Architecture combines lofty ideas of art with nitty-gritty detail, creating an esthetic space while solving practical details of space and lighting and managing costs. As the two partners of Richardson Smith Architects, Terry Smith and Juliet Richardson, play off the desirable against the possible, the visionary against the pragmatic, each brings different strengths that allow them to reach beyond what either might achieve individually.
“Juliet tends to be more interested in a creative or imaginative idea and in exploring what that idea might mean architecturally — without the burden of trying to figure out how it might work,” says Smith, who attributes Richardson’s creativity largely to her ability to free herself from the pragmatics, at least early on. As for himself, he is grounded in the details from the very beginning. “As soon as I have an idea, I discard it because it is impractical — there’s no way to make it work, or the budget will not accommodate it.”
It is these very different starting points that have made their collaboration so successful. “What happens is some sort of blending, where Juliet allows me to think about things I might not have thought about,” says Smith, “and Juliet appreciates my saying to her, `That’s a great idea, but I don’t know how to make it work.’”
The commonalities are also there. “We will look at something, and we like the same stuff — that’s beautiful, or that’s ugly,” says Smith. But the differences may matter more. “How our minds work in approaching a problem — we are not in lockstep, we are in slightly different spheres,” he says
Richardson agrees. “What makes us successful is that together we get to do what individually we have a hard time doing — you can’t fire both the left and right sides of the brain on your own.”
Two of Richardson and Smith’s current projects, a renovation at 463 Jefferson Road and a new house at 99 Moore Street, both in Princeton, testify to what they share. “We don’t have a style,” says Richardson, “but we have an attitude.”
One guiding principle is paying close attention to context, which is more than just the nature of the site. In a renovation or addition to an existing house, this means that new elements must both complement and pay homage to the existing structure and landscape. For a new house, it means taking into consideration the neighborhood.
The pair define themselves as modern architects, preferring open, airy spaces where one area flows into the next. “When a lot of people think about modern architecture, they think of it as cold, stark, kind of minimal,” says Richardson. “For us, what we really like is to find a way to have richness and intimacy through the use of materials.” The pair like to work with glass, many kinds of wood, steel, and stone.
All of these materials are now a part of the brand-new house that Richardson Smith designed on Moore Street on a lot cleared by a tear-down. Their client is in the technology field, has a home in California, and does business in both California and Princeton. Smith says that the client, whom he identifies only as David, has “made so much money that he doesn’t have to work anywhere.” As for the work he chooses to do in Princeton, Smith says it is “sensitive,” and refuses to divulge the company for which he works.
Smith says that the client is intelligent, focused, detail oriented, and, not surprisingly, technically savvy. From the beginning he had two goals for the project — he wanted a modern house, but one that would not stand out on Moore Street like a sore thumb, and he was looking for energy efficiency and sustainable materials. Smith says that he is unable to reveal the cost of the Moore Street house — not even a ballpark amount.
This is a project that Smith and Richardson were delighted to take on. Pointing to the many McMansions that have popped up recently in Princeton Borough — in particular those where builders moved quickly to avoid the restrictions on mass and setback in the zoning ordinance rewritten three years ago — Smith emphasizes how excited they were at the complexity inherent in creating a house that not only fit on the street but was not oversized for the lot. “We said we are going to design a house that fits the new zoning ordinance. We also think that was the responsible intellectual approach, having the scale and massing of house similar to all of the houses in the neighborhood,” he says.
To stay within the zoning restrictions and increase the inner space without inflating the mass of the house, they created a sunken courtyard to bring natural light to parts of the lower level, allowing it to be more than just a basement.
But also knowing that a modern house, by definition, would stand out in this older neighborhood, Smith says, “we wanted it not to seem like it was fighting the street, alien to the street, but as a presence on the street.”
They felt that what was critical to not disrupting the neighborhood feel was the house’s position on the lot and, in particular, its frontal relationship with the street. “In an urban setting, that is the first major impression one has,” says Smith.
