Q&A with San Francisco Architect, Aleck Wilson

When it comes to design partners, it doesn’t get much better than Aleck Wilson Architects. Our teams have come together over the years for several large scale collaborations including a significant William Wurster residence, historic firehouse and traditional Edwardian family home. Aleck was born and raised in San Francisco and is a third generation architect, giving him a a special edge in our unique market. We sat down to talk about urban architecture, educating clients about the remodel process and how to create timeless designs – read the Q&A below!

 

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As a San Francisco architect, how do you offer contemporary and functional designs for the modern family, while still keeping them timeless?

Timeless design begins spatially, not materially. That is to say we work to attain a plan and section to create the foundation for the design. When interesting materials support the architectural space, they will support the visual intention and have a greater opportunity to remain timeless. It’s important to choose materials that will last physically and aesthetically, however if the space is not right, the materials will never remain timeless.

 

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What are your favorite materials to use these days?

I have always enjoyed using natural materials in a direct context. For example, using concrete to express structure and plasticity. Or clear and lightly stained wood to allow the grain and natural colors to remain visible. They tend to age better that way. I have enjoyed working with Concreteworks for a number of years, and am finding clients more open to this material. Our 3bar house was a project that allowed structure to express itself and inform the material palate.

 

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You mention on your website that a big part of what you do is educating clients on the remodel process. What is the most important thing for clients to know to get the most out of their project?

A number of years ago, I had a client who expressed excitement about the ‘education’ they were gaining. That was rewarding and also a good reminder of a ‘responsibility’ of the Architect. When we work through the design process, clients engage in an understanding of structure, windows, materials, space and proportion. They learn about all aspects of the built environment they have taken for granted during their lives. Some of this is just having ‘access’ to the process, but also understanding how the project’s timing can be delayed by municipalities, weather, availability of materials and labor, and the work that goes into making a home.

 

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What is your definition of a successful remodel project?

One is the relationship of old and new: making the remnants of the original home flow seamlessly into the renovation or addition. We pick up details and materials from the original home, making it a better version of what it was. Alternatively, if the existing home has fundamental flaws, we look to unravel the plan and treat it as a blank canvas.

 

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As a third generation San Franciscan, do you find that you have a unique perspective on urban architecture and the specific historical charm of our city?

It has been interesting to watch the city evolve over the last 40 plus years. New areas such as South of Market have been explored, style has changed and historic preservation has become a stronger force in the city. As a third generation Architect, I have watched it through my own eyes as well those of my family. I enjoy some of the changes to the fabric and am pained by others. With the perspective of change that I see both directly and vicariously, I have open appreciation for different eras and am a bit wary of trends, always looking for underlying architectural principles. I enjoy the tension of juxtaposing this mentality with the search for new ways to express architecture and new technology.

 

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Your father and grandfather were both architects – how did this influence you growing up? What do you have in common with their style (and how do you diverge)?

I took much of this for granted until I transferred as a Junior to architecture school. I realized I had been studying the topic for years while visiting significant buildings, walking through construction sites and traveling. This developed my spatial understanding at an early age. My father and grandfather worked on larger buildings such as banks, schools, and industrial service buildings. I almost exclusively work on single family custom homes. This divergence of building type allows for a gentle slide of style. Their work was primarily modern, while my early projects were more traditional, and now I work on a variety of styles and scales. I walk my father through my projects today, and we can enjoy them through the eyes of William Wurster or Julia Morgan.

 

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Tell us about your background in construction and how this supports you in working with homeowners and builders.

I participated in the renovation of my family’s home growing up, and after undergraduate school I worked for a small general contractor for a year. I find this to be one of my most valuable years of education. I enjoy construction site meetings and the comaraderie, problem solving and ‘dirty’ reality of the construction site. This knowledge and comfort comes through in the design and detailing process.

 

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Your firm talks about being more interested in “spatial and contextual relationships” than one particular style. Can you give us an example of how this comes to life?

As I begin the design process with a client, I prefer to start with spatial thinking and the project context. We look at the house, the site, the view, the program, and begin to draw. Then the ‘why’ begins to develop. I find many clients first think of style from a realtor perspective, rather than an architectural perspective. As we design the open plan (the inside/outside space that many clients aspire to) we soon find the project limits or lack thereof. Then the conversation of choosing a particular style is rooted in the design, the spatial and social relationships, rather than semantics.

 

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We had the pleasure of working together on an historic firehouse. What was the most challenging and rewarding part of adapting this space for a functional family residence?

The firehouse was a unique San Francisco project: a Historic building that had the potential to be a wonderful home. I viewed it with our clients before the purchase, and I recall describing it as a perfect family home with the engine room as an open flexible play space for their boys, and the bunk room as another voluminous, light filled space, perfectly suited to a great room. The prior owner had been a bachelor with playfully eclectic interior design taste, so the transformation to family home was dramatic.

The opportunity to work with Jeff King & Company was a perfect blend of construction expertise, but even more, the spirit of the home suited Jeff King. The largest aspect of this project was opening the rear of the firehouse to an existing but incredibly underutilized courtyard. This created light filled bedrooms and an outdoor space that can be enjoyed visually and experientially from all three floors. The challenge was the integration of systems and some semblance of practicality into this historic firehouse, allowing it to function as a home and maintain the unique characteristics that drew our clients to the building. In its final iteration there are important moments of eclecticism and imperfection that really are a testament to the collaboration of owner, architect and builder.

 

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