Jeff King Talks With

Architect William Duff

William Duff


It’s been awhile since we’ve used our blog to recognize the amazing work of top architects and interior designers in the Bay Area – and William Duff Architects warrants a revival of the series! William Duff has built a unique company with residential, commercial and retail divisions that cover everything from single and multifamily residences to office spaces to flagship retail stores. We have admired Duff’s work for years and jumped at the chance to pick his brain about running a multifaceted design firm, why he promotes reclaimed materials and what he’s looking forward to next in Bay Area architecture. Keep reading for the full Q&A!


WDA_ Jacobsen I deck


Jeff King: Congrats on celebrating your 15 year anniversary in 2013! What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about running the creative side of a design house?

William Duff: Thanks! Over the years, I’d say the most important thing I’ve learned is to set a strong design vision at the beginning of a project and then provide my team with the freedom and space to use their substantial talents to execute that design.


And what is the most crucial thing you’ve learned about running the business side of an architecture firm?

Hands down the best way to run a project, and a business, is to keep expectations ahead of deliverables. After architecture school, I got a master’s degree in construction management, where I learned the fundamentals of planning and how they can make or break a project. We plan thoroughly, making sure we clearly understand the client’s expectations around schedule, budget, and design objectives. Then, we work hard to clearly communicate these expectations throughout the project process to ensure our team and our clients are always on the same page.


Wheeler Residence - 608 Ringwood, Menlo Park, CA


Your business structure stands out from other architects as you have both residential and commercial divisions with studio heads for each. What is your vision for William Duff Architects over the next few years?

We actually have three divisions: residential, retail, and commercial. Jim Westover runs our residential studio and Deborah Sylva runs our retail and commercial studios. We plan to grow all three studios and will ultimately have separate leaders for each. The separate studios allow us to provide a more focused and specialized service to our clients in each practice area, while giving us a diversity of knowledge and experience that the whole firm can draw on.


WDA_Wheeler bedroom fireplace


In 2014, what design challenges are you most excited about tackling? Have any of your recent projects stretched your creativity and skill set to fit new client needs, unusual materials etc.?

I’m excited about projects we have lined up for 2014. They will draw on a wide range of our talents and allow us to explore some contexts that are new for WDA. They include an adaptive reuse project on the San Francisco waterfront, a creative rehab of an historic Alamo Square home, and two distinct properties in the amazing landscape of the wine country.

One particularly exciting recent project is a multipurpose gathering space we created for a collector of contemporary art. In developing the design, we experimented with the different properties of glass, pushing the boundaries of transparency, reflectivity, view, and light. The final design ended up being so pure and the detailing so exquisite that the finished structure will read equally as architecture and fine art.


WDA_FK kitchen stairs


We notice you’ve been working with a lot of reclaimed materials lately. Why do you feel that it’s important to incorporate reclaimed materials in your designs?

First and foremost, using reclaimed materials reduces a project’s carbon footprint, which taps into one of WDA’s core principles–sustainability. Beyond that, we’ve found many unique and beautiful reclaimed materials that add warmth and richness to our designs, and some are even imbued with connections to California’s land and history, providing a great backstory for a project’s narrative.


Who or what tends to drive the decision around reclaimed materials – homeowners, aesthetics, or environmental causes?

Often it’s all three. Aesthetics always plays a part, as does a commitment to sustainability. Budget sometimes determines whether or not we incorporate reclaimed materials into a project, as some of these materials are more expensive. But whenever there’s a cost-neutral reclaimed solution available that works with the project criteria, we’ll always recommend it first.


WDA_Atherton kitchen


In the heart of winter (albeit a record-hot and dry one), what advice are you giving clients for protecting their home against the elements? What is the one thing that homeowners need to know about weatherizing in the Northern California climate?

A homeowner will see the biggest improvement in house efficiency by making it as airtight as possible. Seemingly small design moves–replacing seals around doors and windows, carefully detailing the intersection of materials–make a huge difference in home performance. Two resources where people can learn more about ways to improve energy efficiency are Passive House Institute US and the Rocky Mountain Institute.


Do you have any favorite best practices for helping your clients build a home that is both sustainable and comfortable?

In our first meetings with new clients, we discuss our belief that sustainability, comfort, and great design aren’t mutually exclusive, and that considering all three leads to a better end result. As the design progresses, we educate clients about sustainable options, such as radiant flooring, super insulation, and LED lighting, that offer a high degree of long-term value and comfort.


WDA_Atherton library


We know you sit on the board at di Rosa and Young Audiences Northern California. What does it mean to you to give back to the community and how has it enhanced your company culture?

I’m glad you noticed that, and thanks for recognizing these organizations. They both play an important role in supporting artists and strengthening the connection between art and the community. As architects, we can trace the paths of our careers back to an early passion for art and design. I believe my involvement with the di Rosa and Young Audiences of Northern California has enriched our entire firm: the WDA team has a deeper connection with the local arts community and we spend time on creative activities outside of our typical architectural work.


Tell us about a design idea that you haven’t had the chance to execute yet. Is there an ideal concept, style or project that you’re dying to work on?

That’s a tough question–there are a million ideas I’d love the chance to design and build! If I had to choose one specific project, I’d pick a home on the Northern California coastline. My thesis in architecture school was about the development of a site in Big Sur, in which I incorporated the views, light, fog, and local materials into the design. In many ways, that early project became a part of my voice and vision as a designer, and it would be amazing, after my many years of experience, to once again work with a plot of land that meets the sea.


WDA_Wheeler bathroom


What do you see coming in the design world in 2014?

In 2014, designers will continue the trend of creating smaller spaces that are appropriately scaled to fit the ways their clients actually live in them. In particular, one part of the home that’s beginning to evolve is the office. As traditional lines between home and work become more intertwined, I see the home office becoming similarly integrated into the rest of the house. As far as materials, I believe, and hope, that we’re moving from cold, monochromatic palettes towards richer, warmer ones.


WDA_FK exterior


What is your best advice for a homeowner about to embark on a big project? Do you find yourself telling clients the same thing – an idea or thought that is specific to your approach?

I give potential WDA clients this advice, and those who stick to it invariably have the best experience: Spend time to find the right people for your project, and once you’ve found them, trust them to do their jobs. Also, never forget that you’re in charge. This is your home and once it’s built, you’ll be the ones who live here.

Thanks for the great conversation William!

To see more of the firm’s innovative Bay Area architecture, click through to William Duff Architects.