The front, therefore, is similar to neighboring houses in both its compositional elements and its scale. Because the nearby houses have roofs sloping toward the street, with punched windows across the top floor, this one does too. “You’re trying to have it both ways,” says Smith. “You don’t want to give into tradition, but you recognize the importance of the house having some of these characteristics. We were looking for ways to accomplish this and raise the level of appreciation for how things can be done.”
So instead of dropping the facade all the way to the ground as more traditional homes would do, they introduced a horizontal line to disconnect the top of the house from the bottom and used it to create a porch. This line, as well as the redwood finish, also helps integrate the front garage doors, which are unusual on Moore Street. At the same time, the line gives the illusion that the upper volume of the house is floating, hinting that something else is going on.
That “something else” is the glass and large open spaces that open up behind the street face, which is serving as something of a “mask.” Behind it, the house explodes into an open, double-height space. This creative use of space, says Smith, is the distinguishing trait of modern architecture.
Contrasting modern and traditional architecture, Smith explains that the latter is about rooms: “Rooms are discrete and have boundaries. A house is a collection of rooms put together with the idea of how to move through the rooms. Modern architecture, however, breaks down the distinctiveness of all rooms being individual spaces and allows the space to flow together.”
In designing a modern house, an important role of the architect is to notice and highlight elements that reinforce the flow of space from one room to the next. Among other tools, color can then be used to reinforce wall planes, objects, and other elements of the architecture. “Instead of using color to define a room,” says Smith, “it is used to define the spatial operation of a plane or the flowing of a wall plane from one space to the next.” Because color is also visually stimulating, a beautiful color can be used to highlight and reinforce the strength of a particular element.
In the new house on Moore Street a wall plane goes from the basement up through the entire house, says Richardson, “and we probably want to paint it a different color so it stands out from the rest and becomes an orienting thing.”
Although this house is certainly defined by its style, perhaps more important in this age of environmental consciousness and higher energy prices, it comprises multiple elements that improve both energy efficiency and sustainability.
Green building and energy efficiency is becoming more important across the profession, says Richardson, whose firm is a member of the Green Building Council and the Northeastern Sustainable Energy Association. Currently both Smith and the firm’s junior partner, Jesse Pedersen, are getting LEED certification.
The first contribution to the Moore house’s energy efficiency is the addition of photovoltaic panels on the roof that power a bank of batteries. When they are fully charged and the house is not using the power, any extra is fed into the electrical grid, which will both reduce the owner’s energy bill and contribute in a small way to the overall energy system. An additional advantage during a power outage is that these batteries connect both to all essential appliances and to a live outlet in each room, ensuring that the house will remain usable for a day or two during a blackout.
Heating will be provided by radiant floors on all levels of the house. These consist of a concrete layer under the wood floors that holds hot water pipes; they circulate hot water that heats the house by warming the floors. “This is an extremely efficient way to heat a house,” says Richardson, “and it is the most comfy, because you can pad around barefoot in the winter.”
Contrary to the way that forced-air systems work, the heat is introduced low down and rises to warm the space. Furthermore, heating the concrete creates a warm thermal mass that, once heated, not only requires less energy to maintain, but holds residual heat that stays around longer once the system is turned off.
The house’s owner was also concerned about indoor air quality, and the architects have provided for it in several ways. First, they introduced a heat exchanger, a cost-effective way to bring in fresh air. The unit exchanges heat between air from outside the house and the air from the inside that it is about to eject.
The architects designed an internal passive-ventilation system to provide natural ventilation. Although many of the windows in the house will never open, operable windows are placed strategically on all levels of the house at opposite corners of rooms to generate air flow.
Finally, the stairs at the center of the house offer a way of naturally ventilating without a fan. They create a zone where warm air can rise from the basement and escape through a band of operable skylights above the stairs, which are opened when necessary by a motor.
Richardson is quick to point out that this pragmatic use of the skylights for ventilation also enhances the esthetic experience of the house.
“The whole line along the staircase is a band of skylights,” she says, “so as you walk up staircase, all you see is sky and it washes light on the house.”
The open, modern look the owner wanted brought in sufficient natural light during the day to avoid turning on lights, but at the same time it created a potential problem at night. Heat would be lost through the glass, and there would be little privacy.
