Q&A: Burke and Meinberg Burke
Timepiece by Carrie Meinberg Burke and Kevin Burke, Photo: Prakash Patel
Kevin Burke is an architect. Carrie Meinberg Burke is an architect and industrial designer. Together, they have been the Esherick Associate Visiting Professors of Architecture at UC Berkeley for the semester that is wrapping up this month.
Her design methodology integrates an analysis/synthesis process to generate unique built form that spans the range of scales, all informed by ongoing research into ecology, light, health, human factors, and thermodynamics. Carrie’s MArch is from Yale and she has 28 years of design/build experience.
He spent 16 years at the international design firm of William McDonough + Partners in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he was partner and practice director. He directed the studio and served as lead designer on a number of the firm’s pioneering projects, including 901 Cherry offices for Gap (now home to YouTube), Oberlin College’s Adam Joseph Lewis Center, and NASA’s Sustainability Base at the Ames Research Center. Kevin guided the firm’s efforts to integrate Cradle to Cradle design strategies within building and community designs.
On October 27, they spoke at UC Berkeley about their approach to theory and practice. Afterwards, I talked to them about that approach and the firm they have founded together this year.
Kira Gould: The work that both of you have done independently, as well as together on the house, seems to engage light and climate in very direct ways, but also translate that very directly to the human experience. How do you describe this kind of “human-centered sustainable design”?
Burke &Meinberg Burke: “Human-centered” design is a great way to characterize our work and the focus of our practice. We are most interested in creating architecture that focuses on human and ecological health and well-being, through a heightened awareness and connectivity with nature and a deeper understanding of the “givens” of architecture. Our focus is on the design of the human experience in response to natural forces; the form of the object follows. Architecture derived from this design approach has an inherent capacity to improve the quality of life.
KG: What kinds of projects do you envision working on together now that you are forming a new architecture firm?
B&MB: We are most interested in working with people who share similar passions and interests, and who enjoy a collaborative, exploratory process to give form to those interests. In both of our careers to date, we’ve gained the greatest pleasure when we’ve had an opportunity to work on projects over a long time-frame, allowing us to gain a deeper understanding of the client and their ambitions and values, and the site and its special qualities. We’ve formed lifelong friendships and relationships with clients, which have proven to be incredibly fulfilling. We’ re interested in expanding architectural design beyond the visual sense into the full range of human perception. Human beings enjoy a dynamic balance between change and constancy, and we like to build those experiences into the architecture. Furthermore, efficiencies can be achieved by utilizing human factors as a criterion for editing out elements that do not provide value to the occupants.
KG: Starting a firm during a recession is brave: Why is this the right moment for you? Putting this another way: Do you see a silver lining in this deep recession?
B&MB: Design leadership always requires courage. Over the years we’ve had many instances where we’ve taken risks to pursue our passions and dreams. We have never regretted those decisions; in fact, we’ve thrived each and every time we’ve taken those risks. The silver lining for us is having the opportunity to work together again, which is so invigorating in large part because of the unique way that we complement one another as designers. This as an opportune moment of great personal momentum. And thankfully, we’ve received extraordinary support for our new venture from family, friends, and colleagues: that support has bolstered our courage.
Of course we can’t help but be aware of the deep recession. But we believe that the greatest creativity and innovation often happens during slow economies. And in this economy, expertise in sustainable and environmentally-focused design is even more essential. We’ve been fortunate to have gained a great deal of experience in this realm through the work together on our house, Kevin’s 16 years at WM+P on a wide range of project types, scales and locations, and Carrie’s work in her practice, including a deep-dive into the Living Building Challenge protocol for an innovative residence in the Bay Area and a collaborative NSF grant to develop a more comfortable, energy-efficient mechanical system.
A key element in the launching of our practice has been teaching a graduate studio together this semester at UC Berkeley, as the Esherick Visiting Professors. This has given us time to reflect. Teaching has been extremely clarifying for us, necessitating that we define our architectural and ecological design methodology. We are committed to continue teaching as a way of combining theory and practice. It is essential that architecture students receive a timeless grounding in sustainable design, and this is something we will continue to pursue.
