Woodstock. The firm specializes in residential work, he says, primarily single-family renovations and additions.
Sometimes the firm has revisited projects worked on for previous owners. “It’s always great to go back and revisit, and see what the new owner wants in a house,” he said. “There were features that attracted [the new owners] when they purchased the property, but they have their own particular wants and needs. It’s an evolutionary process.” One such project for Will was the Runion residence in Bearsville, a property that he first worked on for a previous owner in 2003, and then came back to in 2007, 2010, and currently 2012 to do renovations and additions for the current homeowners.
“We started with one owner, and she unfortunately became quite ill during the latter parts of the construction phase, and passed away shortly afterward,” Will says. “She only got to live in the completed house for a few weeks, in fact. The present owners have had us come back several times, and are now looking at putting another addition onto it.”
The house is a second home for the new owners, who also live in the city. “It’s been a nice experience working with them because they’re very in tune with what they want, which is great, working with someone who can make a decision and has great design sensibilities to begin with,” he said. “It makes our job a little easier and more enjoyable, and we have some flexibility and can bounce ideas off of each other.”
The house in Bearsville is a Woodstock-style cottage of stained cedar siding and stone, with a fireplace and shed roofs. “It has a nice low-key but strong aesthetic sensibility to it,” said Will. “It has a presence.”
Will’s firm has done a bathroom remodel and expansion for the new owners, along with a fence enclosure and landscaping. And now, he reported, they’re looking toward remodeling the entryway.
The contractor, Mark Jennings of Woodstock, was also the contractor for the original owner. “It’s good working with someone who comes in and knows the property, knows what to do and executes it well, and is easy to communicate with,” said Will. “Communication is so central to any design project.”
Will has found that clients tend to be more communicative these days, too. “The Internet has really changed things,” said Will. “Clients come to us with a binder of materials that they’ve researched, whether it’s larger design issues or product selection, or materials,” he said, “which is fine. It informs the nature of the relationship and how we end up working together. We don’t get people coming to us any more and saying they don’t know what to do at all and are looking for a hundred per cent guidance and handholding. People used to need more assistance, but now I think it’s more refined and more targeted.”
For information, contact Brad Will at 750-6332 or visit www.ashokanarchitecture.com. The new offices in Woodstock are at 102 Mill Hill Road.
Preserving while transforming
High Falls-based architect Kurt Sutherland grew up in New Paltz and the Rondout Valley. With his mom an art teacher and his dad an engineer, his chosen profession seemed a logical one for him. Sutherland graduated from Rondout High School in 1980, then went on to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy for his degree in architecture. After working in Albany for a commercial firm, and doing a stint in the city and then out west, he returned to this area in 1994, establishing his own firm, KWS Architecture.
Sutherland’s residential work accounts for about two-thirds of his output, he said. “My forte is basically being able to do sensitively-designed additions that blend historically with the structure but don’t mimic them,” said Sutherland.
Opening up a floor plan creates a more modern flow, especially when it comes to kitchens and dining rooms, where people tend to congregate the most, he explained. But it’s important to save the historic value of the building as well. “We save historic details like molding as much as possible, and we don’t remove walls that are important from a preservationist point of view,” he said, “but we do create environments that are more reflective of how people live today, and certainly improve the energy efficiency of the home.”
A project that ticked all the boxes for Sutherland was the Kirven residence, a late-18th century house in Accord that afforded the architect the opportunity to do a complete renovation of home and grounds while maintaining the structure’s historical integrity. Sutherland said his working relationship throughout the project with homeowners Emily and Michael Kirven was a big part of why he found this project such a rewarding one. “It’s really great having clients who have a vision,” he said.
“One of the really exciting things about this project was that we were able to really transform the property,” continued Sutherland. “A lot of old houses have separate small rooms without a lot of light and views, and we were able to do an addition that really brought in both. The second-floor hall had a very low ceiling, and we were able to open that up into the attic space and create a really beautiful center corridor down the top floor of the building.”
Downstairs, he added on a three-season room with a panoramic view. Considerable landscaping was done as well, include a new pond and a pool. A shale hill was removed and the material was used to make the driveways. “We re-laid out the upstairs, all the bedrooms and redid the bathrooms,” said the architect.
The substantial renovation and addition project, said Sutherland, included a complete re-insulation with a geothermal heating system. “The builder, Will Wallace Construction, was positioned especially well on this project because his interest is also in energy efficiency and green projects,” said Sutherland.
For information, contact Sutherland at 687-4551 or visit www.kwsarchitecture.com.