“We realized we needed to design in a shading system that would allow our client and his family to have privacy at night by dropping the shades and that would create a thermal barrier to prevent nighttime heat loss,” says Smith. They made sure it was as invisible as possible so that at night it would seem to appear miraculously out of the woodwork.
Everything in the house, including the shades, is controlled by a home automation system, giving the occupants complete control over their environment. At night they will be able, from a panel next to the bed, to turn lights off all over the house, excepting any lights they have specified to remain on , like a light in a child’s bathroom.
Blending Old & New
Each project begins with an idea that works as a generator to help the architects solve the programmatic, functional, practical, and budgetary issues of a project. Whereas the Moore house was an entirely new structure, where they were freer to create the terms on which the house would be designed, the Jefferson Street renovation came to them with a set of interesting and challenging problems.
“What is always at the heart of those problems is the existing structure and the character and qualities within the existing structure,” says Smith, “and those begin to generate ideas of how to work with it.”
Although Richardson and Smith do work with historic structures, they do so as modernists. They are not interested in renovating or doing additions to historic houses if the goal is just to reproduce the historic structure — although they will happily recommend friends who do that kind of work.
Princeton is, after all, replete with historic structures. “There are so many terrific examples of real historical architecture around this area — why would you build a fake one?” asks Richardson. “Imagine writing a novel now in the style of Bronte. “People would say, `What?’ But they don’t seem to have a problem with architecture that is designed in what would be an archaic style.”
Those historic houses were built as they were, in part, says Smith, “because of the conditions, materials, technology, crafts, and art of that age.” But Smith and Richardson are working in a different age, and they want their work to reflect the local environment, culture, and history, and to speak to where we are today.
What Richardson and Smith want to do is to maintain the authenticity of a historical structure while adding new areas that both speak to their own modern esthetic and complement the old. “What you want with any addition,” says Richardson, “is you want the newness of the addition to speak to what was so fantastic about the earlier building, and the older to be a foil to what is new.”
Recently they finished their second renovation at 463 Jefferson Road. “The house had a lot of character,” says Smith. “It was partly built in stone, and had a big colonnaded front porch.” The people who bought the house in 1997, Martin Kahn, a shopping center developer, and Candice Feiring, a child psychologist, appreciated the quality and character of the house, which was built in the beginning of the 20th century.
“We lived in an old house which had a lot of dark spaces, and we wanted to have more light,” says Kahn, “but we really liked our old house and didn’t want to move to a modern house. So we decided to hire architects with a contemporary eye to give us light space in our no longer dark house.”
Kahn and Feiring, who had seen the work of Richardson Smith Architects at Triumph Brewery and the old Micawber Books on Nassau Street, really liked those spaces. They decided to call the architects in 2003, when they wanted to expand a narrow, dark kitchen into a modern, airy one in what had been a European-style courtyard between the house and the garage building.
With wonderful, bright light in the kitchen, they later decided to resolve two problems at once — darkish living and dining rooms as well as an enclosed porch that was too narrow, too hot in summer and cold in winter, and, in the end, just an accumulator of household detritus. Now Richardson and Smith are nearly finished with the second renovation.
Their original work on 463 Jefferson was a family room and kitchen addition in the area between the original house and its detached garage. Richardson described a web of relationships between old and new: the brick that was the old garden wall became part of the house’s facade, and the original house’s outside wall became a wall in the new breakfast room.
Sometimes the connections between old and new were more whimsical. Although the windows on the original house had to be relatively small to support the bricks above, the new windows, using steel construction, could be much larger, and could be subdivided more playfully. Or a solid slate roof could become an enormous skylight.
Their most recent work on the house was enclosing the front porch, where their first challenge was how to handle the oversized front columns and massive walls. “They were bigger than they needed to be to support the load of the second floor,” says Smith, “so the last thing you want to do is introduce more elements like it.” But the columns were also diminished by the wall of wood and small paned windows behind them. “They kind of blended together so the beautiful columns lost a little bit of their power and potential,” he says.
Their solution was to introduce, directly behind the columns, a wall that was as light and glasslike as possible, using steel as a framing system to support the glass.
