The Business of Design
Why I’m a Generalist Architect
Many architects and designers choose to specialize in a specific sector or focus on a single project type. That’s awesome and necessary, but it’s not Jeff. His journey as a generalist architect is why providing out-of-the-box services is part of Board & Vellum’s DNA, and it’s what keeps him dedicated to design of all kinds.
March 10, 2022
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what’s next in my life. I keep getting reminded of that miserable question that well-intentioned people ask their single cousins at weddings: “So, when are you going to settle down?” There’s never a thought given to the possibility, even the likelihood, that the cousins in question are perfectly happy not settling down.
I can’t help but think of architects and designers, too – the interests we have and if any of us really do want to settle down with one facet of our career. So many of us, in general (and so many of us at Board & Vellum, specifically), are what we would call “generalists.” It means we find joy in solving all sorts of different design challenges on all different types of projects. It also means our team of architects, interior designers, and landscape architects loves working together to provide all sorts of insight on each design challenge we tackle.
Can a generalist architect settle down?
Do I ever want to “settle down?” I’ve wondered if this isn’t just a phase anymore and if, in fact, doing a little bit of everything is my end goal. To me, being a generalist really means understanding the nuances of the neighborhoods we live in and how they integrate into a greater whole. That’s the reason I’ve never been focused on one particular design idea or style. Each problem is part of a larger fabric and the challenge is finding the solution for each one that also fits the whole. This belief has helped shape this firm and our unique approach to the projects we take on.
Let’s Step Back in Time
Let me backtrack for a minute and tell you a little bit about myself. I’ve worked on numerous project types over my 20+ years in the design industry, and I still find it hard to pick a favorite.
- I started off in commercial interiors designing offices, selecting furniture and finishes, and learning that interior design is far more than an afterthought. Ever since that first job, interior design has been an integral part of how I think about design and architecture. That holds true to this day in the work we do at Board & Vellum.
- I spent many years working on unbelievably detailed custom residential projects. I learned to think quickly in three dimensions and discovered a love for custom residential design across all styles. I grew up in New England with traditional and colonial architecture and absolutely fell in love with contemporary, mid-century, and craftsman architecture out here on the West Coast.
- While I deeply love designing houses, I was inspired by the city changing in front of me and shifted my career to focus on multifamily residential projects. I dove into complicated mixed-use and large-scale projects up to skyscrapers. It was a complete shift from the intimate detailing of a house, and I grew to love and appreciate the big picture planning needed for larger-scale projects. I also learned to love speaking with developers and understanding the math behind all of it.
- Along the way, I shifted into managing commercial projects including coffee shops and retail. I appreciated the immediacy of this project type and the chance to think boldly and take risks.
- I even almost made a shift into working for a developer and helping shape larger-scale neighborhoods. I appreciate how good developers want to make fantastic neighborhoods, and how they balance the economic considerations that go into it. It allows my deep appreciation of Microsoft Excel to come into play!
- All the while, I’ve been obsessed with landscape architecture and the design of urban outdoor spaces. It’s on my bucket list to become a landscape architect at some point but, in the meantime, bringing a team of superbly talented landscape architects into Board & Vellum allows most of our projects to get the benefit of their insight.
And What About the Present?
The work we do at Board & Vellum today largely traces the path of my career and my interests. I’m reminded every day as I walk to work about what I love and how I’m inspired by the design of all aspects of our neighborhoods. Just on my walk to work alone, I walk by five-story apartment buildings with dynamic retail on the ground floor, small boutique retail including coffee shops, bookstores, and restaurants, single-family homes with beautifully connected living spaces inside and out, offices where people get to work and flex their creativity, and public parks and urban spaces where people can congregate and be outside.
Being a generalist can benefit everyone.
Not everyone wants to be a generalist and that's okay. But we know that having different insights and perspectives makes for better projects. Even those at Board & Vellum who are deeply dedicated to and focused on one disciple, sector, or project type experience the excitement and inspiration of working on a multidisciplinary team and on projects with integrated services. Being able to serve on a variety of project types in-house inspires our team to push the design direction of their own projects, regardless of the scope or scale.
While I don’t quite match up with the profile of that single, not-ready-to-settle-down cousin you only see every few years at a wedding, I deeply relate to the desire to not “settle down.” I love being a generalist and the culture of creativity it breeds. Just like that cousin may surprise you someday and get married at 70, I hope I’ll keep pushing myself to try new things and expand my horizons as I grow professionally. I just hope, as a true generalist, I don’t ever settle down.