KG: Since you are framing your firm as “architecture and industrial design,” can you talk about why working at various scales is important to your design thinking?
B &MB: The strategy of designing at a range of scales allows us to have balance in our practice. In our architectural projects, we design and innovate around specific and unique architectural responses to client and context. On industrial design projects, the focus is on solving more universal design problems with a diverse range of objects and products.
KG: How do you think designing, building and living in Timepiece with your daughter has influenced you, both personally and as architects?
B&MB: Timepiece represents the reciprocal relationship between architecture and daily life. Living in a house designed so specifically around the solar seasons creates an awareness of constancy and change, on a daily and annual basis.There’s a resonance that occurs in us because of the house’s fundamental alignment with these natural and recurring rhythms. The house is an instrument that measures the dynamic balance between change and constancy. Living in it awakens our sense of wonder through the daily experience of natural patterns.So we feel very fortunate to live in a place that instills mindfulness and focus in a world distracted by clock, calendar, and media. This is what we would like to share and embody in our work going forward.
We designed Timepiece to be a living laboratory for continuous exploration and experimentation, toward building and refining our architectural expertise. This design approach allows the house and landscape to be in a continuously evolving state, an aspect that we really enjoy. Daylighting, lighting, shading, furniture design, comfort, mechanical systems temperature control, materials and finishes, gardening and growing food: all of these critical elements to the design of a residence are under continuous exploration and optimization. The house articulates our design priorities in a very visceral and direct way. We were also the contractors for the house, which provided us with unparalleled insights into the critical perspective of builders. Since our offices are located in Timepiece, we evidence our design values and experience directly to our clients.
The fundamental premise of Timepiece, in which form is created through the mapping of sunlight through an oculus, was initially developed by Carrie during her graduate studies at Yale. It’s an approach that ensures that design is deeply rooted in the particularities of a specific place and latitude. We will be exploring another level of responsiveness in the house, as Timepiece will be a test-be for National Science Foundation EFRI SEED research into occupant-based controls, and an innovative type of hydronic mechanical unit: http://www.seas.virginia.edu/pubs/enews/enews_sept10/nsf.php
KG: I was fascinated to learn about how you intend to practice from Charlottesville with clients in various locations around the country and the world. Two things seem to enable this: collaborations with other firms and people and also the communications technology (that enables daily interface in ways that would not have been possible even five years ago). We all know that the AEC world is evolving, and your model suggests that there is room for small, nimble firms that bring a unique offering. How does that sort of firm go about finding the right commissions (which may be a veiled way of saying, what is your marketing plan)?
B& MB: It’s a great question, because it gets to the heart of how we plan to sustain our practice through strategic efficiencies. Our business model is to stay small and nimble, keeping overhead low. This will allow us to be intimately connected to all of the projects in the office. Technology certainly supports this approach, facilitating how integrated design is generated, delineated, and communicated. We seek to practice both in and beyond Charlottesville, and where scale and project location dictates, we will strategically collaborate with partnering firms on project delivery.
Our marketing will be based on maintaining and expanding our current networks and relationships. Kevin built an extensive network, both nationally and internationally, of kindred spirits during his time at William McDonough + Partners. This includes clients, associate architects, consultants, and leaders in the sustainable design and business realms. Carrie’s network is based upon her experiences with the Living Building Challenge community via the residence she’s been working on collaboratively over the past three years, and other inter-disciplinary collaborations with colleagues in the architectural, construction, environmental consulting, and engineering fields.
Our purpose is to lead a critical practice that explores an uncharted aspect of sustainability: the integration of natural forces as form generators, providing an essential connection to our intrinsic human nature while promoting resource efficiency, health and well-being. We believe that this approach results in inherently beautiful, high performance designs. Our goal is to build so that these qualities can be experienced, letting the work speak for itself.
Kira Gould is a writer and director of communications at William McDonough + Partners, an architecture and design firm with studios in Charlottesville, Virginia, and San Francisco. She is also the co-author of Women Green: Voices of Sustainable Design (Ecotone Publishing). Follow her on Twitter.