Richardson continues, “It is a simple thing, but spatially and esthetically it has a kind of beauty. I don’t think it in any way diminished the quality of the historic house. I think we enhanced it, not by copying and replacing it, but by building it in a way that the original house maintains authority and presence.”
Beyond the issue of the columns, they also needed to fulfill the client’s wish to convert the unusable front porch into a space that was interconnected with the original structure. “We had to choose how much to open the existing house into the porch so it would benefit from the character of the older rooms and allow them to take advantage of the existing front porch,” says Richardson.
Because they wanted to maintain the solidity of the existing house wall, they used the original openings onto the porch as much as possible to create connections between old and new. At the two window openings they created simple doors, maintaining the original width, but decided to take out the entire wall at the entrance to the front hall to increase communication between the two spaces.
In both the Jefferson and Moore projects, Richardson and Smith worked with Kevin Wilkes, managing partner of Princeton Design Guild, who is an architect who builds his own projects as well as an old friend of Smith. Wilkes and Smith also taught together in the 1990s at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Although Wilkes usually builds only his own projects, he likes the work of Richardson Smith Architects and was willing to try working with them.
The Moore project was their first opportunity to work together. After it went well, they teamed up for the Jefferson Street renovations.
Having a builder who is also an architect is a great advantage, says Smith. And this applies in particular if the project is creative and different, says Smith. “We are conceptually and intellectually on the same wave length,” says Smith. “He understands the design of what we are trying to do better than any other builder we have worked with, and that relationship is important to the success of the projects.”
Looking at the paths that led Richardson and Smith into architecture suggests that their individual strengths were perhaps present from a young age.
Richardson is the 12th architect in her family, and her great-grandfather, Henry Hobson Richardson, was, she says, “arguably one of the most important American architects at the end of the 19th century.” Collaborating on many projects with Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed Central Park in New York City, he developed his Richardsonian Romanesque style in buildings like Sever and Austin Halls at Harvard University, the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, Trinity Church in Boston, and railroad stations on the Boston and Albany line.
His great-granddaughter grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, in the house where he had lived and had his office, and given her family connections, she was always curious about whether architecture was in her own future. As it turned out, she was to be one of three women architects, with her older sister, Heidi, an architect in San Francisco, and her second cousin a landscape architect. “That was the gene pool,” she jokes.
Having decided to study architecture, she noticed during her college search that Princeton University was the only major liberal arts university with a major in architecture, so she applied — even though she considered it to be “in the Deep South” — and was accepted.
Smith’s interest in architecture developed during his high school mechanical drawing class in upstate New York. “I found I loved using compasses and protractors, and I did precise drawings of complicated mechanical things,” he recalls. “The man who taught the class was also interested in building models, and he let me build models out of balsa wood.”
Smith studied architecture at Syracuse University for three years, then went to Europe. First he studied in Florence as part of a Syracuse exchange program, then studied for two years the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. He then moved on to a graduate program at Princeton University.
The two partners first met when Richardson was a senior and Smith a second-year graduate student, working together in the same side of the architecture studio.
Richardson took a year off before graduate school and worked for Michael Graves, one of her professors, and she later returned to his office both as a graduate student and, after she received her graduate degree, as an associate. Smith also worked for Graves during graduate school and after as an associate.
Although neither thought they would stay in Princeton, the chance to work with Graves in the late 1970s was too good to refuse. “He was a rising star in world of architecture,” says Smith. They got in on the ground floor, when Graves had only five to seven people, whereas in 1986 when they left to start their own firm, he had 75 to 80.
Richardson observes how lucky they were to be with him as his career as a building architect was taking off. “We were lucky,” he says. “We were given a lot of responsibility on some very big projects.”
Richardson and Smith supervised two large design competitions that Graves was involved in, the first for the Humana building in Louisville, Kentucky, for which Smith was project manager, and the second for the Clos Pegase Winery in Napa, for which Richardson was project manager. Richardson says that by age 23, she was traveling in Europe to select stone from quarries and spending time on the 16th floor of job sites in a hard hat.
