Our new interview series focuses on the local venders and designers that we often work with for Bay Area remodels. Today we highlight Andre Rothblatt, an established architect and collaborator on a recent kitchen published in Kitchen & Bath Ideas. Born and raised in San Francisco, Andre attended UC Berkeley and now has his own architecture firm in the San Francisco Design Center. We interviewed Andre to glean some expertise on what makes a good kitchen and bath; why architects are necessary to any remodel equation; and how to get the best architect-contractor-client relations out of a project. Continue reading for more!
Jeff King & Co: As a young architect, how did you set yourself apart?
Andre Rothblatt: One thing about me is that I got a job doing construction labor right after architecture school. I learned a lot in those years and eventually got my contractor’s license. I knew that I was always going to be an architect but when I went to U.C. Berkeley, I did not realize that it was such a theoretical school. I wanted to know more about how buildings were built and I wanted hands on experience. I learned a lot in those years after school. My line is, “my education began the day I graduated.”
Why did you invest your time working as a contractor?
It was a very eye opening experience. It’s one thing to design something and another thing to build it.
What was the most important thing you learned by getting your contractor’s license?
It taught me to be sympathetic and understand the contractor’s perspective. I try to design things that are not too fanciful. One complaint that contractors have is that architects are so separate from the construction process and sometimes design things that are difficult to build. I have a general respect for contractors. I’m not that different from most architects, but maybe I have more empathy.
Walking into a construction site, people tend to treat laborers like they’re invisible. But I am always reminded of those times when I was the laborer.On the other side, not all contractors are respectful to the design, and I’ll call them on that. But I like working with Jeff King, he’s someone who respects the design. Jeff King specifically is a very sophisticated contractor. He has a master’s degree in art and has fine eye himself. Not just a guy working in a pickup truck who wants to do something quick and simple.
Is there any overlap between the responsibilities of the architect and contractor?
There is a clear division of what we’re supposed to do. The architect is the one who starts with a blank piece of paper and envisions the design: the floor plan, function of building, the way it looks, the way the finishes lead into each other. The architect gives the completed design to the contractor and they execute the vision. We come up with the design and they figure out how to build it.I understand that many people build homes without using an architect.
What’s your thought on that?
My comment to that is that, yeah, anyone can design a house. It won’t necessarily be perfect, but remember it’s hard to design a beautiful house. You can design and build a stucco box, but is it beautiful? Is it well built? People with training and expertise usually can do a better job.
What is the greatest value of hiring an architect?
Experience. People can think they have a good idea, but if they don’t have the experience, it may not turn out like they think. Early on in my career I remember one client that insisted on doing something a certain way. I capitulated and said, “It’s your house, and I don’t think it will turn out well but we’ll do it your way.” So we built it and they came to me afterward and said, “Well Andre, we wish we would have listened to you.”
How can you tell when an architect has designed a home?
A good architect understands building composition, proportions, how and where to use different materials and how to respond to the site conditions and the context of the project. It’s a lot to balance and non-architects rarely get it right. Let me put it this way. It’s like a good movie. Sometimes magic does need to occur. You can get A-list actors and buy the rights to a great novel yet somehow the movie doesn’t turn out well. You can have all the right parts but there’s a lot of subtlety and magic needed. That’s what the architect tries to inject.
That’s a great defense for architects. Now what makes an ideal client?
An ideal client is one that trusts their architect. The first thing I do is listen to them and then respond to their needs and program requirements. I try hard to earn their trust. You can see in the relationship: something clicks when I say, okay, they’re listening to me, I’m listening to them, and we’ve got a good working relationship. Those are the good projects. You have to earn that trust, you can’t just expect it.
And how do you earn their trust?
Say a client has an idiosyncratic idea. I’ll draw exactly what they want and then I’ll draw an alternative to that, something I think would work better. The first thing I show them is exactly what they want so they understand that I listen to them and regurgitate a design exactly as they requested. Then I show them another design and we compare and contrast. In that process, we open a dialogue and move toward a good solution.
As you have more experience, are you bolder with your opinions in the design process?
Not bold, but I’ve learned to develop a vocabulary to persuade people. It’s the weirdest thing in the world but it happens all the time. People have different kinds of thinking processes so you have to be sensitive to that. People will tell me one idea and I’ll express another idea but I’ll explain my thinking process. Then a week later, they’ll come back with that same idea and tell it to me like it’s their own. It’s because they followed my thinking process and came to the same conclusion. Because they reached it themselves, they felt it was their idea. It takes time and patience to do that.
So you involve them in the thought process, that’s the true art.
Absolutely. You give them a sense of authorship. You can never impose yourself on clients. That’s a fear people have, that an architect will say, “Well I’m an architect, I went to a Ivy League Design School and I’m going to tell you what you want. This is what your house is going to look like. I’m a design guru and you’re going to listen to me.”
People don’t usually like that. They don’t want a design to be imposed upon themselves, they want to be included in the decision making process. It’s the same thing with the architect. We don’t want the clients to impose themselves on us. We try to have an equal relationship, a robust dialogue and come to a mutually agreed conclusion, to work together. Everyone is different. Some people want me to make all the decisions; some people want to be included in every decision. You have to cater to each client’s needs.
Do you apply the same principles to working with contractors? Listen and respond?
Absolutely. But the fact remains that we’re there as an advocate of the client and to be sure the work is being built properly. We want to be collaborative but sometimes we are the policemen of the project, it depends on the contractor. That’s part of hiring a good contractor, one who’s going to be your partner. The architect should participate in the selection of a contractor. For example, with Jeff King, I don’t have to do that; he doesn’t need an architect looking over his shoulder. I can give him the drawings and come back six months later and it’s beautiful.Let’s shift gears and talk about green building.
What is the architect’s role in the green factor of a home?
It’s really up to everybody. All the design decisions begin with the architect so he should set the tone. It should be followed up with the contractor and done in concert with the owner.
Where do you see green building going in the next few years?
It’s about changing the whole system in the way we think. What comes to mind is how changes to attitudes about handicap accessibility or recycling came to be. It started many decades ago as an activist movement, there was initial resistance and then more acceptance and eventually it becomes ingrained in our thinking. So then, 20 or 30 years from now, everyone will be thinking about green living all the time. It’s a long process to change attitudes. That’s what we’re starting to do now. We are seeing some inconsistency now, but our children are being taught the right things and now there are green building codes so all these baby steps take us down the right road to change people’s thinking.
You recently worked on a kitchen with Jeff King & Co that was published in Kitchen & Bath Ideas. What is the most unique part of this San Francisco remodel?
My favorite thing, and why I think it got published, was the tile. That tile was the perfect choice. It goes back to what I was saying about being distinctive but with a wide appeal. That tile was the key to tying everything together: the counter tops, the cabinets. It had a good layout, a huge skylight providing natural light, and a tailored kitchen that fit well in the existing home. Those are all the things that one needs. But it was the back splash that added that little bit of magic.
How did you choose that tile?
I saw it and I convinced the homeowner to use it. It was not cheap. But I felt very passionate that it was a great tile. He agreed.What was the challenge in bringing such a traditional kitchen up to date?
How do you go about preserving the historic aspect of the home?
You do the obvious. We matched the color. They had dark wood so we used dark wood in the cabinets. And that’s the general attitude of respect for older buildings that comes through in the work. You don’t want to fight the house; you want to work with it.
The client must be thrilled; their new kitchen looks beautiful.
They are, he friended me on Facebook! (Andre laughs). Jeff King was great too. It was just one of those great projects.