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Jonathan Feldman on Designing and Building in the Bay Area

The 4th Annual Marin Living: Home Tours is happening this weekend, and we wanted to shine a little light on one of the firms whose work is featured on the tour. For those who need a refresher, the Marin Living: Home Tours are put on by AIA San Francisco and the Center for Architecture + Design. The tour strives to promote "a wide variety of architectural styles, neighborhoods, and residences—all from the architect's point of view." We're big fans of all parties involved, but we decided to sit down (well, email) with architect and Bay Area native Jonathan Feldman from Feldman Architecture to discuss what it's like to design and build sustainable residences in the Bay Area. There's even a hot tip for greening your home on a budget. Firm name: Feldman Architecture
Employees: 17
Years in business: 10

Before we jump into your firm's portfolio of work, can you give us a sense of your architectural style in a nutshell? Most describe our style as a warm modern with a bent towards making strong architectural connections to the site. We try very hard to create simple and unfussy structures, quiet and understated.

What's more fun to do in San Francisco: renovate or build anew? Why? In San Francisco, there are very few opportunities to build a new residence, and so most of our homes in the city are remodels and additions. This offers many unique challenges, almost like putting a puzzle together with what's existing and what are the clients' needs and goals. We appreciate that this means that many of the problems are already laid out for us and it is our challenge to navigate the issues and offer creative solutions. Our new residences tend to be outside of the City and are more about responding to site. In the new residences, we enjoy collaborating very closely with a landscape architect on siting, massing, and entrance from the very early stages to create a solution that responds directly to the site.

Tell us about the clients for the Mill Valley cabins. What were they looking to build and what were some of the challenges you faced during the design and build process? The clients for the Mill Valley Cabins sought to add an artist studio and a yoga studio to their existing hillside home with the yoga studio doubling as a guest cabin as needed. The program was divided into two small cabins which could be placed lightly between existing trees with minimal re-grading, which was important because the hillside is quite steep. The orientation of the two cabins captures different views. The roof of the lower building was planted with a garden since the upper building would look down on it and the client and design team wanted the building to blend into the hillside. The green roof also provides an additional landscape for the client's love of gardening.

We know that sustainable attributes and striving for LEED certification is a big part of your design process. Is that something you've always been interested in or did you get into it because clients were asking for green features? Growing up in the Bay Area and then pursuing a Masters in Architecture at Oregon, which has a very long history of focusing on sustainability, I've had an interest in sustainability prior to practice in the field. What's exciting is that sustainable design is becoming a part of our vocabulary and so now clients are approaching us with a deeper understanding of the impact of building and looking to minimize their footprint. We don't often have to 'sell' green design.

What kind of green features do you incorporate into your projects consistently? We always pay attention to the easy and low-tech stuff first: keeping the buildings no bigger than what is needed, orienting the building and placing windows and shading devices to take advantage of sun angles for heating and to prevent over-heating, using thermal mass and ventilation for cooling, and maximizing insulation. Then we think about the rest, efficient and resource conscious lighting, heating and plumbing. We also think a lot about materials, where they come from and how healthy they are.

The majority of your projects are in Northern California, with plenty in the Bay Area. What kind of geographical problems have you found? We deal with some very steep sites. While these sites usually provide dramatic views and lend themselves to exciting designs, they are always challenging, technically. The structure and waterproofing on these projects alone can put a hefty dent in most budgets!

A project can get held up by the Planning Department pretty easily. How do you and your clients deal with that? How does it affect the budget and timeline? We try to identify at the start what the exposure is for these sorts of hurdles. If the client is not comfortable with potential delays, then we tailor our designs to steer clear of anything that is likely to hold us up.

Your firm is responsible for some award-winning homes that set a new standard for contemporary and sustainable design. Here in San Francisco, a lot of folks are renters or own homes that they can't afford to renovate. Do you have any DIY tips for making a home more green or modern without breaking the bank? One simple thing is to install a Nest thermostat. They are easy to swap in for whatever is likely to be hanging on your wall. These smart devices quickly learn when you are home or away and when to turn up or down your furnace, and can produce some dramatic savings in heating costs. When you leave, you can simply swap back in the original thermostat and take the Nest with you.

We know that some clients can be nightmares. What's a dream client like for you? We really appreciate how each client is like none before. Learning about the client, what they like and dislike, how they live and how they want to live, what inspires them, etc. – these elements keep our work interesting and play a crucial role in driving our designs. But we have found that one key attribute that we really appreciate is when clients come to us with an idea or a goal, rather than a specific solution. When we can all put our heads together and dream a little, that's when we often come up with our most inspired solutions.

And finally, what advice can you give to someone who's looking into using an architect for the first time? I feel too many people end up with the wrong architect because they make their selection based on only one criterion. Certainly, people should find an architect whose designs inspire them, but also an architect who they feel they can communicate well with and whose process and level of thoroughness fits their needs and budget.
· Feldman Architecture [official site]
· It's That Time Again: 4th Annual Marin Living: Home Tours Date Announced [Curbed SF]
· 2013 Marin Living: Home Tours [AIA SF]