This broad-based experience gave the architects the confidence to start their own firm. “Once we had done all of that, why not strike out?” asks Richardson. But what really made it possible was being able to secure positions teaching at Princeton University. Although they both enjoy teaching, these positions gave them the extra income they needed to open a firm. And, of course, teaching has an additional benefit. “It is one way to stay really fresh,” says Richardson. Smith continued to teach through the 2004 to 2005 school year, and Richardson stopped a little earlier.
The couple got married in 1982, but although the marriage foundered in the mid-’90s, they never stopped working together, and they like to call themselves “best friends forever.” Since the divorce, both have remarried. Smith and his wife, Hilary Herbold, an associate dean at Princeton University, have two boys ages 8 and 10, and Richardson is godmother to one of them. Richardson’s husband is businessman John Wynne.
Richardson and Smith have done all types of projects during their career — new residences and additions; restaurants, including Triumph Brewing Company’s sites in Princeton and New Hope, and Olives Deli in Princeton; retail spaces like the former Micawber Books; corporate projects, including office interiors and renovations for companies including Impact Unlimited, a trade show booth designer in Dayton; and nonprofit work, including a new library at the Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, and work for Mercer County Community College.
“The key thing for us is that we don’t want to come to work every day and do the same thing — it’s boring,” says Smith. “We also don’t want to come to work every day and have projects where we feel that what the client wants is just space — we need to get a building put up.” Instead they are looking for clients who have an interest in architecture and are looking to do something special.
Another important issue the architects have faced during their career, particularly with renovations, is how to create a relationship between house and landscape. When many Princeton houses were built a half century ago or more, glazing technology was not very advanced and windows leaked energy, making it hard to keep houses heated in the winter. As a result, there was little or no relationship between the houses and the sites where they sit.
As residents are beginning to renovate, however, they not only want to bring more light inside but also want to be able to appreciate the site. “You can’t take any of our projects, pick them up in a helicopter, and dump them somewhere else; it wouldn’t make sense,” says Richardson.
She attributes their sensitivity to the outdoors to their work with Graves. “Michael would talk about how the landscape was an outside room, the sky was the ceiling, and the hedges might be the walls,” says Richardson. “If you think of landscapes having qualities similar to architecture, you start realizing it is not just an issue of looking through a glass wall to the outside, but what happens to spaces inside of the building and also outside of the building.”
Just as Richardson and Smith place a high priority on enjoying what they do, they also are careful to make sure their coworkers are compatible and fun to work with. Although their firm has ranged in size from 4 to 10 people, they are now at the lower end. In addition to Pedersen, they just have an office manager, who is also Richardson’s identical twin sister.
As for the economy, the two architects are busy now, but over the last couple of years, they have shrunk back to what they consider their core, and they are worried. “When you’re an architect, you’re the first to feel the bite in the economy and the last to recover,” says Smith. “It’s a sad thing, but architecture is expensive.”
“We began to feel the economy turn late in the fall of 2007, early in the stages of the sub prime problems,” says Smith. “The first thing that happened was that credit started to freeze. We noticed it with a number of clients. People who had found it very easy to get credit suddenly hit a solid wall. It got our attention. Clients with very successful companies with very solid credit couldn’t get loans.” At the same time, he says, homeowners with substantial equity in their homes were unable to tap it for renovations. The architects are still getting calls from people with projects on their minds, but, says Smith, “there is a hesitancy to get started.”
With a little time for reflection while he waits for the economy to get going again, Smith muses about the cumulative wisdom he and Richardson have gained after 22 years together as architects.
They have learned, first of all, what works and what does not, and of course more works now than did in the beginning. “On the one hand, this allows us to be more realistic, but it also has emboldened us to know that some of the best things we’ve ever done we did because we pushed and tried something — even though we may have been nervous about how it was going to come out,” he says.
A large part of being an architect is finding solutions to the problems it presents — details about accommodating a specified number of people, the flow of rooms that best accommodates business or personal relationships, how many closets are needed.
“You have to make it so it works,” says Richardson. I like to think that architecture tells stories and that when people go into our buildings, they engage with our buildings in a way that makes them look at the world in a new way.”
Richardson Smith Architects, 40 Witherspoon Street, Princeton 08542; 609-924-4464; fax, 609-924-6209. Home page: www.richardsonsmith.com.